RICHBOROUGH CASTLE IN KENT
Between the rising ground at Deal and the cliffs of Ramsgate there is a wide expanse of flat pasture land through which the River Stour meanders to the sea. In the days of the Romans the tide swept in from two sides over a great part of this area, thus cutting off Thanet from the mainland, for which reason that promontory of Kent is still called the Isle of Thanet. In the midst of this low-lying area, some two miles/3.2km from the little old-world town of Sandwich, a long mound is to be seen humped up above the dead level of the meadows, and this of course was an island in ancient times, surrounded by the sea at high tide and by wet mud flats when the tide was out, but always accessible by ship, the bed of the river forming a navigable waterway.
Before the arrival of the Romans the Britons had used the place as a stronghold, but when the conquerors took possession of the country in 43 A.D., a fortress, defended by earthworks, was erected at one end of the mound and was called Rutupiae, no doubt the Latinised form of the native name. Thereafter the place became the chief port at which the Roman legions disembarked or embarked again, and soon it had also become the most important commercial harbour of Britain. Later on, when the port of London had begun to take most of the country`s over-seas trade, Rutupiae assumed the position of a great naval base, and the fort was strengthened by the building of massive walls, large parts of which still stand, enclosing a rectangular area of about six acres/2.4ha, measuring nearly 500 feet/152.4m from north to south and about 580 feet/176.7m from east to west. The ruins are now known as Richborough Castle, and the gaunt, grey battlements are a landmark for miles around/km around.
The place is just a bare enclosure of grass and clover, having these still mighty ramparts on three sides, but lacking the fourth side, the east, which has toppled over and has been lost in the mud below, where now the railway line runs through the green pastures which have come into being over the waterway therein the ancient ships-of-war used to pass to and fro.
Here resided the Comes Litoris, the governor of “Saxon Shore,” that being the name of the east and south coasts from Norfolk round to Southampton; and I must hasten to tell the story of the most famous of these governors, for therein the British Navy makes its first important appearance in history, a fact which in itself should be sufficient to make Richborough a beloved goal of our pilgrimages in search of forgotten beginnings of the glory of England.
The name of this governor was Carausius, and his date 245 – 293 A.D. He came from a place called Menapia, but the trouble is that there are two places of that name, one near Wexford, in Ireland, in which case Carausius was an Irishman, and the other on an island in the North Sea, in which case he was a German. At any rate, he was a great man, and at length, in 286, in the reign of Maximian, he proclaimed himself Emperor here at Richborough.
For seven years he ruled Britain with a loving and mighty hand, and during that period he organised a powerful British fleet, which was based on this island fortress, and for the first time in history the British Navy was seen in the Mediterranean. When the foundations of the London County Council`s offices, opposite Westminster, were being laid, part of one of his ships was dug out of the mud, and at Richborough many coins bearing his name and the picture of a battleship have been found. British commerce flourished under his care, and as far away as Llandudno a large hoard of his coins have been unearthed. He was murdered in the end by his chief officer. Allectus, who usurped his position. Rome, which had recognised him, at once sent Constantius, who later became Emperor, to avenge him; and Allectus was executed, some say at Silchester, the city in the forest between Reading and Basingstoke.
Another notable event in the history of Richborough was the arrival there of Lupicinus, the general sent to Britian by the Emperor Julian in 359 to fight the Scots/Picts; and in the time of the Emperors Valentinian and Valens another general, Theodosius, father of the Emperor of that name, disembarked there in 368 on a like mission.
Towards the end of the Roman epoch the Second Legion, which had been stationed for generations at Caerleon, in South Wales, was transferred to Richborough. This legion was always recruited along the Rhine, and its residence here on the island must have introduced a strong Rhenish strain into the blood of the people of Kent. This was before the days when surnames were handed down, and therefore the descendants of the soldiers of the famous “Second” cannot thus be identified today. But if you happen to meet in the Sandwich neighbourhood a man who looks like a Rhinelander you will know whence comes his features.
In 383 Magnus Maximus, called “The Rutupine Robber,” was proclaimed Emperor at this fortress, but he took many of his troops from Britain to fight his battles on the Continent and, after he was defeated, some of them did not come back. Some years later another general, Stilicho, withdrew one more legion from our shores, and next a British Emperor, Constantine, took away all the remaining troops to fight for him overseas, and they never returned. At last, in 410, the Emperor Honorius told the Britons that they must look after themselves, as he could spare them no troops, and with that, Richborough and all the other cities and forts were left to their own devices and soon fell prey to the Anglo-Saxon invaders.
Excavations were begun inside the enclosure of the fortress in 1922 by the Society of Antiquaries, and are still proceeding!, only about a third of the area having so far been examined, for the money available is so small, and funds are urgently needed. The discoveries, however, have been wonderful. Nearly 40,000 coins, some of gold, have been found, dating from pre-Roman to Saxon times; and a host of small objects have come to light – the bronze head of a Pharoah from Egypt; a large broken statue of the goddess Ceres; an inscribed ingot of silver now in the Canterbury museum; a block, or “pig,” of lead stamped with the name of the Emperor Nerva; a palette for preparing rouge or some sort of face-paint; a mass of broken pottery and glass; and so forth.
Various houses have been found, and the public baths are now being unearthed. But the most extraordinary discovery is that of a stone and concrete construction in the form of a cross, 86 feet/26m long, and still rising nearly 5 feet/1.5m above the platform on which it rests. Around this cross innumerable fragments of white marble have been dug up, richly carved, and evidently having formed parts of wall-facings, pavements, columns, cornices, steps, and so forth; while pieces of gilded statues have also been found. This strange structure seems to date to a period before the great walls were built, or lighthouse, had stood here on the island, towering above the ships in the harbour; but of this I will speak in the next chapter. Another area still awaiting excavation is that of the town outside the walls of the fortress, now hidden beneath an open field, above which a dozen English larks were singing when I walked there one day in the summer. Close to this is the clearly marked amphitheatre, a circle 200 feet/60m across, now buried beneath the crops.
From this spot you may look for miles/kms across the flats, where the sheep graze, and where the modern road runs to Sandwich, and beyond it to the famous golf links, laid out on the ground from which the sea has departed. Not far away is the great naval port and camp of Richborough, built during the war, and now about to be turned to industrial use; but one wonders whether the naval engineers who laid it out ten years ago realised that they were building almost at the very spot where Britain`s first naval base was erected, eighteen hundred years ago.
RICHBOROUGH CASTLE, DOVER AND LYMPNE, IN KENT
Over 200 years before the time of Caesar, the architect Sostratus of Cnidus erected a great lighthouse on the Egyptian coast which came to be regarded as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It stood upon the island of Pharos, which rose from the sea in front of the city of Alexandria, and behind which was the famous Harbour of the Happy Return.
The lighthouse was built of white marble and was so amazingly lofty that an ancient author, who must have been suffering from an attack of dizziness, estimated its height as that of 100 men; that is to say, between 500 and 600 feet! (152.4 and 182.8m) It was constructed in a series of towers, one above the other, gradually diminishing in size, the lower towers being square and those at the top round.
There was a terrace, beautiful decorated, at the base of the building and balconies at each storey. An inclined plane passed up to the entrance in the lower part of the tower, by which the fuel was carried in upon carts to feed the great bonfire which blazed all night at the top of the tower. By the aid of a great mirror, which survived into Arabic times, the light of this fire was intensified so that it could be seen for some thirty-five miles/56.3km out to sea.
The ruins of this marvellous erection, which was dedicated by Sostratus to “the Saviour-Gods, for those who travel by sea,” are now lost beneath the waves into which an earthquake hurled them; but in the day when the Romans came to Britain the building was still in use and served as a model for other lighthouses such as those at Ostia and Ravenna, in Italy, at Rhodes, in Asia Minor and at Messina, in Sicily.
In the previous chapter I have described the great naval base at Rutupiae, the modern Richborough Castle, near Sandwich, in Kent; and it will be remembered that excavations there have revealed a great concrete platform, upon which stands another platform in the form of a cross. The basic platform is of immense strength and is sunk in the natural sand to a depth of over 30 feet/9m of solid concrete, so that it was obviously designed to carry a great weight and to give stability to a building of exception height; and as it is placed on top of the mound which in those days rose sheer out of the sea it seems probable, as I said above, that we here have the base of a lighthouse, a smaller copy of that at Alexandria.
Hundreds of fragments of white marble, many of them highly decorated, have been found around this platform; and it seems that the tower, like the Egyptian Pharos, was encased in that ornamental stone and must have gleamed white in the sunshine against the blue of the heavens or against the more frequent grey clouds of our English sky. The two thin arms of the cross probably formed the base of the entrance passages, once approached by steps and paved and cased with marble; and the thicker part of the middle seems to have constituted the foundation of the square tower itself and the terrace at either side of it.
The Romans were very proud of their conquest of Britain, and this beautiful and mighty building might well have been regarded as a worthy monument of the power of the Empire, standing here at the gateway of that land which had once been thought to form the limits of the world and which was now one of the most favoured provinces of Rome. In the darkness the beacon fires at its summit shone across the Channel, guiding ships to their safe anchorage; and for generations the fire must have blazed, night after night, until at last the legions of Rome were withdrawn, the tower began to crumble away, and the light went out for ever.
Some miles/kms away there was another great harbour, that of Dubrae, the modern Dover; and here, high up on the white cliffs, stood another mighty lighthouse, the bonfire at its summit shining over the waters and being visible from the coast of France. This tower, the upper part of which was rebuilt in mediaeval times, still stands to the height of some 40 feet/12m, and is one of the best preserved relics of the Roman epoch in the whole of Great Britain.
You may see it now within the walls of Dover Castle, just to the south of the main building and close to the west end of the ancient church of St. Mary, much of which was built from material taken from the lighthouse. It is a monstrous construction, octagonal outside, and square within; and, entering it by the large archway on the east side, the interior is seen to be hollow, though there are clear enough indications that once there were chambers, one above the other, where those who tended the fire lived like eagles in their aerie high above the world.
Today, from the grassy summit of the hill, outside the tower, you may look down on the harbour and the town of Dover, which has now grown up over the spot where Dubrae once stood, and you may gaze across the sea to the visible cliffs of France just as our Roman and British fore-fathers gazed; but the difference is this: that whereas we look over the Channel to a foreign land, where the people speak a different language and serve a different ideal, in those days a man could descry the distant coast as that of but another part of the world-wide empire to which he belonged, where the inhabitants spoke the tongue of the south of Britain, and both he and they had Latin as a second language, and were imbued with the same pride in being members of the Roman Empire.
The nations of today which divide Europe into so many watertight compartments, so to speak, were a nuisance unknown to imperial Rome; and these great beacons lights of Kent gleamed through the night, guiding the traveller only to another Roman shore, just as did the Pharos on the far Egyptian coast, that land too being Roman in those splendid days.
The ruin of a Roman lighthouse is to be seen at Boulogne on the French coast, and I suppose there were other lighthouses in Britain, though all trace of them has vanished. In Chester an early writer speaks of there being a mighty tower, still standing in his day; but now it is gone. In Kent there was, perhaps, one at the harbour of Liminis or Lemanis, now called Lympne, three miles/4.8km from Hythe and seven/11km from Folkstone. Here there was a fortress, the ruins of which are today known as Studfall Castle, standing on the edge of Romney Marsh, that wide tract of land which in Roman times was covered at high tide by the sea, but which has since been reclaimed.
This fortress, I may mention, was excavated many years ago and immense quantities of coins and other objects were found; but the walls have been so shifted by landslides that it is now hard to see their original line. Like Richborough, it was a naval base, and here an altar was discovered, dedicated to Neptune by Gaius Aufidius Pantera, admiral of the British Fleet. Many roofing tiles from the naval barracks and stores of those days were also found, these stamped with the letters CL-BR, which stood for Classis Britannicae, “the British Navy.”
From these three great Kentish ports – Richborough, Dover, and Lympne – ran roads which converged at Canterbury, the ancient Durovernum , and thence passed on to London and the north by the famous Watling Street, parts of which still exist. Along these high roads there was always a great coming and going of merchants, soldiers, and sailors travelling to and from the Continent, and the three ports must have seen the arrival and departure of a vast number of ships. These lighthouses therefore were very necessary, and they were built most powerfully so that they should last, as the builders supposed, for all time. But the day soon came when Rome itself collapsed, and now nothing remains of them except the platform and the marble fragments at Richborough and that gaunt tower on the cliffs at Dover which saw the creation of the first British fleet and still looks down on our battleships as they go forth to, or return from, the ends of the earth.
FOLKESTONE IN KENT
To the east of the harbour of Folkestone, that is to say on the Dover side, there is a grassy knoll called Copt Point, on which stands a conspicuous Martello tower; and beyond this lies East Wear Bay, screened by the rising ground from view of the town. Here the slopes of grass pass down to edge of the cliffs, but between these cliffs and the sea there is a confused area of mounds and hollows, like a miniature range of mountains, very appropriately named the Warren.
This wilderness of ups and downs – a rough-and-tumble patchwork of green turf and white chalk, with the cliffs high on the one hand and the beach and the sea low down on the other – has been formed by a series of landslides, the most recent of which took place in 1915, when a wide area fell forward and piled itself into new heaps and hummocks.
One of these landslides revealed a drain-pipe and a piece of a wall projecting into space under the turf at the top of the face of the cliff; and in 1923 these were recognized as being part of some Roman building. Excavations were begun by the Folkestone Corporation in the following year, and a single summer`s work laid bare the ground plan of two large houses, or one house in two parts.
The foundations, which were cleared, and a wide area of grass around them, were railed off; the different chambers were conspicuously numbered; a shed was built over one of the rooms where a mosaic pavement had been uncovered; and a custodian was placed in charge of the site. Thus you may visit this remarkable Roman ruin, and, paying a small fee for admission, you may wander about at your will, with a lucid little guide-book to explain the purpose of the numbered rooms to you.
Some of the objects found on the spot are to seen in the shed, but the most important pieces are now exhibited in the Folkestone museum; and of these I will speak presently.
The first question which will be asked, namely, as to the original owner of these buildings, must remain unanswered, for nothing was found to give any definite information. About fifty years ago (1875 approx) the foundations of other Roman buildings were unearthed about 600 yards/548m away, on the Folkestone side; and the probability is that under these grassy slopes, beloved of picnic parties, many more ruins are hidden, while others must be jumbled up in the Warren below, where the landslides have flung them. In ancient times the land extended much farther out towards the sea, and formed a very pleasant situation for a settlement.
But the Romans were not the first to build here. Coins and pottery dating from pre-Roman days were found in the excavations, which indicated that the British had lived here before our country had come under the rule of Rome; and the ruins showed also that the Romans buildings had been pulled down and reconstructed at least once. In the walls of the earlier building some tiles were found stamped with the initials or abbreviated title of the Classis Britannicae or “British Fleet,” and this fact indicates that the original builder was some high official connected with that service.
The great port of Dubrae, or Dover, was but five miles/8km or so to the east, and, in fact, you may today see from here the pier of Dover harbour projecting out into the water at the end of the great crescent of the cliffs of East Wear Bay; while from the rising ground west of the ruins you may look across the houses of Folkestone to the slopes behind which the port of Lemanis, or Lympne, was situated, eight miles/12.8km away. Across the Channel on a clear day you may see the coast of France with such surprising distinctness that the very houses are almost visible; and there, at Etaples, somewhat similar ruins have been found, also containing tiles stamped with the name of the “British Fleet.”
As I have remarked in another chapter, there were great Roman lighthouses at Dover and Boulogne, the ancient Gessoriacum; and thus the situation of this building at Folkestone, from which these beacon-lights could be seen every night, has a naval character which makes one think of it, as I say, as the headquarters of some admiral or high official of the British Navy of Roman times.
The coins found on the site carry the date of its occupation down to the second half of the Fourth Century; but probably before the legions were taken away from Britain in the first half of the Fifth Century the place was abandoned, and perhaps actually pulled down for the sake of building-stone, and soon the grass had grown over the foundations and all memory of it was forgotten.
The visitor at the ruins today must remember that he is looking mainly at foundation-walls which were below the level of the floors of the building, and in most of the rooms and corridors he is standing at the level of the floor of the sub-structure, where the hot air from the furnaces circulated to keep the house warm in winter.
There were probably three blocks of Buildings originally forming the three sides of a square open towards the east; but the south side, nearest to the sea, if it existed, has been carried away by the landslides, and only the west and north blocks remain. In both these surviving sections the rooms lead off from a long corridor; and, beginning the tour of inspection in the western building, it will be seen that the main entrance is here situated opposite the room now numbered 15, the two stone slabs which supported the door jambs being still in place. To your left a room (numbered 12) where the masonry pillars are to be seen which supported the floor, and the underground archway through which the hot air passed from the furnace outside is still in place.
Beyond this is a group of rooms (numbered 1 to 9) which seems to have constituted the household baths, but much of this area of the building has disappeared over the cliff. The drainage system is very clear at room No. 61, where some of the pottery pipes are still in place. On the right of the main entrance there are other chambers (numbered 16 to 18) and then comes a kitchen (No. 19), where the hearths are still to be seen; and beyond this the walls of a room or yard in under the grass.
In the other block of the building, the north section, the shed has been built over the chief room (No. 40) opposite the main entrance, and here you may see the original mosaic pavement. To right and left are some thirty other rooms; and one (No. 51), which is in a wing at the west end, is noticeable because it seems to have had at first a fine bow window whence a good view of the sea and the bay could be obtained.
Such is this remarkable site, and the fact that the ruins are all exposed to view makes it a place of extraordinary interest, though one dreads to think to think how soon the walls will crumble away if proper care not be taken. In the Folkestone museum you may see the tiles I have already mentioned, stamped with the name of the British Fleet; and here, too, are some of the long drain-pipes made of pottery. There are the usual fragments of iron and bronze work – knives, tools, keys, stirrups-irons, brooches and so forth; and the coins found in the ruins are also on exhibition.
Amongst the small objects I may mention some ivory counters used in a Roman or British game, and some marbles with which the children of the house used to play; but perhaps the most striking discoveries were those of a little bone egg-spoon, and the nipple of a baby`s feeding bottle, made of pottery. Such things with their human appeal, bring the past so vividly before the mind that, walking amongst these ruins and passing from room to room, one can almost hear in the sea-wind the cries of the long-forgotten children who grew up here amongst sea-faring men and at length took their places in the ranks of the sailors of the British Fleet of nearly two thousand years ago. Perhaps I should mention here, since I am now dealing with Kent, that there are many other Roman sites in the county. In the old-world village of Ospringe, a mile/1.6km from Faversham, there is a house called the Maison Dieu, in which there is a fine collection of Roman pottery and other objects discovered in a neighbouring cemetery; and these the visitor is permitted to see; and I have made no mention of the Roman fortress of Vagniacae the modern Springhead, between London and Rochester, the old Durobrivae. There is so much that space and time oblige me to leave out.