The men of the 4th Cohort of Dalmatians were a long way from home. They were undoubtedly cold and Hardknott Fort, which the Romans probably knew as Mediobogdum, must have seemed like the end of the world. Certainly, situated in the mountainous northern region of the most northerly province of Imperial Rome, it was one of the most remote postings in the Empire. Today, it is in the English county of Cumbria, on the edge of the Lake District National Park. But the approach was the same 1800 years’ ago as it is now – either east from the port Glannaventa (Ravenglass) or west from the fort at Galava (Ambleside), a hard trudge through tough terrain. The Dalmatians, who came from the eastern Adriatic (modern Croatia, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina and Montenegro), have left little trace of themselves at the fort they built sometime between 117 and 122AD, during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. They were a 3–4 month march away from their homes, but most of them are unlikely to have ever seen their families again anyway; the standard length of military service at this time was 25 years.
Hardknott was constructed of local stone, as well as red sandstone and timber that the soldiers would have hauled up from the coast. The invading Romans had pushed into northern Britain by the latter part of the 1st century, but not all native Britons submitted easily and the early 2nd century was a violent time. Forts were situated at key points along the roads built by the invaders, to facilitate the defence of their new possession and ensure the safe passage of goods. To secure northern Britain (modern northern England), the Romans had to subjugate the dominant tribe in these parts, the Brigantes, and possibly a sub-tribe of the Brigantes, the Carvetii. Many believe that Glannaventa – Ravenglass – was both a Roman naval base and the main port for the north of the province, where produce from throughout the Empire would have landed. So Hardknott’s commanding location above the valley of the River Esk guarded an important trade route. The route was called the X Iter (10th Itinerary) and stretched 150 miles connecting forts and settlements from Glannaventa through Mediobogdum and Galava, on to Alavana (Watercrook, Kendal), Calacum (Burrow in Lonsdale), Bremetenacum (Ribchester, Lancashire), Coccium (Wigan?), Mamucium (Manchester), Condate (Northwich, Cheshire) and Mediolanum (Whitchurch, Shropshire).
We don’t know how long the 500 or so men of the 4th Cohort of Dalmatians stayed, or who replaced them, but it is thought Mediobogdum was vacated during the Roman incursion into Caledonia (modern Scotland) in the late 130s/early 140s. It was regarrissoned later in the 2nd century and then abandoned in the early 3rd century, its gradually decaying structure providing shelter for passing travellers heading over the pass. The reason for its abandonment is not known, but perhaps this part of Britain was at peace; or perhaps the garrison was needed elsewhere. By the early 5th century, Roman rule had petered out and warlords filled the vacuum in many parts of Britain. In time, this place became known as Hardknott, a name given by later Norse settlers to a nearby hill – harthr (hard), knutr (craggy hill).
Roman forts were normally constructed on a standard design. This was a highly efficient process; everybody knew what to do – and it saved a fortune in architects’ fees. At Mediobogdum can be seen the stone outline of the Horrea – granaries, which had raised floors so that air could circulate and reduce the risk of infestation; the Principia, or headquarters, which would have included administrative offices and a temple; and the Praetorium, the commander’s residence, which was unfinished. Building on this rocky and uneven ground must have been very difficult. There are no traces of any barracks or stables – these have just disappeared; perhaps leather tents were used. The fort is roughly square, with a gateway in each wall. There would have been a tower at each corner, with entrances from a walkway that ran round the walls. Outside stood the bath house, one touch of civilisation in what must have otherwise been considered very basic conditions. It is not easy to imagine more than 500 highly organised people living at Mediobogdum, at the edge of a great empire; but they did. Unlike other Roman forts, I don’t think a vicus, a civilian settlement, grew up around it; if it did, it must have been pretty small.
Even now, Hardknott can be a lonely, unwelcoming, place – though the views, if you’re lucky with the weather, are stunning – particularly along Eskdale and north to Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain. You can, of course, walk there; this is the Lake District; walking is what people do. Some, for reasons best known to themselves, choose to cycle, though that strikes me as silly and unnecessarily energetic. By far the easiest method is to drive – either up from the coast, or from Ambleside. The latter partly follows the old Roman road and is a spectacular route, but not for the fainthearted – a single track, with passing places, that snakes its way around hairpin bends and up/down slopes where the gradient is 1:3 (33%). At times, the car bonnet will, unnervingly, rise up and completely obscure your view of the way ahead – which can be pitted with perilous pot-holes; and at times your wheels will be rather close to the edge. It is a treacherous road in bad weather and you should not even consider it in those circumstances. At the very least, it is not the sort of place you want to be stranded – anymore than those poor Dalmatians did, I guess.
Beware of cyclists wearing highly-coloured Lycra – some of these do not recognise other species of road user and there is often not enough room for a motor car and bicycle to pass each other safely. Only the deranged driver hurries: watch out for him too; his car has little bicycles painted on the outside of his door…
Take the A593 in the direction of Coniston. About 1 mile after Skelwith Bridge, take the minor road on the right signposted for Little Langdale. Stay on this road over Fell Foot Bridge and ascend Wrynose Pass. The road will then take you through Wrynose Bottom before ascending again up Hardknott Pass. You will see Hardknott Fort on your right as you come down. There is a small parking area, but no other facilities. The ground is invariably extremely wet; take boots and suitable warm, weatherproof, clothing.