The Romans were fairly active in the English Lake District. It was a good jumping off point for their campaigns to try to subdue Caledonia, and when they gave that up, for building Hadrian’s wall. I’m writing this while on holiday up here for the week, and one of the things that always strikes me about the Roman activities here is how the small matter of the highest mountain range in England didn’t seem to worry them. They looked at the most direct route between the places they wanted to go to, and then built straight roads to get there. If there were mountains in the way, well, they just went over them. No mean feat up here.
Ravenglass on the Cumbrian coast is a pretty place these days, and would have been during the Roman period too. It has a natural inlet that makes it an ideal place for a port, and if you want to import goods from around the Roman empire up to the north of England, it also has the benefit of enabling you to do that by sea, rather than traipsing up the length of England over land. But, the downside is that you have to get people and goods over the Cumbrian mountains to get them to where you want them.
The Romans built a fort and port at Ravenglass (Clanoventa), and the remains of the bath house there have been remarkably well-preserved. Some of the walls still stand to around 14 feet high (picture on the right) and still have some of the concrete rendering and small parts of red and white plaster visible. They really did build things to last! On the day I visited and took this picture it was warm and sunny, but it can be bleak, cold and wet up here, and I could imagine that a nice warm steam bath and plunge pool would be one of the first things to be built. Along with a good hypocaust central heating system!
Once the goods had been landed at Ravenglass, they would begin their journey over the mountains. At first, this is a fairly easy and very beautiful trip up Eskdale. This is a classic Lake District valley, sheltered and wooded with a lovely river running along its base. Lots of places to rest and plenty of drinking water for your journey. But it doesn’t last. Blocking the way at the head of the valley is Hardknott, the first of two steep ascents over the mountains. But Hardkott also commands an excellent view back up Eskdale to the sea at Ravenglass, and makes a perfect location for a fort. So, of course, the Roman army built one there.
The picture to the right shows the view of the remains of the Roman fort at Hardknott (Mediobodgdum), with the present-day pass running up over the dip in the mountain behind it. A 1 in 4 ascent with terrifyingly tight hairpin bends, not helped by a road surface that breaks apart regularly. We have driven this on family holidays many times, and it never loses its excitement for me – particularly if I’ve drawn the short straw and it’s my turn to drive! Trudging up and down this pass with carts, mules and people-power must have been a much more challenging effort than just driving over it, especially in the biting cold, ice, wind or driving rain. Once over the pass, you descend into Wrynose bottom, a desolate, bleak valley with high mountain walls on all sides. There is a way out to lower land at the Hardknott end, but if you want to keep heading east towards what is now Ambleside, there is no alternative to another 1 in 4 climb. This is Wrynose pass. Once over it, you can see the way down to Ambleside, a beautiful descent towards green woodland that gladdens the heart after the hard beauty of the high fells.
The Roman fort at Ambleside (Galava) must have been a welcome sight to anyone who had made the trip over the mountains. Its pleasant lakeside position near Windermere is a lovely spot, and once again the traveller could indulge in a bath, if he or she had access to the fort. The fort included large granaries that would have ensured a supply of bread and cakes as part of the diet of the soldiers and local occupants of the vicus (civilian settlement) outside the fort. The size of these granaries suggests that the fort may have been a distribution centre for the Lake District area.
The whole trip from Ravenglass to Ambleside is only around 18 miles, but they were probably 18 of the most testing and spectacular miles on any Roman road in Britain. Following the route of the road today is a wonderful way to spend a day, particularly if you’re a fan of Roman roads, like me. I can highly recommend the trip!