The Roman road which we know today as Dere Street runs from the English city of York to the Forth estuary in Scotland. At its northernmost point it meets the eastern end of the Roman Antonine Wall, once the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire. Dere Street was a major supply route to the Roman forts along the eastern section of both Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall. This Entry describes the Roman camps and fortifications which you can visit on a northbound journey along this ancient road.
Up to the 1850s Dere Street was often referred to as Watling Street, something which has caused confusion in the past. Starting in York, a city known to the Romans as Eburacum, it heads north via the settlements of Aldborough, Catterick, Piercebridge, Binchester, Lanchester, Ebchester, Corbridge, Halton Chesters, Risingham and High Rochester. Then on to complete the English section of the journey at Chew Green, a camp on Hadrians Wall. The road further extends into Scotland, passing Cappuck Marching Camp and Melrose. This route is noteworthy as one of the few Roman roads to continue north of Hadrian's Wall.
The journey described in this Entry would have been possible between 100 and 200 AD. We will visit 14 settlements and camps, ranging from the grand to the rural, some of which existed merely to serve the garrison of a nearby fort and to give shelter to the travellers passing through. The journey on foot will take a minimum of about seven days, but that's assuming you walk eight hours a day, travelling an average of 32 to 33 miles per day. It is interesting to note that the longest distance between any two points on this journey is the 24 mile stretch between Catterick and Aldborough. This is less than one day's travel for foot soldiers, although wagons and carts could be as slow as eight miles a day. The cumulative distances given are measured from York.
Condition of Sites En Route
The condition of the towns and sites today has been categorised as follows. Please note this is based on this Researcher's personal visits, as well as a thorough search of the sites on the internet. It's only a guide, so we would recommend you check out any site before you visit.
1 = No longer visible, or built over;
2 = Building platforms, mounds and crop marks;
3 = Some ruins are visible above ground;
4 = Visible site with museum support;
5 = A major site and tourist attraction.
|Roman name:||Eburacum – 'place of yew trees'|
The name Eburacum has an alternative interpretation as 'the land or estate of Ebracus or Ebros'; indeed, the history by Geoffrey of Monmouth states that the founding king of York was Ebracus. Founded in 71 AD, York was originally a fortress for the Roman Legion IX, 'the Spanish or Hispania'. It was constructed at a suitable point near the Rivers Fosse and Ouse where a bridge could be built, and had a ready supply of timber for construction work. Positioned on a sandstone outcrop and protected by the rivers to the south and east and with substantial walls and the legionary fort, York thrived. Many streets were paved and houses were built mostly from stone, as were many fine municipal buildings, including legionary baths, theatres and temples to the town's gods.
From 209 to 211 AD Septimus Severus moved his imperial court to York, and built a palace there. By 320 AD the city was the capital of northern Britannia. Visiting Emperors included Constantius I in 306 AD, who is buried in the city, and his son Constantine the Great, founder of Constantinople, who took the imperial throne in York.
The city was an important junction in the Roman road network, having the following connections:
- North-east to Malton (Derventio) – 17 miles;
- South-east via Ermine Street to Brough on Humber (Petvaria) – 28 miles;
- South by road and ferry to Winteringham: the southern ferry crossing point of the river Humber;
- South-west via Ryknild Street to Tadcaster (Calcaria) – 10 miles;
- North-west to Aldborough (Isurium Brigantum) 15 miles, along which we will start our journey on Dere Street.
|Roman name:||Isurium Brigantum – 'tribal city of the Brigantes'|
|Distance travelled:||15 miles|
This Romano-British city was once defended by stone walls, earth ramparts and ditches, with strong gateways. There were paved streets, a basilica, several temples and altars, a mansio – one of a number of privately-owned accomodation hostels established along the routes – and a bath house. The housing was of good quality, of both stone and timber-framed construction.
The presence of the Roman army is shown by the following inscription found on an excavated tile:
In addition, three miles from the town along Dere Street, a milestone was discovered having two inscribed pillars dedicated to Caesar Gaius Messius, dating to about 240 AD.
To continue our journey, we will travel north-west along Dere Street for 24 miles to Catterick (Cataractonium). The following Roman roads also met at Aldborough:
- East to Malton (Dervento) – 24 miles;
- South to Ilkley (Verbeia) – 21 miles;
- South to Newton Kyme – 14 miles.
|Roman name:||Cataractonium – 'The Waterfall Town'|
|Distance travelled:||39 miles|
Catterick is an important army garrison today, but the Roman fort was founded in around 70 AD, in a position to guard the supply route for the campaign into Scotland. The Roman civil settlement was prosperous; homes were of timber and stone, and mosaic floors were in evidence. There was a wide variety of shops in the town, which by the 2nd Century had grown to a settlement of 15,000 square metres, and which was enclosed by low earth and stone walls and a defensive ditch. At this time the fort was refurbished. By the end of the 3rd Century the settlement had expanded beyond the walls on either side of Dere Street and there is evidence of industry outside the walls.
Our journey continues north for 12 miles along Dere Street to Piercebridge (Morbium).
|Distance travelled:||51 miles|
The fort at Piercebridge was built in 125 AD. It was of a substantial size – 45,000 square metres – and a full range of buildings included a headquarters, barrack blocks, granaries and workshops. There was also a commander's house. The fort was of the standard layout, oblong with rounded corners – similar in shape to a playing card. There was a gate in each of the four walls, which were protected by towers. There is some evidence that Dere Street passed through the fort. A settlement developed to the east of the fort with paved roads, stone and timber-framed buildings, workshops and trading areas.
A stone-arched bridge was constructed to carry Dere Street across the river Tees and north for eight miles towards our next destination: Binchester.
|Roman name:||Vinovium – 'the winemaker's way'|
|Distance travelled:||59 miles|
Built to control Dere Street's crossing of the River Wear, this is one of the largest forts in the area. Constructed in a rectangular plan, it had a gate in each of the four walls, which were protected by towers. Within the walls was a complex of stone and timber buildings, including a heated bath house and workshops. Around the fort a large settlement was established, with civic buildings and public facilities. There was also a large cemetery with three military tombs.
The following Roman roads also met at Binchester:
- South-west to Bowes – 17 miles;
- East to Chester le Street (Concangis) – 15 miles.
We will continue north on Dere Street for 14 miles to Lanchester.
|Roman name:||Longovicium – 'the town of the fighting ship'|
|Distance travelled:||73 miles|
The Roman fort was built in 140 AD to house a garrison of 1,000 men, both cavalry and foot units. There is evidence that some of the men stationed here were from Spain and Germany. The fort was of the standard layout, similar to Piercebridge. A complex of stone and timber buildings was built within the walls, and aqueducts were constructed to supply water to it. There was also a civilian settlement nearby, with good-quality housing.
Our journey continues north for 6 miles to the next fort, at Ebchester.
|Roman name:||Vindomora – 'the camp on the end of the hill'|
|Distance travelled:||79 miles|
Built to house around 500 men, the first recorded unit at Ebchester fort was Cohors Quartae Breucorum Antoninianae, recruited from what is now Bosnia. The fort would have probably have housed a command headquarters, granaries, barracks and workshops. There is no evidence of any settlement having grown up nearby.
We continue north along Dere Street for nine miles, to Corbridge.
Stanegate Fort, Corbridge
|Roman name:||Corstopitum – 'the valley of great noise'|
|Distance travelled:||88 miles|
This point lies towards the eastern end of the Stanegate, the road which links Corbridge to Carlisle in the west. A fort was founded here in 79 AD, with command headquarters, granaries, barracks and workshops. The fort pre-dates the building of Hadrian's Wall by approximately 43 years. The original garrison was probably a unit of 500 cavalry guarding a bridge at the point when Dere Street crosses the River Tyne. After the construction of Hadrian's Wall, the fort was garrisoned by infantry units protecting the wall itself.
The following Roman roads connect with Dere Street at this point:
- South-east along Stanegate to Washing Wells – 14 miles;
- West along Stanegate to Chesters (Cilurnum) – 7 miles.
Our journey continues north for 3 miles to Halton Chesters (Onnum).
Halton Chesters – Hadrian's Wall Fort 11
|Roman name:||Onnum – 'the rock'|
|Distance travelled:||91 miles|
This Hadrian's Wall fort (20,903 square metres in size, with an extension in the south west corner of 37500 square metres) was originally built by Legion VI 'the Victrix'. This fort was built across the wall and extended to the wall's northern and southern sides. Its garrison was formed of mainly infantry with cavalry support. The settlement on the southern side of the wall included well-built housing and a market, as well as a bath house and temple. The gods of Onnum included both Fortuna and the spirit of the Emperors.
Connections to Dere Street at Halton Chesters were as follows:
- North to Learchild (Habitancum) – 14 miles;
- West, following Hadrian's Wall to Rudchester (Vindobala) – 8 miles;
- East along Hadrian's Wall to Chesters (Cilurnum) – 6 miles.
We continue north on Dere Street for 11 miles to Risingham.
|Distance travelled:||102 miles|
The fort at Risingham is located south of the River Rede and on the eastern side of Dere Street. The fort was built in 189 AD to guard the river crossing and support the Antonine expansion north of Hadrian's Wall, under the orders of Emperor Severus. The original fort was rebuilt in stone in 206 AD, with gates in the northern, southern and western walls. It was usually garrisoned by 1,000 foot and horse troops. There was a bath-house built within its walls, and a small trading and service settlement developed nearby.
Our journey continues north for 10 miles to High Rochester.
|Roman name:||Bremenium – 'the roaring stream'|
|Distance travelled:||112 miles|
The fort at Bremenium is sited south-east of Dere Street, with substantial stone walls, protected by ditches, enclosing an area of 18,400 square metres. There was a gate in each wall and the buildings within were built mainly of stone. The fort was provided with a garrison that was a mixture of cavalry and infantry, numbering 500 strong. There are also traces of platforms for light artillery pieces. Several 'marching camps' have been found in the area surrounding the fort.
The following road joins Dere Street at High Rochester:
- Eastward to Learchild (Alavana) – 7 miles.
We continue north for nine miles to Chew Green.
|Distance travelled:||121 miles|
The Chew Green marching camps were not permanent; they were banks enclosed by ditches, having wooden walls with gates and watchtowers. They would be built by a legion at the end of a day's march to provide shelter for the troops whilst moving through hostile territory. The enclosed area was used to set up the legion's tents and house its supplies. There has been a succession of camps (2), forts (1) and fortlets (2) built on the site, showing many phases of military activity.
From here the route of Dere Street is not certain, however some sources suggest that it terminates at Melrose or beyond, so to complete our journey we will continue past Cappuck to Melrose.
|Distance travelled:||130 miles|
Nine miles to the north of Chew Green is the site of the marching camp at Cappuck. As with Chew Green, these camps were built by a legion at the end of a day's march to provide shelter for the troops whilst moving through hostile territory.
|Roman name:||Trimontium – 'the fort at the foot of the three Eildon Hills’|
|Journey total:||146 miles|
The fort at Melrose was built in 80 AD and garrisoned for around 100 years. At its largest, the fort was 60,700 square metres and the garrison comprised 1,000 infantry and 500 cavalry. In all, the fort extended to 80,937 square metres of fortified areas and enclosures, grouped around a parade ground. A large settlement developed to support the garrison, and this featured shrines as well as a military amphitheatre. The water supply for the fort and town came from over 200 wells dug around the site.