The Roman Coast
Many people think that Hadrian's Wall ran from Newcastle (PONS AELIUS) to Carlisle (LUGUVALIUM) but it extended eastwards to Walls End (SEGEDUNUM) and, the frontier protected by the River Tyne, to South Shields (ARBEIA). In the west, the defences of the Roman Empire extended to Bowness-on-Solway (MAIA) and then, protected by the sea, at least as far as Maryport (ALAUNA) and possibly as far as Ravenglass (GLANNOVENTA). From Walls End to Bowness-on -Solway, the wall was 80 Roman miles long (117 km/73 miles).
The wall is now an internationally celebrated World Heritage Site and many people head for the central section of the wall where the ruins of large forts, bath houses and civilian settlements can be seen. However, little archaeology has been carried out on the westen end of the defences but fascinating remains can be seen, both on the ground and in museums.
Starting at Carlisle, there are two Roman sites and many remains are to be seen in the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery. Carlisle city centre is built on top of the remains of the Roman and post-roman town which was built at the tidal limit of the River Eden. The Roman fort and later town were established in AD71 but occupation did not end with the official end of the Roman Empire in Britain around AD 410 but contunued with many buildings still being in use in Saxon times, as recorded by Bede.
Once Hadrian's Wall was built, the military focus moved to the north side of the river, now the modern suburb of Stanwix, and Carlisle (LUGUVALIUM) became the tribal capital for the native Carvetii. It was one of only two Roman towns along the frontier, the other bring Corbridge (CORSTOPITUM). All the other settlements were villages associated with the forts. Stanwix (PETRIANA and also known as UXELODUNUM) was a wall fort set on a plateau and may have been home to one of the Empire's elite auxiliary cavalry units, the Ala Petriana, with nearly 1,000 troops.
West of modern Carlisle the defences still consisted of mile castles, turrets, and ditches but with palisades in place of the wall. A Roman road ran from Carlisle to Maryport (ALAUNA) and from the train the first place that can be visited is Wigton which lies close to the Roman site of Old Carlisle (MAGLONA) where the earthworks of the fort can still be seen. This site has not been excavated. It was probably the base for a strategic reserve as it was home to the Ala Augusta ob Virtutem Appellata which was a feared and highly mobile force covering the western side of the defences. It also had a large vicus or civilian settlement attached to the fort and a large area of Romano-British farmland.
Although not on the Cumbria Coast Line, Milefortlet 21 at Crosscannonby, between Aspatria and Maryport is worth a visit as it is the first milefortlet to be fully excavated and is a World Heritage Site. It stands on a low cliff and above salt pans dating back to Roman times. This site is approximately 3 km/2 miles from Maryport.
Two watch towers stood between each milefortlet and the remains of one were recorded near milefortlet 21 as recently as the 1940s.
The next site easily accessible from the Cumbria Coast Line is Maryport (ALAUNA), which has been linked to Carlisle for almost 2,000 years by a Roman road. Here the fort stands on a cliff giving extensive views in all directions including the port which may also date back to Roman times. Unlike many forts, ALAUNA is almost square and is 6.5 acres in size. This may indicate that it was founded even earlier than Hadrian's Wall. Over the years the site has suffered much stone robbing, as has the vicus to the north, and it was also north of the fort that a large group of dedicatory altars was found, buried in what may have been a parade ground.
On the site at Maryport stands the Senhouse Museum, itself built largely out of worked Roman stones and here is one of the finest collections of artifacts from Roman Cumbria plus a full size replica of one of the coastal watch towers. From this tower, there are good views over the site of the fort and also over the modern harbour, which may have also been the site of the Roman harbour.
For additional images of Maryport's Roman past, see the Maryport page in the Places to Visit chapter of this website.
To the south of Maryport some additional mile-fortlets and tower sites have been traced and this line may have ended at St. Bees head or under the modern village of Flimby. However, three more forts are known south of Maryport including Burrow Walls (MAGIS), Moresby (GABROSENTUM) and Ravenglass (GLANNOVENTA = "the trading port").
Burrow Walls lies about 1.5 km/1 mile north of Workington station and is an accessible site although little remains to be seen, The fort (1.2 ha in size) stood on an old cliff top overlooking a possible harbour where the River Derwent once met the sea. A medieval hall was built out of Roman stones and these ruins still stand as well as grassy earthworks. About 1/3 of the site has been lost to coastal erosion and to an old railway embankment.
Moresby, close to Parton on the Cumbria Coast line, was the site of GABROSENTUM and part of the 1.5 ha site is now coverd by a churchyard. The fort was built by the twentieth legion and was occupied well into the 4th century. It is likely that there was also a small port located nearby.
A Roman fort named TUNNOCELUM may also lie in the Braystones/Beckermet area on the line of the Roman road from Ravenglass (GLANNOVENTA) to the fort at Papcastle (DERVENTIO). This too may have had a small port nearby. Only fragments of Roman stones and inscriptions have been found so far including an altar now at Haile and a coin hoard at Braystones.
Finally, when travelling south, Ravenglass is reached and this was the Roman port of GLANNOVENTA. Nearby Muncaster Castle claims Roman origins and it is likely that the original pele tower was built of stones from the nearby fort. The fort covered 1.5 ha but is now mostly covered by trees and cut by the railway. However, the Roman bath house is well preserved and is worth a visit. It is reported that some of the bath house's roofs were still in place as recently as 200 years ago before being stone robbed.
Ravenglass was linked by road to the fort at Hard Knott (MEDIOBOGDUM), high above the Esk Valley, and on to Ambleside (GALAVA) and this route is still worth exploring on foot or by vehicle. A delightful way to travel up the beautiful Esk Valley is to use the miniature trains of the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway, but the climb to the fort at Hard Knott remains to be done without the aid of a train. This is one of the steepest routes in England but is worth the effort especially on a clear day.
There are few known Roman remains south of Ravenglass but some finds have been made in the Furness area. These finds may be evidence for yet to be discovered Roman sites or may just be evidence of trading with peaceful local Britons.
The elusive PORTUS SETANTIORUM may lie beneath the waves off the Lune and Ribble estuaries but other Roman settlements may still await discovery in southern Cumbria.
Websites for additional information include www.tulliehouse.co.uk , www.senhousemuseum.co.uk and www.visitcumbria.com/romans-in-cumbria.htm