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Ambleside Roman Fort

  • Roman Bell

The fort in Borrans Field, Ambleside, was first described by the antiquary William Camden in the reign of Elizabeth I,  ‘the carcase, as it were, of an ancient city, with large ruins of walls; and without the walls, the rubbish of old buildings in many places’. Subsequent centuries saw the Roman buildings used as a convenient quarry for building stone, and by the 19thcentury little remained above the surface. The purchase of the site by the National Trust led to four seasons of excavations between 1912 and 1920, by R G Collingwood, to whom we owe much of what we know about the site.


The History of the Fort

Most of the remains which can now be seen are those of a stone fort built during the reign of Hadrian. Beneath these, Collingwood found an earlier and smaller fort, built of timber; little is known about this, but it may have been established during the governorship of C.I. Agricola (80-85 A.D.). There may then have been an interval before the building of the stone fort, which was occupied until at least 365 A.D.


Why a Fort at Ambleside?

The fort occupies a strategic position at the meeting of the Rothay and Brathay valleys, giving control over routes to the Kirkstone and Hardknott passes. The easy crossing of the Rothay may also have been a factor in siting the fort. The use of building stone from the south side of Windermere suggests that use was made of water transport. Little is known of the native population in the area, but taxes as well as many of the Roman garrison’s supplies were probably collected locally.

The full material archive from the Collingwood and later excavations of the fort is held at the Armitt Museum Cumbria. In addition the Armitt Library holds the associated excavation reports and a wealth of other information relating to the fort.




If you look up Robin George Collingwood in a biographical dictionary, you will find that he is chiefly remembered as a philosopher who attained the Waynflete Chair of Moral Philosophy at Oxford in 1935. For people in the Lake District, and particularly around Ambleside, he is better known as an archaeologist.

Collingwood’s interest and involvement in the archaeology of Roman Britain was lifelong. His daughter, Teresa Smith, records that he was carried as a baby, only three weeks old, in a carpenter’s bag to Hardknott Fort where his father William Gershom Collingwood was excavating. The role his father played in building his interest was pivotal, and they remained close collaborators until his father’s death in 1932. Through him, Collingwood was given an introduction to the distinguished archaeologist F Haverfield when he went up to Oxford as an undergraduate. Haverfield was then Camden Professor of Ancient History and later served as President of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society (CWAAS). Haverfield was pioneering huge advances in the understanding of Roman Britain and was chiefly responsible for much of the recording and excavating that was being newly undertaken at the turn of the 19th century. He recognised Collingwood’s skills in draughtsmanship and engaged him as his assistant in the task of documenting all the Roman inscriptions then extant.

With his father, Collingwood had already worked on the excavation of the native village at Ewe Close, Westmorland in 1907. The results of this work were published in the Transactions of the CWAAS. It was on Haverfield’s recommendation that he was given his first digs, at Corbridge on Hadrian’s Wall and at Papcastle. In 1912, the year that saw the founding of the Armitt Trust, Borrans Field, Ambleside, came up for sale. As the site of Borrans Ring, as it was then called, a Roman fort which had already been partially excavated by amateurs in 1846, a scheme was launched, largely at the behest of WG Collingwood, for the purchase of the field by the National Trust. The purchase was completed in 1913. The CWAAS was offered the responsibility of carrying out the excavation, and it was Haverfield again who suggested that Robin Collingwood be put in charge of the work. He was then 24 and had been a member of the CWAAS since 1909. The excavation was carried on between 1913-15 being “well done and quickly and admirably recorded”. Full descriptions of the Galava excavations and finds are reported in two successive volumes of the Transactions (New Series, xiv & xv). Unfortunately the war intervened and Collingwood went to take up duties at the Admiralty Office, which in 1918 included setting up the Versailles negotiations. The subsequent difficulties over ownership of the finds, their display and the role of the Armitt Trust are documented by Eileen Jay in her book The Armitt Story. In his Autobiography, Collingwood wrote,

“Every summer I spent serving on the staff of some large excavation, and from 1913 onwards directing excavations of my own. This became one of the greatest pleasures of my life.”

From this time on, despite a heavy workload as a Fellow and Tutor at Pembroke College, Oxford, Collingwood spent his summer vacations pursuing his interest in Romano-British archaeology. He was frequently at Hadrian’s Wall where he developed the system of numerical references for the milecastles and turrets. He often led the CWAAS summer tour of Hadrian’s Wall and produced an annual report on findings there. He became recognised as an authority on Roman coins, using them to correct previous misconceptions regarding the dates of certain sites and historical events. His book Archaeology of Roman Britain was described by the Roman historian Ian Richmond as “a brilliant study which [could hold] its own even against Haverfield”.

However, it was the work on the Roman inscriptions that held most of his attention. On October 1 1919, Haverfield died and the responsibility for this monumental work passed to Collingwood. Haverfield had entered into negotiations with the Clarendon Press for an edition of a New Corpus of Roman Inscriptions in Britain and had secured Collingwood’s services as draughtsman and assistant. From 1920 onwards, most of Collingwood’s spare time was spent scouring the country for inscriptions, recording them with his accurate pen, deciphering and cataloguing. From 1921 to 1936, Collingwood published his findings every year in the Journal of Roman Studies. On Collingwood’s death, Richmond wrote to Mavis Taylor, Collingwood’s long-time collaborator at the Journal of Roman Studies,

“Professor Collingwood’s most valuable contribution to archaeological research was his work on the Corpus of Inscriptions. He set a standard both in the reading of inscriptions — in cases of very worn and damaged inscriptions, he always judged by touching — and in reproducing which has rarely been equalled.”

In 1936, Collingwood saw that his health was no longer robust enough to sustain the level of detail required for the inscriptions project and R P Wright was appointed as assistant. The full work was not published until 1965 since when it has been a cornerstone of scholarship in Romano­British archaeology.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of Robin Collingwood’s work in the field was his collaboration with his father. He always acknowledged his debt to his father in establishing his lifelong love of the subject. William Gershom Collingwood had come to Coniston to act as Ruskin’s secretary, being himself an artist, historian, archaeologist and translator of Icelandic sagas. After Ruskin’s death, he devoted his attention to the archaeology of Northumbria, and in particular to the recording of the ancient Northumbrian stone crosses. He was editor of the Transactions of the CWAAS from 1901-1925, and President from 1920-1932, having succeeded Haverfield. From 1920, Robin assisted his father in editing the Transactions, eventually taking over the task completely in 1925.