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History and Research: Ambleside Roman Fort

Covering three acres, the fort was probably built during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (AD 117–38).

However, excavations have suggested the presence, partly beneath the stone buildings, of an earlier fort with a turf wall and timber buildings, constructed possibly in the 90s AD, when Roman control of the Lake District was being consolidated.

Aerial view of Ambleside Roman Fort, showing the central range of buildings and the edge of Lake Windermere in the bottom left corner

Aerial view of Ambleside Roman Fort, showing the central range of buildings and the edge of Lake Windermere in the bottom left corner
© English Heritage

History and excavations

Little is known of the fort’s history, and the identity of none of its garrisons has been established.

A tombstone of Flavius Romanus from the third century, which was found in the 1960s to the east of the fort, states that he was killed by an enemy inside the fort; whether his killer was a personal enemy or a member of an attacking force is unknown.

Finds suggest that the fort was occupied into the later fourth century and beyond. Given its strategic location, this fort, like that at Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall, could have become the base for a local warlord and his militia after the Romans departed.

The most interesting theory regarding Ambleside is that it had a significant regional role in supplying the Roman troops who policed the Lake District.

Its location, so close to Windermere, made it a suitable reception point for goods transported by ship. This suggestion is supported by the large size of the granaries and of the settlement outside the fort, which extended at least 875 yards (800 metres) to the north.

Remains of the sunken treasury

Remains of the sunken treasury
© English Heritage

Description

The remains of the fort lie in Borrans Field, at the northern end of Lake Windermere.

The entrance to the fort is through its main (east) gate, which had a double carriageway and flanking guard towers; in very dry weather, the line of the Roman road approaching the gate can be clearly seen as a crop-mark in the grass.

Parts of the gates and sections of the fort walls are exposed, but the most significant surviving structures are the headquarters and granaries.

Buildings inside the fort

The headquarters building consisted of a courtyard flanked by rooms possibly used as armouries; beyond this was the ‘cross-hall’, a roofed extension of the courtyard  and the centre of administration for the fort.

To the rear of this was a small temple containing the military standards, beneath which was a sunken strong-room or treasury where the garrison’s funds and the soldiers’ savings were kept – the sanctity of the room above was thought sufficient to deter thieves.

On either side of the temple were administrative offices.

To the right of the headquarters building were the two granaries. These were substantial in size – perhaps larger than required by this fort alone – suggesting that Ambleside may have functioned as a storage and distribution centre for regional supplies. The floor consisted of flagstones, raised on the still visible supporting walls to allow air to circulate through the vents in the outer walls.

To the left of the headquarters building are the partly excavated remains of the commander’s residence, consisting of rooms grouped around an open courtyard. The large size of this building reflects the importance of the fort commander.

The areas to the front and rear of the central range of buildings would have been occupied largely by barracks and perhaps stables.


Sources

Leech, R H 1993. 'The Roman Fort and Vicus at Ambleside', Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological and Antiquarian Society, 93, 77–95

Mann, D & Dunwell, A 1995. 'An Interim Note on Further Discoveries in the Roman Vicus at Ambleside', Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological and Antiquarian Society, 95, 79–83

Shotter, D C A 1998. 'Three Roman forts in the Lake District', Archaeological Journal,  155, 338–51

Disclaimer

The text and pictures on this page are derived from the 'Heritage Unlocked' series of guidebooks published in 2004. We intend to review, update and enhance the content in the near future as part of the Portico project, whose objective is to provide information on the history, significance, research background and sources for all English Heritage properties. 

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