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.
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.
The fort was sited to protect an important sea route inland to Ribchester by road and Walton le Dale by river.
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. (For a very good overview of the road in its present form and the route it took see the Roman Roads of Britain website page here.)
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 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 its 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.
The Roman Baths
The Roman Bath House was located in the present day St Michael’s 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 extended out from the east gate of the fort into the present day Myrtle Drive area, south of the St Michael’s 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 second century, 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 had 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 the 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
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 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 views 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 labelled 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 the Google map above this text and you can see where it would have been in the modern street plan.
For photos of a recent garden excavation in Myrtle Drive see the Wyre Archaeology website here. Their webpage has some really interesting pictures and discussion on what they found. The Roman baths were in the area of St Michael’s Road, and a full report of some recent limited excavation can seen at the 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 https://library.thehumanjourney.net/2307/
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)