Ribchester’s Roman fort is situated at a strategic point on the crossroads of two Roman roads and protected a crossing point of the River Ribble. Today, there are only a few standing remains above the ground, but you can get a good sense of where the fort was if you know where to look. This page gives details of the history of the fort, its re-discovery by antiquarians and a walking guide to what can still be seen.
The fort lies on the main south-to-north route through the western side of Roman Britain. This road comes from the legionary base at Chester and passes by Manchester’s auxiliary fort on its way to Ribchester. It then heads north to the fort at Burrow-in-Lonsdale and finally terminates at Carlisle. From the west comes the road from Kirkham Roman fort, past Ribchester, onto Elslack and finally the legionary base at York.
The Early Forts – Turf and Timber
The very first fort at Ribchester was built around 72 AD when Cerialis was the governor of Britain. It was probably constructed by the Twentieth (XX) Legion. At this time, it was a frontier post in an overwhelmingly hostile territory. A typical turf and timber structure, it would have had wooden buildings surrounded by a clay rampart topped with a timber palisade. Around the rampart were a couple of defensive ditches.
Archaeology suggests that the fort was refurbished (again as timber and turf) sometime in the next decade. The future British governor Agricola began his further military consolidation of the north-west of England and conquest of Scotland in the late 70s and early 80s AD. During this time, Ribchester acted as a supply centre for his armies to the north, along with guarding the roads mentioned above.
By the end of the first century, it was garrisoned by the Second Asturian Cavalry unit (the ala II Asturum) from northern Spain, probably about 500 men strong.
The Early Vicus and Military Annex
Just north of the fort, in a defended military annex area, simple wooden buildings were set up for keeping animals, perhaps stables for horses. Excavation has shown these structures to be made with wattle and daub walls, with internal wattle partitions, and wooden support posts driven straight into the ground. Straw covered the floors. This was only the start of the development of this area though, as it was to become much more substantial.
The Military Annex is Extended and a Stone Fort is Constructed
In the first part of the second century, the Spanish Asturian cavalry were redeployed and sent up to Chesters Fort at Hadrian’s Wall.
The military annex area was now extended (it lies under the present day playing fields). A large amount of timber buildings were positioned here, their hearths indicating that they were associated with metal-working. Here in the annex, craftsmen were able to manufacture metal goods to be sent up to Hadrian’s Wall.
The Ribchester fort was rebuilt in stone, probably under the supervision of the Sixth Legion from York, around 120-130 AD. The site remained a similar size to the previous one of just under six acres. It is thought to have resembled the one at Chesters on Hadrian’s Wall where the Asturian Cavalry had been sent, except that it had timber barrack blocks whereas Chesters’ were made of stone. (The Chesters fort is now owned by English Heritage and is well worth a visit – see our reference section below or to view the website click here).
By the mid-second century, an unusually large vicus had built up next to the fort, and much of it probably lies underneath the modern-day village. Metal- and leather-working workshops were abundant, and there were at least two temples. The cemetery would have been located on the outskirts of the vicus.
The Sarmatian Cavalry Arrive at Ribchester
In the second part of the second century, a Sarmatian cavalry unit was deployed to Ribchester. When the Emperor Marcus Aurelius had ended a campaign conquering Hungary, he then recruited and sent 5,500 Hungarian auxiliary troops to Britain. Five hundred of these were stationed at Ribchester.
At the end of the second century, the military annex just north of the fort was abandoned and levelled. A dump of gravel and cobbles, some five feet thick, was then laid on top of the area. The most plausible idea is that this was done to create a parade ground for the Sarmatians.
When the first Sarmatian soldiers were due to be retire from active service, they were unable to return to Hungary as it was no longer part of the Roman Empire. Ribchester then became a veteran settlement, with the retired soldiers being given land within the Ribble Valley. It is speculated that they could have become heavy horse breeders, supplying the needs of the military. This elevation of the fort to a Veternorcum (veteran settlement) meant that the garrison commander of the fort was given political control of the regional territory around it, giving the site a very important status.
Third Century and Fourth Centuries
The third century saw the defensive ditches reorganized, with the old ones filled in and a new wider one placed at a greater distance from the fort. The fort and bath house continued in use into the late fourth century, evidence coming from lots of pottery finds and a coin dated 373 AD.
The latter days of the fort saw some unorthodox activity. Recent excavations have revealed metal and glass industrial production taking place within the fort, near the north gatehouse and barracks area. This is unusual, as normally such work was restricted to the vicus or military annex and never done within a fort. There have also been numerous hair and dress pins discovered, indicating the presence of women in the fort, which is again unusual. It could be that, by then, the soldiers’ wives were allowed to live in the fort, or there was a market frequented by women. By the end of Roman Britain, perhaps an orderly withdrawal by the garrison occurred, as is evidenced in the destruction of the granaries (see the page on them here).
After this, Lancashire entered the Dark Ages (not a term popular with historians, but certainly applicable to Lancashire for the next few hundred years) and little is known about what happened in the area. The name Ribchester means ‘old fort by the river’ in Old English, the language of the Saxons. The Saxons were the next wave of invaders who came to live in Lancashire and displace, or rule over, the remaining Romano-British occupants. A rare Saxon silver bracelet has been discovered in Ribchester, and the fact that the church is built within the fort hints at some continuation of settlement. The first recorded church is Norman, but some sources believe a much earlier Saxon one would have predated it.
Antiquarian Rediscovery of the Fort
Records of the fort enter the historical record in Tudor times. It was an official of King Henry VIII’s, named John Leland (the King’s Antiquary), who first described the ruins. He noted “Great squarid stones, vaultes, and antiques coyness be found ther”. In the 1600s, William Camden wrote that at Ribchester “… are digged up from time to time so many monuments of Romaine antiquity, statues, pieces of coine, pillers, piedistials and chapters of pillers, heathen altars, marble stone and inscriptions”.
The Rare Roman Helmet is Found
In 1796, a discovery was made at Ribchester of what is arguably one of the most important artefacts from the whole of Roman Britain. Thirteen year old John Walton was digging in a hollow near his cottage. There he discovered part of a Roman helmet. Calling his father Joseph, they unearthed a hoard of metal items and the unique helmet. The finds were brought to the attention of Charles Townley of Towneley Hall, who bought the lot. He acquired some 32 items in total. The most important was the helmet, and this survives today in the British Museum with the rest of the hoard. There is an excellent replica of it at Ribchester Museum.
The helmet contains a full face mask and is elaborately decorated. It features sixteen figures of fighting cavalry and infantry men on top, a turreted wall running across the brow, and small locks of hair just beneath. The British Museum describe it as “a helmet worn by elite trooper in the colourful cavalry sports events”. They date it from the late first to the early second century and this, with the inscription of ‘CARAVI’ on the cap and face mask, indicates that it could well have been from the Spanish Asturian garrison.
Along with the helmet were found perforated eye guards for a horse, and numerous metal discs and buckles which would have come from a cavalryman’s horse harness. There were also three bronze camp skillets for cooking, and a mortarium bowl with the letters ‘BORJEDF’ stamped on. In all Townley bought 32 items, but one described as a ‘sphinx’ was lost by John’s cousins – this perhaps sat on top of the helmet as a crest. (The recently discovered Crosby Garret helmet from Cumbria has a griffin crest). There are excellent pictures of the helmet and hoard at the British Museum’s website here. Why the helmet, horse fittings and camp cooking utensils were hidden so early in the fort’s history and never recovered remains a mystery. Only five such helmets have been discovered in Roman Britain.
T.D. Whitaker, the vicar of Whalley, was a keen local historian. He had alerted Charles Townley to the discovery of the Ribchester helmet, invited the famous artist J.M.W. Turner to Lancashire to sketch and paint its historical landmarks, and he published a comprehensive book on the history of Whalley. In 1821, a year before he died, he showed that he was at the very forefront of archaeology by organizing a systematic excavation of the Commander’s House (Praetorium) at Ribchester.
When the huge cavalryman’s tombstone was discovered on the left bank of the river upstream of the fort in 1876, it must have generated immense interest. These are quite rare in Britain, only 22 have been discovered to date. (One has been recently unearthed at Lancaster and is on display in the town’s museum there). In 1898, John Garstang excavated parts of the Headquarters buildings and granaries. He went on to be a celebrated Egyptologist and you can read more about what he discovered on our page about Towneley Hall.
The next twenty years saw a flurry of different excavations. In 1914, the church school was demolished and parts of the Headquarters building were found to be lying just below the school floor. The next year, Margaret Greenall founded a museum that sits within the site of the fort. She also bought a row of cottages by the river and had the area excavated before a new house, Churchgates, was constructed. Just over a decade later, there was a major excavation of the bath house.
Excavations continue right up to the present day. Currently, archaeologists from the University of Central Lancashire have spent a number of seasons digging in the vicarage garden, and their discoveries are discussed below in our guided walk section. Ribchester Roman Museum continues to thrive over a hundred years on from its creation. Well laid out, with some fantastic finds from the site, it is a must-visit destination for anyone interested in Roman history.
Below is a guide to the site. Although much of the archaeology is hidden beneath the ground, if you follow the route you’ll get a sense of exactly where the different parts of the fort were.
A Walk Around Ribchester Roman Fort
The fort site today lies underneath St Wilfrid’s churchyard, the parish hall, the vicarage gardens, Churchgates house, and some of the houses on Church Street. Unfortunately, the River Ribble has destroyed much of the south and east sides of the fort.
The guide below gives directions to a short circular walk through and around the fort. It will allow you to see what remains, including parts of the standing ruins, the location of the major buildings, a large defensive ditch, the site of the parade ground and the extent of the early industrial military annex.
Begin outside the Roman Museum, where you can see a large amount of masonry, some of high quality, that has been discovered over the years. To see the only part of the excavated fort on display, head for the granaries. They are open access all year round.
Go past the entrance to the parish hall on your right, head through the gate into the churchyard on your left, then turn immediately right through a gate to the granaries. There’s quite a lot known about them, which we discuss on a separate page on their construction and subsequent destruction here.
If you stand with the granaries on your left, you are looking towards the position of the North Gateway (more or less where the wall and trees run at right angles to you). The street named the ‘porta principalis sinistra’ ran from inside the fort to the gateway and beyond. It was a cobbled and gravelled road. The gateway is thought to have been about 28 feet wide, and would have had room for two carriageways.
Keeping the granaries on your left, now look right. There is a thick beech hedge blocking the view into the vicarage garden. Just over the hedge is the site of some of the barrack blocks. This area has been the site of recent archaeological investigation by the University of Central Lancashire. The barrack blocks remained wooden throughout the lifetime of the fort, even when the rest of the buildings were replaced by stone. They would have stood in pairs facing each other across an alleyway, and there would probably have been stables nearby.
Interestingly, in the later life of the fort this interior area became an industrial site. This is very unusual as this kind of work is normally done outside a fort. Recent excavations have revealed a clay-floored workshop with a hearth, kiln fragments, slag and waste from glassware and metal-making. Craftsmen could have been making coins or trade objects here. It’s probable that this was occurring towards the end of Roman Britain, or even afterwards. Later these buildings were removed, perhaps to create an open area for a market. Hopefully, the ongoing UCLAN archaeologists will make more discoveries to shed light on this intriguing time in the fort’s late history.
Return back into the parish hall car park, and turn right into the churchyard. Head for the sundial.
The Headquarters Building – Principia
Stand at the sundial in the churchyard and look towards the parish hall and car park. You would now be standing at the back of the Headquarters building, known as the Principia. In front of you would be the three main sections of the Headquarters building.
The three parts of the Headquarters building are 1) a rear row of five small rooms, 2) the Cross Hall, and 3) an enclosed courtyard (with a roof held up by columns running around the edges). It’s not easy to visualise these set of buildings if you are unfamiliar with them, but there is an excellent animation of the Headquarters building at Longovicium Fort here. These buildings are fairly standard, so it gives us an idea of what the one at Ribchester could have looked like. The diagram below shows what was excavated in the Headquarters building at Ribchester in the early 1900s.
Where you are standing now, by the sundial, was a range of small five rooms. Excavation from over a hundred years ago revealed that, where the sundial is today, there are steps going down into an underground Strong Room. This contained the pay chests for the soldiers’ wages. It is likely that the room where the steps were located was the Regimental Shrine. This held the standards (or flags) of the unit. The other four rooms were for administrative purposes of the fort, for example one would be where the soldiers received their pay.
Beyond these rooms, looking toward the car park and parish hall, would be the Cross Hall. This was a covered assembly area where the commander would speak to the soldiers. In front of that was the Courtyard, which was a large open area. The only roof in this section was around the edges and was supported by pillars.
There were two wells in the courtyard, and excavation showed one to be blocked with masonry. This included two highly decorated capitals (tops of columns), and you can see these on display in the museum.
Despite all of this substantial structure, there is very little left to see today above ground. However, there are two pieces of masonry still intact and in place.
One pillar column base of the Principia remains in its original position, although raised up to the present ground level. It is in the wall of the churchyard close to the sundial. Look for Richard Walbank’s grave, stand with your back to it and then scan the wall before you. The pillar column base has a cross on top and foliage around it.
Now enter into the carpark of the parish hall. Look for the block of masonry by Churchgates house on your right. This originally flanked the entrance from the Courtyard to the Cross Hall of the Headquarters building.
Leave the parish hall car park now, keeping Churchgates house on your right. Watch out for traffic as you walk out onto the lane. Turn right to view the house of Churchgates.
The Commanders House – Praetorium
In the early 1900s, Margaret Greenhall bought the site where Churchgates now stands. It was originally a collection of cottages, and she knew that the conversion to the present building would unearth Roman remains, which was the reason for her purchase. She was the leading light in the creation of Ribchester Roman Museum and a generous benefactor of it. Underneath the house and garden of Churchgates lies the Commander’s House. This is where the commander of the fort and his family would live, and entertain guests. Such a building was of very high status, and usually had a footprint that was as large as the Headquarters building. A Roman well from the time still survives in the Churchgates garden.
Now retrace your steps back up the lane and pass the Old Rectory on your left. Turn and face the River Ribble. This has shifted its course over time, and has cut through the fort. The south wall of the fort would have lain on the opposite side of the river.
The Site Where the Cavalry Helmet was Found
Carry on following the lane and almost immediately you will reach the school on your right and, on your left, the first house on Church Street. The house, No.1 Church Street, was the home of Joseph Walton, a clogger and shoemaker. His son John was digging in a hollow in a piece of waste ground behind the house when he made his remarkable discovery of the Cavalry helmet. The Blackburn Mail of the time states the finds were found “in a scar on the Ribble side…..about 9 feet below the surface of the earth.”
Walk up to No.2 Church Street, on your left. You would now be standing outside the fort, looking back at its fortified walls.
North East Corner Watchtower
The house at No.2 Church Street was owned by the late Jim Ridge, a retired teacher. He discovered the base of a stone corner watchtower in his back garden (not visible from the street). He wrote to Channel 4’s Time Team asking them to investigate. When they dug the site, they confirmed his findings. Their excavations also revealed that an earlier wooden watchtower and rampart also stood on the same site. Jim was an honorary curator of Ribchester Museum and there is a gallery named after him there. The Time Team episode in which Ribchester featured was in series 1, episode 2. You can view the full episode on Channel 4’s website here.
Head up Church Street to the White Bull pub on your right.
The White Bull Roman Columns
The building entrance way has four columns that are Roman, as are some of their plinth bases. It is not known which building they came from, but they are in excellent condition.
Now head further up Church Street and take a left turn towards the public car park.
The Millennium Column is a modern, fantastically-sculpted piece of work that shows scenes from the history of Ribchester, including its Roman past. It was created by the artist Fiona Bowery in 1999. Look out for the depictions of the soldiers and John discovering the helmet.
Head past Potters Barn café on your right and then look towards the playing fields on your left.
First Military Industrial Annex Site
The playing fields lie over the site of the early military annex. Metal- and leather-working was carried out here, under protection and supervision of the Roman army. Excavation has found shoes, sandals, horse harness, tent fragments and pegs. Later, this area was levelled and gravel dumped on top. This was done to convert it into a military parade ground for the Sarmatian cavalry.
If you look for the line of tall trees, these mark the north wall of the fort. The North Gateway was sited where the line of trees joins the graveyard wall (that extends out into the playing field). This is the gateway site you previously viewed when standing in the granaries.
This whole area was protected by a large outer ditch, which will be our next location. Leave the playing fields behind and walk towards the newly built bungalows on your right. Proceed along past the bungalows and turn into Anchor Hill Close. Go around the bend and stand in the car park area, looking towards the large building in front of you on the other side of the wall.
The Punic Ditch Protecting the Military Annex Area
You are now standing in front of where a Punic ditch ran. This was an early military ditch that was discovered when the sheltered housing in front of you was built. Time Team investigated the area 20 years ago when the area you are standing in was still a field, where the new small housing estate now sits. Imagine the ditch running from the sheltered housing towards you, then curving around the outskirts of the fort.
The ditch had a number of phases. Its first incarnation was that of a Punic ditch with a rampart on the side closest to the fort. As attackers approached the fort, they would drop down an almost vertical side (to your left). This almost vertical side meant that it was very hard to turn around and climb back out again. Their only option was to move towards the rampart in front of them (to your right), on a steep slope, while missiles could be rained down on them from Roman soldiers standing on top of the rampart.
The early days of the fort must have seen much unrest, hence the need to protect the craftsmen in the military annex around it. In 69 AD, just before the first fort at Ribchester was built there was an uprising in the area. Venutius, the former husband of Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantian tribe (the major tribe of what is now Lancashire and Yorkshire), led a revolt against the Romans. The Romans had to save Cartimandua (who was a Roman ally) and for a time Venutius retained control of the Brigantian area. The Romans fought against the Brigantians in the years 71-74 AD (the time when the wooden fort was constructed), but they were not properly subjugated for decades.
At a later date the Punic ditch was remodelled to make it shallower (presumably when local conditions were less hostile), but it was still a defendable feature. Later still, it was deliberately filled in. From a trench nearby, archaeologists discovered part of a broken quern for grinding flour and Roman Samian pottery, showing civilian occupation of the area. Much of the vicus (the village that grows up around a Roman fort) is thought to underlie the present day village of Ribchester. (You can watch the excavation of the ditch on the Time Team programme here.)
Retrace your steps back out of the small housing estate. Turn right and follow the curve of the road towards a footpath by the churchyard wall.
If you look to the right of the churchyard wall, you can see the fort’s western defensive ditch. This sits close to the fort walls, and was a separate ditch from the punic one.
Western Ditch, Rampart and Gateway
The fort’s defensive ditch is easy to see in this field, running in parallel with the churchyard wall. Partway along the ditch’s rampart would have been the westerly street (porta decumana) leaving the fort gateway. The gateway was about 28 feet wide.
More Roman Stone Columns?
Head back through the gate into the churchyard and go into St Wilfrid’s Church. Inside are Tuscan-style columns holding up the west gallery. Debate has raged as to whether these are Roman or not. They are certainly not as rough as the ones at the White Bull so, if they are Roman, they have probably been retooled.
Head back outside and walk around the church, keeping the building on your right. Some of the stones the church is made from are probably reused ones from the fort. You are now in the area of the Granaries, the end of which you saw at the start of the walk. Look over the churchyard wall to see them on the other side.
You might like to finish your walk off by visiting the Roman Museum next to the churchyard. It is open every day throughout the year and is a superb local historical resource. The nearby Roman Bath House is open April to October.
For the latest news on the Roman archaeology at Ribchester, have a look at UCLAN’s Ribchester Revisited site, and read their blog here.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2020
Open all daylight hours.
There is a large car park in Ribchester by the Potter’s Barn café, with a small parking charge.
On this site
Just as short walk away Ribchester Roman Baths
A slightly longer walk away The Church of the Knights Hospitallers
The Romans at Ribchester: Discovery and Excavations, B.J.N. Edwards (2000) Centre for North-West Regional Studies, University of Lancaster
Ribchester, B.J.N. Edwards (1972) The National Trust
Roman North West England: Hinterland or ‘Indian Country’? Editor Tom Saunders (2011), Archaeology North West (New Series Volume 2) Council for British Archaeology North West
Romans and Britons in North-West England, David Shotter (2004), Centre for North-West Regional Studies, University of Lancaster
Roman Lancashire, W. Thompson Watkin (1883/2007) Azorabooks
50 Finds from Cumbria: Objects from the portable antiquities scheme, Dot Boughton (2016), Amberley Publishing
Triumphant Rider: The Lancaster Roman Cavalry Tombstone, Stephen Bull (2007), Lancashire Museum
Ribchester Roman Museum on site interpretation
Time Team Series 1, Episode 2 On the Edge of an Empire, Channel 4. Broadcast in 1994 and still available to watch on the website ‘All 4’ at channel4.com. channel4.com/programmes/time-team/on-demand/16521-002
2 Church Street, Ribchester, Lancashire. An Archaeological Watching Brief, Oxford Archaeology North, David Tonks (2006). Available online as a pdf from library.thehumanjourney.net
pastscape.org Bremetennacum Veteranorum