The Saxon Shore Forts (Part 1)

Ever since my father took us as small children to find the crumbling remains of a Roman Fort at Lympne on the edge of the Romney Marshes I’ve been dimly aware of the ancient coastal defences of England. Somewhere in the murky recesses I knew that they were called the Saxon Shore Forts not because they were built by the Saxons but because they were built to defend against them. And that there were only nine. Not ten or eleven as some sources have taken to listing but definitely only nine.

It turns out that, while there may be a couple of potential areas of confusion on the ground, the official late fourth century record in the form of the Notitia Dignitatum Comes Litoris Saxonici per Britannium names nine forts and lists their respective complements of military personnel. Well, there’s no need to argue over that, then. Four forts lie along the coastline of Kent and are all pretty familiar; I have lots of family pictures which I can look out and sort into some sort of photo-essay in due course. And I’ve also visited the two that lie on the South Coast more than once.

But if I want to start at the top, as convention dictates, then I’d better begin with East Anglia. Last week’s trip to North Norfolk gave me the perfect excuse to get the project underway and here I must explain that, while I did actually make it to all of these three rather distant locations (and a disputed fourth site), I did not expect my human companion to accompany me to all of them. That’s why I have a little dog, after all.

Travelling up on our way to Norfolk, Molly and I made an early detour to witness a lovely dawn over the Essex Marshes. Here we found the remains of Othona (Fort number 3) at Bradwell-on-Sea and visited the wonderfully evocative St Peter’s church, built from stones of the abandoned fort in the seventh century. Reckoned to be the oldest church in Britain, it has again become a place of pilgrimage with a modern day monastic community situated nearby. (Othona pictures 46-72)

Branodunum or Brancaster (Fort number 1) on the North Norfolk coast made an interesting diversion during one of our watching-the-nature-watchers walks although there is not much left of the Roman occupation besides an, albeit nicely labelled, hollow in a field. A helpful chap in the nearby roadside tea stall pointed it out and told us how we had missed the Time Team excavation by just a couple of weeks. I can’t say I was that sorry as I am not particularly enamoured of media folk as a rule but at least we were able to witness the fact that they had left the field in an excellent condition. (Branodunum pictures 04-24)

On my return journey at the end of the trip I braved the early September holiday traffic around the Norfolk Boards and somehow managed to navigate my way to both of the disputed sites of Gariannonum (Fort number 2): Caister-on-Sea and Burgh Castle. These two sets of remains lie on opposite sides of the River Yar estuary, an area that I know not at all, and the rather unworthy suggestion that I give up and make use of reference pictures to illustrate my story did begin to creep into my mind. In my defence I must say that this was as I negotiated my way through a third traffic jam but now that I’ve relaxed a bit and composed my photo-gallery I’m glad that I persevered. ((Gariannonum pictures 25-45)

Construction took place between the second and fifth centuries and I hope that these pictures show how the forts were built in a basically rectangular shape to overlook strategic stretches of coastline. Also showing, of course, just how picturesque that coastline can be. More detail will simply have to wait until I get back to the more familiar stretches of Kent: it isn’t as if I’ve got to worry about homework deadlines any more, is it?

Categories: Britain, East of England

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