OS Grid Reference: SD 65090 35206. In the village of Ribchester, Lancashire, are the excavated foundations of Roman bath-houses, dating from around 100 AD, though there may have been an earlier Flavian structure here. The ruins are to be found in a secluded area at the back of the White Bull Inn and Water Street – at the north-western side of the River Ribble, and in an area of the village that is called Greenside. It would seem that the bath-house only survived for a few hundred years, if that, being built outside of the Roman fort of (BREMETENNACVM’s) ramparts. Excavations took place in 1978. The foundations of the bath-house are now well-looked after, with green lawns in between, and excellent information boards to boot! The White Bull Inn has four Doric or Tuscan columns supporting its front porch – two of which could have come from the bath-house, the fort or a temple? In the village from Church Street (south-side) follow the footpath (east) beside the river, and then northwest through the wooded area to the bath-house site.
John & Phillip Dixon (1993) give some good information regarding the bath-house remains. They tell that: “Another Roman feature to be viewed is the excavated Bath House, located at the rear of the White Bull. Recently erected explanation boards help one to pick out the outline of the bath house amid the crumbling piles of stones (the excavation was a costly disaster and much damage was done to floor tiles, walling etc.).
“It consisted of a furnace room with three flues, the two southerly ones leading to the Caldarium (hot room) and the Tepidarium (warm room) respectively. The third leads to the Sudatorium (sweating room), this being round in shape. A fourth room on the south east of the building was the Frigidarium (cold room) with an apodyterium (changing room) adjacent to it. A stone-lined well stands on the south west corner of the site.”
The authors go on to say: “The building was erected in the 2nd century, with rebuilding work in later years. The whole structure was in use well into the late 4th century. On display inside the White Bull is a conjectured reconstruction in model form of what the bath house may have looked like in its heyday, along with a good example of a Samian ware bowl that was found hereabouts: Samian ware was first identified on the Greek island of Samos, hence its name. It is a fine hard red ware, burn-ished, with moulded designs, produced and exported throughout the Empire from the potteries of Gaul. This ‘terra sigillata’ was mass produced tableware, developed in slightly simplified versions of originally Italian prototypes. This type of pottery predominated until the Gaulish factories were forced to close during the revolts of around 250.”
Richard Peace (1997) tells us more, saying that: “An explanatory board explains the complex system of underground heating. The baths were basically a version of the modern sauna, involving heating and cooling the skin then scraping off the exposed dirt with an instrument known as a stirgil. In the museum a small model reconstructs a cross section of the bath houses. The baths were situated some way away from the main fort so as not to constitute a fire hazard and a timetable existed to segregate female from military and male use.”
D. C. A. Shotter (1973) says of the site that: “Excavation has also revealed to the North of the fort the presence of a large vicus, which apparently grew around the road outwards to the North. This seems to have been occupied from the 1st to the 4th Centuries A.D. and in the early stages at least to have consisted largely of timber buildings. Buildings known to have been included in the vicus are a temple (known from an inscription) and a large bath-house, which was shown by excavation to belong to the 2nd Century and to overlie a Flavian predecessor.”
Jessica Lofthouse, writing in 1974, has nice things to say about Ribchester: “I like it for what it is, an honest to goodness community without any frills or attempt to exploit its undoubtedly rich past. No Ye Olde Praetorium Guest Home, or Minerva Café, or Agricola Gift Shoppe about Ribchester, but it has a good, compact Museum of Roman Antiquities, an hour in which is most rewarding.
“Tracking down the Romans is fun. Their mark is found in pillars intended for temples but now holding up the porch of the White Bull Inn, the quaint façade of the Stydd Almshouses and the church gallery. You can walk the fort earthworks west of the churchyard, gaze down on granary floor and hypocaust in the Museum gardens, and trace the foundations of a gateway through which the legionaries passed. The pleasant house at the church gates is on the site of the fort commandant’s H.Q. Within the churchyard, so green and immaculate, a gem among country graveyards, you may ponder on what lies beneath, on the forms of ritual practiced by the Romans within the fort………”
Lofthouse goes on to say: “For three centuries Bremetanacum was an active cavalry fort on Julius Agricola’s military highway linking Chester and Manchester with the Wall. The Ribble fort was at the hub of five great roads. The camp contained within five and three-quarter acres.”
For information on the Roman fort and museum at Ribchester see the following link: https://thejournalofantiquities.com/2012/08/02/roman-ribchester-photos/
Sources / references and related websites:-
Dixon, John & Phillip, Journeys Through Brigantia — Volume Nine — The Ribble Valley, Aussteiger Publications, Barnoldswick, 1993.
Lofthouse, Jessica, Lancashire Countrygoer, Robert Hale And Company, London, 1974.
Peace, Richard, Lancashire Curiosities, The Dovecote Press Ltd., Stanbridge, Wimborne, Dorset, 1997.
Shotter, D. C. A., Romans in Lancashire, The Dalesman Publishing Company Ltd., Clapham, Lancashire, 1973.
© Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2019.