Brampton Old Church

Brampton, Cumberland in 1576
Section of the Westmorlandiae et Cumberlandiae Comitatus by Christopher Saxton. Engraved by Augustinus Ryther in 1576 and published between 1579 & 1645.

Brampton is surrounded by ancient history. Just over a mile to the east of modern-day Brampton stands the surviving nave of Brampton Old Church, perched on a sandstone bluff overlooking a sweep of the River Irthing. Its strategic position was recognised by the Roman Army whose ‘stone road’ or Stanegate ran below the bluff at Crooked Holm while an early fort was built atop the outcrop that enjoyed commanding views in all directions. An embanked and cobbled lane ran east and north connecting fort with frontier.

The Roman fort of Brampton Old Church (NY 510 615) was one of thirteen early-Trajanic period forts built after a military withdrawal from Scotland around AD 100 when all the archaeology from southern Scottish outposts halts suddenly with charcoal and burnt timber. Brampton Old Church formed part of the Stanegate ‘frontier’, an early precursor to Hadrian’s Wall which connected the supply depot of Corbridge and the Tyne in the east to the Flavian fort at Carlisle and the Solway isthmus in the west. Brampton Old Church was occupied for 25 years by a Roman auxiliary unit of about 500 men. It was carefully dismantled in AD 125 when the new  fort at Castlesteads (Camboglanna) was built to protect the Cambeck crossing of Hadrian’s Wall.

Statue to Emperor Hadrian in Brampton
Statue to Hadrian erected in April 1999 outside St. Martins Church by Brampton Chamber of Trade. Image © Creative Commons

Brampton Old Church’s only period of excavation took place in 1935 and was journalled in the 1936 edition of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society Transaction. Digs were positioned over the southern rampart and central administrative buildings and granaries. The section of rampart unearthed was 16 feet wide and built of a mixture of turf and clay laid upon river cobbles brought up from the River Irthing.  A single ditch 13 ft wide & 5 ft deep outlay the rampart and its footprint measured 396 ft from east to west, 410 ft from north to south giving a total area of 3.7 acres.

The masonry walls of the principia (religious and administrative centre) indicated Brampton Old Church faced northward towards the Stanegate, the whole of the via principalis or High Street lying with the modern-day church boundary.

The forts granary was next to be excavated. With seven buttresses down each side of the building (to support walls already pierced by ventilation holes to keep the grain aired) the granary was measured at 76 ft long, 26 ft wide and stood 3 courses high in 1936.
Brampton Old Church Granary
Brampton Old Church Fort granary showing buttress and ventilation window. Note the height of wall at three courses and flagstone base. Photo © CWAAS 1936

Although relatively few finds were discovered due to the systematic dismantling of the fort, a Republican denarius of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi dated to 88 BC as well as pottery shards pointed to the early Trajanic period.

To the east of Old Church, a  Roman industrial compound containing tile and pottery kilns and signs of metalworking was discovered in 1963 on land now occupied by William Howard School. Eight kilns were uncovered, four square tile kilns and four ovular pottery kilns, one of which contained a terracotta lamp stamped with the manufacturer’s name,’ FORTIS‘, a possible reference to the Legio Secunda Traiana Fortis, a Roman Legion levied by the current Emperor Trajan .  Over 800 shards of coarse-ware pottery and fragments of tile were recovered during excavations, which showed activity between AD 100 to 125 confirming the dates of Brampton Old Church brief existence.

Quite separate to but nestling  between the Fort complex and the burgeoning Saxon hamlet of Brampton is another settlement, cresting the ridge of Hawk Hirst (NY 514 613). Finds from this location indicate habitation in the late 4th century.  That this ‘community’ continues to thrive 200 years after the adjacent fort had been abandoned is made more conspicuous by Ninian’s decision to build his Mission and holy-well, dedicated to his teacher St. Martin, on this site (made more remarkable for it being the only dedicated well to St. martin of Tours in Cumbria & Strathclyde apart from Ninian’s personal church at Whithorn).

Celtic Cross design - Bewcastle, Cumbria
The ancient stone cross at Bewcastle, Cumbria. Its 14ft shaft still stands, its north face covered with 7th or 8th century Anglo-Saxon icons.

The ecclesiastical history of Brampton can be traced back to the a brightening of the light towards the end of the dark ages with the founding of the shrine of Ninian at Whithorn in Galloway, then the Bishopric of the Northumbrian Church before Bede.

At Brampton Old Church, Ninian sited, as mentioned above, the holy well of Ninewells, dedicated to St. Martin of Tours.  St. Ninian studied at Marmoûtiers and was profoundly influenced by Martin, carrying a deep love and respect for his teacher and his methods back to his Missions at Whithorn and Brampton Old Church.

The current Brampton Old Church  dates from the 12th century and is partially built of robbed out stone from The Roman Wall. The Old Church lay entirely within the fort walls, its foundations abutting the north east ramparts. It was replaced as the parish church of Brampton by St. Martins in 1878. The current Nave was left standing as burials were still being taken, including those from the village of Talkin whose Parish church was in Hayton. Records show the interconnecting forests were “infested with wolves” and too dangerous for funeral parties. A hay-tithe was paid the church to provide this service, which is still paid to this day.

It is easy, with a little imagination, to walk around the gravestone strewn churchyard of Brampton Old Church and feel back into a past that was both turbulent and peaceful. On this sandstone bluff above a meander of the River Irthing time wrote the very essence of ancient Brampton into the rust red rocks the town sits upon today.

Further Reading:

Hadrian’s Wall (Penguin History) David J Breeze

Brampton Old Church Fort on Roman-Britain.org

Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian  Society website

Many thanks to @MorenoBerti for his permission to use his ‘Hamburger Hill’ photo of Roman Wall country from The Ridge, Brampton. View more of his photo’s here.

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