The legionnaire by the lavatory

Roaming in Ribchester

“Jim Ridge has got a Roman Wall in his back garden.”  So declared my mate Bob some forty-odd years ago. At the time we were enjoying a pint in a pub in Ribchester on the banks of the River Ribble in Lancashire. I cannot recall how Bob, who was an aerospace fitter, knew Jim who was a history teacher, but the reported boast fell on unimpressed ears as I imagined a gardener’s bricklaying project to create something decoratively Italianate, or perhaps mimicking the architecture depicted in Ben Hur, but no, this was an actual Roman wall, build by the Romans during their occupation of Britain almost two thousand years earlier.  We went to see it.

Jim Ridge in 1993

There it was, in Mr Ridge’s back yard, all neatly exposed.  We were a polite bunch, and we probably projected more interest than we felt. It was, after all, just a wall, or to be precise, part of a wall, that had no doubt once been much taller.  I have never forgotten seeing it, however, and it always pops back into my mind whenever I visit Ribchester.  I got another glimpse a decade later when the Channel Four TV programme Time Team featured both Jim and his wall during their first year of televised excavations.  They dug up another bit of the fort at the same time. The programme was recorded in September 1993 and broadcast in January of the following year.

Phil Harding from Time Team digs Jim’s garden.

Ribchester is well-known locally for its Roman history, but it may not be generally appreciated just how significant the settlement was. The mighty industrial conurbations of this part of the world would not arise for over a millennium after the Romans abandoned their fort, and at its peak it would surely have been the most significant military establishment in the seventy-mile Ribble Valley, more substantial even that the settlement at Walton-le-Dale on the eastern edge of Preston, which was only a supply base and bridgehead rather than a fortification. The fort at Ribchester, known as Bremetennacum, had high importance because it lay on a key crossroads of the Roman road network.

All roads lead to. . .

The road north led to Calacum (Burrow in Lonsdale) then on to Luguvalium (Carlisle) and the infamous wall ordered by Hadrian. Sections of this road can still be detected on the local Lancashire lanes. It cut a typically straight line from Ribchester to the well-known viewpoint of Jeffrey Hill where it swung from west of north to east of it, to hug the Hodder Valley.

If you drive out of Ribchester by turning off the B6245 onto Ribblesdale Road (which becomes Stoneygate Lane) just before you meet the B6243 at the Hall’s Arms junction you will travel along a very straight half mile stretch that lies on top of the old Roman road. It continued up the south side of Longridge fell a little to the left of the modern road to turn at the present junction by the car park on Jeffrey Hill. The continuation of that road can be detected at the spear-straight length of the road between Whitewell and Bashall Eaves just south of Cow Ark, close to Browsholme Hall.

The southern road from Bremetennacum went to Mamucium (Manchester), the route eastwards went to Eburacum (York) and on to the east coast of Britain. This road roughly mirrors the course of A59 to Skipton.

The road west led to another fort at what is now Kirkham and the west coast at Poulton-le-Fylde. This western route appears as “Watling Street” on the 1902 Ordnance map, becoming Watling Street Road as it passes through Preston, but it should be stressed that this is not the most well-known Watling Street which ran from Dover to Wroxeter near Shrewsbury, but one of three other routes that bore that name.

The lookout on the landing

Bremetennacum seems to have been occupied from as early as 69CE when it was a wooden structure, not becoming a stone fort until the start of the second century. Some of the last dating evidence is a coin of the emperor Gratian (376-383CE) and the fort seems to have been abandoned about this time. Its footprint was 550 feet (166m) by 410 feet (125m). The building work is thought to have been done by legionary troops from Chester. Later in its history the strongest links appear to have been with the 6th Legion at York. As with most outposts of the empire, very few occupants would have been Roman in the strictest sense. The majority would be troops recruited elsewhere. Bremetennacum was populated by Asturian cavalry from northern Spain, and later by Sarmatians from eastern Europe.[1]

Victor Ambrus’s sketch of the tower in the garden.

Time Team reinforced this understanding as they uncovered evidence of a series of structures both in the nearby fields and in Jim Ridge’s back garden.  It turned out he’d had two lookout towers there in all likelihood, an earlier wooden one and a later stone structure, the base of which is still very much in evidence. The wall would have reached to the first floor of his house, directly in line, said Jim, with the corridor leading to his bathroom.

Where has the fort gone?

The boot print of Bremetennacum

Time and temptation have removed most of what remained after the troops withdrew. As you can see from the picture, the mighty River Ribble sliced off a complete corner as its bending flow eroded outwards.  Much of the building material would have been repurposed, some of it eventually being used for Jim’s house, he reckoned.

The site has been excavated on many occasions and you can view some of the artefacts in the small but informative museum adjacent to the church that now occupies the land at the heart of the former fort. You can also see some of the excavated remains including the bath house which is just across the road, behind the school.

The Ribchester Helmet

The most famous find was a splendid parade helmet which is now in the British Museum. A replica is on display in the Ribchester Museum. This was discovered in 1796 by thirteen-year-old John Walton, the son of a Ribchester clogmaker, while he was digging in some waste ground behind his house. It was found along with other objects such as bronze camp kettles or skillets, a mixing bowl and a dish-like object.[2]  The group has become known as The Ribchester Hoard and it presents something of a puzzle.  Why were these objects left behind?  They appear to have been packed in sand, suggesting they were placed in a box that subsequently decayed. They seem something of an eclectic bunch, suggesting perhaps, that they had been deliberately hidden. They were found near the fort rampart adding to the theory that someone might have been intending to collect them at a later date.

If you stand on the main car park in Ribchester (PR3 3ZH) and face the playing field you are viewing the site of the fort. If you turn right out of the car park and march westwards and follow the road where it bends left, then take the path through the gate when the road bends right, you will arrive at the footprint of the fort just before you reach the gate into the churchyard. If you walk through the graveyard, you will be diagonally crossing the interior of the fort.  That path will lead you directly to the museum and if you continue past that you will arrive at the bend in Church Street which marks the site of the north-eastern wall. Jim Ridge lived at number 2. Just across the road a long row of public benches lines the river side of the school wall. The view from here has changed in detail since Roman times (the river has moved) but the topography of the skyline remains the same, with the mighty Pendle Hill dominating the distance.  By following the path past the benches, you will skirt the Duddle Brook tributary to reach the rear entrance to the Roman Bath excavations. A longer, but more sedate, route to them is to be had by continuing northwards along Church Street, branching right down Water Street, pass the White Bull pub then turn right into Greenside and first right again.

These days, when visiting, Ribchester, I can’t help thinking of the occupying troops so long ago, so far from home, keeping watch over the local inhabitants, who were so resilient and resistant that their actions necessitated the construction of stronger and stronger defences to keep them at bay.  Jim Ridge said he thought about them too.  Every morning.

References and links

[1] National Trust The Roman Fort at Ribchester pamphlet Circa 1980

[2] Edwards, The Romans at Ribchester, University of Lancaster 2000, page 69

Ribchester Museum:

The Ribchester Helmet:


The Ribchester Hoard influenced a short story that will appear soon.

Ribchester is a location in Ice & Lemon, and Bremetennacum returns – in a way – in Jyn & Tonic.

Click on the pic for a peek inside.

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