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 northwards across the rest of the project area. It connected the Roman forts at Ribchester and Kirkby Thore.
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.
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.
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 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).
New research by David Ratledge using LiDAR imagery now suggests that this route to the east of the River Lune was eventually augmented or even replaced by a second hillier route on the west side of the river. The newer route diverges just before crossing the river Rawthey at Middleton bridge while the eastern route continues straight on, crossing the Rawthey near Killington New Bridge. David speculates that the more difficult western route was built as a response to problems crossing the Rawthey floodplain near Sedbergh.
“The west bank route bridges are where the rivers are constrained by rock, and building bridges would be relatively easy. On the other hand, the River Rawthey crossing on the east bank route, west of Sedbergh, is where the river is unconstrained. A study of the LiDAR imagery reveals an active river with numerous old abandoned channels and meanders. Realistically it is only suitable for a fording point. It should also be noted that the west bank route turns off exactly where it would need to to bypass the Sedbergh flood plain – no sooner, no later. So my guess is that it was the bridges that clinched it for the west bank route and the east bank route, with almost certainly a ford, was abandoned.”
David Ratledge ‘The Roman Road from Middleton to Low Borrowbridge, Margary 7ca’ http://www.twithr.co.uk/cumbria/M7ca.htm date accessed 4/10/21
The west and the east routes converge on Low Borrowbridge fort. North of the fort, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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