Ralph Mills



In 1982 I was appointed Assistant Director of the excavation and recording project along Hadrian's Wall in the National Trust estate, Steel Ring, Northumberland. My boss was Dr. James Crow, who managed to put up with me for some six years, my longest ever stretch of continuous employment. I write "put up with me" because not long after the project began my marriage ended acrimoniously, and I (willingly) became an impoverished single parent of two small children. The background of those six years was therefore muddied by much personal stress and misery, dealing with single parenthood, losing a home, plunging into a new relationship that itself eventually caused disruption and more unhappiness and various other challenges. Jim Crow therefore had an assistant who was leading a complicated and disorganized life, who wasn't terribly reliable at times, was often preoccupied and who sometimes (often?) made foolish decisions and choices. Jim rarely complained, and was always supportive and understanding.

The project

Nevertheless I did my best to ensure the success of the project. Our stretch of wall was suffering from its popularity: thousands of visitors walked beside and on the masonry, which had been reconstructed by John Clayton in the nineteenth century. A groove was being worn in the top of the wall, water was percolating into the erosion and when it froze, pushed stonework from the wall. Our task was to record the wall as it stood in the 1980s, take down Clayton's work, then expose and record the remaining Roman masonry down to bedrock. Stonemasons were then employed to rebuild the wall and protect the Roman material. The wall top was be left uneven to discourage walking along it, and new paths and steps constructed beside it where necessary.

We worked in the field for about nine months of each year, with the winter weather not allowing fieldwork in this exposed location. During the summer we welcomed many volunteers, most of whom stayed in nearby Once Brewed Youth Hostel, and without whom we wouldn't have achieved what we did. I supervised the volunteers and a small crew of full-time staff, and managed the recording process.

It was hard work. We were

We did sterling work in a challenging environment.

Most Friday lunch times we would retreat to The Spotted Cow pub in Haltwhistle to celebrate the week’s achievements.

The scaffolding: do not try this at home!

For much of the project I, totally unqualified, and learning as I went, constructed the scaffolding supports for our barrow runs. There were no incidents, other than the one time, when dismantling it, I fell a short distance through a platform loosened by the vibrations of a motorised barrow hoist. This looked a lot more dramatic than it was. My skill in scaffold construction was demonstrated when, entirely justifiably, the National Trust eventually decided to dispense with my services and employ professional scaffolders. Almost immediately, their first effort duly collapsed, thankfully not whie we were using it! However in in retrospect, the NT was entirely correct — amateur scaffold building is not the safest of pursuits!

Last updated 20th March 2022


This is a collection of informal photographs I took during the project. They are a mixture of scanned 6x4 prints and a few transparencies, and are of varying quality. Some show activities that today would not be deemed particularly safe. We did our best to ensure the safety of our staff and volunteers, and thankfully there were no significant incidents during the entire project, other than a few blisters, sore backs and a bruised finger or two.