You might think you have to go to Italy to see the true might of the former Roman Empire, but the truth is those guys really got about. At its peak in 117 AD, it stretched from Britain all the way to Saudi Arabia. In the words of Caesar, they came, they saw, they conquered. And they left plenty behind to tell us about how they lived – but where can you go to see these remains? Travelling too far is out of the question, but luckily, they got busy virtually everywhere. There are probably Roman remains right on your doorstep, that you can visit as part of your daily exercise. Wondering where? No problem!
Antonine Wall (Various locations throughout Scotland’s Central Belt)
Beginning our list is the Antonine Wall, a massive land defence that shatters the myth that the Romans never came further than Hadrian’s Wall. In fact, they were well established with garrisons and villas throughout Scotland. Romans first invaded Scotland around AD70 and although Hadrian’s Wall was intended to divide Roman and ‘barbarian’ territories, it was not built for around 50 years after the Romans arrived.
The Antonine Wall was intended as a replacement for Hadrian’s, built by the emperor Antoninus Pius to prove his dominance over the local tribes. Like it’s predecessor, it included several mile castles and inscribed stones which have survived to this day. Many are preserved in Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum. It was built around the Firth of Clyde and runs horizontally across Scotland. Their website gives a handy list of the many forts along the way so you can check if there is one in your local area.
You can still see a lot of the turf structure of the wall today, though the original wood structures along the top have largely disappeared. Forts like Rough Castle (just behind the Falkirk Wheel) and Bar Hill (near Kilsyth) feature the remains of bath houses, underfloor heating, troop headquarters, wells and defences like Lilia pits (spiky holes disguised as puddles.) You can really get a fantastic sense of what these forts were like and they have lots of lovely walking trails with gravel/tarmac paths if the substrate is a little loose. Simply check the website to see if there’s an Antonine Wall site near to you. The vast majority of them are unstaffed and free to enter, so remember to respect th
Chester, Cheshire (Remains throughout the city)
‘Chester’ whether it on its own or as a suffix (Manchester, Rochester etc) denotes a town’s status as a Roman city. Chester has some of the best preserved remains in all the UK. The city itself grew out of a fort established in AD 79, with civilians settling around it to trade with the resident soldiers. The four main roads in Chester (imaginatively named Northgate, Eastgate, Southgate and Westgate) run the same route as the four main roads into the fort did. At its height Chester was around a fifth bigger than York or London, highlighting a rare time in the UK’s history when London wasn’t the centre of the universe.
An amphitheatre built for the citizens of Chester in the 1st century AD remains largely intact in the city centre, as well as a 2nd century shrine to the Roman goddess Minerva and parts of a quarry. This is the only surviving example in Western Europe still standing in its original location. Many things that appear to be shopfronts are actually elements of Roman buildings, such as heating apparatus, storage rooms for garrisons, some of which have been restored and some which appear as they were discovered.
Parts of the city’s medieval walls also appropriate Roman structures and remains are clearly marked out if you’re having trouble identifying them. The Romans clearly saw the city as an important centre of trade, culture and politics with it being one of the most significant repositories of Roman remains in the country So if you live in Chester, simply go for a walk around and you’ll see plenty of Roman history! Chester is very close to the Welsh border so please consider local restrictions when you are in the area – stay local for your exercise, these remains have been here 2000 years and will still be here when we’re back to normal.
Ribchester, East Lancashire
Whilst a little smaller than the previous entries, Ribchester is a small town that wears its Roman heritage proudly. It lies to the east of Preston, near the country parks at Beacon Fell and the Trough of Bowland. It is a great, nearby jaunt if you live in Longridge or one of the villages in the valley. Preston and Blackburn nearby are a lot more densely populated however so it may be a good idea to look for a walk closer to home if you are from those areas for now, to protect the residents of Ribchester.
Though the site was occupied since the Bronze Age, the first Roman settlement at Ribchester was called Bremetennacum. It guarded a crossing over the River Ribble and took the appearance of a typical Roman auxiliary fort. Thus, there was a steam room, granary, troop accommodation, administrative villas and some civilian accommodation amongst other things. The remains that indicate what life was like in Bremetennacum are extensive – archaeologists have identified the remains of waste pits, the foundations and underfloor heating of a bath house, and the famous ‘Ribchester Hoard.’ The Roman helmet unearthed by a clogmaker’s son in the 1790s currently lives in the British museum and archaeologists have had a virtually constant presence since. You can still see a lot of the granaries remains, as well as the bath house as these are preserved behind houses and open for the public to walk through.
A sundial in the churchyard reveals the location of an underground storage room, like that found in Chester, which would have been used to store valuable items by Roman soldiers and local governors. It is not accessible today, but the local museum has documented Roman Ribchester massively and a lot of contemporary stonework can be found on its entrance pavilion. The playing fields at the end of the village are the site of the old fort’s military complex, where activities like metalwork would have been carried out. The White Bull pub’s entryway also incorporates Roman pillars which are in staggeringly good condition for their age.
Archaeologists believe the original fort was constructed initially of timber, then replaced by a more permanent stone structure, which is certainly what the remaining evidence suggests. It extended from the entrance of the modern village to the banks of the River Ribble, and there are several heritage walking trails which will lead you on gentle walks around the area.