LOCATION – Huntcliff, Saltburn.
Accreditation Cleveland Standard 26/01/1935.
IT HAPPENED ONCE . . .
OUT OF THE CLAMMY GLOOM
OF THE FOG
Fog . . . The all-enveloping fog swept down like a ghoul, devouring everything in a clammy silence, disturbed only by shifting avenues of reverberating sound.
The faint cry of a sea-bird, the seeming far-off murmur of the hidden sea.
Then steps upon the sand and up the cliff . . . a warning shout . . . and the pillaging sea rovers were hacking and hewing at the defending Anglians and their Roman Conquerors. Sword clashed against shield, axe cleft helmet. It was all over in a few moments and on went the marauders to sack and burn.
Such is the story of sudden attack on the look-out station on Huntcliff, Saltburn, in the year 300. It is told by the pathetic remains which were found in the well that had offered a too ready grave.
The Roman look-out posts, built along the English coasts were practically useless in cases such as this, and it was woe betide the unprepared.
It is surmised that this station was built during the extension of the coastal defences in the second half of the fourth century.
Other sites are scattered along the Yorkshire coast from Saltburn to Filey. Three of them can definitely be assigned to the fourth century.
Huntcliff Photo by F. Brunskill
PERCHED ON HIGH CLIFFS
They are perched on high cliff, wholly unlike those in the South, and command a very wide outlook. From the top of Warsett Ridge, for instance, the range of vision on a clear day is anything from 30 to 40 miles. The stations in the South used to accommodate from 800 to 1,000 men, but the Huntcliff fort could not. It was meant primarily as a signal station; strong enough to be held against a small party, but in the case of a large attack pending, scouts would either take or signal the news to the interior and fellow stations.
The “castra speculatoria” on Huntcliff is the best known of them all.
Huntcliff itself is a long low mass, running out to sea, the most northerly of the cliffs which fringe the Yorkshire coast at regular intervals for 50 miles, from Saltburn to Flamborough Head. It is about 300 feet in height and the Warsett Ridge adds a further 200 feet.
The situation of the signal station is approximately 365 feet above sea level, and on the very brink of the cliff. Its present precarious position is most probably due to cliff falls, and it is through this that much of the interest has been lost. There is still enough of the building left, however to show its character.
Its discovery, about 50 years ago, was thought little of at the time. It was inspected and reported by Canon Greenwell and Atkinson.
It was left to Messrs. Hornsby and Stanton to excavate and bring to light the buried “treasures.”
They bought the few remains which had already been dug up, for 3d at an auction sale, determined to dig further. The result was amazing. Twenty-five coins were found, all except one being “third brass,” thus assigning them to the second half of the fourth century. The latest coin was of the time of Arcadius, A.D. 388 – 509. This definitely fixes the date of the existence of the station. The pottery found was principally black and red, decorated with scrolls of white paint. There was one piece of Samian ware.
WELL’S GRISLY REMAINS
The well provided many skulls and bones. These showed that the occupants were relatively small of stature, save for one man whose shin bone proved that he was over six feet. One skull bore a deep cut as if form a weapon, which bears out the theory of the fort being stormed. They were presumably refugees or families of some of the garrison, rather than the garrison, for there was no armour found. This of course may have been taken by the marauders. Again, the bodies may have been the invaders own dead. Whoever they were they were slain and burnt when the fort was besieged and their bodies thrown down the ready grave offered by the well.
The most popular assumption is that the fortress was built or rebuilt by the older Theodosius when in A. D. 369 he marched into Northern Britain, drove out the barbarians and “restored cities and military posts.”
The question been asked as to whether the fort was associated with any larger base. Warsett Hill possesses certain earthworks, but they do not appear to be Roman. Part are modern and part are Bronze Age “barrows” or burial grounds. It has been said that a square encampment existed at Coatham near Redcar, on the low marshy ground, but nothing definite can be stated.
Faint signs of a similar station have been noted at Staithes near Saltburn, but information is only vague.
– – H.T.
dean June 12, 2010 Saltburn