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The good, the standard and the ugly: Castleshaw Roman Fort

Jonathan Schofield travels into the moors and 1930 years backward

Written by . Published on September 30th 2009.

The good, the standard and the ugly: Castleshaw Roman Fort

Category: excellent (for the associations and location it evokes)

Castleshaw Roman Fort, off the A62, on the eastern fringe of Greater Manchester. On Confidential we’ve got a review of the White Hart Inn (click here) this week: we took the opportunity to look up this ancient old friend whilst reviewing that Saddleworth classic.

Where’s the Roman Fort? All I can see are some lumps on a moor
That would be it. But don’t be downcast, feel the age, gulp in the atmosphere of ages passing. Also admire the situation, the Roman’s were tactical geniuses. The site below Stanedge high in the Pennines avoids the windswept crest of the ridge but sits on a little plateau surveying any activity around. The views are superb. Given that they are nearly 2000 years old these ‘lumps’ as you say, evoke the past perhaps more than high walls would, showing the power of old Father Time as it washes Empires away. As the Romans might say ‘tempus fugit’.

Ok....but the pictures evoke sheep as well.
You have no imagination. Remember at the time the small garrison here would have been twelve miles from the nearest big fort at Manchester and located in a largely empty landscape. The Brigantes tribe of Celts, the main tribe in the North of England, would have maybe had a few isolated settlements hereabouts but their main areas of occupation were in less inhospitable landscapes to the east. You’re talking forests in the valley bottoms, fresh water streams and rivers full of trout and salmon. In these first years of recorded (by the Romans) history the troops here would have had wild goat, herds of deer, boar, wolves and even brown bears for company. And probably their own flock of sheep.

What’s the history?
The first fort was constructed in the same year as Manchester was occupied, probably AD 79. It was constructed during the campaigns of the man whose sculpture looks down on those entering Manchester Town Hall: General Agricola. It was made of earth and timber and guarded the route over the Pennines. It lasted less than twenty years and was probably always intended to be temporary. It was replaced by a much smaller half-acre fortlet built shortly after, around AD 105. Possibly a civilian settlement grew round this tiny place. The fortlet also lasted about twenty years.

Anything else about the history?
Excavations have revealed that the fortlet had an oven, a well, a granary, a hypocaust (Roman central heating), a workshop, barracks, a commander’s house, a courtyard building, and a toilet. Since the fortlet was so small it’s uncertain what it was for? As a well-known historian RG Collingwood put it, this was ‘obviously a block house for a handful of men policing the road’. Others think it was more important. The evidence of a village indicates trade. Perhaps Castleshaw was an administrative and logistical centre for a while, with soldiers collecting pay and instructions.

So what can we see now?
The main defensive ditch and turf wall on the south east is particularly impressive and a genuine survival. In other places the fortlet walls of turf, have been enhanced and defined in recent years to reveal the shape of the fort. That’s about it, but it’s still worth a visit for those other reasons described above. It wasn’t like this the first time I visited.

When was that?
I was thirteen and I cycled over the hills from Rochdale on a three gear bike. Only the sheep and that main ditch are exactly the same. Oh and the constant wind over the deeper silence. I also liked the name people have imagined was Castleshaw’s original name taken from a possibly dubious reading of a Roman map. This gives the name as Rigodunum, which means ‘place of kings’. Maybe some battle took place around here in which a tribal chief was killed, maybe tribal royalty had a stronghold round here which has been lost? Maybe nothing of the kind happened but it was a grand name for a teenager to conjure with. On another matter the recent visit a couple of weeks ago has given me my new favourite notice.

Go on then what is your new favourite notice?
It's the one at the gate which reads ‘Sheep on the Roman Fort area for management purposes’. We need more sheep in management positions – have you seen the state of the economy? Mind you the lane the road is on has got a good name too.

Let us know then
Take the A62 out of Oldham through New Delph. Castleshaw fort is between the A62 and the reservoirs a mile or so out after the junction with the A6052. You can reach the site by Cote Lane, or a little further on, by Dirty Lane. Lovely. The latter might be appropriate for a cheeky trip with a lover. If you want to woo them with Roman remains that is. Takes all sorts. Otherwise the fort is a grand base for a walk up to Standedge. Then maybe lunch or tea at the lovely White Hart.

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Mossley BobSeptember 30th 2009.

While you were up that neck of the woods you should have paid a visit to Buckton Castle. Followed by another trip to the White Hart...

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