Thursday, 26 April 2018

Richborough Roman Fort

Dwarfed by the walls of Richborough

Bike Wheels and Battlefieds 

Spring has come, and the cycling season is upon us. This year, I have decided to combine my love of history (especially military history) and my love of cycling. I’m calling this new campaign: Bike Wheels & Battlefields, and I’ll be sharing some of my (hopefully) more interesting adventures here.

I have only recently become interested in the history of Roman Britain. Partly, I wanted to fill this major gap in my knowledge of the country, and partly I wanted a better foundation for the study of my favourite period, the Dark Ages. It was during these studies that I realized that Richborough Roman Fort, one of the most important sites in Roman Britain, lay just at the edge of my cycling range…

I slipped out of bed at 6AM after five or six hours of broken sleep which included at least two long stints in a rocking chair with a wiggly toddler. I ate a quiet bowl of mini-wheats and studied my route on the Ordnance Survey maps. For those people not from Britain, OS maps are amazing, like Google Maps before the internet. They grew out of military mapping and now you can buy an OS Map for every single corner of Britain. The incredible detail of these maps outlines every building, every ancient monument and ruin, ever contour of the land, and even, in theory, everywhere you can get a drink. I would be traveling across two of these maps on my journey (OS 138 & 150), and they would be my only guides. In fact, the only digital devices I would take with me were a cheap mobile phone (incapable of internet connection) which I carried for emergencies and to tell the time and a digital odometer to keep track of the miles.
This isn’t to say I had shunned the internet in my planning. In fact, Google Maps was the first thing I checked when planning my journey. According to Google, the journey to Richborough would cover 25 miles and take just over two-and-a-half hours. I knew better than to believe either of those numbers. Now, I don’t doubt that Google is pretty accurate that the route was near about 25 miles, but that’s only if I managed to follow it exactly, taking no wrong turns and no detours. Considering my inherent lack of direction and suspect map-reading skills, this seemed unlikely. The 2.5 hours is more mysterious. I’m not sure how Google calculates cycling times, but I suspect they ask someone like Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas to cycle the route and report back. I knew I would be lucky if I could complete the route in under 4 hours.

My first sighting of St. Radigund's Abbey
I was setting out from the town of Hythe, and even though both Hythe and the fort lie near the coast, my plan was to turn slightly inland, in order to cycle the back roads of Kent. This, unfortunately, involved going up and over two major ridge-lines, first above Folkestone and then again above Dover. I am not the kind of cyclist that enjoys big climbs for their own sake, but if I must endure them to reach my goal, I will (and I’m not above getting off the bike and pushing either!).

I left the house at 6:30. The sun was already shining bright with the promise of a warm day to come. I rolled down my hill and through Hythe, encountering almost no one on this quiet Thursday morning. In a few minutes, I was by the sea, listening to the waves roll against the shingle. At some point, I passed Sandgate castle, but it is so crowded in by the town around it, that I blinked and missed it. Before 7, I had reached the end of my easy shoreline cycle to Folkstone. The route now went up, and up, and up. In fact, it continued up for about 500 feet over a depressingly short distance. I passed Folkestone’s pair of Martello Towers (Napoleonic-era gun towers), but was so busy grasping for breath that I spared them nary a glance. I had little time for distractions today.

Twice, I had to stop and carry my bike up a set of stairs, but mercifully the second set lead me to a quiet cycle path that finally brought me to the top of the ridgeline. It was a pretty brutal start to the trip, but I was at least rewarded with fantastic views over Folkestone and out across the English Channel.

Back on the level, I continued on my way in higher spirits. I cycled pass the Battle of Britain Memorial, which appeared to have a nice little museum as well as a Spitfire and Hurricane parked outside. It was definitely something I would have to visit in the future.

I rode through the small town of Caple-Le-Fern and then out into the quiet Kentish countryside. One of the great things about Britain for cyclists is that it is crisscrossed by numerous little country roads that are rarely used except by farmers and the few people that live in the scattered hamlets. When cycling in the middle of a weekday, it’s not unusual to cycle for an hour down these little roads and encounter next to no-one. As I was cruising along, enjoying the sun and the bike-generated breeze, I saw a dark and craggy shape looming through some trees. It was hard to make out at first, but it was clearly some sort of ruined tower. Despite my plan not to get distracted, I decided to take a quick detour to get a closer look.

The impressive remains of the St. Radigund's Abbey gate tower.

Turning down another quiet road, I rolled up in front of the ruins of St. Radigund’s Abbey. The tower I had seen was a large gateway tower, whose modern gate made it pretty clear that visitors were not encouraged. Smaller ruins stretched around it in all directions, mixed in with the trappings of a modern farm. In fact, glancing through some of the ruins, I could see the main farm house, which was rather remarkable as it appear that it was composed of sections form at least three distinct periods including modern and medieval. Only after I got home would I learn any more about these romantic ruins. The Abbey itself was built in the 12th century, and was dedicated to Radigund a saint and Frankish queen from the 6th century. The Abbey never really flourished and was already in bad shape by the time The Dissolution finished it off in the 16th century. Apparently, some of the stones from the Abbey were carried away to help build Sandgate castle. Well, at least they got to carry the stones downhill…
From the Abbey my route ran down, down, down. While it is fun whizzing down the hills, it is also rather depressing to give back all of that hard won elevation. A little while later, I rolled into the delightful little town of River, which is kind of a suburb of Dover. By now it was 9:30 and time for a break. I pulled into a little park by the river Dour, and found a seat near where the river cascaded over the remnants of a watermill. Listening to the pleasing sound of the water, I ate a sandwich, and thought about my destination.
My picnic spot in the town of River.
I am far from an expert on Roman Britain, but I know enough to be impressed by the importance of Richborough. It was at this site in 43 AD that the first Roman troops of the invasion of Britain came ashore (The invasion under the Emperor Claudius, the one that stuck, not the earlier attempt by Julius Caesar). It would serve throughout that campaign as the main supply base of the army. Later, a port town called Rutupiae grew up around that initial beach head, as the site became the main crossing point from Gaul to Britannia for Roman couriers and the like. Sometime in the later 3rd century, some of the town was destroyed to make way for a huge stone fortress, one of the new ‘Saxon Shore Forts’ designed to help defend the province against seaborne raiders. Significant portions of these walls still stand on the site, and served as the biggest draw to me.
Snack done, my next task was sneak out the back of the town. According to my map, there was a road that lead out of town and would allow me to slip under the main A2 road that cut through the area. As I quickly discovered, ‘road’ was perhaps giving the path a little too much credit. It was paved, but it appeared to that no one had used it in many a year and the trees and shrubs grew close all around it. This was actually quite welcome as the high branches provided some nice shade as I once again struggled up a steep hill (I might have pushed it a bit here – hey, no one was watching)

Why not spend a night at the Blazing Donkey?
The map was true to its word, and I passed under the thundering traffic of the A2 and onto a back road of the town of Whitfield. Unfortunately, at that point, my map reading skills failed. Somehow I managed to do a complete circle around Whitfield and came back to near where I had started. Eventually, in exasperation, I asked some locals at a bus stop for help. They sent me tearing out of town on a wonderful bike path through the countryside. Not the path I was supposed to be on, as it turned out, but lovely! Thankfully, I wasn’t headed in the complete wrong direction, and once I figured out where I was, I was able to get back on track having only spent a few extra miles of pointless cycling.

The extra cycling did have one other effect, I was now dangerously low on water. Although the day was only pleasantly warm, cycling in any weather requires near constant hydration. I was just beginning to get worried about this when I reached the town of Eythorne and their very welcome village shop. I immediately went in (enjoying a couple minutes of blessed air-conditioning) and bought a bottle of water and a sports-drink. The sports drink was consumed in the parking lot, the water was poured into my bottle.

The names continue on the other sides.
While I was drinking in the little parking lot, I noticed that the parking lot also contained the village war memorial. It seemed only appropriate and respectful that I take a minute to read the names. Now, Eythorne is a little spot of a town, and one suspects it was even smaller during the World Wars, so how could they have lost so many sons… I think, perhaps, this is the best way to understand how crushing the World Wars (especially the First) was to Britain. Every little town has one of these memorials, covered in names.

Despite these sombre reflections, I left town in good spirits, aided by the sugary sports-drink. From Eythorne I continued on the back roads to the town of Eastry, where I happened to glance down at my handle bars and realized that I had left my bike lock at home. I give myself credit for not shouting anything to discredit myself, even if there was no one around to hear. However, I must admit that several choice expletives did come to mind.

Every time. It happens every time I clean my bike; I take the lock off the handle bars and forget to put it back on. I had cleaned my bike the day before in preparation for the trip, and once again, left the lock in the shed. Well, there was nothing for it. I decided to press on and hope to luck that I could find a bike lock somewhere along the way.

Perhaps because of those thoughts, I managed to make a wrong turn leaving Eastry and found myself on the main road leading into Sandwich. Thankfully, it was only a short ride at that point, and my only time spent on a large road ended quickly. In fact, maybe the wrong turn was a bit of fate or luck, for as I wheeled into Sandwich, I saw a sign for ‘Locks of Sandwich Cycles’. (Seriously the name of the shop is ‘Locks’). It gave an address on King St, and although my map was too large to give names to small city streets, I found the place with little difficulty. A few minutes later, I was in possession of the cheapest bike lock that money could buy! (In Sandwich at any rate).

Sandwich appears a pleasant town, and even on a Thursday morning before lunch the place was buzzing with shoppers, a small market, and outdoor cafés. I had no time or interest in such things at the moment; however, and I powered on through the town and straight passed my turn. Another mile or two wasted, I got back on track and even saw a sign for Richborough Roman Fort. As I whizzed by the sign, I just caught a glimpse of ‘Open every weekened…’, wait, what?

For a moment, I felt very, very foolish, but I decided to ignore it and press on. Another mile and I had arrived. I quickly checked the sign and confirmed that the site was open – it is apparently open every weekend during the year, and every day in the spring and summer. It is a good that I hadn’t come three weeks earlier. Anyway, I had finally arrived. According to my odometer, I had covered just over 32 miles. According to my phone, it was 11:30, almost exactly five hours after I had set out.

As I pulled my bike into the dirt and gravel parking lot, I caught my first glimpse of the heavy walls of the ancient fortress. Even at a distance, they were stunning in their solidity. Built to last against invaders and armies, they remained standing after 1,700 years…

Of course my awe was interrupted by the practicality of there being nowhere to put my bike. I suppose they don’t get many bike-borne visitors, but really a simple pole or two would do the trick. In fact, it occurred to me that the chance of my bike getting stolen in this place was near to nil, but, chained up, I at least wouldn’t have to worry about it. So, I did the best with what I was presented, and chained the bike to the gate that is obviously used to let vehicles into the site. I figured the grass looked recently mowed, so probably no one was coming.

From the parking lot, it was a short walk to the site entrance. I must admit, my first thought on stepping inside was ‘They have a fridge with Coca-Cola. YES!’. Clutching my ice-cold treasure, I approached the counter. If the woman had any thoughts about this sweaty, dirty, dishevelled, bearded, little man, she admirably kept them to herself. Instead, she checked my English Heritage membership card and sold me the coke and guidebook. If you’ve ever been to an English Heritage site, you’ve probably seen their guidebooks. I can whole-heartedly recommend them as a series. They give a good historical overview, are filled with interesting factoids about the site that you will otherwise miss, have loads of nice photos, and generally contain some really nice paintings that reconstruct the site as it would have been in its heyday. And, they seem reasonable priced.

Roman Dice Tower Bits!
I decided to start my tour in the small museum. Well, very small museum. Just one small room, with a few artefacts found at the site. In truth, the best artefacts were actually reproductions as the originals had been taken away to the British museum. Still, two items caught my eye. One was a group of decorative pieces thought to have adorned a roman dice tower! I knew the Romans were big on their dice games, but I always assumed dice towers were an invention of the modern game community (look, I make my living writing dice-based games, so it was cool to me). The other was a bronze swan head (reproduction) noted as being for the prow of a ship. However, the whole thing was about the size of an actual swan head and neck, which struck me as strange – so I’m not sure if it was an actual ship decoration or a piece of some kind of model.

Tossing the empty coke bottle in the trash as I exited the museum, I stepped back outside and starred up at the mighty wall in front of me. The walls at Richborough still reach heights of 8 meters, thought to be where the parapet stood, which gives a good feel for what it must have been like to approach these walls under the watchful eyes of the Roman soldiers. Stepping through a broken hole in the wall, I was immediately struck by the scale of the fortress. Because three walls are still standing, or at least large sections of them still are, you can really get a sense of the place. Inside the walls, the site is a confusing landscape of ditches, mounds, foundations and low ruins. Each of these are explained by plaques dotted around and even better in the guidebook.

The most interesting spot is in the direct centre, where a pair of earthen mounds come together to form a cross. Apparently, after years of scholarly research, this was finally understood to be the base of a monumental, four-sided archway that stood 25 metres tall. It was likely built partly to commemorate the conquest of Britain, partly to awe the natives, and partly to serve as the ‘gateway to Britannia’. At the time there would have been nothing like this in Britain, nothing even close. There is a beautiful reconstruction in the guidebook of what it must have looked like looming over the port in later years. Sadly, the great archway was torn down when the main fortress walls were constructed. (The Romans really were a strange combination of ostentatious and practical).
You can see the cross foundation of the arch in the middle of the shot.
After a good walk-around to get a feel for the site, I sat down by one of the walls and ate my lunch. A couple of days later, when I had a chance to fully read through the guidebook, I learned that over 40,000 Roman coins have been found on the site – 40,000! Seriously, this place was so littered with Roman money that when defensive works were being dug around here during World War II, the soldiers were told to sift their dirt for ancient coins. (How incredibly British is that). In fact, it is probably for the best that I didn’t know all of this while I was at the site, or I probably would have dug a few holes myself just on the off chance…
In all, I spent an hour-and-a-half at Richborough, mostly just wandering, imagining Roman soldiers patrolling, and admiring the heft of the remaining towers, that some suspect may have been made to hold artillery pieces. I would have happily lingered – it was a beautiful day, and just the kind of spot I like to stop and read a book – but, considering it had taken me five hours to reach it, I decided I had better not dawdle.
Possibly the ruins of the military commander's house.

Happily, my bike was exactly where I had left it, and even if my body groaned a little as I got back on, I was (mostly) looking forward to the ride back. The ride went smoother this time, in that I recognized many of the landmarks I had passed on the way in and didn’t have to stop near as often to check the map. Still, as I discovered when I hit the first hill, my legs didn’t have much left in them. By the time I once again reached River, and sat, once again, by the ruins of the watermill, I knew I was about done. I pulled out my phone and text my wife:

              ‘Should we order pizza? I’ll have a large pepperoni’.

As I said near the beginning, the phone was for emergencies. The road up out of River is so steep and so long, I had no chance of cycling up there. Instead, I pushed my bike and my sweaty-self up the long bending road, smiling politely at the mothers collecting their children from school. That hill truly seem to go on forever.
If they do, we are doomed!
Having eventually climbed up those 500 feet, I got back on the bike and started to roll once again, down the gentle backroads behind and above Folkestone, admiring the view, and knowing that the worst was behind me. I rolled down through the town and back to the shore, where nearly everyone was coming out to enjoy a sunny day on the beach. I had to cycle slowly because of all the people, but, in truth, ‘slowly’ was now my maximum speed anyway. I was so cooked, it was all I could do to make each pedal stroke and bring myself that little closer to home.

It was 5:30 when I pulled up in front of my house, eleven hours after I had set out. My odometer told me that I had done 59.93 miles, which I happily rounded up to 60 in my head. It was a hard, but glorious day. I had journeyed, explored, got lost, delved into history, and finally returned home to a pepperoni pizza.

If you want to learn more about Richborough Roman Fort, you probably can't do better than the English Heritage Guide Book. If you want to learn more about the Roman Saxon Shore Forts in general, I suggest Rome's Saxon Shore by Nic Fields.


  1. Is this England or Middle Earth ? lovely scenery.

  2. The UK land of knackered castles. 60 miles after a winter break, impressive. I feel your pain.

  3. Perhaps most people don't realise that Richborough was a the south end of a now vanished sea channel which cut off Thanet and had its northern end at the now near vanished fort at Reculver... or that the site where Caesar landed is close by, across the former channel (recently proved by excavation). There are some neat Roman walls around abandoned Silchester (a bit far to cycle from Kent?) or you could check out Fishbourne, proposed as an alternate landing spot in 43 AD and with its palace ruin/mosaics

  4. A great read Joe, fascinated by Roman Britain too. Off to Chester in the summer, did Hadrian Wall a few years ago, a great trip.

  5. Great diary entry. I went to Richborough (and several other EH sites - membership is fantastic for "free" days out) last year, and did pretty much the same as you when I got there - my brain just fizzes with "what if" scenarios as I walk around these types of site. However, I went by car with a friend and got to Reculver and Upnor too that day. Dotted along the 'B' roads there are plenty of roadside market stalls and their associated farm shops selling fresh strawberries and cream and are therefore fantastic places for refreshment stops.

    1. Yeah, just got my EH Membership expressly so I could just go when/where I wanted without having to worry about the entry price.

  6. A great trip....I know and love it all . But they are not really hills try cycling in the Lake District 😫

    1. I've done a bit of cycling in the Lake District, but I'm not ready for the Struggle or anything of that nature!

  7. Probably 'old news' to many folks, but just to tie together the OS maps and Roman Britain I own a couple of copies of this -

    For fans of Roman and post-Roman British history (and especially for those with awful memories, like me!) it's a great resource to help remind me where places are or were

    1. They actually had these in the Richborough gift shop, I've got to admit, it looks like a seriously valuable resource.