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Hadrian’s Wall: Newcastle’s West End

Volume 708: debated on Tuesday 1 February 2022

Before we begin, I remind Members to observe social distancing, which should be easier with fewer Members present.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Hadrian’s Wall in Newcastle’s West End.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. I like to champion Newcastle as the home of the first industrial revolution and as a hub of today’s green industrial revolution. However, there is another facet to our great, vibrant city that is less well known: Roman Newcastle. As a child, one of my favourite shows was “Star Trek”. I loved the phrase, “Space: the final frontier.” I was born in Wallsend, but I did not realise that in Roman times the final frontier was not space, but Newcastle, which marked the northernmost boundary of the Roman empire.

This year, we celebrate Hadrian’s Wall’s 1,900th birthday, and we need to celebrate all the wall. Hadrian’s Wall tends to conjure up images of the wonderful Northumbrian countryside, but the wall is and was an urban wall, too. It runs through the wonderful, vibrant, multicultural, urban west end of Newcastle, but not everyone knows that. Many tourists are actually directed away from the wall by the Hadrian’s Wall National Trails path and other trails and tours that follow the wall, such as those of the Ramblers Association and the National Cycle Network. That is not right. It is not right that the west end of Newcastle should be missed out of our national Roman heritage.

We must remember that the wall was built by an invading and colonising army. Hadrian himself said that it was to keep his empire intact—a duty that he felt was imposed on him by divine instruction. We do not have a record of what the indigenous peoples of the north thought, but the wall must have divided families and communities, as walls that are constructed to keep people out always do. While we celebrate the heritage and history of the wall, we do not celebrate Rome’s hierarchical slave society. I am glad to say that Newcastle does not seek to emulate that particular aspect of our heritage, being a long-standing centre of the struggle for social justice. However, our Roman heritage is deep within us.

Our city was named for the new Norman castle that stands on the site of the Roman fort of Pons Aelius—Aelius was Hadrian’s family name, so it was “Hadrian’s bridge”. We can be relatively sure that some of the stones from the wall were recycled into that castle. Indeed, many buildings—particularly churches, which were the first major stone buildings built after the Roman withdrawal—undoubtedly have stones from Hadrian’s Wall within them.

There are still significant traces of the wall in my constituency. Just last year, 3 metres of some of the oldest parts of the whole wall were found in the city centre during routine drain maintenance. The remains of Milecastle 4 can be found at Newcastle Arts Centre, less than 100 m away from my constituency office, which is also in the city centre. Yet every day, tens of thousands of tourists pass by without knowing how close they are to the Roman wall.

My hon. Friend is making a fantastic case for Hadrian’s Wall—not the “Roman wall”; there are others—in the west end of Newcastle. Talking about all of the wall for this 1,900th anniversary is so important. I know that today is about being inclusive of all parts of the wall, so I hope she agrees with the idea developed in Wallsend in my constituency, where I live and she was born. In the planned redevelopment of the Segedunum Roman fort, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums and North Tyneside Council, are keen to explore redirecting the trail through the 80 metres of wall foundations that were repaired by the Romans and a reconstructed part of the wall that people can climb. Hadrian’s Wall Partnership Board includes in its 10-year investment programme the establishment of stopping points to highlight the wall in unexpected places—

I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for making those important points, and pay tribute to the work that she has done as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Hadrian’s Wall. I am obviously focusing on my constituency, but this debate is about celebrating the wall where it really is, promoting it, and ensuring that people can engage with it and see it. The idea of climbing on the wall is fantastic, yes. We need support to show the wall as it really was, which is as it really is today.

Benwell and Scotswood in my constituency has the most visible remains of the wall in Newcastle Central—indeed, the “well” in Benwell actually means “wall”. Residents have bits in their gardens, as the Channel 4 series “The Great British Dig: History in Your Back Garden” showed. People literally stumble over a remnant of the wall when leaving a service station or an Indian restaurant on the West Road. Benwell was the site of the temple of Antenociticus—the Geordie god who was only worshipped locally, by Romans and locals alike. Also in Benwell is the Condercum fort—the name means “fair view point”—which was surrounded by an extensive vicus housing a thriving community, and the only surviving vallum crossing along the whole wall. In Denton, there are remains of a Roman fort and settlement that predate Hadrian’s Wall.

The forts at Newcastle and Benwell were thriving economic and commercial hubs with communities around them. Units stationed there from different parts of western Europe included soldiers and civilians from Spain, Belgium, Syria, Romania and north Africa. Bill Griffiths, a member of the Hadrian’s Wall management plan board, tells me that it was the most diverse place in England at the time. Today, Newcastle’s West Road is also vibrant and has many facilities that Roman troops would have sought: diverse and fast food, traded goods from all over the world, and excellent barbers.

In Roman times, Benwell fort housed the better paid cavalry and benefited economically from that. By contrast, today the area next to the wall is one of the most economically deprived in the city and the country. Benwell and Scotswood, and Elswick—where the wall also runs, but with less visible remnants—have some of the highest levels of multiple deprivation in England, as well as a problem that was no doubt also visible in Roman times: litter. This is caused in part by the numerous fast food outlets, the absence of an effective “polluter pays” policy for plastics and the lack of proper funding for public services. Newcastle City Council has lost half its central Government funding since 2010.

Perhaps that is the reason that the National Trails Hadrian’s Wall path does not go through the west end of Newcastle. There may have been a snobbish elitism that felt that semi-detached housing and a contemporary high street were not suitable for tourism. Perhaps there were concerns that neighbourhoods with high levels of immigrants and second-generation immigrant populations did not present the image of England that organisations wanted to promote. I hope that that is not the case—but I do not know. As local councillor Rob Higgins, who remembers when the trail came to Newcastle two decades ago, puts it: “We were never consulted.”

Instead, the trail takes people along the banks of the river. Perhaps those organisations thought that was prettier—the Tyne is gorgeous, Sir Gary—but it is not where the wall went. The wall has inspired many flights of fancy, as readers—and viewers—of “A Game of Thrones” will know, but should not our national trail stick to the truth? Tourists miss out on what Hadrian’s Wall was in Roman times and what it is today.

Geordie historian David Olusoga, in his excellent documentary “Black and British”, highlighted how textbooks’ traditional depictions of Romans lack any diversity. Dr Rob Collins, senior lecturer in archaeology at Newcastle University, said:

“In the last few decades, modern Benwell has reached the level of cultural and ethnic diversity that Roman Benwell had.”

Just as there was the temple of Antenociticus in Benwell, there are now mosques, churches and temples of different faiths along the West Road.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on her speech. One of the things that we all grow up with in Newcastle and the north-east is a real sense of connection to our history and the impact of the Romans. The road that leads from her constituency to mine, the West Road, is indeed the most Roman of roads and is incredibly straight. Along it runs the wall and the route that she would like to see preserved. I absolutely agree that there are so many communities along the wall. The walk follows the beautiful riverside, but that is rather detached from the reality and from the communities that have grown up, lived and breathed within that wall. We are all privileged to be aware of that real living history, but unfortunately visitors do not always get that full experience.

I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for putting that so eloquently. She is absolutely right, we grow up with the wall as part of our communities—a presence as it were—and the road is such a Roman road. It is not right that that is not better known and promoted more widely, which is what I want the Minister to address in his response. To add a thought from my noble Friend Baroness Quin, who chairs Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums:

“Newcastle is so often described as a Victorian Industrial City yet like London it is has been an important settlement continuously since Roman times”.

We want to see that continuity of history marked.

Some may be thinking, “Does it really matter?” There are many more important issues—Ukraine, the cost of living crisis and Afghanistan, and that is without even mentioning partygate. I will mention that the current edition of the New York Magazine has Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s former adviser, saying that the Prime Minister thought of himself as a Roman emperor, but I will resist the temptation to make comparisons with Roman parties.

This debate is important because we are the stories we tell ourselves. We need to own our history and the rightful place of communities in it. We know that in Newcastle. The St James’ Heritage and Environment Group, based in my constituency, is filming the wall in modern Newcastle along its real route, involving local schools, emphasising the connections between Roman Newcastle and Newcastle now. Iles Tours, also based in Newcastle, will be walking the real route. The 1,900 celebrations are a great opportunity to represent the wall as it was then and is now, and to move away from the history of exclusion and elitism. We need to celebrate Hadrian’s Wall in the west end. We need to promote all the wall—it is after all wor wall.

I know that the Minister values English culture. I am sure that that includes northern culture and history. I hope, therefore, that he is supportive of promoting all the wall, and of my four asks.

Ignoring Newcastle’s west end must stop. Can the Minister promise that his Department will not fund or otherwise support activities or representations of the wall that do not recognise its real route through the west end of Newcastle?

Will the Minister work with the Department for Education and cultural bodies to support engagement with local schools and organisations to promote the true route of Hadrian’s Wall, and to develop materials to educate people about both the diversity of Roman Newcastle and the parallels with contemporary Newcastle? That could include plaques or panels where the remains are, such as those suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon).

Overall responsibility for the literally misguided trail lies with Natural England, which is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. DEFRA, however, says that decisions on the routes are a matter for the trail partnership. Will the Minister work with DEFRA to educate the trail partnership on the importance of historical and geographical accuracy and level up the wall to its true path?

Will he consider funding additional archaeological investigations, and others, into the route of the wall through the west end of Newcastle—for example, through Summerhill Square and along the Elswick and Westgate Roads? Finally, and perhaps a bit cheekily, another Newcastle icon has a fast-approaching birthday. Will the Minister ensure that the Tyne bridge gets painted for its 100th anniversary?

It would be very easy, wouldn’t it? Thank you, Sir Gary. It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship again. My sincere thanks to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for introducing this important debate today, and to the hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) for their contributions and their passion, which I very much appreciate.

I should say straight away—I will come back to this towards the end of my speech—I absolutely hear the asks of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central. I will answer some of them directly during this speech, but some sit with other Departments. I am sure she will appreciate that I cannot promise, today, to give answers on behalf of another Department, but I am more than happy to facilitate introductions and/or discussions, as appropriate, because it sounds as if there are a few things that need to be rearranged or sorted out.

As the Minister responsible for heritage, I am genuinely heartened to see the passion and vigour for our nation’s history that today’s debate has evoked. I welcome the aim of raising awareness, overall, about Hadrian’s Wall locally, nationally, and, indeed, internationally. I thank the hon. Members present for doing just that. It is a heritage landscape of truly global significance. It is recognised as a world heritage site and attracts visitors from around the world. It is also, rightly, a source of local pride for the hon. Members’ constituents. Of course, Hadrian’s Wall is one of the largest and most complex UK world heritage sites, extending over 150 miles from South Shields to the Cumbrian coast.

The benefits of Hadrian’s Wall directly impact about 1 million people who live in rural and urban communities along its length. The cultural and heritage interests that the wall brings extend far beyond the story of Rome’s greatest frontier—or final frontier, as I think the hon. Lady said—including the border and coastal landscapes of Hadrian’s Wall country, the raiders and, of course, Christian heritage.

The beauty of Hadrian’s Wall is that it provides a broad range of opportunities for local residents and visitors alike to deepen their understanding of that great heritage landscape. As the hon. Lady articulated, there are many educational benefits to the wall. It is often referred to in schools to teach children about Roman history and the Roman occupation of Britain as a key part of our heritage.

Of course, as the hon. Lady also mentioned, the wall is also significant for the visitor economy and tourism, which bring a significant amount of money into the area. I think she also mentioned things like walking tours, which again are really important; indeed, they are a growing part of our visitor economy.

I know the hon. Lady’s passion for all things related to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. When I heard that she had secured a debate in Westminster Hall today, I just assumed that it would be on football. Nevertheless, she is truly passionate about all things DDCMS and I have heard her speak before about all these issues, strongly representing her part of the country.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the celebration of the wall’s 1,900th year this year. I am really pleased to see such a focus on these celebrations being embedded in the local communities, with a whole programme of events that will bring communities together and showcase the significance of this wonderful site. Many stakeholders, including Historic England, will provide significant funding.

The hon. Lady put a great emphasis, too, on accurate education and reporting, and on the value that the wall brings to her particular area. The west end of Newcastle in particular is crucial to this festival’s development this year. As she said, the area is one of the most culturally diverse parts of the wall today. Indeed, I have heard her before rightly raising the importance of such issues as the role of African soldiers who were garrisoned on the wall during Roman occupation. I think that was back in a Black History Month debate back in 2020. Today, she again told us about the importance of accurate history and ensuring that we teach history accurately.

Much of our most cherished heritage, including Hadrian’s Wall, lies on agricultural land, of course, and the majority of the wall is on privately owned land. Agricultural and environmental schemes represent the main source of funding for the conservation and maintenance of most parts of the wall. My Department and Historic England are working with DEFRA to ensure that heritage right along the wall is protected and promoted, through successor EU schemes known collectively as the environment land management schemes. Those schemes will improve many aspects of the local environment, including water quality, biodiversity, air quality, food management and climate change.

I thank the Minister for giving way and for his remarks. He raised an issue that I was not aware of. There is some funding available through successor EU schemes for rural areas of the wall, but is there funding available for those parts of the wall in urban areas, such as the service station or the Indian restaurant that might happen to have a bit of the wall on their grounds, in the same way?

I thank the hon. Lady for those comments. I will come on to a couple of aspects of that issue in a moment, but there are multiple funds available, including the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and we are also working with Historic England on a variety of initiatives. I am sure that she and her colleagues have engaged with those organisations in the past. They have a variety of funds. Of course, any potential bidders must put in a bid and explain why they need support. However, I have found that Historic England teams and National Lottery Heritage Fund teams are always willing to work with hon. Members and other stakeholders, not only to identify funds, but to work with them to strengthen their bid in some cases, perhaps if an initial bid for funding does not work. I encourage her to look at that as well.

I will return to some of the specific and very important points that the hon. Lady made. She raised concerns about Hadrian’s Wall path not following the actual route of the wall, particularly in the west end of the city, but also in other areas.

I understand that this issue has been at least partially addressed, or that there has been an attempt to address it, through a walker’s guide to the alternative route, which allows potential walkers to see the beauty of the wall itself and encourages people to follow the route through the west end and towards Wallsend. The guide also provides an explanation and interpretation of what can be seen and appreciated along the walk.

I know that the hon. Lady is asking for a rerouting of the trail. As she acknowledged, overall responsibility for that lies with Natural England and the trail partners, sponsored by DEFRA. Anyone suggesting a realignment of the route must first make an evidence-based case to the National Trail Partnership and DEFRA. I know that she understands that, but I would be happy to talk to my colleagues at DEFRA, make sure that they are aware of the debate today, and ask them to revisit that issue, as she requests. As a DDCMS Minister or a Heritage Minister, I cannot make promises on behalf of another Department, but I understand the case that she is making and, as a point of principle, it is important that we educate and inform people about our history accurately, or as accurately as possible.

Funding from the Borderlands Inclusive Growth Deal is looking at better signage along Hadrian’s Wall—a point raised by hon. Members today. Although this work is in its early stages, the route of the wall through Tyneside and a potential link between the fort at Wallsend and Arbeia via the Tyne foot tunnel could be considered as part of the work as well as other potential rerouting. Again, I would be happy to raise that on behalf of colleagues.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central has spoken eloquently, as always, and passionately about the significance of the wall. She has rightly highlighted its relevance as an archaeological and educational property and its continued importance as a living heritage attraction and a crown jewel of the region’s visitor economy. She is in good company in this regard and I thank her for securing today’s debate. I also thank colleagues who have contributed and raised the importance of our absolute national treasure, Hadrian’s Wall.

I can tell that the Minister is coming to a conclusion. I am grateful for his words of support. I asked about collaboration with the Department for Education and the archaeological issue. I know he is not the Minister directly responsible for some of this, but will he promise to write to me to address those issues as well?

Yes. The hon. Lady has raised many issues about the importance of the wall. I would be happy to write to her with further information and detail. Archaeological and heritage support is a particular role for the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic England. On the educational aspect, my initial reaction is that she has raised valid points. Again, I cannot make promises on behalf of other Departments, but I am happy to write to them and raise those comments. I look forward to continuing the dialogue and visiting the wall again across all its length very shortly.

Question put and agreed to.