Burgh Castle Roman Fort, Norfolk

Surely the most impressive ancient site in East Anglia, if not anywhere in Britain, Burgh Castle is, along with nearby Caister-on-Sea, one of the Saxon Shore Forts constructed by the Romans to fend off troublesome invaders along England’s south-eastern coastline. Although the interior buildings of the fort are now long gone, its external wall is incredibly well preserved, still standing to an impressive height on three of its four sides. It is this huge wall that makes the approach to Burgh Castle such an unforgettable experience, a rare change to see the exterior of a Roman fort in its (almost) full glory.

The impressive approach to Burgh Castle Roman Fort, Norfolk

The impressive approach to Burgh Castle Roman Fort, Norfolk

Constructed in the late third century, Burgh Castle, possibly known to the Romans as Gariannonum, seems to have proved an effective bulwark against invasion for over half a century, and looking at it today it is easy to see why. Although plundered over the centuries for their masonry, the fort’s wall still stand close to their original height of around 4.5 metres in places. More than just functional, the rubble core of the wall was originally faced inside and out with decorative bands of flint and brick.

Flint and brick banding on the west wall of Burgh Castle Roman Fort, Norfolk

Flint and brick banding on the west wall of Burgh Castle Roman Fort, Norfolk

Later, the fort was further fortified with distinctive bastions at intervals along its walls and on every corner. Each of these solid D-shaped structures had a hole at its top, the purpose of which is debated – some suggest that they were constructed to anchor catapults, others conecture that wooden watchtowers would have topped each bastion.

The later bastion on the south-westerly corner of Burgh Castle Roman Fort, Norfolk

The later bastion on the south-westerly corner of Burgh Castle Roman Fort, Norfolk

One of the most interesting parts of Burgh Castle Roman Fort is the section of collapsed wall along its western side. Huge chunks of the stone defence still lie just where they fell, giving a strong sense of the monumental scale of the walls and bastions, and a rare chance to view their internal construction close-up.

The collapsed west wall of Burgh Castle Roman Fort, Norfolk

The collapsed west wall of Burgh Castle Roman Fort, Norfolk

At some point after its abandonment the north wall of the fort collapsed completely into the surrounding marshland, opening up impressive views overy the surrounding landscape. Just like Pevensey Castle, Burgh later became the site of a Normal castle, although unlike Pevensey this later fortification was short-lived, and few signs can be seen of it today.Now owned by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust and under the care of English Heritage, Burgh Castle remains an evocative reminder of the military might of the Roman Empire and its impact on the ancient British landscape.

Looking north over the lost wall of Burgh Castle Roman Fort

Looking north over the lost wall of Burgh Castle Roman Fort

For more details on visiting Burgh Castle, click here.

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Caistor-on-Sea Roman Fort, Norfolk

Only a few miles from Caistor Roman town in Norfolk can be found the remains of the Roman fort at Caistor-on-Sea, which, as its name suggests, sits near the coast on the outskirts of Great Yarmouth. That the two sites share a name is not just coincidence – Caistor (or more correctly ceaster) is a Saxon interpretation of the Latin word castra, meaning camp. The fort at Caistor-on-Sea once stood on an island next to the shore, but over the years the estuary that it guarded has silted up and disappeared. Now it lies landlocked, bordered by a main road and some modern bungalows.

Only part of the fort can be seen by visitors today, specifically a length of its outer wall and south gate, the low foundations of a long, narrow building, and a section of the main road which once traversed the fort. The modern visitors’ entrance to the site passes over the deep ditch which originally protected the fort’s outer wall, over the wide foundations of the wall itself and into the southern sector of the fort.

The ditch and south wall of Caistor-on-Sea Roman fort, Norfolk

The ditch and south wall of Caistor-on-Sea Roman fort, Norfolk

The fort seems to have been constructed around 200 CE, and was in use for the next two centuries. Caitor-on-Sea was larger than average for a Roman fort, probably due to the fact that it was built to house a mixed garrison of infantry, cavalry and sailors. The cobbled road, part of which has been left exposed, would once have led out of the fort and down to a nearby harbour, where goods and supplies would have arrived for the fort’s many residents.

The exposed road surface at Caistor-on-Sea Roman fort, Norfolk

The exposed road surface at Caistor-on-Sea Roman fort, Norfolk

Since it was excavated during the 1950s, various purposes have been propsed for the long building which lies just inside the south wall of the fort, including a hostel or even a brothel. Constructed around 300 CE, this structure (known to excavators as Building I) possibly had numerous functions during the one hundred years of so that is was in use, and seems to have included a private residence for at least some of that time. Including at least six seperate rooms, the forty-five metre long building had flint wall bases, timber framed walls and a tiled roof, with evidence of elaborately decorated plaster on the interior walls also found during those 1950s digs.

The foundations of 'Buildling I' at Caistor-on-Sea Roman fort, Norfolk

The foundations of ‘Buildling I’ at Caistor-on-Sea Roman fort, Norfolk

The above picture clearly shows the cobbled alleyway which ran to the south of the structure, while to the north lay a larger open courtyard. Although it may have contained a workshop and a butcher’s shop, one room of the building also features a raised hypocaust floor, suggesting that it was built for comfort as well as industry.

The raised hypocaust floor of Caistor-on-Sea Roman fort, Norfolk

The raised hypocaust floor of Caistor-on-Sea Roman fort, Norfolk

Evidence of a late fourth-century fire suggests that the fort at Caistor-on-Sea may have ultimately met with a catastrophic end. Later the site was inhabited by Saxons, with a settlement constructed near the centre of the ruined Roman fort, and the remains of a large Saxon burial site have been found just to the south of the present remains. Today the site is owned and maintained by English Heritage, and can be visited free of charge at any reasonable time.

For further information on access to Caistor-on-Sea Roman fort, click here.

Caistor Roman Town, Norfolk

Situated in peaceful countryside on the outskirts of Norwich, Caistor Roman town is a rare example of an ancient urban centre which was abandoned after the fall of Roman rule in Britain, thus avoiding later destruction from overbuilding and development. Like Silchester in Hampshire, Caistor’s impressive defences have largely survived the ravages of time, this impressive feat of engineering still hinting at the former glory of this now rather sleepy and bucolic place.

The impressive defensive wall of Caistor Roman town

The impressive defensive wall of Caistor Roman town

Caistor was originally known as Venta Icenorum, meaning the market place of the Iceni, the local tribe who controlled this region before the arrival of the Romans. The city was founded during the 60s CE, soon after the infamous Boudican rebellion which ravaged the region, and grew to become the most important town in northern East Anglia. Although the history of the town is still not entirely clear, it seems that the large stone walls that can be seen today were a later addition, constructed some time during the third century. Some excavations have taken place over the years, uncovering the usual forum at the centre of the town as well as a large bath house near the west gate, while ariel photography has revealed evidence of an amphitheatre just to the south of the outer wall.

A surviving section of the defensive wall of Caistor Roman town

A surviving section of the defensive wall of Caistor Roman town

Today it is those defensive walls and their associated vallum and ditch that can be explored by visitors to Caistor. The well-signposted walk around the limits of the town features a number of colourful and informative information boards which give an indication of the history and layout of this large site, with plenty of reconstruction images to give an idea of how it may have once looked.

The imposting north wall of Caistor Roman town

The imposting north wall of Caistor Roman town

Archaeological evidence suggests that Caistor Roman town survived in some form or another into the fifth century, while Saxon burials in the area show that it may have been occupied for a further three centuries after the collapse of Roman Britain. Ongoing research carried out by the Archaeology Department of Nottingham University in conjuction with the site’s owners, the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, will hopefully uncover more clues to the enigmatic history of this fascinating place.

The southern wall and vallum of Caistor Roman town, Norfolk

The southern wall and vallum of Caistor Roman town, Norfolk

Nowadays the only inhabitants of Caistor Roman town are the sheep who quietly graze its grassy expanse. The pretty church of Caistor St. Edmund, which stands in the north east corner of the site, is also worth a visit. Parts of it date back to the eleventh century, and it may have been built on the site of an earlier church. Roman tiles plundered from the ruins of Venta Icenorum can be seen in various sections of its ancient walls.

For further information about access to Caistor Roman town, click here.

Pevensey Roman Fort, East Sussex

Situated not far from the south coast of East Sussex, Pevensey Roman fort was originally one of a string of Saxon-shore forts built to protects the province from attack by Saxon pirates. Once thought to date from the mid-fourth century, recent dendrochronological testing suggest that it was actually constructed around 290 CE. Thanks to its reuse in later times as defence for the medieval Pevensey Castle, the outer wall of the fort, with its numerous D-shaped wall towers, has survived almost intact, and offers a striking example of the imposing strength of a late Roman fort.

The impressive wall of Pevensey Roman Fort

The impressive wall of Pevensey Roman Fort

Modern scholars have linked the construction of the fort to the usurpation of Britain by Carausius and Allectus, who both proclaimed themselves emperor of Britain in the late third century, prompting a full-scale Roman invasion in the process. Pevensey, known to the Romans as Anderida, is first documented in the late fourth-century Notitia Dignitatum, which also refers to what may have been a fleet of ships located here. More recent changes in the shoreline mean that the fort’s harbour has now gone, the sea only visible in the distance from the heights of the castle’s tallest tower.

A Roman bastion in the north wall of Pevensey Roman Fort

A Roman bastion in the north wall of Pevensey Roman Fort

Little is known about the internal layout of the 10 acre fort, but the walls remain tall and foreboding, in places up to nine metres high. The East Gate features a plain archway which, although it was rebuilt in the Middle Ages, probably appears much as it did in Roman times. The West Gate is even more impressive, with two large flanking towers.

The West Gate of Pevensey Roman Fort

The West Gate of Pevensey Roman Fort

The fort of Anderida seems to have survived as a civil settlement in the years after the collapse of Roman rule in Britain. Soon after his arrival in England in 1066, William the Conqueror set up temporary fortifications to shelter his troops, and later a more permanent castle was established here. As a result, the walls of Pevensey Roman Fort were once again put to use until the castle fell into ruin in the Tudor period. Today they survive as the probably the best preserved of their kind in Britain.

For further information about visiting Pevensey Roman Fort, click here.

Kinneil Roman Fortlet, Bo’ness

The Kinneil Estate, which sits in the West Lothian town of Bo’ness, is a bit of an undiscovered gem, and is home to an incredible range of historical sites. At its heart stands Kinneil House, a fifteenth-century tower house that was later extended into a palatial mansion. Nearby can be found the ruins of the medieval parish church which once served the now lost village, as well as the roofless shell of the eighteenth-century cottage where James Watt developed his first steam engine. But most importantly for this blog, the estate also features the remains of one of the many Roman fortlets which once stood along the line of the Scotland’s second-century Roman frontier, the Antonine Wall.

Kinneil Roman fortlet, Bo'ness

Kinneil Roman fortlet, Bo’ness

Rediscovered in 1978, and further excavated in 1980 and 1981, the outline of the fortlet’s rampart has been marked out with concrete blocks, while the post holes which reveal the locations of its internal buildings and gates are now indicated by wooden posts. In addition, a short section of the road which ran through it and beyond the wall is still open to view. On the day that I visited the concrete blocks were covered in snow, which made them even more noticeable than usual.

Concrete blocks marking the south east corner of the Kinneil Roman fortlet

Concrete blocks marking the south east corner of the Kinneil Roman fortlet

The fortlet originally measured around 21.5 metres by 18.5 metres, with an internal area of one tenth of an acre. The fortlet would have been surrounded by turf ramparts and defensive ditches, with the Antonine Wall itself forming its northern rampart. Evidence of two internal buildings was discovered, as well as indications of gateways in both the north and the south ramparts.

The line of the Antonine Wall at Kinneil Estate, Bo'ness

The line of the Antonine Wall at Kinneil Estate, Bo’ness

Although other similar sites have been excavated, the Kinneil fortlet is in fact the only Antonine Wall fortlet which has been clearly delineated for the benefit of modern visitors. The Friend of Kinneil Estate also run a small museum in a stable block next to Kinneil House, where an exhibition entitled ‘2,000 Years of History’ tells the story of the park from Roman times to the present day.

For further information on visiting the Kinneil Estate, click here.

Bar Hill Roman Fort, Twechar

Bar Hill Roman fort, which sits high above the Kelvin Valley next to the town of Twechar, was one of the sixteen forts that punctuated the mid-second century Antonine Wall, and today it survives as one of the best preserved and picturesque of the Roman frontier’s sites. As well as enjoying some spectacular views, it is also one of the few places on the wall where original Roman masonry has been consolidated and exposed to view,  with the foundations of the fort’s headquarters and bath house currently visible to visitors. The remains were covered in a light covering of snow on the morning of my visit, but it was still possible to identify the remains of the fort and get an idea of its original layout.

The south side of the headquarter building, Bar Hill Roman Fort

The south side of the headquarter building, Bar Hill Roman fort 

Covering an area of around 1.29 hectares within its turf ramparts, the Antonine fort at Bar Hill seems to have been situated on top of a previous, possibly Agricolan Roman camp. Excavations in the early twentieth century revealed various structures, including the headquarters, the bath house and a granary. The bath house was small but perfectly formed, consisting of a changing room, a cold room and three hot rooms which would have functioned rather like a Turkish bath. Today it is possible to see the building’s low foundations, as well as evidence of a hypocaust floor.

The bath house, Bar Hill Roman fort

The bath house, Bar Hill Roman fort

Many of the most exciting discoveries made during those early twentieth-century excavations were centred around the fort’s well, which appears to have been filled up with detritus as the fort was evacuated by the Romans in the 160s AD. Finds in the well included some impressive column shafts, now in the Hunterian Museum, as well as leather shoes, a wooden comb and a bag of workmen’s tools.

The well, Bar Hill Roman fort

The well, Bar Hill Roman fort

The once massive ramparts of the fort are now all but gone, and while the outlines of some of the buildings has been marked out, much of the fort remains buried, with only some intriguing lumps and bumps giving an indication of what lies beneath. The shallow remnants of the Antonine Wall’s ditch can be seen just to the north of the fort, and past that lie some incredible views of the valley and hills beyond. Just to the east of Bar Hill fort the ditch skirts round the base of a small Iron-Age fort before dipping  dramatically down a steep hill as it cuts through a modern forestry plantation.

Wonderful views from the site of Bar Hill Roman fort

Wonderful views from the site of Bar Hill Roman fort

Find out more about visiting Bar Hill Roman Fort here.

The Antonine Wall, Seabegs Wood

Situated not far from the town of Bonnybridge, Seabegs Wood offers not just an impressive stretch of the Antonine Wall and its associated ditch, but also probably the best-preserved section of the Wall’s military way.

The Antonine Wall, Seabegs Wood

The Antonine Wall, Seabegs Wood

As the photo above shows, it is possible to discern the various parts of the second-century Roman frontier here, with the wide ditch to the left, a flat area in the centre and the raised bump of the turf vallum just visible on the right. Time and the elements have inevitably taken their toll on the remains, so we have to use our imagination to picture what it might have looked like when that ditch was five meters deep, and that vallum was three meters high!

Just to the south of the Wall ran a military way, a road vital for moving troops and supplies along the busy frontier. At Seabegs Wood it is still possible to make out the subtle camber of the road, and the surface is still surprisingly solid compared to the damp grass around it.

The Roman Military Way, Seabegs Wood

The Roman Military Way, Seabegs Wood

One of the many fortlets which punctuated the Wall was discovered in the a field to the west of Seabegs Wood, although not sign of it can be seen today. To the east the line of the Wall disappears under the Forth Clyde Canal, just one of the many parts of this mighty boundary that were swallowed up by the eighteenth-century industrialisation of this part of central Scotland.

Find out more about visiting the Antonine Wall at Seabegs Wood here.