We visted Richborough on a bright day in June. The wind blew over a green and empty landscape. High walls, ragged with centuries of weathering and theft surrounded a huge open area full of ditches and outlines of lost buildings. I'd bought a guide book and listened to the audio guide in the wrong order. And slowly a picture of a lost world emerged of what was once the gateway to Britain.
The first physical remains of the Roman invasion of 43AD can be seen at Richborough. Richborough at that time was at the southern end of the Wantsum Channel. This channel, three miles wide in some places, divided the Isle of Thanet from the mainland, and offered a short cut up to the Thames Estuary. Entering the channel, a ship would pass an easily defended headland, and this is where Claudius probably decided to land in 43AD. Roman troops waded ashore and dug two parallel ditches across the headland, followed by a wooden pallisade. The ditches can still be seen. Perhaps as many as forty thousand troops then disembarked, and the invasion of Britain began. Initially Richborough acted as an army and navy supply base, and the outlines of some of the early buildings have been marked out. An inn, or mansio, was built to cater for travellers passing through, the remains of which can still be seen.
Looking through the Monumental Arch.
As Richborough was the principle point of entry into Britain, the stream of people passing through was never ending. By 85AD Richborough was given a huge symbolic arch to proclaim this place as the gateway to Britain. Richborough's enormous Monumental Arch was eighty two feet high and clad with expensive Italian marble. People disembarked at the harbour at the bottom of the hill, climbed the slope, and then a flight of steps, which took them up to a corridor through the Monumental Arch into Britannia. The road that ran away from the arch was Watling Street, extending to Shrewsbury, and marked by the course of the modern A2 and A5. Today only the arch's foundations survive, marked by a cross on a raised area at the site's centre. This cross marks out corridors which ran below the arch, supported on each side by four massive pillars. A few remnants of these pillars can still be made out.
Walls at the North Gate
By the second century Richborough was a busy civilian settlement, called Rutupiae, covering about fifty acres. Shops opened to serve passing trade. The mansio was rebuilt in stone. This was Richborough's hayday. Soon, however, the military presence returned, in response to raids by third century Saxon pirates. The Archway fell into disrepair, and was possibly used as a watch tower. A series of three ditches were dug, surrounding an earth rampart topped by a wooden palisade. By 275AD the town and its monumental arch were pulled down and a stone fort built in its place. The walls of this fort are the most obvious feature of the site as it appears today. In 286, soon after these works were completed, Carausius was appointed by Emperor Diocletion to stop pirate raids in the English Channel. Carausius took his own cut from the pirates, and was condemned to death when news of this reached Rome. To save himself Carausius declared himself empeor of an independent Britannia, and ruled as such until 293, when he was murdered by one of his ministers, Allectus. Allectus ruled an independent Britannia for only three years, before the province was reinvaded. The turmoil of these years must have been strongly felt at Richborough. Of the 56,000 Roman coins found at the site, 25,000 of them date from between 288 and 402, indicating much activity during this time.
By the early 400s Roman rule in Britain was over. With attacks increasing on Rome's continental empire, troops were withdrawn. Richborough was left to Saxon invaders. Richborough, then, charts the entire course of British Roman history. Ditches dug to defend troops who waded ashore in 43AD, can be seen, along with walls built to withstand attacks which eventually forced a Roman withdrawal in about 410. Afterwards Richborough became a religious site, indicating a typical closeness of sites designed for physical and spiritual security - see History of Castles. The outline of a small church dedicated to St Augustine, who landed as a missionary near here in 597 has been preserved.
This image is by Adam Brookes
Today Richborough is a quiet place, and is no longer the gateway to anywhere. The arch has gone, and a dim outline of Watling Street disappears over the defensive ditches into fields beyond. People now generally enter Britain through Dover or Heathrow. When Norman Foster designed Terminal Five at Heathrow he was designing the modern equivalent of Richborough's Monumental Arch. Terminal Five is built to look impressive, the ceiling is arch shaped, and thousands of people pass through it. This is something to bear in mind in the peaceful surroundings of Richborough today.
A small selection of items found at Richborough during excavation in the 1920s, can be viewed in a small museum. Most of the collection is held in storage, and can be viewed by arrangement.
Directions: Richborough is just off the A256 in east Kent. Click here for an interactive map centred on Richborough. Postcode CT13 9JW
Opening Times: Opening hours for English Heritage properties can be complex. Please use contact details below.
Access: There is level access to the ticket office, shop and museum. The site itself is grassy and uneven and would be difficult for people in wheelchairs. There are disabled toilet facilities, but these are portable toilets.
telephone: 01304 612013