About Whitley Castle
Stewart Ainsworth from Channel 4’s Time Team called Whitley Castle ‘the best preserved fort in the Roman Empire’ and it’s hard to disagree.
Also known as Epiacum (the first town in northern England occupied by the Celtic, pre-Roman Brigantes tribe and probably named for a local chief), Whitley Castle in the North Pennines is not only the highest stone-built Roman fort in Britain, it also has the most complex and elaborate defensive earthworks of any known fort in the entire Roman Empire, with multiple banks and ditches outside the usual stone ramparts.
History of Whitley Castle
Preceded by an Iron Age fort, Whitley Castle was built in the 2nd century (around the same time as Hadrian’s Wall, 15 miles to its north). It was demolished and rebuilt soon after – thought to coincide with an uprising of the northern tribes in 196.
It is a relatively typical Roman fort in terms of layout. There are straight roads, a headquarters building, barracks, a bath house and a temple and one of the many inscriptions reads ‘DEO HERCVLI C VITELLIVS ATTICIANVS > LEG VI V P F’ or ‘To the God Hercules, Gaius Vitellius Atticianus, Centurion of the Legio VI Victrix, Loyal and Faithful.’
It was garrisoned until about 400 AD and while the Romans used Epiacum ostensibly as a base from where to control the area and support Hadrian’s Wall, it also seems they used it to take control of the profitable local lead mining industry.
The uniquely lozenge-shaped fort (8 acres) was built to fit the knoll on which it was constructed. Its remains lie under the grass, and are most clearly seen in aerial photographs. Outside the Roman fort itself is a system of concentric defensive ditches.
There were small site digs in the early 19th century, then again in the 1930s and 1950s, but it wasn’t until 2012 that funding was secured to raise awareness of the site.
Whitley Castle is one of the most isolated Roman sites in Britain, which may help to explain both why it remains largely unexcavated and why so much of it has survived.
Whitley Castle today
Today, Whitley Castle is on private land on the 1,000 acre Castle Nook and Whitlow farm, and is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, meaning no digging can be done (frustratingly for archaeologists) and nothing can be taken from the site, so when you visit ‘the best preserved fort in the Roman Empire’, don’t take anything!
The current landowners recognise their role as custodians, hence their instigation of Epiacum Heritage Ltd who have developed the fort’s website, guided tours, archaeology survey days for volunteers and educational events for schools.
Getting to Whitley Castle
Whitley Castle is situated north-west of the town of Alston in Cumbria, and is easily reached walking from a car park on the A689 (Alston to Brampton road). The Pennine Way passes the side of the site, and you can also walk up from the Kirkhaugh station on South Tynedale Railway and the South Tyne Trail. It is open all year round.