On Saturday July 23rd the Lancashire Archaeological Society had a trip on the scenic coastal line up the Cumbrian coast to Maryport. We met at the railway station and boarded the two coach train. When we all got on the train Dr. Bill Shannon presented us with a wonderful sheaf of notes on the historical and archaeological locations to look out for en route.
We left the station at 8.42a.m .The weather was dry and reasonably bright which made for good visibility. We crossed two viaducts built in 1856/7 both made of iron but now encased in concrete with super views over the estuaries. We also had our attention drawn to the architectural features of the Paley and Austin stations through which we passed – they have beautiful intricate ironwork features. Along this section of the journey we passed the crossing points for the over sands routes used in earlier times and the location of services associated with these places. The railway also passed disused haematite mines in the Furness area. At one point we glimpsed the delightful ruins of Furness Abbey through the trees and had a distant view of Piel Castle.
Leaving Barrow we hugged the coast opening up majestic vistas of the fells and sea. We passed more quarries – this time slate ones before reaching the former iron working town of Millom. From there it was right up the Cumbrian coast through Ravenglass with its Roman remains probably associated with the defensive system which Maryport Roman Fort was also a part of. Some archaeologists believe that the Cumbrian line of Roman defences were a continuation of the Hadrian’s Wall defensive system. Next we went steadily northwards through a scatter of tiny seaside settlements clinging to the coast which seemed to be popular holiday and tripping destinations witnessing the number of people and the caravan and camping sites!
Pushing steadily northwards we passed the Sellafield nuclear site and then through the charmingly named Corcickle area of Whitehaven. We were by this time having slightly hazy views of the Isle of Man and soon wonderful vistas of Dumfries and Galloway. It is not surprising that when the sea was the main highway that this seemingly remote area was then a strategically important hub. We arrived in Maryport about 12 noon.
It was an interesting walk through the town, uphill to the museum. Maryport is a slightly old fashioned but lively town. It has some impressive and charming Georgian style architecture. It is a planned town laid out on a grid system by the Senhouse family in 1749- the local lords of the manor. It was indeed a member of this family that started the collection, which is now housed in the Senhouse museum, in the 1580’s! It is the oldest Roman collection in the country. Approaching the museum on the sea brows we were rewarded with wonderful and extensive views over the Irish sea to Scotland. It didn’t take much imagination to visualise the busy shipping lanes of former times and the strategic significance of the site. On Saturday we only saw two little boats.
The museum is housed in an attractive and interesting former Victorian artillery battery. The collection consists primarily of Roman altars found buried in the remains of the Roman Fort of Alauna immediately contiguous to the museum. We were blown away by the wonderful state of preservation of some of these Roman altars. Some of the inscriptions were so clear and crisp they could have been chiselled yesterday. There are many theories as to why these altars were all buried in the same location; it has been postulated in the past that a new altar was dedicated every year and that the previous one was ritually buried but during the recent excavations it was found that they had been used as packing material for postholes for a late Roman or early post-Roman building with an apsidal end. Was this the site of an early church? Were these altar stones deliberately slighted?
In the museum grounds there is a viewing tower to look over the remains of the Roman fort which are all grass covered now but the classical shape of a sizeable Roman fort can be clearly made out. When we had been in the museum we were given a guided tour of the fort. The main gateway opened directly on to the coast ;obviously the main way goods came into the fort.There are just a few stones above ground which formed part of the northern gateway of the fort. We also looked over the site of the vicus where recent excavations had taken place and on which we had a talk in our previous lecture season.
At 4 p.m. we were due to travel home by the same route but unknown to us, until we boarded the train, it was terminating at Whitehaven due to staffing problems. Therefore we had a bonus stop which gave us time to discover the charms of the harbour and the town and have some refreshment. We also had to change at Barrow but it was a speedy change and we arrived back safely at 8. 40 p.m. having enjoyed a wonderful and thought provoking trip.
Posted by Jeanette Dobson
Photo shows altars of the First Cohort of Spaniards, mainly found in 1880. For more photos, see Gallery