Roman Britain: Top 3 Sites

We are lucky to have so many Roman sites in Britain, and the bestselling author of the Edge of Empire series names his top 3.
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Britain is blessed with a cornucopia of ancient Roman sites and I have had the opportunity to visit many of them, both in researching for my novels and just for fun. From the ramparts of Scotland’s many sheep-grazed, turf covered forts and camps to the World Heritage listed Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England or the stout walls of the shore fort of Porchester in the south. There is such a range, in fact, that I would be hard pushed to pick a top 3, if asked.

However, thinking about it differently, when I attempted to list my favourites for their beauty and scenic charm the selection quickly narrowed. In Britannia’s south there are many picturesque locations to pick from such as; Chedworth Roman villa, the tall standing remains of Richborough or Burgh Castle near Great Yarmouth. All are well worth a visit for their location alone. But, it is in the north, where Rome built its militarised zone as a bastion against both native and seaborne threats that, in my view the most stunning sites are found. So here goes.

3. Trimontium

Trimontium with the Eildon hills behind

Situated a short drive from Melrose in the Scottish Borders the site hugs a meandering bend of the ancient River Tweed. Today, it is little more than a ploughed field with the exception of a ripple in the riverbank marking the curved embankment of the most northerly amphitheatre in the Roman world. The Trimontium Trust have done a fine job in bringing the plot to life, setting up a number of viewing platforms and information boards to paint a picture of what the fort once looked like. But this is not the best part. If you make the forty minute walk from the centre of Melrose to the peaks of the three Eildon Hills, the site of the former Iron Age hillfort, after which Trimontium is named you will be greeted by a magnificent three-sixty degree vista of the borderlands. You can look down at the fort to the north or south along the line of the great Roman road of Dere Street to Northumbria. Extraordinary.

2. Hardknott

Hardknott Roman Fort

Possibly the most remote and difficult to reach Roman remains in Britain. Located in the heart of the Lake District National Park the approach to the fort is attained via Hardknott Pass, a drive that is not for the faint of heart. A tight winding ascent around multiple hairpin bends and an acrophobia-inducing drop to the valley below will eventually bring you to the head of the pass. From there you get the first sighting of Hardknott’s square shaped walls and the yellow-brown patch of its parade ground. A challenging descent awaits before reaching the fort itself. But the effort is worth it. A short walk from the roadside brings you to the fine remains of the bathhouse. During the bitter winter months it must have been a godsend for its garrison, the 4th Cohort of Dalmatians, from modern day Croatia. The fort itself is a wonder. The circuit of its wall is complete and stands, in some places, to well above head height. Several internal buildings are also recognisable including; the headquarters and commanders house and the two granaries. But the star of the show is the view down to the coast, where the now invisible line of the Roman road would have followed the Eskdale valley to the coastal fort at Ravenglass. Just stunning.

1. Burnswark

Burnswark Fort

One of the most important but least visited Roman locations in Britain, just south of the village of Lockerbie in Dumfriesshire, lies the Iron Age hillfort of Burnswark. The ramparts of this ancient flat-topped hill are held in the grip of two siege forts of the legions. Recent archaeological work has pointed to it being the possible site of the opening battle in Lollius Urbicus’s campaign into Caledonia. The location is ever changing, standing on its summit, one minute you could have clear views across the silver slash of the Solway Firth to the north Lakeland fells and their lonely brother Criffel on the Scottish side. The next the mist rolls in and you are immersed in a silent eerie world.

Following narrow B roads from junction 19 of the M74, you eventually reach a potholed farm track. But, if driven with care you should be fine. If the weather has been a bit wet a pair of wellies is recommended. A short walk followed by an easy ascent to the summit via the southern siege fort, with its three ballista platforms, you will be greeted by, in my view, the most outstanding of vistas of any site in Roman Britannia.

Alistair Tosh is the author of Siege, part of the Edge of Empire series.