Hardnott Roman Fort

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Site Details:

We headed North then West: up to Scotch Corner, along to Kirby Steven and through the Eden Valley, past Kendal, on to Windermere, Ambleside and then turning onto the terrifying Wrynose Pass.

Narrow, crumbling and steep, random tight turns and nearly sheer sided drops on either side, we crawled along the track of a road, climbing higher and higher as water ran across the tarmac and mist settled on the high peaks like smoke.
Eventually, and introduced by dire warnings on battered road signs, we reached Hardknott Pass.
The road, incredibly, gets narrower, steeper and more frightening as you crawl along - desperate to keep enough momentum up to tackle the ever tightening, ever narrowing bends without going fast enough to fly off the track and into the rocky grassy verges.
The drive grinds on for what seems like hours, each turn and challenge more difficult than the next.
Eventually we saw our objective. Hardknott Roman Fort, laying strewn like a discarded child’s toy on the high mountain side, impossibly canted to the east and perched precariously on a rugged cliff edge.
Known to its builders as Mediobogdum, the fortress is square, as opposed to the usual rectangular shape. It is 115m to a side, and we have the traditional four gates. These are even today over head height.
The Southern gate being the main entrance, the east and west are double carriageway sized.
The Northern gate is narrower, probably because it was less used, opening as it does onto a drop that would be calamitous to try to descend. You wouldn’t want to be a sleepwalker posted here.
The fort was built in the early second century and abandoned 30 years later when the Romans began the Antonine advance into Scotland. Reoccupied around 200 AD the occupation seems have been continuous until around 375 AD, only 40 or so years before the Romans left Britannia for good.
The military purpose of the fort is emphasised by the four strong corner towers, and the permanent occupation buildings which include Granaries, a Praetorium (the commanders house) and the Principia, or Headquarters building. All these are visible today as 30cm high stone walls.
Outside the walls is a fine bathhouse, again marked by low walls.
Off to the east is a well-preserved parade ground, slightly larger than the fort itself, with a clear track running from the east gate to the parade ground. To the west what appears to be a lookout post: a hillock with an artificially flattened top and mind-numbing views over the Western and Northern approaches.
The interior of the fort is an ankle breaking mish mash of immovable rocky outcrops, free running streams and bog. Of the location and structure of the wooden barracks, stables, forges and other necessary structures to support a permanent garrison there is no sign on this harsh terrain.
There is a Vicus, or civilian settlement referenced by Collingwood, but again no sign can be seen, and frankly its difficult to find enough level ground around the fort to imagine where one could be placed.
This is a hard place: the landscape dominates the archaeology, and the weather dominates the landscape. Rarely could you find a site so isolated, damp and hopelessly chilled.
Should you visit?
Definitely: it’s a difficult drive, it’s a wild and lonely place and the impact of the trip alone, I suspect will stay with you a long time.
You won’t spend long there – we took longer driving from Ambleside than we did on site: but, as the weather closed in, and the mist descended from the high peaks around us, the only sound was of the stream running down the hills and over the exposed rocks.
You just know that you will never be closer to the cold and disheartened young lads who built this precarious fortress 1800 years ago. And for that reason alone how can you not make the trip?
Text and images supplied by YAAMAPPING

Hardknott Roman Fort, also known as Mediobogdum, is one of the most remote and dramatically sited Roman forts in Britain. It was established in the early 2nd century AD under the rule of Emperor Hadrian, who also built the famous wall across northern England (English Heritage, n.d.-a).

The fort was located on the western side of the Hardknott Pass in Cumbria, and guarded the Roman road that connected Ravenglass on the coast with Ambleside on Lake Windermere (English Heritage, n.d.-b). The fort was garrisoned by the Fourth Cohort of Dalmatians, a unit of about 500 soldiers from the Balkans, as recorded by a fragmentary inscription from the south gate (English Heritage, n.d.-a). It was abandoned and reoccupied several times during its history, until it was finally deserted in the early 3rd century AD (English Heritage, n.d.-a).

The ruins of the fort were used as a temporary shelter by travellers and patrols in later centuries, but were not recognised as being of Roman origin until the late 17th century (Historic England, n.d.). The archaeological history of the site is dominated by two events: the excavations undertaken between 1889 and 1894 by W.T. Watkin and R.G. Collingwood, and the clearing and consolidation of the walls by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works between 1952 and 1969 (Heritage Gateway, n.d.).

The remains of the fort include the stone walls, the four gates, the headquarters building, the commandant's house, the bath house, and the granaries (English Heritage, n.d.-b).



English Heritage. (n.d.-a). History of Hardknott Roman Fort. Retrieved from https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/hardknott-roman-fort/history/ English Heritage. (n.d.-b). Hardknott Roman Fort. Retrieved from https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/hardknott-roman-fort/ Heritage Gateway. (n.d.). Hardknott Fort: Overview. Retrieved from https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=9756&resourceID=19191 Historic England. (n.d.). Hardknott Fort, Eskdale, Cumbria. Retrieved from https://historicengland.org.uk/services-skills/education/educational-images/hardknott-fort-eskdale-1640

Site Visit Notes:

So, this one evokes the memories of an amazing Summer Solstice sunset and a ‘making amends’ after the horrendous Summer Solstice at Castlerigg I observed, but that’s left well alone (don’t ask).
A long day this happened to be as it was the Summer Solstice and as the day wore on, I had no real plans to be particularly at any ‘place’ for the sunset. I had driven down through the mind blowingly beautiful Great Langdale Valley for my main mission to see the rock art and check out the Stone Age sites in this valley but to also gaze up to the pikes where the Langdale Axe factories were located. I’d planned to hike up but wasn’t expecting to be here on this day, and it was too late in the day by the time I’d hit this valley anyway as I’d been too slow loitering around Neolithic sites on the way through. One for another day. I’m fortunate to own a small Langdale axe and hence I had plans on hiking up.
Turning my back (and car) to Pike of Stickle, I drove over Wrynose Pass (pretty bl##dy amazing) and then on to and over Hardknott Pass (pretty bl##dy amazing) where here on a spur of this mountain this amazing fort lies. There is parking on this C road for about 4 or 5 cars adjacent to the fort which you can’t actually see as it’s slightly above you. The sun was getting low by now and there was one other car (a guy had spent the night in the fort to see the Solstice Sunrise, and we met in this lay-by as he was leaving). My wife, dog and I and with a picnic and flask in hands, traipsed over to the fort and were met with the most amazing panoramic views which were enhanced by the low solstice sun, I felt like my eyeballs were on steroids!
We had the place totally to ourselves and after investigating the fort, taking a few drone shots and contemplating what life must’ve been like being stationed here as a Roman Legionary or Auxiliary (the British Army’s equivalent of Tidworth) we ate our picnic in the total stillness and beauty surrounding us. A fittingly perfect way to end the summer solstice 2023.
This is my cut-off point I think Roman era as I’m really a ‘stoney’ (Paleo, Meseo and Neo) at heart, but after the start to my day, I couldn’t have spent at any better pace and with any better people than that of my long-suffering wife and my 16yr old dog.
The following info is taken from a Roman Britain website:
Hardknott Roman Fort, also known as Mediobogdum, is an archaeological site located on the western side of the Hardknott Pass in Cumbria.
  • The fort was built on a rocky spur, providing commanding views over the River Esk in both upper and lower Eskdale. It also protected the strategic Hardknott Pass.
  • At an altitude of 800 feet, it isn’t the highest fort in the Roman province of Britannia (the highest being Epiacum or Whitley Castle in Northumberland at an altitude of 1,050 feet).
  • The ruins are commonly known as Hardknott Fort or Hardknott Castle, but they are identified from the Ravenna Cosmography as the Mediobogdum fort, situated along the road between the forts of Galava (Ambleside) and Glannoventa (Ravenglass).
  • The fort was built between approximately 120 and 138 AD.
  • Initially garrisoned by a detachment of 500 infantry from the Cohorts IV Delmatarum, hailing from the Dalmatian coast (modern-day Croatia).
  • The fort was abandoned during the Antonine advance into Scotland during the mid-2nd century but was reoccupied around 200 AD and remained in use until the last years of the 4th century.
  • An extensive vicus (civilian settlement) developed outside the fort during this time.
  • The fort is square with rounded corners, measuring 114 meters externally (or 105 meters internally). The rampart wall is about 1.7 meters thick, with ditches adding to the total width.
  • The outer wall has four gates, one at the centre of each side, and lookout towers at each corner.
  • Inside the walls, you can see the remaining outlines of several buildings, including granaries, the garrison headquarters building, and the garrison commander’s villa (Praetorium).
  • The bath house outside the fort has a rare circular sudatorium, and the levelled parade ground is considered one of the finest surviving examples in England.

Lee Walker

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