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A Roman Pharos at North Shields

Clifford’s Fort on the Fish Quay is the remains of a 17th century defence battery which may have been preceded by a Tudor era fort. This spit of land is also the site of the first medieval settlement and the seed of what grew into North Shields.

In my view, there must be something pre-medieval on this site. The Romans wouldn’t go to all the effort of building Arbeia, one of the most important forts in the region, directly across the water and not even have a unit of legionaries stationed opposite in a prime spot beside an inlet just at the point the river narrows. In addition, the prominent stonework outside the fort walls looks very old and not unlike Roman stonework on Hadrian’s Wall. This probably deserves closer study.

Arbeia has been completely excavated and is celebrated as one of the best Roman sites in the country, while the point opposite has barely ever been looked at. As well as this, up the bank following the course of the Pow Burn for a short distance you come to the ruins of St Leonard’s leper hospital which dates from the 13th century. However, it’s been long speculated to be a Roman site and in the last dig there several years ago, a 5,000 year old axe head was found. People have been dwelling in the dene for a long time.

If anyone stationed south of the Tyne at Arbeia or its environs, needed to communicate or trade with anyone north of the Tyne, on the Wall, then they had three options.

1. Head west on land for miles and cross the bridge to Newcastle.

2. Get in a boat and cross from South Shields or Jarrow and sail for several miles up river against a heavy current to Wallsend or perhaps Willington Quay.

3. Cross directly from Arbeia to the Clifford’s Fort site and travel on land to Wallsend or give the message to a sentry who can then relay it to Wallsend and beyond.

Unless you were moving a large amount of cargo, this third choice is vastly easier and quicker and is why Clifford’s Fort was the landing point for the Romans garrisoned at Arbeia. They wouldn’t have just left it unmanned.

It is likely that to frequently cross the Narrows the Romans used a cable ferry, where a single boat or boats were rigged to a rope and pulled across. This would add safety, allow the vessel to tack across the current, and there would not be enough traffic on the river for the cable to snag other boats.

Several Roman artefacts including a well have been discovered at Tynemouth Castle and it’s been speculated since Victorian times that the site of the Priory would have been a Roman signaling station. The question is, signaling what?

Ships en route to the Tyne would have hugged the coast. On entering the Tyne they need to stay in the middle of the river to avoid being wrecked. So a lighthouse at Clifford’s Fort as well as beacons at the elevated fort at South Shields would have been the guide that ships needed.

At a point in time when a minimal amount of ships were traversing the North Sea, it seems unnecessary to place the beacon on Penbal Crag. The headland was not of navigational importance at that time and the harbour there is too wide to cross compared with just a mile to the west.

On the Cumbrian coast there are many structures termed milefortlets. They consist of stone watchtowers extended from the Wall and linked by wooden palisade. It would make sense to have at least two of these on the east coast. North Shields and Tynemouth are the obvious places they would be but also at Chirton where Roman stones were found and at other points along the course of what is now Hadrian Road and Howdon Road.

3 Reasons:

1. It wasn’t a Wall fort per se, it was a maritime supply fort for the Wall as a whole.

2. There are steep banks on the North Shields side. It’s not such a problem. Newcastle has steep banks, but the relatively lower position of Arbeia and being closer to the riverside, is more favourable for unloading.

3. As the Wall moves further east, the river widens and becomes more of a barrier than the Wall itself. The Tyne was one of the lifelines for the Wall but its function changes near the coast to that of defence. As such, the forts became progressively closer to the river east of Benwell (Condercum), with Arbeia finally crossing it and therefore maintaining an unbroken link with the forts and settlements in Durham, Yorkshire and the South generally.

The key Roman forts in the region like Segedunum and Arbeia had significant civilian settlements supplying the camps. The whole area was active commercially and militarily. It wasn’t some untouched wilderness.

So it’s a reasonable question to ask what lies beneath the sand at Clifford’s Fort? Even if an excavation doesn’t find Roman evidence, it will surely reveal a lot about the very first settlements at North Shields.

Stonework in front of the fort

The Pow Burn Salt Flats– It’s well know that the Romans valued salt highly and soldiers were given a salt ration. There were significant salt deposits in the marshes at the bottom of Tanners Bank. This wouldn’t have gone unnoticed, and the timber wharf that was found 12ft down when digging gas tanks next to Clifford’s Fort in the 19th century may be in fact older than medieval.

Adrian’s Mound – just up the bank from Clifford’s Fort is now the ballast embankment on which sits the Metro line and Tynemouth Road, but when excavated in the 19th century, an ancient camp and the remains of fires were found. The 8 mile stone behind the fence in Northumberland park occupies the exact point.

Bath Terrace – A Roman Road going to the Priory from Adrian’s Mound would have gone straight along what is today Bath Terrace behind Front Street, which is on the crest of the natural ridge, or fosse, on which the village was built.

South Shields Shipwrecks – considerations partly gleaned from the Arbeia Journal Vol 6-7 (1999). As stated, it is more or less undisputed that Arbeia was the main maritime supply fort for the entire Wall and one of the most important forts in the country. At least one Roman shipwreck is believed to be buried under Herd Sands. There is good evidence for this as coins and pottery have been washing up for over a century as well as a shield and part of a helmet. A second possible wreck may be further down at Trow Rocks.

As Britain had the largest army for any province and troop transports could only carry a century of men, thousands of ships would have had to enter and leave the Tyne at various times. The general appearance of the river mouth, the sands and the narrows is largely unchanged from two thousand years ago. The channel is deeper today. The Romans had shallow draught ships, but these would have still been no match for the Black Middens and the Herd Sands. A lighthouse to guide ships into the channel, combined with a beacon in front of the fort on what is now Beacon Street would have been essential. The Romans, being primarily engineers, the first question they would have asked was: “How do we navigate this channel?”

Blake Chesters: The Lost Fort East of Segedunum – See the following post:

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