Kirkham’s Lost Roman Fort

Kirkham Roman Fort stood on top of Carr Hill, just a little way from Kirkham’s town centre today. It was the final one in a succession of Roman structures built there. Before its construction the site was used three times as a temporary Roman marching camp, the first one in around 70 AD when the Romans entered Lancashire and the last one at the end of the 90s AD. It was also used as a signal station, where fires would be lit to warn of incoming danger. The evidence for the station comes from a small round structure which has large post holes probably for a tower, surrounded by a big ‘V’ shaped ditch and a smaller palisade trench. Finally in 120 AD a permanent fort was built of local red sandstone and this would last for the next thirty to forty years.


Looking down Carr Road from the top of Carr Hill where the fort once stood

On this page we’ll take a look at the history of the fort, and at the end give a description so that you can go and stand exactly where it was, and look out at the views the Romans once saw.

Why Kirkham ?

The fort was sited to protect an important sea route inland to Ribchester by road and Walton le Dale by river, and also linked up with the enigmatic Portus Setantiorum in the Fleetwood area.

The Roman road from Kirkham to Ribchester travelled eastwards and passed through present day Preston. The route is still marked on the modern map as Watling Street. There are two straight sections that lie directly over the original Roman one. The first goes  through the  Fulwood and Sharoe Green area. The modern road then briefly curves around Fulwood Barracks (the Roman road would go straight through) and then rejoins the second straight section immediately after. This heads through Brookfield and then on out to Ribchester.

The westward Roman road left Kirkham and travelled for around three miles before veering north-west towards present day Fleetwood. On the coast near Fleetwood or Rossall Point it has long been speculated that a Roman port, Portus Setantiorum was located. It was named after the local part of the Brigantian tribe called the Setantii (the Dwellers by the Water).

The fort would have overlooked the River Ribble or Belisama Fluvius (Beautiful River) as the Romans called it. This lead directly to the Roman Military industrial site and supply depot at Walton le Dale (see our page on it here.)

Kirkham was larger than the normal auxiliary forts covering almost 7 acres and we show its outline in black on the satellite picture below. Excavations have shown it had a cobbled area around the outer defences, perhaps an exclusion zone that the local population could not enter. It’s not clear whether it held a thousand infantry men, or five hundred cavalry, but probably it was the latter. Evidence for this is that a Reiter (or rider) Tombstone was found in Kirkham Parish Church in 1844 when renovations were taking place. These type of monuments feature a Roman cavalryman riding down a local ‘barbarian’. Similar ones have been found at Lancaster and Chester but they are very rare nationally with only 22 found in the whole country. Unfortunately the Kirkham one does not survive as soon after discovery it was broken up to make hardcore for the church path! The other clue that the fort was for cavalry is that horse bedding and straw have been discovered outside the stronghold giving an indication of large scale stabling.

Kirkham fort upload

Kirkham Roman Fort overlaid on the modern street plan. The black rectangle show where the fort was, the red line marks the eastern gate. The brown V is the vicus area. The blue circle marks the bath house and the yellow C marks the cemetery. The approximate locations of the sites are based on and Oxford Archaeology North report and a W. Thompson Watkins book -see reference section. Satellite image courtesy of Google Earth / Google Maps

The Roman Baths

The Roman Bath House was located in the present day St Michaels Road area, now covered with houses. It’s marked by a blue circle in the above satellite picture.  The baths were just 70 metres north-east of the fort. The site was selected as it was close to the bank of Carr Brook and the baths would need a large amount of water to function. Some recent limited excavation led to the discovery of a curved heated room. It’s not known if the curve is part of a circular room, or is just a semi-circular apse of a larger room. The room was definitely heated by a hypocaust as part of the pilae that support such a floor were found. It could either have been a laconium (hot dry room) or caldarium (hot steam room). There is a circular laconium at nearby Ribchester Roman Baths (see our page on them here).

The Vicus

The vicus extended out from the east gate of the fort into the present day Myrtle Drive area, south of the St Michaels Road bath site. It’s marked by a brown V in the above satellite picture. Over the years there have been plenty of finds of roman brick, pottery including samian (a fine reddish-brown ware) , mortaria (coarse kitchen ware), amphora (large storage jars) and a roman pottery lamp. Leather shoes, leather waste, iron nails and coins have also been dug up. The most famous find is a shield boss near Carr / Dow Brook, more on which later. There was also possibly an industrial area to the south of the fort.

The Life of the Fort

The relatively short lifespan of the fort would have witnessed some dramatic events. In 118 AD there was a Brigantian revolt which led to a large scale loss of Roman soldiers in the north. A second revolt occurred in 154 AD and there was further trouble throughout the 160s AD. The fort was abandoned sometime around the mid century second, 150-160 AD. This was normal policy in Roman times to move  troops to a new fort in a new area, once the area they  had garrisoned been sufficiently brought ‘under control’. So despite the intermittent trouble, the Romans must have felt relatively secure by the end of the fort’s lifetime to make the decision to close it. However we know that Roman activity continued in the area as there was a coin hoard buried around 240 AD in Poulton Street (now in the Harris Museum at Preston) which had coins from 114-238 AD. A second hoard was found at Treales, less than a mile from the fort. It was buried around 270 AD and is thought to be associated with a Romano-British settlement there.

Antiquarians start to notice the fort

During the 1700s a large quantity of Roman stone was dug up and removed from the site. In 1800 a Mr.Willacy, a local school teacher, found a shield boss (the central metal part of a shield – also called an umbo) in the stream close to where the bathhouse once stood. This was a find of major historical importance and it came into possession of Charles Towneley (of the well known Burnley family of  Towneley Hall ) and he passed it on to the British Museum, where it is still held. Click the link here to see the actual object, and more impressively the sketch of the elaborate carvings on it. It shows the Roman god Mars flanked by two naked warriors holding spears, and is further adorned with eagles, winged victories and battle trophies.

Mr. Willacy also witnessed some drainage excavations that revealed the foundations of the fort described as “massy chiseled red sandstone.” This was where the modern main road called Dowbridge now cuts through the fort. Another local report described what was probably an excavation of the bathhouse recording a “pavement of thick, rude, red brick tiles, and twice over with the officers of the Ordnance Survey, threw out a surprising quantity of broken tiles, paterae, burnt bones etc. Here too the drainage of the encampment had its outlet into the Dow, where Mr. Loxham picked up a bone needle and Mr. Willacy two coins of Hadrian.”

The Roman cemetery was located on the opposite side of Carr Brook (then called Dow Brook) just a little way away from the site of bathhouse, somewhere near the present day Brook Farm. A Mr. Loxham found an urn containing bones and an iron amulet in 1840. Nine years later near the same spot he discovered around a dozen more, filled with ashes and burnt bone as well as a small unguent bottle and an iron axe. There are also reports of urns being found in the area near Carr Hill School.

Many of the finds used to be on show at Kirkham Museum, which has sadly now closed. However, an excellent webpage on the history of  St Michael’s Church shows pictures of the finds in photographs taken within the museum. The pictures are of good quality and if you enlarge the webpage you can inspect them in detail and read the small interpretation signs that accompany them. See the page by clicking here.

Visiting the site of the fort today


North-West Corner of the Kirkham fort

Although there are no surface structures surviving, you can still see it had commanding views at the north-western corner of the fort, which is probably why the site was chosen, along with its proximity to the brook for water. Much of the other views are obscured by housing. You’ll can also see Kirkham Windmill, now converted into a house.

Start in the centre of Kirkham- there’s lots of parking and some of it is free. Head up the main road of Poulton Street / Preston Street , which continues as a street called Dowbridge. Just before you reach Carr Street to your left, stop: here you are at the north-west corner of the Roman fort. There are good view down Carr Street to the fields beyond, and you will have noted from your walk you are on a second hill (the first hill is in Kirkham centre). This was a good vantage point for the fort with steep slopes leading up to its ramparts and it was protected on one side by the stream of Carr Brook (or Dow Brook) on its north-easterly side. Continue down Dowbridge and you are passing through the heart of the fort, where the Roman foundation ruins were seen in the description above. When you reach the road labeled Roman Way on your right, stop. This is more or less where the eastern gate of the fort was and we’ve marked it with a red line in the above satellite picture. Beyond it, in the Myrtle Drive area was the vicus, and many finds have been dug up in this region. If you cross over the main road leading into Roman way you would be heading to the south-east corner of the fort. See the fort laid out on Google map above this text and you can see where it would have been in the modern street plan.


The Eastern Gate would be about here (note the Roman Way street sign)

For photos of a recent garden excavation in Myrtle Drive see Fylde Archaeology website here. The Roman baths were in the area of St Michaels Road, and a full report of some recent limited excavation can seen at Oxford Archaeology North website, where you can download the pdf report (see here.)


St Michaels Road Kirkham Archaeological Watching Brief, Oxford Archaeology North (2010) available at

South Ribble Primary Schools Local History Project : The Romans in Central Lancashire, Dr David Hunt

Roman Lancashire, W. Thompson Watkin (1883) republished 2007 Azorabooks

Disaster at Kirkham Fort, D. Savage and the children of Year 5 St. Michael’s CE School (undated book published by the school) ISBN 0954067908

Walking Roman Roads in the Fylde and the Ribble Valley, Philip Graystone (1996) Centre for North-West Regional Studies University of Lancaster

Triumphant Rider: The Lancaster Roman Cavalry Tombstone, Stephen Bull (2007), Lancashire Museums

University of Lancaster Centre for North West Regional Studies Archaeology Conference 4th March (1995) Recent Excavations at Kirkham, Lancashire presented by Katharine Buxton- (summary sheet of above talk)

Posted in Roman Bath Houses,, Roman Forts,, Roman Lancashire | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Turton Curiosities, Turton Tower, Bolton

The nine acres grounds around Turton Tower contain a whole host of historical features  mostly from its Victorian era, although the tower itself stretches back to Tudor and Medieval times. The grounds and tea rooms are open all year around, with the tower itself open April through to October.


Folly wall separating the formal gardens from the woodland

Outside the tower we can see the Kay family’s  garden, designed in the semi-formal style of the late 1880s and featuring yew trees and rhododendrons. There is a ruined Gothic folly chantry wall  attached to the laundry room, which acts as a screen dividing the formal garden lawn from the woods. Close by in front of the house lies the date stone from Timberbottom Farm, the original home of the two skulls that now reside within the tower (to read their full story, see our page on Turton Tower here).

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Timberbottom Farm date stone, the former home of the two mysterious skulls

Just a little away from the tower is a small cube shaped building which has been called variously a lodge or icehouse but is actually the pump house. This brought  water from the reservoir from over the railway track to supply both the farm and tower.

Close by this building are the stables which originally were built in the 17th Century, but were much restored by the Kays. You can see the different bricks showing various periods of  restoration and repairs. Interestingly in front of them is what looks like the drystone walls of a piggery.


The larger of the two castellated railway bridges, with a steps up to a turret

Near the to stables is one of two castellated railway bridges. When the Blackburn to Bolton railway line was put through the estate in 1848 the bridges were designed to be in keeping with the feel of the tower. The one near the stables is the larger of the two and has steps you can climb up to a turret. This  gives you good views of the track, and indeed you can see the other bridge just a quarter of a mile away further up the line. The smaller one allowed cattle to cross the railway, and is the one that many walkers will have used on their way up to see the ruined stone circle on the moor at Chetham Close.

By the tea rooms is the tower’s restored walled garden. There has been a trend in the last decade to resurect many of the walled gardens in Lancashire’s historic houses. A good example is the one at Worden Hall, which you can see our page on here. The garden now grows fruit, vegetables and flowers. Of particulary interest is the bothy or gardeners cottage which although in a ruinous state appears to have been once a two story building.


The stone walled kitchen garden in early spring

Close by on private land is the summer house, but there are good views of it from near the walled garden. This was originally a banqueting house built by James Chetham around 1671. Banqueting houses were a novelty venue, the idea being that guests had their main dinner in the hall  and then wandered through the gardens to have desert in this purpose built folly.


Turton Banqueting Hall

If you follow the path away from both the walled garden and tower you will reach the second of the two railway bridges, with its path up onto the moor. Just a little further away from this on the same path is a mid 1800s lodge gatehouse, now a private residence.

The tea rooms overlook the tennis courts. These were added in the time of  John Charles Kay, brother of the last James Kay to own the tower. He won the All England Mixed Doubles competition in 1889 with Lottie Dodd and two years later with Helen Jackson.

Turton claims the oldest football pitch in the world and it can be found on Tower Street in Chapeltown, dating back perhaps to 1856. The original form of the game was known as ‘hacking’ and had hardly any rules. John Charles Kay together with W.T. Dixon, a local schoolteacher, founded Turton Football club in 1871. By 1874 they had adopted London Football Association rules. In those early days they played Preston North End, Bolton Wanderers, Everton and Sheffield Wednesday and could hold their own. Turton only began to lose out as the popularity of the sport increased and these larger towns could recruit from a much bigger pool of local talent.

Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2018


Turton Grounds and tea rooms are open all year around, and the hall is open April to October

Nearby Turton Tower– obviously ! Also see Turton’s Wayside Cross and Medieval Stocks at Chapeltown.

There is a very well preserved Pillbox at Turton. For more on this see our page on Lancashire at War here


Turton Tower: A Guide, Martin Robinson Dowland (1991), Lancashire County Museums- available in the gift shop at Turton Tower

A Guide to Walking the Grounds of Turton Tower (undated leaflet, currently available from the gift shop)

Turton Tower and Its Owners, W.G Sharples revised edition (2014), Friends of Turton Tower- available in the gift shop at Turton Tower

On site interpretation at Turton Tower- paddle information boards and large display boards within the rooms


Posted in Historic Houses,, Victorian Lancashire | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Preston Dock Curiosities

Preston Dock was constructed in late Victorian times. Now converted into Preston Marina, there are still historical artefacts around from its days as a dock, if you know where to look.


Preston Dock Marina

Despite the fact that Preston is some 16 miles from the sea, the River Ribble is a wide estuary and boats have been travelling up and down it for hundreds of years. The first record of it being dredged to improve passage occurs back in the 16th Century. By the 1800s successive Ribble Navigations Companies were formed to help make the river more manageable for shipping. This included  straightening the river, bringing its channels together into a single course, reclaiming land and keeping it deep enough to be navigable. In 1825 the New Quays were constructed at the bottom of Marsh Lane, and later renamed the Victoria Quays. Their problem was that with the  river being tidal boats could only get in and out of the quays at certain times. The answer was to build a large dock with a set of locks to control the water level, which Preston Council set about doing.

Construction began in 1884 and there was an enormous amount of work that had to be done. The river was moved away from its original line which followed today’s Strand Road, and a new dock basin was created. To do this, four million cubic yards of soil were dug from the 40 acre site. The walls of the dock are 40 feet deep, 3000 feet long and 600 feet wide. The initial cost of half a million pounds was soon exceeded and the council needed a second half a million. This meant a very long mortage had to be taken out- one that would not be paid off  for over 60 years.

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Preston Dock Lighthouse

The dock is named after Queen Victoria’s son, Albert Edward (the future King Edward VII)  who opened it in 1892. At the time it was the largest single dock in Europe and probably the world, taking a month to fill before it could be used for the first time.

The SS Lady Louise was the first ship to unload its freight onto the dock and  was chartered by the Lancashire firm EH Booth and Co Ltd (best known now as  Booths supermarkets). Although only four vessels used the dock in its initial year, just eight years later that number had leapt to 170. The main cargo imported was timber, china clay, coal, oil, petrol, cotton, wheat, fruit (especially bananas) and Irish cattle.


The Dock Offices on Watery Lane

In 1936 new dock offices opened on Watery Lane and are well worth a look today. Built in the Art Deco style, they feature a  square central clock tower. Close inspection of their elaborate entrance door handles show the prow of ships, with the Preston lamb adorning them. Two years later the dock railway was added to the site and parts of this are still in existence.

During the second world war Preston Dock was taken over by the military. It was used as a marshalling post for the Normandy landings, and had to be closed twice because of mines. Just after the war a three times a week ferry service was introduced, sailing  to Larne. This was the first ever roll on, roll off ferry. The first boat used was a  former tank landing ship named the SS Empire Cedric. A section of Mulberry Harbour from the D-Day landings was used to facilitate the service.

Trade increased throughout the 1950s so much so that the payment for the port was no longer charged on Preston resident’s rates bills. Huge amounts of fruit was being imported from the Winward and Leeward Islands – in one year the entire citrus crop from Dominica and St Lucia came through the port. By the 1960s the port was at it peak with two and a half million tons of trade. Unfortunately the boom times did not last and by the 1970s the dock was starting to flounder. Almost half of the income generated was being spent on dredging the Ribble to allow the ever increasingly large ships through. Trade began to fall away and Preston lost the china clay, banana, coal and coke imports. The Larne ferry also ceased to run.


In 1981 Preston Dock was closed with a great number of job losses, not only those employed there, but also the local companies that relied on their trade. However, within the decade plans were made to redevelop the derelict land. First the polluted water and land had to be dealt with before rebuilding could occur. The site was renamed Riversway (as it sits over the original line of the Ribble) and new infrastructure was put in place.  Over the next couple of decades a huge amount of work was done. The lock gates were repositioned to stop flooding from storms and a boatyard with chandlery facilities was constructed. A new canal was dug along the course of Savick Brook to connect the Ribble to the Lancaster Canal, and a new railway line was laid down by banks of river. A dock Control Centre was installed close to a swing bridge that allows passage of vehicles, trains and boats at the entrance channel.

Many homes were constructed around the site, with the old Shed No. 3 converted into the Victoria Mansions apartments. There has been a large amount of  shopping development too, with the Morrisons Supermarket retaining the dock lighthouse.


One of the two Boat Buoys

At both the Pedders Way and Portway entrances to Riversway are two boat buoys.  In 1896 they originally were moored in the Penfield Channel- the point where the Ribble  meets the Irish Sea (off the coast of St Annes).  To navigate an unfamiliar estuary is a difficult skill, so ships coming in would moor up and wait to be led in under supervision of a local pilot who knew the waters intimately. To give them their full names they are Nelson Safe Water Mooring and Landfall buoys. Each had a bell that was activated by the movement of the waves and had lights powered by acetylene gas. In 1931 they were fitted with compressed carbon dioxide apparatus, which enabled the bells to be rung every half a minute. This meant that they would sound even in calm, foggy weather. In recent years they have been cleaned, had damage from salt corrosion repaired and then repainted by T Harrison Ltd. However- they could now do with a new coat of paint !

For a guide to see the sites, see our planned route below in the Access section below.

Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2018


There is free unlimited daily parking at two car parks:

Maritime Way Car Park (off Navigation Way). This is very close to the modern Control Centre, swingbridge and crane.

Lockside Road Car Park (off Chain Caul Way) by the Bullnose Lock. This is a little  further out from the site, but a short walk on the Guild Wheel trail will get you to the Control Centre. The Bullnose Lock is worth a look too.

Start at the Control Centre, swingbridge and crane. Head up the left hand side of the dock area passing the Beach Hut café. You can walk from here to Morrisons where the lighthouse is. The two Nelson buoys are at the Pedders Way entrance and the Portsway entrance. The original Dock Office Art Deco building on Watery Lane  is also at the Portsway entrance- don’t forget to have a close up look at the door handles ! There are also various smaller buoys dotted around the site. Take care on the roads when you are walking to see the Nelson Buoys. The roads around them are busy and although there are pavements, much of the area has been developed for traffic with walking being a secondary concern.

Nearby  Preston’s Craggs Row windmill,  lost friary, medieval leper hospital , St Walburge’s Church 



A History of Preston, David Hunt (2009), Carnegie

The Wharncliffe Companion to Preston : An A to Z of Local History, David Hunt (2005) Wharncliffe Books

Preston in 50 Buildings, Keith Johnson (2016), Amberley

Port of Preston History to 1981, Preston City Council undated pdf document available at


Posted in Canal Buildings,, Victorian Lancashire | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Ellen Strange Memorial and Cairn, Holcombe Moor, Helmshore near Bury

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Ellen Strange Memorial and Cairn, Holcombe Moor

On Holcombe Moor stands a stone pillar next to a cairn. The cairn traditionally marks the place where a woman, Ellen Strange, was murdered in 1761. The circumstances of her death and the trial of her murderer were for many years the subject of local folklore, with conflicting stories being told. However, thanks to work by author John Simpson and Helmshore Local History Society, we’re now probably closer to the truth than we have been for many years.  Recently the Unite union has republished the work on their website and below we’ll give  a link to where you can download the booklet to read in full, for free.

We’ll start with a summary of the events that happened in the immediate aftermath to the crime and how that historical record was pieced together. Then we’ll see how the tale morphed over the years, and bring it up to date with how Ellen Strange is being remembered and commemorated in current times.

Ellen seems to have been murdered  just after midnight on 26th January 1761. Two days later there was an inquest at Stake Farm, close to where her body had been found. Attending it were the coroner and attorney Simon Dearden, along with 14 local men acting as a jury, drawn from Tottington, Walmersley and Haslingden. After the inquest finished Ellen was  buried in Holcombe churchyard. The inquest decided that her husband John Broadley was guilty, he was arrested  and sent for trial at the Lent assizes at Lancaster Castle.

It’s likely that the prosecution was carried out by Fletcher Norton, King’s attorney and sergeant at arms for the County Palantine of Lancaster. Witnesses called in the case against Broadley included Lawrence Elton, the Tottington constable that had indicted him; Roger Booth, a Tottington doctor who had examined Ellen’s body; Alice Ellison, an innkeeper’s wife from Haslingden and John Rothwell from nearby Holcombe Head Farm. Records don’t show what the witnesses said.

The outcome was that John Broadley was aquitted, due to lack of evidence. There is no record of anyone else being charged with the crime. The above account is from well researched work done by the Helmshore History Society in which they searched through local historic and legal documents, and virtually none of this was known before their efforts.

The discrepancy between the name Broadley and Strange could be accounted for the fact that Ellen was know by her childhood surname to locals in the area. Official records for poor people are sketchy and partial at best from this era. There is a 1728 baptismal record for Ellen Strange. She became Ellen Broadley on marrying John, who was from Clayton le Moors. It’s thought that the two may have been itinerant workers. There was a widow named Strange from Ash Farm in Hawkshaw buried in 1781, and this is thought to be Ellen’s mother

The speculation is that Ellen was heading to her parent’s farm at Hawkshaw after a quarrel with her husband (perhaps at an inn in Haslingden- hence the innkeepers wife at the trial). Her husband caught up with her and killed her on Holcombe Moor. A stake may have been put into position to mark the place of her death, and this was later replaced with stones to make a cairn.


Ellen Strange Cairn

The folklore that has arisen about the story, tells a very different tale. On the Ordnance Survey map of 1844 -7 there is a cairn marked ‘Ellen Strange’. The first written reference to the incident is a poem from 1872  published by John Fawcett Skelton. It tells the story of how  Ellen fell in love with a pedlar (refered to as a ‘packman’ and a ‘Scot’ in the poem – a muddled meaning of ‘Scotchman’, a term often given to pedlars.) In this version it was he who killed her.

Just three years later the Bacup Times published a story saying it was her lover that murdered her. He was caught at Haslingden, tried and found guilty at Lancaster and hung. This grim tale has his body put in a gibbet on Holcombe Moor.

Three years after that Henry Stephenson, headteacher of Haslingden Church school, writes an account in his diary that had been told to him. In this version she had met her lover at Haslingden fair and later disappeared. Her parents had questioned him and then hired a blood hound which was brought across the moors to search for her. Her body was found beneath a pile of stones near Robin Hood’s Well. Her murderer confessed and was hung and put in a gibbet on nearby Bull Hill.

Variations of these stories continued to be told over the years right up until the time when Helmshore History Society decided to begin their research in the late 1970s (and  in fact the folklore versions continue on the internet today).  What are we to make of them? Outsiders being blamed in the form of a pedlar, justice seeming to be done, and retribution fairly swift and brutal ?


Now let’s bring the story up to present times, with events from the 1978 and 2015. On June 24th 1978, on the day of the Rossendale Carnival there was a dusk ‘re-enactment’ of the crime. The cairn had poles placed around it with pieces of white cloth on, each one painted with a different word, taken from the poetry and folklore that has grown up around the event: ‘Snow’, ‘Blood’, ‘Tears’, ‘Grave’ ‘Devil’. There were two giant figures depicting Ellen and her murderer. The interest and controversy stirred up by this drama lead the Helmshore History Society to begin their long 10 year investigation.

A stone pillar (sort of a modern wayside cross) was erected next to the cairn. It has a slight, falling figure on it to depict Ellen. This has now become subject of folklore itself, with people saying it is ancient waymarker depicting Mary and the baby Jesus (although where Mary is supposed to be is anyone’s guess- perhaps they think she’s been removed.) So the myths continue…

In 2015 the Unite union helped raise money for the booklet written by John Simpson and Helmshore Heritage Society  to be republished. They have also put it online as a free resource for everyone to read. This was part of their Rebel Road project and you can read more about why they did this on their page here (scroll down to the Ellen Strange section on it). The page also contains the link for the free booklet, which tells the story of the investigation, the folklore, the poetry and the history in great depth as well as providing maps and photographs of the area. We’ve used the booklet extensively in writing this blog post. Do have a read of the original because there is so much more in it than we can relate here.

In November 2015 on a very blustery day, forty people gathered by the Ellen Strange memorial and cairn. They were members of the Unite union, campaigners against domestic violence, victims of abuse and members of the church to commemorate what had happened on that night so long ago. They were keen to highlight the fact that such crimes that were so common in the past, are all too common still. You can watch the short 15 minute video of it on YouTube here

There is a tradition of adding a stone to the cairn as you go past, so that the story and a physical remembrance continues down the years.

Site visited by A. and R. Bowden 2018


The site is open access on a public footpath on Holcombe Moor. Grid Reference 778 195.  For directions of how to get to the site, see our page on nearby Robin Hood’s Well, or click here


Ellen Strange: A Moorland Murder Mystery Explained (undated pdf), John Simpson, Helmshore Local History Society- available online



Posted in Georgian Lancashire, Wayside Crosses | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Three Lancashire Museums to Reopen !

Good news at last on the fate of three of the four remaining closed Lancashire Museums. Lancashire County Council has announced that Helmshore Textile Mills, Queen Street Mill in Burnley and Judges’ Lodgings in Lancaster will open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from April through to October. This will continue for two years until 2020 while talks are ongoing with unnamed cultural organisations, with a view to the running of the buildings and their collections being taken over from the council. The unnamed organisations could be museum trusts, or historical charities.

This reprieve is welcome news and a positive step in the right direction.  Many of us may have despaired as to what their fate would be as there has been little information released to the public about what was happening to the museums when they were closed two years ago.

This limited re-opening is still a way off from the full opening times that existed before 2016, but now must be the moment when we show our appreciation for these three wonderful Lancashire assets. So here at Lancashire Past we are saying: visit the museums, pay the modest entry fees, sign the visitors’ books, buy something in their shops. If you are on social media then let your friends know about your visit and encourage them to go too! If you a Trip Advisor writer, visit and give them a great review! We have to show that these museums have a future, and that they are much loved by the public.

Here are the preliminary opening dates, but do check as they have not been set in stone:

Helmshore Mills: 26th May 2018

Queen Street Mill, Burnley: 7th July 2018

Judges Lodgings, Lancaster: 21st July 2018

The remaining closed museum is Preston’s Museum of Lancashire. There are no immediate plans to re-open it, but a spokesperson for the council said talks were ongoing with an unnamed consortium and a decision will be taken in the next few months. Let’s hope it is a positive one. The Museum of Lancashire has been in receipt of large amounts of Heritage Lottery funding in the recent past, and had undergone a major refit a few years before it was closed. It remains an important asset, and houses the excellent Silverdale Viking Hoard (see our page on this amazing find here).

The fifth museum that closed back in 2016 was Fleetwood’s Maritime Museum. This was the first to reopen (as we detailed back in October 2017), when their volunteer group completely took over the running. It really is a fantastic place to visit, so do go and see the excellent work they are doing; it also has a really good café too. It’s open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Their website is here

Thank you to everyone that has lobbied to have the museums re-opened. Lots of people have signed petitions, contacted their councillors  and MPs and written about the museums on the web. Also a big thank you to the various museum friends groups for their hard work in bringing us to this positive moment.




Posted in Georgian Lancashire, Victorian Lancashire | Tagged , , ,

Robin Hood’s Well, Helmshore near Bury


Robin Hood’s Well, Helmshore

On the Helmshore side of Holcombe Moor stands Robin Hood’s Well. It would have been a welcome place for pilgrims to rest and take a drink on their way to Whalley Abbey. This medieval route is marked by the nearby Pilgrims Cross– or at least the modern stone that rests in its original place. Later, after Whalley Abbey was dissolved (see here) and the pilgrims passed no longer along this path, the well found new users. These would be drovers and packhorse men on their route to Haslingden.

Today the well is in good condition. Water comes out of a central plastic pipe, and a look over the drystone wall that the well is built into, shows that a modern grid provides access to the spring. Most intriguing of all is the very large, old stone cap. This has many irregular cup shaped marks on it, as if parts of the stone has been scooped out. On the right hand side of the cap stone is a big void, as if this was carved to hold something. The rest of the well looks more modern, with a trough and a central carved opening  allowing excess water to drain out down small steps and across the lane.


The question arises – why the name Robin Hood’s Well ? The Robin Hood ballads were becoming popular in the 1400s and the first printed versions appear in the early 1500s. There are stories about the the outlaw in Wakefield, Barnsley, Kirklees and of course Nottingham, but not in Lancashire. However, a quick search of the modern day version of Henry Taylor’s The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire lists six other  places where there is a Robin Hood’s Well in our region. These are Briercliffe, Downham, Higham, Spotland, Mawdesley and Trawden.

We think that this name did  not refer to the famous outlaw, but has morphed into it. It probably derives from  Robin Goodfellow, a fairy figure now best known to us as Puck in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Nights Dream. Robin Goodfellow is an old name locals gave to a fairy and many rural landmarks had fairies associated with them. Belief in fairies was once widespread, and these same magical folk were also referred to as hobgoblins or boggarts (for instance see our page on Hob Cross here).

Nearby to the well is the Ellen Strange Memorial and Cairn. Below we give a route up to see the well and cairn, and an indication of where you could park.

Site visited by A. and R. Bowden 2018


The site is open access and is at Grid Reference 777 195. The spring is marked on the West Pennine Moor map- although not quite at the precise point (Explorer 287- formerly Explorer 19)

DSCN7608If you’d like to go and see the Robin Hood’s Well  and Ellen Strange’s Memorial and Cairn, here’s our suggested route. There is a lay-by for parking on the Helmshore to Holcombe Road, marked on the West Pennine Moor Explorer Map with a ‘P’. Close by this the  footpath leads up to Chatterton Close Farm (also marked on the map). Head up the steep footpath to Chatterton Close Farm. This is a National Trust property and is currently  boarded up. It has the biggest buttress we’ve seen on a farm building, plus some pretty large ones on the farm walls (click on the photo to enlarge it and have a look- the one on the barn at the end is a giant !) Turn right in front of the farm and follow the well worn path. In a while you will come to an eroded area, but ignore the  path on your left that goes up onto the hill , and continue heading in the Helmshore direction. You know you’re close to your destination when you see the path go through a gate to Stake Lane and start to descend towards Helmshore. Head straight through the gate to see Robin Hood’s Well on Stake Lane. (Grid Reference 777 195). Alternatively turn left at this point and go a little way up the side of Beetle Hill to see the Ellen Strange Memorial and Cairn  (Grid Reference 778 195).


Henry Taylor: The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire, Revised Version, Volume III Blackburn Hundred, Volume Editor A.J.Noble (2004) North West Catholic History Society, Wigan

Henry Taylor: The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire, Revised Version, Volume IV Salford Hundred, Volume Editor  A.J Noble, (2005) North West Catholic History Society, Wigan

Henry Taylor: The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire, Revised Version, Volume VI Leyland Hundred, Volume Editors J.A. Hilton, A.J Noble, M. Panikkar, W.A. Varney (2007) North West Catholic History Society, Wigan

The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, Jennifer Westwood and Jaqueline Simpson (2005), Penguin Books

Holcombe Moor on site interpretation boards- on the route we’ve described are some boards that give a potted history of the area, plus what to see in terms of wildlife as you go up onto the moor.

Posted in Ancient Wells,, Medieval Lancashire | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Cuerdale Viking Hoard Returns To Lancashire !

The Atkinson Museum in Southport currently has a Viking Exhibition that brings the Cuerdale Hoard back to Lancashire. Normally it is only on display in London, so why not visit and take this rare chance to see it on your doorstep? It is the largest Viking Hoard ever discovered in Europe and yes, it did come from Lancashire! It was found in Victorian times on the banks of the River Ribble, close to Walton-le-Dale near Preston.

As if that is not a good enough reason to go, the exhibition also has the Vale of York Hoard, plus excellent examples of Viking jewellery and weaponry.

To go to the Atkinson website click on the link here or type ‘Atkinson Vikings’ into your search engine. There is a charge for the exhibition, and it finishes on Saturday 7th July.


Posted in Saxon and Viking Lancashire | Tagged , ,

Grants Tower, Ramsbottom, Bury


Grants Tower, Ramsbottom near Bury

Grants Tower is built at Top o’ th’ Hoof, Ramsbottom. It stands on the spot where the Grant  family are said to have first looked down on the Irwell Valley, on their arrival in 1783. They had embarked on an epic trek in search of work from Morayshire, in Scotland, to Lancashire. The tower they built is a well known local landmark but in recent times it was about to fall into absolute ruin. However it has just had a last minute reprieve. Before we get to that, a little history…

The family set up the firm William Grant and Brothers some time around 1800, and became a very successful calico printing business. (Calico is a plain-woven textile made from unbleached cotton). The four brothers William, Daniel, Charles and John were all involved in the running of the firm. In 1806 they bought Peel, Yates & Co. Printworks (owned by the future Prime Minister Robert Peel) and just six years later purchased Nuttall spinning factory, which they extended. They also had a warehouse on Cannon Street in Manchester.

By 1827 they had accrued enough money to buy the Park Estate on which they would construct Grants Tower. Here are the facts: built 1829, 50 feet high, 800 feet above sea level, 4 flights of stairs, 84 individual steps, 8 turrets at the top (two of which were disguised chimneys for fireplaces below.)

The day the tower opened there was a fair-like atmosphere, with their employees given the day off. Refreshments were laid on and entertainment took the form of races, games and singing. From then on the tower was regularly opened on Good Friday and other special holidays.


View from Top o’ th’ Hoof, towards Peel Monument, Holcombe

In 1838 Charles Dickens published the novel  Nicholas Nickleby. In the book are two characters called the Cheeryble Brothers, good hearted and kind employers of Nicholas. There has long been speculation that they were based on William and Daniel Grant. In 1893, Reverend W. Hume Elliot of Ramsbottom published The Country and Church of the Cheeryble Brothers to put the case forward. You can see a link to this book and read it for free at the excellent Internet Archive website here. There is also plenty of discussion as to whether the Cheerybles were really based on the Grants on the Ramsbottom Heritage website here. It would be nice to think that these local factory owners were like the Cheerybles in“…liberal charity…, noble nature and unbounded benevolence”, in a time when so many owners were fairly ruthless exploiters of the people they employed.

The tower has also been lived in as a house. In the 1850s, the steeplejack James Wright stayed there with his family. He had a unique method of setting up his ropes that did not involve ladders or scaffold, but by flying a kite in order to fix them to the top. It was said that he could descend his ropes at 100 miles an hour. Something of a showman, his perilous drops would draw large, appreciative crowds. He was much in demand not just nationally but as far afield as Belgium and America. Perhaps our most famous Lancashire steeplejack Fred Dibnah would have had something to say about his methods! (See our page on Fred’s statue here).

In 1880 it was lived in by the family of Mr. Nightingale, a forester who worked for the Grants. After a severe storm one night they thought it would collapse, and so were forced to abandon it, not to return. The last person to live there was Edwin Waugh, the dialect poet, sometimes referred to as the Lancashire Robert Burns. Whilst convalescing from illness at the tower it is claimed that he wrote Little Cattle, Little Care with the refrain “Lie thee down, laddie !” in which he is speaking to  his dog at the end of the day. Here’s a snippet: “We never owned a yard o’ ground/ We’n little wealth in hand/ But thee an’ me can sleep as sound/ As thi’ richest folk it’h land”. Read the full text here


Zinc roof in place, repairs still on-going. Note the telecommunications tower behind – a site for good for views is also a good site for radio waves transmission.

By 1914 it was in need of restoration and so a fund was set up. By then the local farm at Top o’ th’ Hoof had become a pub called the Tower Inn and no doubt Grants Tower was still a draw. It was used by the Home Guard during the second world war as a look out point, but during the war years the council closed it as it badly needed repairs. They also entered into negotiations with Peter Grant Lawson to buy it. This was all in vain, for on 21st September 1944 the tower suddenly collapsed. No efforts were made to restore it and so it has lain, falling more and more into ruin as the decades have passed.

When we visited the site recently, we wanted to photograph what was left and from what we had seen in recent pictures, there really would not be much to see in a few years hence. However, we were surprised and  delighted to see that the owner Mr. Buckley has decided to restore the building. The aim is to make it a partial but stable ruin. Much of the stonework on the site has been sorted, cleaned and put back into place at the ground floor level. This has been repointed and the windows restored on the front and side. There will now be only one ground floor room and this has had a new zinc roof to cover it to prevent further water damage to the remaining structure.

In the sole remaining room a wood burning stove will be fitted to the pre-existing fire place. The original flag floors have been restored, and the original staircase has been repaired leading up to the first floor. Although this will all presumably be for the owner’s private use, Grants Tower is on a public footpath so passing ramblers will be able to inspect the restoration work, and see a piece of local history that could have all too easily have been lost for good. It will never reach the heights of its former glory, but we’ll settle for a picturesque ruin that will last for years to come.

A final word on the site. Top o’ th’ Hoof is very like some Iron Age hillforts we have visited, similar shape, similar aspect. We’re not saying it is one, but a good site is a good site. This one has a prominent folly on, and now has a telecommunications mast. It would have been an excellent look out point in prehistoric times, and a defendable position too. Not so very far away is the Iron Age site at Burrs, which will be the subject of a future page on

Site visited by A. and R. Bowden 2018


Grants Tower is at Grid Reference 803 157. It is on a public footpath. The quickest way up to it is to park in the small layby (more of a little scrape that can fit two cars in) on Manchester Road and head up to Top o’ th’ Hoof farm.


Manchester Oddities, Keith Warrender (2011) Willow Publishing

Ramsbottom Heritage Society News Magazine No.53 Autumn/Winter 2017

Posted in Lancashire Mills,, Monuments, Victorian Lancashire | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Turton Tower, Chapeltown, Near Bolton

In the early 1400s a Pele tower was built on a high commanding spot in Turton. It was a three story rectangular defendable structure, with four foot thick walls and narrow windows. This was a turbulent time with the possibility of raiders coming down from Scotland being a pressing danger. This style of fortified buildings is common in Cumbria and Northumberland (for example see our page on Dalton Castle). The towers at Turton and Radcliffe (see our page here) are amongst the furthest south these buildings are found. However, it wasn’t just the Scots or Reivers that this tower was built to defend its inhabitants from…


The Pele tower at Turton

Elizabeth de Tarboc inherited the estate at Turton and married William Orrell, bringing the land into the Orrell family’s ownership. There was an active dispute with her side of the family, the Tarbocs, who still held claim to the area. This may have been part of the reason why the defendible tower was built by the Orrells, in that it offered strong protection. The de Lathom family also staked a claim as they were the original Lords of the Manor of Turton. The quarrel with the two other families was to be a long standing one.

Originally the tower would have had farm equipment stored on the ground floor (and possibly cattle too). The first floor was the dining hall and the top floor would be sleeping accommodation.

The Orrells owned it through Tudor and early Stuart times and began to expand the site. They built two large cruick framed buildings alongside the tower. The smaller one was used as living quarters and the longer one as a farmhouse. These were later bonded together into an  L shape and then the smaller one was connected to the tower itself, to form wings. The  large oak cruick beams from both these extensions can be seen within two of the rooms today. The exterior of the buildings were later clad in stone, hiding their wooden frames and giving them a higher status look. These wings are still in existence and visitors can view the rooms, which have had various functions over the years.

Humphrey Chetham takes possession

By the time of King James I the Orrells were in financial trouble. They had spent much on improvements to Turton Tower, and faced repeated fines for being practicing Catholics. The mounting debt led William Orrell to take out a large loan from Humprey Chetham, a local wealthy cloth merchant. On William’s death the debt could not be repaid, so his brother sold the tower and its land to Chetham. William’s widow Alice Orrell was allowed to stay on, living there as a tenant.


The Pele tower is bonded on to the once free standing wings


In 1628 when Humphrey Chetham bought the tower, he also took possession of  many acres of estate land, the local chapel and Turton water mill. He was in business with his brother George who presided over the London end of their venture. Bolton was the centre of the fustian trade, this being a kind of imitation velvet made from flax and cotton. Flax was grown locally and also imported from Ireland, cotton was brought up from the London docks to be woven in with it. Humphrey sent the finished cloth back to his brother, who sold it in London. Their huge financial success meant that they were able to lend money to the formerly wealthy landed aristocracy, at a rate of about 8%. They jointly purchased Clayton Hall in Manchester and after George’s death, Humphrey became sole proprietor.

Humphrey Chetham was clearly very astute with money. He was the ‘Farmer of the Manchester Tithes’, collecting money for Manchester’s Collegiate Church (now Manchester Cathedral, see our page here); he brought in lots of Ship Money (an arbitrary tax imposed by King Charles I); and in the Civil War was the County Treasurer financing the Parliamentary war effort against the same king. He also garrisoned parliamentary troops at Turton while the Royalist Orrell family were still living there.

It is his philanthropy that we remember him best for today. When the Collegiate Church was dissolved he bought the buildings of College House and the cloisters to set up a residential school for poor boys. This was known as Chetham’s Hospital, which eventually morphed into the now famous Chetham’s School of Music. In his will he also set up Chetham’s Library, the first public library – another Lancashire first ! The library is still open to visitors today and some of his chained books are on display at the tower.

In the 1700s and 1800s the tower passed from the Chethams to their heirs – the Bland, Greene and Frere families. They rarely stayed at Turton, but rented it out to farming tenants, and it entered a period of decline.

Flax Spinning Entrepreneur James Kay

In early Victorian times, the tower’s fortunes were revived when it was purchased by the successful inventor and entrepreneur James Kay, in 1835. Kay had pioneered a wet spinning process to enable flax to be spun more efficiently and produce a much finer and superior fabric. This gave a particular boost to production in Ireland, where the blue flowers of flax were a common sight until recent times. At aged 61 he was able to retire, buy Turton Tower and pass the business on to his sons.


This view shows the Medieval Pele, some Tudor woodwork and later Victorian Dutch façade on the right hand side

He and his descendants set about restoring the hall using the Tudor and Stuart period as inspiration. They bought a huge amount of Stuart oak panelling from Middleton Hall before it was demolished. This panelling has been used extensively in the Dining Room (bottom floor of the Pele), the Drawing Room (first floor of the Pele) and in the Morning Room of one of the Cruick wings. Although from the same period it is in differing styles and is still in place today. The very top floor of the Pele was converted into a bedroom and billiard room. These are long gone and the space has been stripped back so that you can see the original architecture. Just outside this top room, the Kays restored the stone spiral staircase of the Pele and this can still be viewed through a clear panel set in the floor.

In the 1890s the Kays left and sold the tower. A little over a decade later it was bought by Sir Lees Knowles to use as a hunting base and for entertaining guests. In 1930 it was given by his widow Lady Nina, along with eight acres of parkland, to Turton Urban District Council. The council used it as a town hall, with the present day Dining Room being the Committee Room and Drawing Room used as the Council Chamber. In 1952 it opened as a museum and has continued as such right up to the present day.

Bradshaw Hall lives on at Turton

Bradshaw Hall was demolished in 1948 and its owner Colonel Henry Hardcastle moved many of its antiques to Turton Tower, so today a little bit of his hall can be found here. There are suits of armour from the 1600s in the original Entrance Hall. In the Drawing Room can be found a large 1600s chair with ‘Comfort ye one another’ inscribed upon it, as well as some pewter plate. There is a dedicated space in the Bradshaw Room which contains a fireplace, an impressive elaborately carved tester bed and cradle, all donated by the colonel from his former residence.

Perhaps the most intriguing artefacts from Bradshaw Hall are the Timberbottom skulls. Their eerie story is as follows….Discovered in Bradshaw Brook, they were kept together at a small farmhouse called Timberbottom. If they were separated or removed from the house, ghostly goings on would be said to ensue. Stories were told of them being put back in the river or buried in Bradshaw churchyard, causing the disturbances to begin again. After the demolition of the farm they were brought to Bradshaw Hall and placed on the family bible in the study where they produced no more disturbances. It is very common idea in folklore that skulls must not be removed from a house. Westwood and Simpson in The Lore of the Land cite numerous examples throughout Britain. The motif of skulls being buried or thrown in a pond (or in our case a river) always brings disturbances or bad luck to the house in these tales. Explanations for the existence of the skulls often involves stories of thwarted love, murder or both.

Today, upon examination one appears to  have been pierced by a sharp implement. This larger one is very dark brown, showing that it has lain in peat for many years after burial. The other skull is little more than a small curved piece of bone, mounted on a metal stand by Colonel Hardcastle. They are both still resting on the Bradshaw Hall bible today, and are on display after many years of being hidden away in a storeroom at Turton.

Blackburn with Darwen Council now own and run Turton Tower for the benefit of all of us, so why not take some time for a visit and enjoy what was only once for the privileged and the few?

Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2018

Access and Opening Times

The tower is open from March to October, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There is an entrance fee, but children are given free admittance with adults.

See their website here or visit

There is also a Friends group – see their information on the main Turton Tower website.

Have a look around all the Victorian curiosities in the grounds, see our page here

Nearby, just a short distance away Turton Cross and Stocks, Chapeltown

There is a very well preserved Pillbox at Turton. For more on this see our page on Lancashire at War here


Turton Tower and Its Owners, W.G Sharples revised edition (2014), Friends of Turton Tower- available in the gift shop at Turton Tower

Turton Tower: A Guide, Martin Robinson Dowland (1991), Lancashire County Museums- available in the gift shop at Turton Tower

Lancashire’s Historic Halls, David Brazendale (1994), Carnegie Publishing

Holcombe Moor Heritage Group Winter Newsletter February 2018 : James Kay of Turton Tower- summary of a talk by Professor Richard Horrocks of Bolton University to the Holcombe Moor Heritage Group

Lancashire Halls, Margaret Chapman (1990), Printwise Publications Ltd, Salford

The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, Jennifer Westwood and Jaqueline Simpson (2005), Penguin Books

North Country Folklore, Jessica Lofthouse (1976), Robert Hale

On site interpretation at Turton Tower- paddle information boards in the rooms and large display board in the Chetham Room

Posted in Castles,, Medieval Lancashire, Stuart Lancashire, Tudor Lancashire, Victorian Lancashire | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Melandra Castle, Roman Fort, Glossop


Ramparts and Gateway at Melandra Castle, Roman Fort, Glossop

About a mile and a half from Glossop, on a piece of high ground overlooking the River Etherow, are the earthwork remains of Melandra Castle. This was an auxiliary Roman fort. It’s now a scheduled ancient monument owned by the local council and open to the public. While there are no interpretation boards on the three and a half acre site, with a little detective work there is still quite a bit to be seen here. Lancashire has lost so many of its Roman forts buried under towns and cities, and with this one just a couple of miles outside the edge of our region, it is important to preserve it and to understand its function in the landscape.

We’ll start with the history of the fort, then conclude with a guide as to what you can see on the ground.

The First Fort – Timber and Turf

The timber fort was built around 78 AD as part of the British Roman ruler Agricola’s push into the north, to conquer the Brigantes tribe. It was called Ardotalia, meaning ‘Place of the High Dark Hill’ (the name Melandra is a much more recent one, as we shall see). It was set up to guard the road from Brough which comes over Snake Pass into  Glossop and then continues into the Manchester area. Excavation in one of the defensive ditches has uncovered oak tent pegs and part of a leather tent, showing that the first soldiers  camped here during construction, which probably took around a month.

The fort walls and all the interior buildings were made of wood. The only stone building was the bath house situated just to the north of the fort. These were never timber-built because of the danger of fire from the furnaces used to heat the water. The original baths had three rooms, aligned east to west. At the west end was the Caldarium (a room with a hot plunge bath). Next to it was the Tepidarium (or warm room) heated underneath with a hypocaust. Adjoining this was the Frigidarium (which contained a large cold pool). There was also a separate free standing circular building which was the Laconium (sweating room) close by the corner of Frigidarium.

This first fort was home to the 1st Cohort Frisiavones who were recruited from the Dutch and German coastlines. They included specialist masons and carpenters that could do the construction work. It’s known that they also had a presence at Manchester’s Roman Fort (see our page on it here).

The Second Fort – Partly Remade in Stone


Base of the southern tower, with distinctive Roman cut blocks

Around 108 AD the defensive walls were rebuilt in stone. Excavations have shown that the outer fort walls were probably 12 feet high and 4 feet thick. These stood on top of earth ramparts that were 16 feet wide and just over 3 feet high.  In front of these were deep and wide trenches. At each rounded corner of the fort stood a stone tower, just within the walls. There also were four stone double-tower gatehouses (one in the centre of each side) and each gate had a double door. The exception was the southern gate which was much narrower. It is thought that this was made smaller as it was the most vulnerable to attack with the approach to it being much easier, unlike the steep drops away on the other sides.

The Principia (or Headquarters building) was also remade in stone. This important building included an assembly hall and shrine for the unit’s altars and standard, as well as the records’ and commander’s offices. The rest of the fort’s buildings (commander’s house, six barrack blocks, granaries and stores) were still wood built. Five hundred soldiers could be stationed here at any one time.

In this second fort the exterior bath house was now extended, with two new rooms added against the existing walls of the three original ones. These additions were a hot room heated by a second hypocaust,  and a cold room. Later still two more rooms were built, one of which was a dressing room. Excavation has revealed that some of the tiles were being brought in from Grimsar near Huddersfield, and that the baths had plastered walls and glass windows – so this was now a large high status building.

The auxiliaries associated with the stone fort were the 3rd Bracara Augustani. These came from Braga in Portugal originally, and were attached to XX Legion Valeria Victrix at Chester. They were also stationed at some time in Manchester’s Roman fort.


Fantastic look out point from the eroding northern rampart

The Vicus

The vicus is the civilian settlement that often grew up around a Roman fort. This one had a protective stockade on top of a banked earthwork around its outskirts. Today much of the vicus lies under the Gamesley housing estate, but rescue archaeology has shown there to have been a variety of interesting features. Between the fort and the modern road was a Mansio – an official inn for government officials. This was unusually large for such a small fort, and consisted of a reception room, sleeping  and servants’ quarters, kitchen, dining room, latrines and stables.

A cremation cemetery lay 750 feet south of the fort close to the Roman road. From this,  five cremation burials inside urns were recovered and there would have been more that have been left undiscovered. To the north of the fort was a small industrial zone. Evidence from excavation of hearths shows that there was iron, glass and lead manufacturing occurring here.

Further out still were outlying farmsteads which may well have been owned by veteran soldiers. It was fairly common for those that made it through 25 years of service to be given a farm nearby, and these men could be relied on if there was any trouble in the area.

The last twenty years of the fort’s active life saw big changes in Britain. Emperor Hadrian visited in 122 AD and instructed the 80 mile wall that now bears his name to be built. This heralded a big reorganization of the country with troops moving up to help construct the wall. Sometime between 140-150 AD the fort was abandoned, as Emperor Antoninus Pius ordered the construction of a turf and timber wall north of Hadrian’s, much deeper within present day Scotland. This was not a hasty withdrawl from the fort though, as ever the Romans were meticulous in making sure it could not be reused by a hostile native force. Archaeological evidence shows that the gates were removed and burnt, and even the hypocausts in the bath block were destroyed.

After the Romans left…

The Romans never reoccupied the site. Interestingly though, someone did put other buildings in place here. In the bath block there have been found post holes with bracing sandstone blocks and slabs in, indicating that a building was erected – but how big and by whom was not revealed by the archaeology. It may well be that the reoccupation occurred in the 400s when the Romans left Britain and the country descended into a Dark Age. Society at this time was shattered and Iron Age hillforts were reoccupied by warlord bands.

Over many centuries the stone was robbed away and reused elsewhere in the vicinity. Blocks have been found, unsurprisingly, at nearby Melandra Farm and further afield at Mottram’s medieval church. Not just stone, but any building materials of use such as gravel and wall rubble were taken and used in local road construction during the 1700-1800s. A contemporary account by local history writer W. Thompson Watkin reports the fort’s stone being reused to strengthen the banks of the river. So much for the destruction – what about the preservation?

In 1772 John Watson, the Rector of Salford, sent a paper to the Society of Antiquaries in London giving a description of the fort. We know from this that the defensive stone walls were still visible, as was the Principia and some of the structures in the vicus. It’s possible that Watson was the one who named the site ‘Melandra’. However it was not until 1899 that a real effort was made to save the ruins for posterity. John Garstang was the first archaeologist to try to systematically work on the ruins. He was a Blackburn archaeologist famous for his excavation of Ribchester Fort and from Egyptian digs (some of his mummy artefacts can be seen in Towneley Hall, Burnley). His work finished in 1906 and, ignoring unauthorized digging in 1920, it wasn’t until 1935 that another official excavation began. This was done by the Manchester Classical Association, who carried out four years worth of work. During World War 2 the only excavation done was by the Homeguard who dug defensive trenches into the north rampart and established a machine gun post in the southern tower base ! The Ministry of Works carried out archaeological digs during the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s and their metal signs are still in place.


With the Gamesley Housing estate being built in the early 1970s there was an effort to record what was in the vicus area (which now lies under the houses). The local council bought the fort and did work to consolidate it for display. The Manchester University Archaeological Department, in conjunction with the Melandra Field Group, then took over excavation from the early 1970s to almost the end of the 1980s. They did important work on the ditches and ramparts, the Principia, Mansio and exhaustive year after year meticulous recording of the extensive bath block. It’s really down to them that we know so much about what happened here during Roman times.

Some of the finds give a snapshot of everyday life. These include dress fasteners, the decorated sole of a woman’s sandal and a large wooden stirrer (that looks like a table tennis bat). Evidence of the Roman army (apart from numerous dropped coins) includes the centurial stone stating that the Frisians built the fort, five small altars and leather slings and stones – presumably part of one of the two occupying garrisons’ weapons kit. You can examine the finds at the superb Buxton Museum (see their website for opening times here).

On the ground today

Visiting today we can still see the earth ramparts of the fort on all four sides. The spaces for the gateways are also visible, set in the middle of each side. The two main streets through the fort are kept mown. The Principia building base still shows some Roman blocks, but this is being taken over by vegetation. There  are only two courses of  wall left, so it’s not of any great height. Have a look at the aerial photograph below and you can clearly see some of these features. We’ll then do a brief tour of the fort and beneath this we’ve amended the aerial photograph to show where things once were.

Melandra Castle

Melandra Castle Roman Fort from the air using Google Earth. Note the two streets can clearly be seen emanating from the gateways on each side of the fort.

Take this little tour around – it can be boggy after rain, so best to wear boots. The car park is just off  Melandra Castle Road. Neither the fort or car park are signposted, but the car park is pretty obvious when you get there. The site is open to the public. You are parking at the southern corner of the fort (it is orientated like a diamond, the southernly tip being closest to the car park.)

Head left and follow the ramparts all the way around first. These are very obvious, and though no longer imposing, give a sense of how large the fort was. Immediately you should see the base of the southern most defensive tower. Keep heading left, keeping the ramparts on your right. As you turn the corner and head up the western side of the fort wall you will see the earthworks most clearly here, with some hawthorn trees growing out of them, and the first of the gaps where the gateways once were. Carry on to the northern rampart, which is eroding to reveal some of the rubble core it contained. There are great views at this point. Continue along the ramparts, looking out for the northern tower base. At any time if you head in through one of the entrance ways this will bring you to the middle of the fort, where the small block remnants of the Principia or Headquarters building can just be made out.  Two streets pass through the fort, running at right angles to each other from each gate and are kept mown and so are very clear.

Melandra Castle_LI (7)

Key (very approximately): b – Bath House; BBB BBB – the six barrack blocks;                    HQ –  Headquarters or Principia; CO – Commanders house; g – granaries; C- cemetery;       P – modern car park; note also the vicus area just outside the fort (this carried on under the modern housing estate). The Mansio (not shown) was somewhere between the fort and the modern road. Information for this key has been collated from two separate sketches from the 1970s by Tom Garlick and Mike Brown (see references below)

The views over to the Peaks and the Pennines are tremendous, and with a little imagination you can visualize the Romans looking out, keeping an eye on the native Brigantians – the largest tribe in Britain, and one with a history of rebellion. There had been a northern uprising shortly before Hadrian ordered his wall to be built – perhaps his intention was to stop them making common cause with the Picti in what is now Scotland.

There are good sketches of what the fort buildings would have looked like at the Glossop Heritage website here

Have a look at an excellent aerial sketch of the fort layout here


There is public access to this site and a free car park just off Melandra Castle Road.



Roman Derbyshire, Tom Garlick (1975) Dalesman Books

A History of the Peak District Moors, David Hey (2014), Pen & Sword Books Ltd


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