We are on the west side of Cumbria, and I think that this is a Roman Fort that Dad didn’t get to. If you want to see a map of Hardknott Pass and some photos taken in the sun, see this website. The English Heritage website has a lovely aerial photo and the note “Be careful the road is very steep”. That is the understatement of the year. Alex was driving. The drive up is about 1 in 3 with the odd hair-pin thrown in for good measure. It was exciting. We should probably apologise to Sue, Alex’s mum, for the state of her gearbox …
In the excitement of the climb and the fact it was chucking it down, we went further than I expected. We stopped when we were about to head down the other side. “This can’t be right” said the Cambridge Geographer. “We have missed the fort.” We turned the car round, headed back west (“Go west young man”), drove over one lump and I spotted the fort. We parked in the parking space that we had driven past!
It was cold and wet, and very wet underfoot. The fort’s name was Mediobogdum – I’m not sure what the translation of this is, but it is right it includes the word “bog”.
This made it even more amazing that the first block you come to is the Bath-house. I know that Roman forts have bathhouses. We have just been into the one at Ravenglass. As we walk the wall we will enter the one beside the river at Chesters and end in the reconstruction at Wallsend. But “Hardknott” and “bathhouse” just don’t seem to go together. There is enough water up here to fill several baths, though it is an interesting question as to where the water for loo and bath was channelled from and to, but the thought of carrying fuel up the 1 in 3 in order to heat the water – perhaps the bath was more pleasurable when you realised the effort it took. (I assume the hills were more wooded then than they are now? Any Roman tree specialists who can answer that?). There are four rooms – the furnace, one with a hot bath, another with a warm bath, and the third with a cold bath. The circular room to the left, which has its own furnace, was used more like a modern sauna. As frozen hail descended, a sauna would have been good.
We continued up through the fort’s south gate. The south, east and west gates were double width, the north just had the one carriageway “presumably because of its precipitous location” says the EH website. I did not walk up to look at it. It also tells me that “The walls of the fort are of stone, although an internal bank of earth may have given access to the wall-walk and to the internal guard towers at the four corners, which have no entrances at ground level and were later additions.”
The fort was established early in C2. They have found a fragment from an inscription which says the garrison was the Fourth Cohort of Dalmatians, from the Balkans. I wonder what they made of the Lakes. It was demilitarised in the late 130s when the Romans reoccupied southern Scotland, but was regarrisoned under Marcus Aurelius thirty years later. There is the normal collection of buildings – HQ building, commander’s resident (though this is unfinished or at least smaller than normal – you can imagine Mrs Commander saying “No, Julius. I am not moving to Hardknott”), and some granaries with “raised platforms onto which the carts carrying grain were unloaded” – would they really have been able to get grain wagons up this hill, or did it all come in on packhorses? There is no trace of the normal barrack blocks, leading to the question as to whether they were housed in leather tents. The parade-ground lies on a plateau 200 metres to the east.
In my 53 years on this earth I have been to hundreds of Roman sites. I have been to the Antonine Wall, forts north of the Wall, most of Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman Road on the North York Moors, and right down south to the mosaic at Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight. I’ve also been to Rome and Ostia. Dad loved his Roman remains and, although I no doubt moaned at times, I am grateful for his enthusiasm. Hardknott Roman Fort was cold, windswept, wet, and spectacular. I was so glad to have visited, and so glad to get back into Sue’s car and turn the heating on. We drove east along the Roman road, down Hardknott and Wrynose Pass, stopped at a nice café called Chesters by the River, on through Ambleside, and then to the main line at Oxenholme. What a wonderful day.