Binchester, County Durham – Roman fort

We drove on about four miles to Binchester Roman Fort. We last came here in 2010 on a warm May Saturday when there was a bunch of re-enactors on site and the place was buzzing. Rather different to a very wet Friday in September when the only people on site are us and the lady from Durham County Council – who came and found us later in our visit to lend us an umbrella. Although there is no café and the loos are portaloos, everywhere in the main buildings are wheelchair accessible (as is a portaloo). More details at https://www.durham.gov.uk/binchester. Durham CC have a superb archaeological section, and are to be congratulated for so much good work.

Dere Street is the main Roman road from York to Corbridge – I have blogged Corbridge and the settlement at Piercebridge (the one south of Binchester, Vinovia). There has recently been a lot of archaeological exploration along the line of the new A1(M) south of Scotch Corner – have a look at https://www.northernarchaeologicalassociates.co.uk/a1-leeming-barton-10000-years-life-and-death-vale-mowbray. This road was probably laid out while Petilius Cerialis was governor of Britain between 71 to 74 AD, and the first fort was built here circa 75 AD. It covered about 7 hectares, and was one of the largest in the North. Around 90 AD it was reduced in size, and may have been abandoned completely when Hadrian’s Wall was  built in the 120s. A new and smaller fort was built circa 160. It continued to function as a military base until the end of the Empire in 410 AD.

Later the stone was used to build Escomb church and Auckland Castle, but John Leland and William Camden, writing in the C16, described walls and buildings still standing. In 1815 the ground collapsed under a horse and cart, and a hypocaust was found and preserved. In 1833 Bishop Van Mildert, the owner of the site, allowed the sculptured and inscribed stones collected over previous centuries to be broken up and used as building material in a new coal mine – never lets bishops anywhere near anything historic! The first excavations took place in 1878-80, directed by the Reverend Robert Hooppell, a nearby Vicar (Vicars always being more use than Bishops). More recent work included a visit by Time Team in 2007 (is that really 12 years ago?) and work continues every summer. The old people’s home that has covered much of the site is now closed, and there are plans to investigate more – we will be back (when it’s not raining quite so hard).

In the dry we visited the Bath House. It is easy enough to work out the layout, and imagine the progression from cold to hot. You can also imagine the hard work of the slaves in keeping the fires stoked and the furnaces blazing. Several years (decades?) ago they built a replica bathhouse at Segedunum Fort at Wallsend. A lot of money was poured into it, and I’m I sure I remember you could book it for parties (perhaps I’m just fantasising …). Then it was drained, and I remember visiting when there were barriers everywhere to stop you falling in to an empty bath. Now (again I think for several years) it has been closed “until further notice”. Time for a campaign to re-open it?

I then braved the rain to look at the Dere Street and the Commander’s House beside it. I did wonder whether the Commander would really want to live bang in the middle of the town with all the traffic going past his front door. 

Then I walked across the field into a huge tent which cover the excavations made this last summer (at least, I think they are. There are reports at https://www.northernarchaeologicalassociates.co.uk/binchester-roman-fort-excavations-2019  and at https://www.aucklandproject.org/news/archaeologists-join-forces-to-explore-binchester-roman-fort/ but I can’t quite square those with what I saw. Here we seem to have Regimental Baths, obviously a larger complex than those we’ve been in, and probably of earlier construction. Just admire the workmanship, and imagine the noise and bustle.

This is obviously a site with a lot more to find. There seems to be a real buzz about history in Bishop Auckland – I picked up a leaflet for their History and Heritage Festival 13-28 September. Escomb Church, Binchester, Auckland Castle, Weardale Railway, and preparations for the Bicentenary of the Stockton-Darlington Railway in 2025. Wonderful to see how history is being used to regenerate a town that has not had an easy few decades – we need to pay a proper visit, and not just call in while en route down the A68.

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