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More about the Romans in Redesdale

In the four centuries Britain was ruled by Rome, Redesdale played a major role in retaining military control over the north of the country. Unlike in the south, the north was never pacified; the British army remained in the area.

One of the main reasons Redesdale was such a strategic location is because of Dere Street which ran right through the area. At the time, Dere Street was the most important communication link between southern and northern Britain. 

The communication links along Dere Street were maintained by a series of camps and two minor forts. Two larger forts at Risingham (Habitancum) and High Rochester (Bremenium) were installed to provide greater protection. The fort at High Rochester, which is still visible today, was considered more strategically important because of its commanding location high above the Sills Burn. Interestingly, in later centuries, Bremenium was used as a source of building stone and remnants of it can be seen in local field walls and cottages in the village of Rochester. The porch of the former village school features the fort’s ballista balls. 

The fort sits within a landscape rich in archaeological remains, including marching camps along Dere Street and the remarkable Petty Knowes Roman cemetery a short way to the south east. 

Other Roman artefacts that remain in Redesdale include the circular stone tomb which historians believe would have held the remains of an officer of the fort’s garrison. Other tombs close by were unfortunately destroyed in the early 1950s.

Another relic of the Romans’ time in Redesdale can be seen at Parkhead near West Woodburn. Sculpted into the rock face are the legs of a figure known locally as ‘Rob of Risingham’, who was likely a local god adopted by the garrison at Habitancum. Unfortunately only the legs of the original 4ft carving remain, but a representation of Rob made by Ron Charlton from West Woodburn was added to the site in 1983 by the Redesdale Society. 

More about bastles 

Located around the Anglo-Scottish border areas, bastle houses characterise the threat from the Border Reivers and the hostilities between England and Scotland during the mid-16th to the mid-17th centuries. 

The two-storey fortified farmhouses, with living space on the first floor and byres for cattle and sheep on the ground floor, were originally built as homes and places of safety for rich freeholders, lairds and heads of border clans. Wealthy landowners had pele towers, which were taller than bastles, usually with three or four storeys.

These defensible farmhouses – named bastles from the French batir (‘to build’) – were stark and roughly built with irregular stone blocks. The walls were between 70cm and 130cm  thick with heavy wooden beams to hold the second floor. Windows on the ground floor would be narrow slits or vents to provide ventilation, but small enough that bars weren’t needed for protection. Access to the second floor was normally via a ladder but some bastles had staircases built within the gable walls.

Bastles were often built in small clusters, providing people with greater protection from attack. Many were extended to include a second building. 

Unique to Northumberland and the Scottish Borders, bastles were designed to protect people and valuable livestock from the robbery and violence that threatened this part of the country for centuries. 

There are many examples of bastles in Redesdale, including:

  • Hole Bastle (Bellingham)
  • Low Cleughs Bastle (West Woodburn)
  • Shittleheugh Bastle (Otterburn)
  • High Rochester Bastle (Rochester)
  • High Shaw Bastle (High Shaw Farm)
  • Iron House Bastle (Otterburn)

The Border Reivers

Centuries of fighting between the English and the Scottish in the border country brought devastation to the people that lived there.

People were robbed and killed by armies, crops were burned and properties destroyed. Because of the constant threat of attack, borderers began to live by their own rules, which often meant taking what they needed. Cattle rustling, feuding, murder, arson and pillaging were all commonplace, and this led to the rise of the Border Reivers.

Reivers were considered unique in that they came from all social classes. The only thing they had in common was the violent code they lived by. Reiving was considered by many to be part of Border life.

The Border Reivers were united within their family clans and could call on hundreds of men to join them in raids across the border. Men were known to go alone, or with 12 to 50 men in tow. Some large-scale raids would see groups of up to two and three thousand men.

Because the Border Reivers came from every social class, they had a wide range of skills, which stood them well during raids. They showed courage and bravery as well as a blatant disregard for authority, which meant the job of the wardens to enforce law and order was a dangerous one.

Border Reivers rode horses which were sturdy and fast. They wore a ‘jack’ or ‘jacke’ to protect their upper bodies and many would use pewter or brass chains to protect their arms and upper legs. Reivers wore a burgonet to protect their heads and rode into raids with a range of weapons, including lances, bills and daggers.

The accession of James VI to the English throne brought about the end of the Border Reivers. The Borders was renamed ‘the Middle Shires’ and criminals were brought to justice; many of them hanged. Fighting in the Borders finally came to an end in the early 1620s. 

Otterburn Training Area (OTA)

More than 30,000 military personnel train at Otterburn Training Area (OTA) each year. The site, which is owned by the Ministry of Defence, covers around 93 square miles and extends beyond Redesdale across to Coquetdale.

Military training began in Redesdale in 1911 at Redesdale Camp. Land was sold to the War Office by Lord Redesdale and was expanded during the Second World War. The fourth Lord Redesdale, David – a well-known eccentric who mostly resided in Oxfordshire – is probably best known as the father of the Mitford girls: Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Jessica, Unity and Deborah. Five of the Mitford girls achieved fame in different ways and were all regular visitors to Redesdale. Nancy was a famous novelist, Diana wed the fascist leader Oswald Mosley, Unity was an ardent Nazi-sympathiser, Jessica was a communist, writer and civil rights activist and Deborah wed the eleventh Duke of Devonshire and made her home at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. There are various memorials to the Mitford family at Horsley church. The character Uncle Mathew from Nancy Mitford’s novel, The Pursuit of Love, is based on her father, David.

OTA is used to provide soldiers – many of whom are due to be deployed in the near future – with aircraft, artillery and infantry weapons training, and it includes one of the UK’s largest firing ranges. The airspace above OTA is controlled by the Ministry of Defence, and military helicopters and other aircraft can often be seen. 

The site is primarily used by UK forces, but does occasionally host visiting NATO forces and it’s in use by the military for around 300 days each year. Visitors are free to explore the Open Access Areas of OTA on foot, by bike or on horseback. You might see soldiers training but they will not be using live ammunition. The Controlled Access Areas are used for training with live ammunition and red flags fly when training is taking place and access is closed to visitors. Find out more here

Soldiers who train at OTA are given information on the history of the site and will learn that it’s been used for military training since 1911. As well as relics from the area’s prehistoric and medieval history, OTA also contains the well-preserved remains of World War I practice trenches, which can be seen at Silloans, and more recent target bunkers, dating from the 1960s. 

Archaeology at Otterburn Training Area 

Revitalising Redesdale has been working with partners at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Breaking Ground Heritage, and local volunteers to investigate the rich archaeology of the Otterburn Training Area. 

Volunteers have been taking part in archaeological investigations together with participants from Operation Nightingale, an MoD initiative to assist the recovery of wounded, injured and sick military personnel and veterans.

The project aims to provide volunteers from the local community and veterans from the military community with a high-quality experience of archaeological fieldwork through on-the-job training in archaeological fieldwork techniques.

Learn more about the three excavations that have already taken place:

Exercise Border Reiver: In August 2019, 25 volunteers excavated possible prehistoric features at Bellshiel Rigg, led by Wessex Archaeology. The participants learnt archaeological skills in geophysical survey, metric survey and osteology over the course of the two weeks, as well as developing their ‘soft skills’ through coaching from Wessex Archaeology staff. All the features were found to probably post-date the late Iron Age/Roman period. Find out more.

Exercise Lidar Truth: Excavations took place in September 2020 and August 2021, led by Wessex Archaeology, with volunteers and Operation Nightingale participants, examining two possible prehistoric features that were identified as part of the Lidar Landscapes project. Find out more.

Yatesfield Iron Age-Romano British settlement: An excavation of a possible Iron Age/Romano British settlement identified as part of the Lidar Landscapes project took place during June 2021. The investigations established that the site consists of an enclosed settlement and related agricultural systems dating to the Late Iron Age/Early Romano-British period. Find out more.

Lidar imagery contains Environment Agency information © Environment Agency and/or database right.