The back of beyond can be a wonderful place to be… and I was privileged to be there last weekend.
The Cheviot Hills in Northumberland are so remote and wild that it feels like you’ve reached a final frontier.
No wonder that this was the extreme northern outpost of the Imperial Roman Empire back in the 1st Century AD.
One of the remotest areas is a boggy upland called Chew Green. Once it was one of the most northerly Roman encampments in England.
It is located at the very top tip of England on the beautiful River Coquet. Walk a couple of hundred metres up the hill and you’ll find yourself in another country – Scotland.
Today this great northern outpost of the mighty Roman Empire is largely used for military exercises by the Ministry of Defence.
Up on the bleak moorland we found ourselves surrounded by the British army, in full camouflage gear, undertaking military manoeuvres in the hills.
It was a little daunting seeing 100 guys with guns hunkering down and building encampments. But it did provide a fascinating glimpse into modern combat.
These soldiers sure had superior kit and combat gear than their Roman counterparts back in the 1st Century AD.
The modern military have GPS and intelligence systems rather than maps; guns and ammo rather than swords and shields; and big trucks instead of wagons.
Meet the Romans
Chew Green is a remarkable place. Not only does its landscape have a powerful, bleak quality, the Roman site is a hidden gem.
Historian Nikolaus Pevsner called it “the most remarkable group of visible Roman earthworks in Britain”.
I’m told that it looks even more amazing from the air because the site hasn’t been fully excavated. Tammy definitely needs to get herself a glider for aerial reconnaissance work!
Chew Green is one of a series of Roman marching camps strung out north of Hexham along Dere Street, a Roman road that stretched north to Scotland and south to York (Eboracum).
Located around eight miles north of Rochester, another Roman military base, it was about one day’s hike from its neighbour.
Its Roman name was Ad Fines, which means ‘near the border’, and visitors can see the remains of its ramparts, ditches and gate houses.
Chew Green is actually made up of two Roman camps. The southern camp is the largest and covers about seven hectares.
The smaller camp with a Roman ‘fortlet’ next to it was found during archaeological excavations in 1937.
Archaeologists believe that it was used on a nearly permanent basis and parts of road can be seen together with traces of a number of pits, thought to be the remains of building foundations.
Chew Green is one of the few Roman sites that hasn’t been ‘touristified’ so there’s relatively little curatorial information and only one interpretative panel.
But it’s easy to imagine the Romans up on these remote hills living under their leather tents, exposed to the elements.
I could only imagine how hard it must have been for the Roman soldiers in this terrain. The boggy upland is hard going under foot especially – no doubt – if you’re wearing flimsy leather Roman sandals rather than modern walking boots.
Even intrepid Tammy slipped and ended up in the bog at one point and nearly tumbled down the hillside.
The panoramic views and light are stunning from the summit (a gentle climb) especially on an autumn day when you can see across the golden, burnished-coloured moors.
On the border
At the top of the ridge we stumbled through the bog to the border between England and Scotland.
Tony went on ahead to capture this photograph as Tammy ‘plodged’ (a Geordie word for walking through mud) over the heavy ground.
Chew Green is a place where two worlds collide – the Roman Empire and the modern military.
Despite the passages of time and technology, this place has seen very little change over the centuries.
Now, as back then, the military inhabit this landscape and dominate its remote and desolate frontier.
Tammy’s top tips – Chew Green
The Chew Green site is located near Harbottle in Northumberland.
Look for the B6341 road from Rothbury and drive through Thropton – once through the village turn right and drive north west to Alwinton.
Take a left at Alwinton and drive for around 15 miles to the small car park at Chew Green. This is a really lovely scenic route.
The Roman site is located at the cross-road of the Pennine Way for keen walkers who are passing through this borderland.
There’s a small car park at Chew Green. From there walk up the bank towards the Roman camp (8 minutes stroll) where the encampment is clearly signposted ‘archaeological site’.
Some adjacent areas may be restricted at certain times for army shooting practice. Don’t venture into any areas with red flags or marked ‘danger zone’!
Wear sensible boots and wrap up warm in winter as the site is pretty exposed.
Look out for signs of the Roman fort including ditches and earthworks.