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
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.
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.
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.
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.
SAT NAV SK13 6JB
Roman Derbyshire, Tom Garlick (1975) Dalesman Books
A History of the Peak District Moors, David Hey (2014), Pen & Sword Books Ltd