THE bijou Roman fort of Birdoswald has been treated to a £1.25m facelift.

Since 2012, English Heritage has been burnishing the forts and museums on Hadrian’s Wall, beginning with Housesteads and then Chesters.

This past year it has been the turn of Birdoswald and Corbridge Roman Town – another £600,000 has been spent on the latter.

And today, the results of that work are being unveiled with a flourish before the eyes of regional and national media.

The settlement at Birdoswald, the most visible element of which today is its 17th century farmhouse and outbuildings, hadn’t been as welcoming as it could have been in the past, said senior interpretation manager Joe Savage. It had been time to remedy that.

“Birdoswald sits near the best stretch of Wall anywhere in Hadrian’s Wall Country,” he said. “But people who want to see Hadrian’s Wall don’t always necessarily want to visit the named sites too.

“So we aim to give all visitors, as they drive through Hadrian’s Wall Country, the ability to understand what they are seeing, to understand the landscape.”

Hence the turnstiles that once barred the way of drive-by visitors and Hadrian’s Wall Trail through-walkers to the cafe and loos on site have been removed.

Instead, a warm welcome awaits. Use the facilities, please do. Venture into the wonderful little shop, brimming with gifts and liqueurs, books and toys.

And if you so desire, step in, through the newly-installed glass atrium (oh, and the hands-on exhibition space offering fun for all the family) to what must surely be one of English Heritage’s cutest sites.

Don’t be fooled, though, for contained within its excavated perimeter walls is 1800 years of history not to be sniffed at.

While the administration and accommodation blocks at the heart of the fort have not been excavated, the lumps and bumps in the acres of greenness speak volumes about the garrison buildings that were once home to many an auxiliary Roman soldier.

Information panels and a ‘follow the clues’ game for children will help visitors interpret what they are seeing, but there will be no technological gadgetry here, said Joe.

“We’re trying to keep the whole experience very tactile – it’s all about the physicality of being in this space.

“Parents tell us one of the reasons they come out for the day is that they don’t want their children staring at screens. They want to engage as a family, with the place and each other.”

The section of the fort that has been excavated boasts the foundations of the granaries and the exercise hall that were key to Birdoswald.

The former were built by members of the First Cohort of Dacians, commanded by one Aurelius Julianus, between AD205 and 208.

They could have contained as much as a year’s supply of food at any one time, so the raised floors and ventilation slits in the walls were designed to enable cool air to circulate, keeping the food chilled and dry.

It was already known that soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall would have eaten beef, and sometimes pork, venison and poultry, along with carrots, swedes, parsnips, cabbage and apples, when in season.

Archaeologists working on the Birdoswald granaries also found evidence of the grain they would have used for bread and the barley used for both feeding the animals and brewing beer.

English Heritage is particularly proud of the drill and exercise hall, the only one ever to have been found in a Roman auxiliary fort. It had the design of a basilica, in other words, a high hall flanked by aisles, similar to the nave of a church.

One of the information panels says ‘Roman author Vegetius wrote that buildings such as basilicas were built to give infantry training in wet and windy weather’.

So they could carry on training, however severe the weather outside – a boon, therefore, on Hadrian’s most northerly and inclement frontier!

In another nugget of information, visitors learn that soldiers trained with wooden swords that were heavier than their metal ones. By this means, they built strength and stamina which, when called upon, allowed them to move quickly and for long periods in battle.

Today, most of the remains of the drill and exercise hall lie beneath the farmhouse and yard.

Joe said: “The interesting thing about Birdoswald is that we have got evidence the site was occupied after the Romans left (in AD410) – this continued to be an important place of habitation.

“We knew that local populations had continued to use the forts, but here archaeologists have actually unearthed the evidence.”

Besides the perimeter walls and four of its gates, the granaries and the drill hall, they have also found where the blacksmith’s workshop once stood, the location of the fort’s cemetery and then, from another age entirely, the remains of the 16th century bastle house built as a defence against those murderous, cattle-rustling Border Reivers.

A gentleman called Henry Norman bought the Birdoswald estate in the 1840s and was responsible for adding the tower to the 17th century farmhouse there now, giving it the appearance of a much grander, medieval building.

Henry developed a strong interest in the fort and its history and employed the first archaeologists to work at Birdoswald. Indeed, he loved the place so much, he named his son Oswald.

Sadly, while Oswald inherited the Birdoswald estate, he didn’t inherit the passion for it and auctioned it off in 1901. Its collection of sculptures and carved inscriptions was thereby scattered to the four winds.

Birdoswald became a tenanted working farm and continued in that capacity right up until 1984.

Mr and Mrs Baxter were the last tenants and Mr Baxter often unearthed bits of Roman pottery while ploughing.

Birdoswald might be small, but it is packed full of interest, said Joe. “We feel that, in the same way that Housesteads is a great introduction to Hadrian’s Wall Country for people coming from the East, Birdoswald is the perfect place for people coming from the West.

“It’s where visitors can begin their own journey of understanding.”