Close to Pickering lies the historic site of Cawthorn Roman Camps. Roman Yorkshire has always fascinated me and so on a rare day off on the way up to the Yorkshire Coast, I decided to drop into the site.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Romans built a series of fortifications, towards the Northern most tip of the Roman Empire. Over the years, most of this former grand Roman Camp has disappeared but here at Cawthorn there is still a wealth of evidence of this occupation with a series of ditches, banks and earth works which stand as a reminder to this time.
The area was excavated in the 1920’s by eminent archaeologist Sir Ian Richmond who proposed it was just a training camp.
The area containing the Camp was bought in 1983 by the North York Moors National Park to ensure its care and preservation. A car park was built and signage boards erected at various locations around the site and paths with trails created to help visitors explore the site.
The National Parks have started a programme of preservation which has involved removing trees and shrub to protect the archaeology. The footpaths were also installed to help keep visitors from climbing over the site.
When I arrived, I walked through the woodland to the edge of the site and the first thing that struck me was the scale of the site. I regularly pass the fort in Bainbridge in the Dales known as Virodisum and that is relatively small compared to this.
I started to walk around the site following the pathway across the middle of the site. I had been lucky to have the site to myself as no other visitors had arrived that early and stopped to take in the view. I suddenly felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and there was a real feeling of a connection to the past. I didn’t see any ghostly apparitions of Roman Centurians, but just had a strange feeling that this lonely location, now deserted was once a thriving, busy settlement.
Apparently the name Cawthorn Camps is a bit confusing as apparently there is just the one camp between two Roman forts. The Romans didn’t arrive in Yorkshire till gone 70AD but as they moved North to conquer the Northern lands they built forts.
At Cawthorn, two forts were built and a marching camp which acted as a temporary stop for Roman soldiers who were moving around the region. These camps and forts included defensive structures of man-made ditches and embankments.
It is believed that these camps were built by legionaires who were based in York (known in Roman times as Eboracum). The camp is actually situated on a ridge over-looking the central moorlands of the North York Moors National Park which adds to its defensive position.
There is a viewing platform at the corner of the fort with great views not just over the site but also across the local Moors.
The camp dates back to approximately 90AD and when the Romans left Yorkshire in the early 400’s – the site left empty but there is evidence of later habitation during the Anglo Saxon period, 200 years later.
The question about why the camp was built in the first place has actually caused my debate. Most people seemed to agree with the idea that the forts and camps were to protect the local Roman Road between Malton and Ravenscar. This was an important Roman Road and actually as a transport link it pre-dates the Romans. (Interestingly an Iron age burial was also found at the site in 1905).
Archaeologists Graham Lee and Peter Wilson have argued that the site evolved over a 40 year period and that it was an integral part of the Romans occupation of Yorkshire.
Roman camps would not have had fixed structures but the troops would have been accommodated in tents.
It is likely the camp was only occupied for a few days or weeks at a time. The defensive ditches were not as substantial as permanent forts such as those in York, but the earthworks are believed to have been topped with sharp stakes.
Others just believed that the site may have just been built of military training manoeuvres.
Whatever its true history it is a wonderful place and its an amazing feeling that you are actually walking in the footsteps of Roman soldiers - well worth a visit.