It’s hard to imagine that the sleepy town of Aldborough was once on the front line of the mighty Roman Empire.
Today, it’s a charming but sleepy backwater in north Yorkshire, by-passed by motorists who zoom past on the A1 on their journeys to bigger places.
But back in the 2nd Century, Aldborough was a walled town and stronghold of the Brigantes, the largest tribe in Roman Britain. I went along to discover why it was once one of the most important towns in northern England.
Discovering the Roman town
Welcome to Isurium Brigantum- better known today as Aldborough. It’s easy to overlook the town’s Roman past – it doesn’t exactly leap out at you. You have to be a bit of a detective to discover its ancient roots but there are clues all around the town, if you’re prepared to delve deeper.
A good place to start is the Roman Town, now an outdoor museum, which has ruins of the old town wall and foundations of houses and public buildings.
OK, you have to use your imagination, but once you get into Sherlock Holmes mode, it’s a richly rewarding experience.
Take a stroll through the Roman Town and you’ll discover the remains of one of the largest visible sections of the ancient town wall and remnants of a tower. The bank next to it is the only remaining part of the Roman rampart.
As you walk through the ruins, there’s more evidence of the Romans, but one puzzling question remains. Why did a Roman Town spring up here in the first place? On the face of it, Aldborough doesn’t seem like a contender to be a northern stronghold.
In fact, Aldborough wasn’t even the Romans’ first choice. During their military campaigns in northern England, the Romans established a series of military bases. There’s still much to be discovered about them, but one was less than a mile from Aldborough at Roecliffe near the River Ure.
This base was abandoned quickly and the army moved on to Aldborough. Its big selling point that it was close to the new Roman road – Dere Street – as well as being by the river.
Its Roman name – Isurium – is thought to be derived from the Latin name of the river Iseur, now called the River Ure
The Roman military base developed into a civilian town and became the administrative centre of the Brigantes. It must have been a busy place with its monumental buildings, workshops and houses. It’s likely that Aldborough had a forum, basilica, baths and an amphitheatre, but excavations are yet to uncover these.
It’s thought that the Forum lies under St Andrew’s Church in Aldborough town centre whilst the amphitheatre was at nearby Studforth Hill.
Today the Roman Town is covered by trees and an arboretum and there are a few clues of the original layout. The grid iron street pattern can still be detected. The town walls are the most visible structures – they would have been around 8-9 feet in height. In Roman times, there would have been four main gates leading into and out of the town.
But big questions remain as you walk around this intriguing ancient site. How many people lived here? Who were they and what were their lives like?
A trip inside the museum provides a few answers. It’s thought that around 100 people once lived here and that the site was surrounded by farming land. Its inhabitants would have been mostly native Britons, who over the centuries would have been ‘Romanised’.
But what happened when Britain stopped being part of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century? And why did Aldborough decline whilst other Roman towns like Winchester, York, Chester and Chichester remained important?
One theory is that the road system fell into disuse when the river crossing was moved to Boroughbridge in Norman times. This all contributed to Aldborough becoming a backwater. Today, all that’s left of the Romans are a few precious treasures in the museum and ruins on the site of the old town.
Inside a Roman villa
It’s not often I say this, but the star attraction at Aldborough is a floor. But this is no ordinary floor – it’s a spectacular Roman mosaic with magnificent decorations.
There are actually two mosaic pavements at Aldborough which can be viewed in their original positions undercover in a small hut. There is a certain wow factor about these survivors which are nearly 1,900 years old.
Close your eyes and you can imagine what these gorgeous decorative mosaics must have looked like inside a Roman villa.
These mosaics are believed to date from the 2nd or 3rd centuries when many Romano-British towns were enjoying a period of prosperity.
Although not as grand as those found at Pompeii or Rome’s Forum, they were still a sign of status and wealth. It’s likely that the villa belonged to a wealthy Roman, perhaps a retired soldier or government official.
The first of the mosaics was only discovered in 1832 when a local innkeeper was burying a calf. He must have been pretty surprised to discover the mosaic and make out the grubby image of a seated lion. Today the mosaic is in better condition. Look closely and you can see the lion’s tail, paw and mane.
Further mosaics were discovered nearby and can be seen in the museum including the Helicon which once depicted the nine muses of Greek mythology.
The small museum also has an outstanding collection of Roman finds including jewellery, pottery, mosaics and personal objects.
I was fascinated by a beautiful rare 4th Century hair-pin with a bird decoration, and a jasper gemstone featuring a hare riding a chariot.
Aldborough Town Trail
After leaving the museum, take a walking tour of Aldborough where you’ll spot further clues to the town’s Roman heritage. Head for St Andrew’s Church which hides many secrets of the Roman town under its foundations.
This would have been the centre of the Roman Town. Go inside the church and you’ll see an impressive stone relief depicting the Roman god Mercury.
Leave the church and walk towards Aldborough Manor, a large Georgian building. The area where the road passes the manor marks the site of the old West Gate which must have been a powerful symbol of Roman rule.
A day trip to Aldborough makes for an interesting diversion off the busy A1. Who’d have thought that the Romans would have established a powerful military base and community in this quiet place.
But Aldborough’s Roman history is still a bit of a puzzle. No doubt, archaeologists will continue to unravel its ancient history and find more clues as to what life was really like here in the future.
I can’t help thinking that there are many more mysteries to be unravelled in this charming old town.
Tammy’s Travel Guide – Aldborough
Aldborough is located in north Yorkshire close to the A1 dual carriageway south-east of Ripon. The town is 3⁄4 mile from Boroughbridge off the B6265.
- Roman Town and museum
- St Andrew’s Church
- Village green and stocks
- The Battle Cross
- World War Two monument
The Roman Town is close to the main centre in Aldborough. There is no parking at the Roman Town site but there is limited parking in the village and a larger free tourist car park in Boroughbridge (one mile from the site). The museum site is open daily from April-September but closed in winter. There’s an admission charge.
Take a walking tour of the old town but don’t forget to pick up the excellent English Heritage guide which has a plan of what the Roman settlement would have looked like. It’s available from the museum.
St Andrew`s Church is well worth a visit. This historic church is the third to occupy the site of the former Roman Temple of Mercury. The oldest part of the building dates from around 1330 – look for the brass of William de Aldeburgh from around 1360.
Over the other side of the green, there’s the site of the Battle Cross commemorating the bloody Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322.
The village’s other monument is a commemoration of a very different conflict – the Second World War. A sign tells the story of the RAF crew who lost their lives when they avoided crashing into the village in their Lancaster Bomber in 1944. It’s a moving tribute.
Another oddity is the stocks which sit in front of this plaque. They were originally from the square in nearby Boroughbridge but were moved to Aldborough when the medieval church was demolished in 1851.
For those with a sense of humour, this makes a good photo opportunity. It’s also an excellent way of punishing any family members who’ve been badly behaved on the day out!