The Roman Fort At Bainbridge

The village of Bainbridge in Upper Wensleydale stands near the confluence of the River Ure and its tributary, the Bain, the latter a small stream rising in Semerwater, one of the few lakes that Yorkshire possesses. In the angle formed by the junction of the two streams, rises a steep hillock of boulder-clay, some eight hundred feet in height. This is known as Brough Hill, and on its summit are the remains of one of the most interesting Roman forts yet excavated in this country.

The foundations cover an area of more than two and a half acres, and are remarkably complete, owing, doubtless, to the fact that their isolated site has secured them from interruption during the centuries. Although the stones of the later, fourth-century buildings have been at some time almost all removed for the construction of the cottages in the neighbourhood, the various occupation layers have remained in situ, and the flagged floors of the fort still survive some two or three feet below the surface of the soil.

The relics of the old Roman Bracchium, few in number are scattered far and wide among the museums of the curious; but over the entrance into the Town-school there are two door heads respectively dated “IE 1763”, “1660” and surmounted by a rudely sculptured mermaid found in the Roman camp.
All these stones are framed in a “Dog-tooth” border which probably came from Fors Abbey.
George Hardcastle 1866 Herald Office Sunderland

Bainbridge-or, to give the village its full name, Brough-by-Bainbridge has been known for many years as a Roman site. As far back as the sixteenth century, Camden recorded in his Britannia a couple of inscriptions that had been found here, both referring to the reconstruction of the fort in the third century. One of these, unfortunately, has since disappeared, but from the other Camden inferred that “this fortification at Burgh was anciently called ` Bracchium,’ “and that, during the later years of the Roman occupation, it was a station of the Sixth Cohort of the Nervians.

This surmise seems to receive some measure of confirmation from the fact, mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum, that this particular body of troops was stationed at a place called “Virosidum.” The site of Virosidum has never been identified with certainty, but may well have been Bain¬bridge; it has been suggested, indeed, that the first syllable of the word may contain the name of the River Ure in a Latinized form.

But, although the archaeological importance of Bainbridge has long been recognized, serious excavation was not commenced there before the year 1925, when the digging of a trial trench revealed the existence of five ditches and a rampart. During the next six years the work was steadily carried on, and the results have been surprisingly instructive. Broadly speaking, the investigations prove that the site was in occupation during the greater part of the Roman period, and that its history, like that of many another Yorkshire fort, is largely a record of frequent building and rebuilding.

The earliest fortifications at Bainbridge date, apparently, from the end of the first century and may have been the work of Agricola during one of his northern campaigns. As in the cases of York and Malton, they took the form of a broad clay rampart, surmounted by a palisade and pierced by gateways of timber, whilst the interior buildings were also of wood. This camp appears to have been stormed by the Brigantes in the rebellion of A.D. 115 and reconstructed in the early part of the second century. The barracks were rebuilt in stone and roofed with slabs very similar to those still employed for roofing purposes by the local villagers.

Unlike other of the Pennine forts, such as Ilkley and Slack, which were either completely abandoned or unoccupied for long intervals, the reconstructed fort at Bainbridge seems to have remained in use during the rest of the Roman period, though structural alterations were naturally necessary from time to time. Extensive repairs, for instance, were carried out at the opening of the third century, and it is probably to this work that Camden’s inscription refers. We know that, at this time, Lucius Alfenius Senecio, whose name occurs on the inscription, was Governor of Britain, and there is evidence that he was engaged on the repair of Hadrian’s Wall and several of the northern forts, such as Greta Bridge on the Tees and Benwell on the Tyne.

The buildings at Bainbridge may have suffered during the disturbances that broke out in the north about the year A.D. 275, but there is no doubt that the fort was again in occupation at the beginning of the fourth century and, in all probability, remained so until the final departure of the legions from Britain a hundred years later. This belief finds support in the extensive discoveries of pottery on the site, of a type found in large quantities in the Roman signal stations on the Yorkshire coast.

Apart from the general plan of the fort, Bainbridge has yielded several features of particular interest to the student of Roman Britain. Among these are the foundations of a courtyard-house, doubtless the residence of the commanding officer, and the remains of the ” sacellum,” or regimental chapel, where the standards of the cohort were kept and incense burnt to the regimental gods. Beneath the “sacellum “a flight of steps was unearthed, leading to the strong-room or treasury of the garrison. As the regimental pay-chest was kept here, the strong-room naturally occupied this position, some eight feet below the level of the ground. On the lower slopes of the hill, facing down the dale, a number of mounds have been discovered, surrounded by a stone wall. These are thought to mark the site of the “vicus,” or civilian settlement, which, as we have already seen in the case of Malton, generally lay outside the defences of the fort. This encircling wall, although quite common in Scottish forts, is the only one yet discovered south of the Tweed, and may prove to have been the ” bracchium,” or ” arm,” recorded by Camden.


There can be no doubt that Bainbridge was an important road centre in Roman times. The Pennine region was always in a more or less disturbed condition at this period, and the conquerors required roads along which punitive expeditions could easily be carried out against the Brigantes. We have clear evidence of two roads, at least, which entered the Bainbridge fort, one from the south and the other from the south-west, whilst there must almost certainly have been a road on the other side, leading down Wensleydale and establishing communication with Agricola’s great highway into Scotland.

The line of the road to the south has been definitely traced for some seven or eight miles from Bainbridge. It climbs the slope of Stake Fell, above Semerwater, and crosses the watershed that separates Wensleydale from Wharfedale, though its line is lost before reaching Buckden on the upper reaches of the Wharfe.

To the south of Buckden, however, traces of ancient pavement have been found at intervals in the neighbourhood of Grassington, Hebden and Appletreewick, whilst at the small village of Conistone, between Kettlewell and Grassington, we come across another possible piece of evidence of Roman occupation. This may be found about half a mile to the south of the village, where the ground falls away towards the Wharfe ; on a ridge between the high road and the river, an earthwork, three acres in extent, has recently been located, with a well-defined ditch on three of its sides. Although no actual Roman remains have been found on the site, the construction of the earthwork appears to be of this period, though whether it was a permanent fort or a temporary marching camp, such as Cawthorn, cannot be determined without further excavation. The presence of the camp, however, along with the stretches of pavement in the vicinity, serves to indicate the possibility of a Roman road along the left bank of the Wharfe, leading towards the important river crossing which is known to have existed at Ilkley.

The other definitely established road in the Bainbridge area can be followed for twenty miles or so in the direction of Ingleton and Lancaster, and was doubtless a branch from the main road between Chester and Carlisle. It appears, under the name of “The Devil’s Causeway,” on Warburton’s map of Yorkshire, published in I720, and is shown as running from the permanent fort of Overborough on the Lune to Bainbridge. Near its western termination it is probably represented by the modern road from Ingleton to Ribble Head. Beyond Ribble Head it reaches a height of nearly two thousand feet when crossing Cam Pastures and Wether Fell, and for the last three or four miles of its course, where it is known as the Old Cam High Road, it descends in a direct line to the western entrance of the fort at Bainbridge.

Whether there existed any Roman road to the east of Bainbridge is still a matter of some doubt, though there are reasons for believing this to have been the case. A grass grown track, possibly of Roman origin, is still clearly visible from the towers of Bolton Castle, pointing in the direction of Richmond and Catterick, whilst Warburton records a road across Swaledale towards Bowes and Greta Bridge. At Middleham, moreover, on the other bank of the Ure, remains have been found of a Roman villa-the most northerly yet discovered in Britain and, indeed, in the Empire-suggesting the possibility of a road from Bainbridge down the dale. In default, however, of clearer evidence, this particular problem cannot yet be regarded as solved.

About thirty miles to the south-east of Bainbridge lies the pleasant inland watering-place of Ilkley, in Roman times the other important road junction of the Yorkshire Pennines. Despite its present appearance, Ilkley is a town of considerable antiquity, as might be imagined from its commanding position at the eastern end of the Aire Gap. Before recorded history begins, indeed, it lay on the route by which Bronze Age man carried on a primitive commerce between Ireland and Scandinavia, whilst on Rumbles Moor, which overhangs the town on the south, have been found examples of the so-called ” cup and ring ” stones, on which the same race may have made their ritual offerings to the dead. On the eve of the Roman invasion, Ilkley, along with Aldborough and Catterick, was one of the principal strongholds of the Brigantes, and its name of Olicana, recorded by Ptolemy, is probably only a Latinized form of the Celtic word ” Ilecan,” meaning ” a rock.”

from Roman Yorkshire by F.R.Pearson 1936

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The Dales