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Roman soldiers and their roads in Westmorland

Thursday 24 September, 2020, by Karen Griffiths

With its location alongside strategic routes cross country and north to the frontiers of Roman Britain, Westmorland was always going to play an important role throughout the period of Roman rule. The Lune Gap was a crucial inland route for Rome’s conquering armies early on as they made their way north to defeat local tribes.

The Roman army on campaign usually took engineers with it and it was these men along with local pressed labour who built the network of roads which soon followed conquest. During a campaign these routes would be rapidly cleared so-called ‘tactical’ roads but as a region was colonised, some of these tactical roads would be consolidated. The Roman military economy relied on fast transport of both goods and soldiers and to do that it needed hard surfaced and well- maintained roads along with well-built bridges at river crossings. Roman roads are famous for their straight lines and the route which was established through the Lune Gap and on over Crosby Ravensworth Fell is no exception. This road is known as Fairmile south of Tebay and then Wicker Street as it crosses the rest of the project area. It connected the Roman forts at Ribchester and Kirkby Thore.

Roman soldiers pass an ox-drawn cart. (c) YDNPA 2020
Roman soldiers pass an ox-drawn cart. (c) YDNPA 2020

There were several Roman forts built along this route. In the project area, we have one at Low Borrowbridge, situated right in the Lune Gorge, just south of Tebay and commanding a river crossing of the Lune where it’s likely there was a bridge. These forts functioned both to patrol and police traffic along the route to and from the frontier – established at Hadrian’s Wall eventually, and also as a fighting reserve which could be rapidly mobilised to assist troops on the frontier in the case of a local flare up of aggression.

Google Maps image of Low Borrowbridge Roman fort showing M6 to the west and River Lune and line of Roman road to the east
Google Maps image of Low Borrowbridge Roman fort showing M6 to the west and River Lune and line of Roman road to the east

We have fragments of evidence which collectively point to forts like Low Borrowbridge housing troops of cavalry. A fragment of a cavalry soldier’s tombstone was found near the fort:

“The size of the visible fort is a little less than three acres which would offer sufficient accommodation for a cohors quingenaria equitata (a five-hundred-strong infantry unit with a cavalry-element); the presence of this type of unit is apparently confirmed by one of the two surviving tombstones from the cemetery, which lies a little under a mile to the south. One stone, which was broken up in order to construct a bridge across an unidentified beck, is said to have depicted a mounted soldier spearing a fallen enemy, and to have contained ‘XX’ in its inscription – presumably part of the soldier’s length of service or age at death.” David Shotter & Andrew White (1995) ‘The Romans in Lunesdale’ p51

The lost tombstone may have looked something like this one from Germany.

Tombstone of cavalryman (eques) Titus Flavius Bassus son of Mucala the Thracian, who died aged 46 after 26 years of service. Dated AD 70-96 and is in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne, Germany.  Image by Didymus Ridgeland / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Tombstone of cavalryman (eques) Titus Flavius Bassus son of Mucala the Thracian, who died aged 46 after 26 years of service. Dated AD 70-96 and is in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne, Germany. Image by Didymus Ridgeland / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Cavalry units could be quickly mobilised in the case of trouble and using the excellent roads meant they could be deployed and reach a trouble hot spot at speed. The metal detector find in 2010 of the incredible Crosby Garrett Roman cavalry helmet gives us a tiny window into the the pride and skill of the men training hard ready for action at any moment.

The Crosby Garrett helmet found in 2010 (c) Portable Antiquities Scheme CC BY 2.0
The Crosby Garrett helmet found in 2010 (c) Portable Antiquities Scheme CC BY 2.0

The line of the Roman road up to the Lune Gorge lies mostly underneath the modern road called Fairmile but a short length diverges from it to the south of the Roman fort. A small excavation across this section of Roman road took place in 1962. It was found to have substantial stone foundations and the remains of a layer of closely packed stones forming the well-cambered surface. There were no drainage ditches alongside it (Macadam, E M L (1964) ‘A section of the Roman road south of Low Borrow bridge, Westmorland’ TCWAAS. Vol 64 pp76-80)

Line of Roman road where it diverges from the modern course of Fairmile Road. The distinct line of the raised camber can be seen in the centre of the photo. Photo by  Alex Sijpesteijn
Line of Roman road where it diverges from the modern course of Fairmile Road. The distinct line of the raised camber can be seen in the centre of the photo. (c) YDNPA 2020 Photo by Alex Sijpesteijn

Fairmile Road - aerial photo, © YDNPA, 2004, (YDP3/12). From the Out of Oblivion website
Fairmile Road showing modern road and diverging line of Roman road below it – aerial photo © YDNPA, 2020, (YDP3/12). From the Out of Oblivion website
Fairmile Road lying on top of the course of the Roman road. Photo by Alex Sijpesteijn
Fairmile Road lying on top of the course of the Roman road. (c) YDNPA 2020 Photo by Alex Sijpesteijn

North of Low Borrowbridge the Roman road has been destroyed by the railway and M6. It reappears to the west of them heading past Roundthwaite; crossing Birk beck and on towards Loups Fell where archaeologists discovered the site of a Roman marching camp in 2011 using LiDAR imagery. Such temporary camps were thrown up by soldiers as overnight accommodation while on campaign. The fact that the fort respects the line of the Roman road suggests that there was at least a tactical road there before the camp was built.

Graham Hooley has kindly shared some photographs of the site with us. He suggests that it may be associated with the consolidation of the Roman road rather than with any particular army campaign, but that dating evidence was sparse.

Eastern rampart looking north, Loup Fell Roman marching camp. Photo courtesy of Graham Hooley
Eastern rampart looking north, Loup Fell Roman marching camp. Photo courtesy of Graham Hooley

From Loups Fell, the road then makes a turn east and heads across Crosby Ravensworth Fell where as we’ve seen, it is called Wicker Street. The place name ‘street’ is a common indicator of the presence of a Roman road.

For many years it was assumed that the road then swung west and ended up at Brougham Roman fort near Penrith, but careful examination of LiDAR imagery in 2019 revealed that it actually continues straight as an arrow to the fort at Kirkby Thore on the Roman Stainmore/modern A66 cross country route. We’ve already discussed in some detail why it was that Penrith was avoided early on by the both the Romans and the Normans in the blogpost Medieval trade routes in Westmorland.

Follow the whole route in detail as laid out using LiDAR imagery on the fantastic Roman Roads in Cumbria website. Very recently another Roman road has been identified running up the west side of the Lune Gorge to Low Borrowbridge, perhaps the lower level one we’ve already described became too wet in the winter and an alternative had to be found, read more on the Roman Roads in Cumbria website and watch a flyover of the new route by David Ratledge.

The Roman fort at Kirkby Thore provides us with more evidence for the presence of cavalry in Westmorland. Not only are there three late first century AD cavalry tombstones like the the one found near Low Borrowbridge but there is also evidence for an Algerian-born camp commander, a third century AD cavalry officer called Agathopus who retired back to Gadiaufala (modern Ksar Sbahi) in North Africa and whose devoted sons raised a memorial in his honour when he died there. Read more about Agathopus in this article from TCWAAS 1960 p32-36 by M G Jarrett.

Roman cavalry from a mosaic at Villa Romana del Casale,  Italy 
© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0
Roman cavalry from a mosaic at Villa Romana del Casale, Italy
© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Stainmore Roman road skirts the north of the project area. It was a main arterial route between the east and west coast, moving troops and importantly, supplies. The Roman fort at Brough lies on this road and was clearly some sort of supply depot as large numbers of lead seals have been found there which were used to identify goods destined for various military establishments. The route complications between Kirkby Thore fort and the forts at Brougham and Old Penrith are carefully explained on the Roman Roads in Cumbria website, including the discovery of a remarkable ‘spaghetti junction’ west of Kirkby Thore.

The final Roman road known in the project area is less well established. All the evidence points to the likelihood of a route running down the Rawthey valley from Kirkby Stephen towards Sedbergh. There are ‘street’ place names and some well-engineered sections of track. Much of the evidence however seems to have disappeared underneath the eighteenth century Sedbergh turnpike road so the Roman Roads in Cumbria website suggests people look at the evidence and make their own minds up! A report of an excavation that we commissioned to look at a section of the route near Sedbergh can be read in the following PDF.

< Previous A Way Through blog post Medieval trade routes in Westmorland

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Picture of Karen Griffiths

Karen Griffiths

Interpretation Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority

Website: www.yorkshiredales.org.uk

2 Replies to “Roman soldiers and their roads in Westmorland”

  1. Glenda says:

    Loving this Karen. Chris took me along Fairmile earlier this year. From Tebay right through to Sedbergh. He had been on a tractor run the year before. Its an interesting road.

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