Richborough Roman Fort
History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
At the time of the Roman invasion the area around Richborough looked very different to what it does today. At that time Richborough was an island in a natural lagoon at the southern end of the Wentsum Channel, linked to the mainland by a causeway. This created a natural harbour that was ideal for the invading Romans to establish a presence in southern Britain. Historical accounts do not make clear exactly where the Romans landed, but Richborough seems a prime candidate to be the 'Ritupaie' mentioned by historian Cassius Dio.
The first military fort here was quite basic; it was intended as a beachhead in enemy territory, not a permanent military camp. There are two parallel ditches which extend for almost 2200 feet, well beyond the present fort, and must have cut the Richborough promontory off from the mainland. There was an earth rampart on the seaward side of the ditches, and the site was entered through a timber gateway.
The Monumental Arch
Sometime around 85AD the timber buildings used for the army supply base were torn down, making room for a large masonry gateway, symbolically representing a formal entrance to the new Roman province of Britain. Built at the junction of four roads, with an arch facing each road and a raised cross passage through the centre, the gateway was erected on a raised rectangular foundation of flint and mortar. The gateway measured roughly 85 feet high, and was constructed out of ashlar encased in Carrara marble imported from Italy. The gateway was richly decorated and had niches for bronze statues. So fine was the stonework that much of it was reused in building the west gate of the later fort, after the gateway was destroyed.
The importance of Richborough as a supply base faded as the role of Dover increased, but the port and the town that grew up around it still thrived. One piece of evidence for the busy town is a mansio, or hotel for official visitors. There was a timber building on this spot in the 1st century, but during the 2nd century this was rebuilt in stone. When the 3rd century fort was built the mansio fell out of use. a bath house was built on top of the earlier building, including a changing room, cold bath, warm bath, and hot room.
In the 3rd century defense became important once again, as the south coast came under threat from Saxon raiders. Around 250AD an elaborate system of earthwork defenses was erected, and it is these concentric series of earthworks that gives Richborough its most eye-catching feature. The central area of the town was levelled to build an earthwork camp enclosing about 1 acre.
This last stone fort was part of the new Roman series of Saxon Shore forts on both sides of the English Channel. The new rectangular fort was manned by soldiers of the Second Legion and defended by high walls of flint and stone with regular towers on all sides. There was a single gate in the centre of each side, with a double row of external ditches, save on the west, where the Roman builders dug three ditches, apparently by mistake. Most of the buildings within these strong walls were of timber, except for the bathouse on the mansio site, and a pair of stone buildings that might be temples.
The Roman Amphitheatre
Though English Heritage promotes the nearby amphitheatre as part of the Richborough experience, it is not signposted, nor is access terribly straightforward. We had to ask the attendant at the visitor centre, and she showed us an aerial photograph and explained how to reach the site by footpath. Even then we mistook the way and wandered about until we chanced upon the right location. And having taken the trouble to reach the site, we found the amphitheatre to be a disappointment. Though it certainly looked impressive in the aerial view, at ground level there is little to see beyond a depression in the broad hilltop. If you are interested in seeing the amphitheatre I suggest a good OS map, or at the very least get good directions from the visitor centre!
Lest that sound too negative, let me counter that by repeating just how impressive we found Richborough fort. The scale of the earthworks and the height of the walls was enormously impressive. It truly is a remarkable site, full of interest. I loved it!
About Richborough Roman Fort
Address: Richborough Road, Richborough, Sandwich, Kent, England, CT13 9JW
Attraction Type: Roman Site
Location: 1.5 miles north west of Sandwich, off the A257
Website: Richborough Roman Fort
Phone: 01304 612 013
English Heritage - see also: English Heritage memberships (official website)
OS: TR324 602
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
Opening Details: Open access site, usually accessible at any reasonable time
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NEARBY HISTORIC ATTRACTIONS
Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low-exceptional) on historic interest
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Minster-in-Thanet, St Mary the Virgin Church - 2.6 miles (Historic Church)
St Augustine's Cross - 2.6 miles (Historic Building)
Minster Abbey - 2.7 miles (Abbey)
Ramsgate, St Laurence in Thanet Church - 4.3 miles (Historic Church)
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