The Saxon Shore Forts (Part 2)

Well, this time I really did intend to write a scholarly piece about the Roman garrisoning of the South East Coast, especially as the next set of three forts includes Richborough (Rutupiae), with its excellent detail and lack of subsequent overbuilding. The perfect place for a closer look, you might think, especially as these three forts all lie in Kent and are conveniently situated close to the Isle of Thanet, centre of the known universe.

Reculver or Regulbium (Fort number 4) is today better known for the landmark twin towers of an imposing Norman church, the rest of which fell into the sea a couple of hundred years ago. Early in the nineteenth century plans were made to complete the demolition by blowing up the towers, however, the Admiralty acquired them to serve as an aid to navigation and they were thereby saved for the benefit of future generations of sightseers, artists and photographers. The mouth of the Thames Estuary here can become so hazy at times that it is almost impossible to distinguish sea from sky and even a glimpse of this distinctive silhouette must have served as a comfort to many sailors in times past.

Very little of the original Roman fort remains (the best bits of Roman wall are now in the pub car park) but the site is an interesting and evocative one. Sandy took a very good set of pictures during her visit of 2007 (013-021), whereas Mum and I only got as far as Minnis Bay last week and took the opportunity to view the towers from further along the coast (007-009). I have borrowed some helpful diagrams to illustrate the effect of coastal erosion on the remains of the fort (010-012) and Sandy’s picture (020) shows the massive defences that have been put in to protect what remains.

Lest you think we were slacking, Molly and I also took Mum to see Richborough (Fort number 5) over on the other side of Thanet, and properly looked at it for the first time without the cooling towers (022, 048). Despite being two miles from the sea, Rutupiae also has that “cropped off” look from the air (025). This is presumably because the waves ate away a good chunk of the fort before the sea retreated to leave it in its current, slightly elevated position overlooking Pfizer’s pharmacutical plant (042) and Pegwell Bay, all that is left of the now silted up Wantsum Channel which once separated Thanet from the rest of England.

The drug company has recently withdrawn from its Kent centre of operations (no Viagra jokes, please) leaving its impressive, purpose-built industrial village to the seagulls and the bindweed but the long abandoned cooling towers of the Richborough Power Station finally came down in March of this year (043-048). The latest Richborough pictures (027-042) have come out very well, despite my having to pop into the ticket office a couple of times to re-charge a terminally ill camera battery and I have added a gallery of favourite family pictures (049-081 ) to show off this delightful corner of Kent.

The settlement at Richborough was one of the most active centres of Roman occupation in Britain. Recently confirmed as standing at the site of the Claudian Invasion of AD 43 (every schoolchild knows that in 54BC Julius really came, saw and went away) this was no lonely outpost but a thriving port throughout the entire occupation (002, 023, 024). Different building phases can be clearly identified although the triumphal arch was demolished and the facing stones of the walls were gradually removed after the occupation to be incorporated into the churches, farms and homes of the district.

The virtual abandonment of Richborough after the Roman withdrawal early in the fifth century contrasts sharply with the continued development of Dover or Dubris (Fort number 6) where, as I have attempted to explain elsewhere, layer upon layer of British history covered the Roman town and left nothing but a rather splendid lighthouse (093,095). Untangling Roman Dover from subsequent periods by means of the limited excavation opportunities available has proved nigh on impossible, especially as the economic considerations of what is reckoned to be the busiest shipping lane in the world have to take priority.

Diagrams 087 and 091 show that even during the Roman period new building phases cut straight through old ones and so Mum and I agreed that Roman Dover was just too difficult and decided to leave it to the experts. Instead, we headed up to the Heights to look out over the Channel to France and soaked up a bit of atmosphere (109 – 114). Dover Heights is an attractive stretch of coastline with a nature trail managed by the National Trust so we could also be assured of a pleasant lunch.

In order to try to make up for the academic failings of this piece, I’ve added some illustrations that I hope will help to explain the development of the Port of Dover and its phases of fortification (082 – 101). I’ve made use of family photographs whenever possible although I just couldn’t resist the final two pictures (115, 117) so I’ve borrowed them from the Internet with thanks.

Categories: Britain, East of England

4 Comments

  • Arzu says:

    Amazing pictures and lovely images from family portraits; it was worth looking through!

  • Nicola says:

    Hi Arzu,

    Thanks for all the individual picture comments, here are the replies:

    picture 52: Yes, it is Grace at just about the age Lily is now

    picture 55: No, it is my Mum at just about the age I am now

    picture 66: The power station was built in the 1960s and stopped working about twenty years ago. It did not cause a great deal of pollution (so we were told) but the towers were very unsightly and were left standing after the site was closed down. The safely controlled explosion to bring them down was watched (and filmed) by many local people but unfortunately I couldn’t be there on that day. There are some wonderful film clips on U Tube, I’ll send you a link.

  • Chris says:

    The Planet Thanet pictures are great, especially the Autumn and Winter ones but where are the Spring daffodils?

  • Nicola Ainsworth says:

    Hi Chris, I used the best selection that I could get from the family archive, I especially love the snowy ones because people seldom bother to photograph winter scenes but there weren’t many spring lambs or flowers. I’ll have to remedy that next year.

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