Tucked away, in the corner of Vicarage Fields just behind Lancaster Priory are the remains of a Roman bath house, along with the enigmatic ‘Wery Wall’. The site has seen not one but three or four Roman forts (depending on how the phases are counted)during their occupation of Britain. It was probably first used in 71 AD when the Romans entered the North of England to conquer it, which they managed to do by 74 AD. The site would have been a great point for the sea and land troops to meet up, giving access to the Lune and Eden valleys.
The first fort was a turf and timber one, and excavations have revealed two external ditches in the Vicarage Fields. This was replaced by a second fort, made also of turf and timber in 102 AD. Over time a civilian population would have built up around this fort, along the line of the modern day Church Street. However, during the period 140-160 AD the Roman garrison left to move up to Scotland when Roman Britain was extended north of Hadrian’s Wall. It was in this period that the Antonine turf and timber wall was built across Scotland.
When the Roman returned they rebuilt the fort in stone. At the same time a bath house was constructed, sitting just outside the fort. The remnants of the bath house is the structure we see before us today. The two largest rooms that survive are the caldarium and the tepidarium, and part of the praefurnium is also present. If you stand at the interpretation board and look at the site, don’t worry if the bird’s eye view map on the board doesn’t make much sense, it’s completely the wrong way around for viewing the ruins before you! Instead follow the guide below, and then look back at the map at the end of your visit,as it may make more sense then.
The largest room we can see is the caldarium, and it is easily identified by its many stone pilae (small columns) that would have supported the floor of the room. Underneath the floor was the hypocaust system that would heat the baths (for a full explanation of how hypocausts work click here to see the one at Wigan ). The caldarium was the hottest room of the baths and its sauna like interior would also have contained a very hot plunge pool.
Behind this room, close to the large modern wall is the smaller room of the tepidarium. This too had underfloor heating, and could be described as a ‘warm room’ with no bath in, just a place to sit and relax in the warm atmosphere. Not much is left of the praefurnium, the furnace room, but you can see part of it connecting to the caldarium, (it’s sandwiched between the caldarium and the modern wall).
By 330 AD the decision was made to build a new fort, but this was to be very different than the rest. It was no longer internal unrest that the Romans feared, but attack from outside. Roman Britain was now under threat from sea borne raiders from Ireland. The new fort is built on a completely different alignment, presumably to counter this danger. The new outer fort wall may have been built in a hurry, because the its outer ditch cuts right through the caldarium of the bath house, which may well have still been in use up to that time. If you stand by the interpretation boards you can see the ‘V’ shape ditch bank cutting through the walling of the caldarium. At the back of the site is a huge big block of masonry, and this is the only standing piece of the last Roman fort. It is thought to be part of a large tower in the outer fort wall. On top of the tower would have been mounted a heavy artillery weapon. Only the inner core of this piece of the fort wall remains, the facing stones having been robbed away over time. The wall and ditch would have run parallel with each other, so you can imagine them continuing up the hill. This last fort presumably did its job successfully, as the Romans remained on the site until the early 400s AD.
This piece of tower and the rest of the outer fort wall persisted long after the Romans left and became known to locals as the ‘Wery Wall’. This huge structure was still found in parts of Lancaster until relatively recent times, but now only one part exists above ground and that is what see it at the bath house today. Two more parts of it still exist, but they are both buried underground. In 1724 the antiquarian writer William Stukely said that a huge part of the Wery Wall near Bridge Lane, that hung over the street, was destroyed ‘with much labour’. Another piece by the footpath at the west end of Lancaster Priory was destroyed in 1778. Today all we are left with is the huge hulking block by the bath house, but it is important enough to be protected as a grade 2 listed building.
Lancaster Council has consulted with Oxford Archaeology North on how to preserve this small but important site of the bath house and wall. It is hoped that new interpretation boards will be erected, along with securing and stabilizing the site so that it can be enjoyed for years to come.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2014
Opening Times: The site is free to visit, at any reasonable time
Parking and Directions : Park anywhere in Lancaster City centre, and head up to Lancaster Castle and Priory Church. Follow the steps up to the highest point by the entrance to the church, and then bear right following the path around the church. As you start to descend the lane with fields either side, look out for the Roman Baths sign post pointing you right into Vicarage Fields. The site is at the far end of the field, just follow the path.
Nearby, just a short walk away
Wery Wall and Bath House, Castle Hill, Lancaster, Lancashire: Historic Landscape Survey Report, Oxford Archaeology North, (2011). The report is available at https://library.thehumanjourney.net/1285/