Healam Bridge Roman Fort
During my researching for Books 2 & 3 of my Celtic Fervour Series, it was inevitable that some of the time would be spent on information that was interesting but not necessary for my current writing.
One of the sessions included details of an excavation at Healam Bridge, in North Yorkshire. The site was excavated as part of a multi-million pound Highways Agency scheme to upgrade the A1 road between Dishforth and Leeming, a road which paralleled the ancient Roman road of Dere Street. It was known that adjacent to the A 1 trunk road, at Healam Bridge, there had been a Roman fort probably originating around the early-mid 2nd century. The knowledge of the fort was considerably altered after the excavations and it proved to be a major find in the north of Britannia.
Discovering that it had been an industrial centre was a revelation. There was a water powered flour mill, which provided grain for the garrison. Nearby buildings were used in the manufacture of other foods - processing livestock, beer making, and pottery making. The vicus or township grew around the fort to sustain the fort and the legions who marched along Dere Street as well.
The following article has a lot of detail and a reconstructed image which I'd love to use here, but daren't since it isn't mine!
Although thought to have been first established in the early second century, it made me wonder if the site could possibly have had a precursor during the tenure of Cerialis and Frontinus- a fort of simpler design with only the actual fort of wooden construction and the ‘trading’ township around the fort walls all under canvas.
In Book 2, After Whorl: Bran Reborn, I included details of Brennus and Ineda trading with new Roman forts which have sprung up in the area. One such fort I named Quernium, since I decided Healam Bridge was too modern a name.
Here’s an extract from After Whorl: Bran Reborn. Brennus has been forced to work in the forest alongside some of the other warriors from the Celtic settlement of Witton, the Roman presence being oppressive in the area after the battle of Whorl. Under the treaties made with the Brigantes, the Roman Empire exacts some of its dues in manual labour. Instead of trimming the felled logs, Brennus is given the task of driving the cart laden with hewn logs for the fort, mules being the beast of burden used by the Romans. This is Brennus’ first sight of the fort at Quernium when it was still under construction and how I imagined the scene.
Looking back toward the fort other activity drew his gaze. His brows creased in confusion. Upstream on the river people walked across the water, carrying heavy loads, the file of men heading for a gateway in the turf banking. Close by many men were at work in the water, constructing a fixed walkway. Too far away for him to see the detail it seemed as if they rammed long wooden posts into the riverbed, from a platform that stretched across the water. Noise abounded everywhere. Talking and shouting, hammering and banging. Busy, productive noise. Again, he was reluctantly intrigued by their industry.
Near the water crossing on his side of the river there were many wagons being unloaded. The wood, like he conveyed, was easy to discern but not the smaller items. He would see better if he could get closer. Every piece of information might be useful to know and learn. From the clothing they wore, he guessed the men who teemed around the area were a mixture of auxiliaries, legionaries and a few local tribespeople.
The path he trod led to a bend in the river where wooden barges were in use. A few were moored on his side of the river, more on the far banking, and one in transit across the water. All of the barges were loaded with log piles. Many logs were clearly needed for this fort.
Around a hundred paces from the river Egidius halted his progress.
Brennus slowed the mules and brought the long wagon to a standstill. A small queue of vehicles lay up ahead, a trio of men swarming around them. They all bore a wax tablet and sharp stylus similar to the one the agrimensor’s assistant had carried in the forest near Witton. All seemed to be talking at the same time, shouting instructions at the drivers when they had made decisions, after which they scribbled furiously onto their tablets. Wagons peeled off to the left and the right, the contents swooped upon by a horde of soldiers who unloaded with frightening efficiency. No time was wasted, and these were not men who had an overseer breathing down their backs with a biting whip. For reasons he could not understand they worked with a will that was commendable.
“Wait here till you are called forward.”
Dismounting, the decanus strode past tossing the reins of his horse in his face, his folded whip a warning at Brennus’ torn shoulder. Disregarding the insult Brennus caught the leather and controlled the still ambling horse. As he soothed all of the beasts now showing signs of restlessness, he watched Egidius approach a pair of sentries who blocked the pathway.
While he waited, he took note of the activity directly on the river now that the detail was clearer. The bustle at the river crossing in front of him made him smile since he understood it better. A line of simple dugout boats, each bow pointing upstream, had been lashed together; the whole row sitting tight against the banking to each side. Across the top of the boats a wooden walkway of logs, similar to those on a crannog causeway, had been laid. A scurry of figures crossed back and forth, carrying materials in large baskets slung over their shoulders, the traffic swift in both directions.
Laden baskets were ferried across to the fort and returned emptied. He watched the unfilled baskets being laid down in serried rows, the carriers wandering off to stretch the kinks from their necks and shrug their shoulders, with noise that seemed like teasing going on amongst them. They all wore similar light coloured tunics, though not the same as the uniform of the auxiliary soldiers, and they wore no mail over their chests. He could not quite place the men. They were not garbed like any soldier he had ever seen, yet they were not Celtic tribesmen either.
As he memorised all movements around him the gentle flow of river water butting against the boats threatened to move the whole bridge downstream, the scurrying transporters halting occasionally to find balance as it swayed before settling again. When he looked closely, he discerned the strong ties tethered to stakes on the banking that prevented the bridge from breaking free. Further upstream there were more of the flat barges moored against the bank, though all at present were unused. He wondered why. Wondered what they might be waiting for.
“Move the wagon over there,” Egidius barked out on his return, pointing to an area where oak logs similar to his cargo were already stacked.
Turning the mules around he backed them up, manoeuvring back and forth and ignoring their noisy protests and their snorting till the wagon was exactly in the spot required by the tablet wielding officials.
“Unhitch the beasts and be quick about it!”
Brennus did as he was bid; his temper held tight inside for it was not the time to exact revenge on Egidius. Another day. Another place, he vowed.
What went on behind the ramparts of the fort across the river was not visible, but he wanted very much to know what lay beyond as Egidius mounted his horse and ordered him to do likewise on one of the mules. The other mule he led by the rein to a waiting place while the logs were unloaded in a blur of light-coloured movement.
“Wait here while I speak with Benignus.”
In no time at all Egidius returned, followed by Benignus, the centurion’s scribe.
Once again, the whip threatened at his shoulder. Brennus hid a sarcastic laugh for only the whip could reach his shoulder – not the mean little Roman scum. “From now on you alone will take the wood supplies to Benignus, and you will follow his instructions. You will speak to no one else and deliver only to him. Is that clear?”
Brennus’ nod was scant but just sufficient. Inside his smile was triumphant. He would learn to ignore the taunts because his task was begun in earnest. There were many things he could pass on about the new fort to his contact. He was sure of it.
Another thought made him want to grin.
Ineda would be so jealous of what he was seeing right in front of him. The tiniest of smirks managed to break free and stretched his scarred cheek. He found himself wanting to hurry back to Witton to share what he had learned with her, to enjoy her company. He squashed on further imprudent thoughts. She was just a child, his foster-sister, and he was a grown man.
Celtic Fervour Series is available from:
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