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Discover history at Ambleside

View of a small 17th-century stone house that forms a bridge over the river in Ambleside
The 17th-century Bridge House over Stock Beck in Ambleside | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Marking the head of Lake Windermere, Ambleside is steeped in history. Ambleside Roman Fort reflects Cumbria’s past as a land of mountainous warfare, and the 17th-century Bridge House had many interesting uses before being donated to the National Trust by local residents. Find out how William Wordsworth’s strategic land acquisition became Dora’s Field as we know it today.

Ambleside Roman Fort

Discover the ruins of a Roman garrison on the shore of Lake Windermere. A far cry from the peaceful setting it is now, Ambleside Roman Fort was once a bustling, lively and sometimes dangerous place.

During the Roman conquest of northern Britain towards the end of the 1st century, a small timber fort was built at the northern tip of Windermere to house a garrison of 200 men. This early fort was soon abandoned, but the site was reoccupied early in the 2nd century.

This second fort was built in stone on a raised platform which is still visible. It was larger to house a cohort of 500 auxiliary infantrymen. The fort remained in use until the 4th century, with a large civilian settlement developing on its northern and eastern sides.

Roman rule

The fort visible today dates from the reign of the emperor Hadrian (AD 117–138). Ambleside was at the centre of a network of forts in and around the mountainous Lake District. Their purpose was to ensure order, support Roman administration and protect local communication routes.

The fort at Ambleside was linked to the fort at Ravenglass on the west coast by a road which was able to cross the Wrynose and Hardknott mountain passes.

Ambleside was also linked to the fort at Brougham by means of High Street, a high-level route across the Ullswater fells. At various times, divers in Windermere have reported heavy stonework close to the fort, suggesting the existence of a jetty. The Romans would have almost certainly used the lake for the transportation of soldiers and supplies.

Community life

Near the fort, remains of a civilian settlement have been found. Most Roman forts attracted traders, shopkeepers and craftsmen, as well as families and friends of serving soldiers.

Small-scale excavations suggest there were timber buildings over a wide area to the north and east of the fort, indicating that this was where the civilian settlement, or ‘vicus’, was located. As well as shops and accommodation, there would have been a bathhouse, temples to the gods and even bars and take-away food shops.

Power struggles

‘Killed by the enemy inside the fort’ is the inscription on the headstone of Flavius Romanus, a record clerk at Ambleside Fort around 1,800 years ago. Found in 1962, about 400 metres east of the fort, it suggests an ongoing struggle to maintain law and order in the area.

The fort today

Archaeological excavations between 1913 and 1920 revealed the remains of the fort’s defences and parts of the internal building arrangement. Today you can see the remains of the main gate, the south gate, the commanding officer’s house, the headquarters building and the granaries.

Download our guide to get an idea of what was likely to have been within the fort.

The remains of the granary at the Roman fort, Galava, at Borrans Field, half a mile south of Ambleside, Cumbria.
The remains of the granary at the Roman fort, Galava, at Borrans Field, near Ambleside, Cumbria. | © ©National Trust Images/David Sellman

Bridge House

Bridge House stands over Stock Beck in the middle of Ambleside as a quirky reminder of the town's past. It has become an icon for Ambleside and the Lakes as a whole, and thousands of visitors come every year to see it.

Family fortunes

The growth of Old Ambleside is associated with a succession of families dating back to the early 14th century. The Braithwaite family were very influential and originally built Bridge House to access their lands on the other side of Stock Beck and store apples from their nearby orchards.

A 17th century survivor

Bridge House has remarkably survived throughout the centuries as Ambleside has changed and developed around it.

Its survival could be down to its many practical uses over the years which include being a counting house for the mills of Rattle Ghyll, a tea-room, weaving shop, cobbler's, chair maker's and, at one time, home to a family of eight.

A source of inspiration

In 1858, Harriet Martineau wrote in her popular Guide to the English Lake District: ‘The odd little grey the ancient house which is considered the most curious relic in Ambleside of the olden time.’

She goes on to say: ‘The view of the hill and rocky channel of the the one which every artist sketches as he passes by.’ This statement holds true today as thousands of tourists pass by eagerly snapping their version of this picturesque building of yesteryear.

The list of artists who have painted Bridge House reads like a Who’s Who of the art world, including John Ruskin and JMW Turner.

The bid for Bridge House

In the 1920s the residents of Ambleside recognised that Bridge House was in need of repair and began fundraising.

This small group included the wife of National Trust founder Hardwicke Rawnsley, Edith Fletcher; William Wordsworth’s grandson, Gordon Wordsworth; and Beatrix Potter’s husband, William Heelis. They showed tremendous foresight in securing not only the safety of this monument, but also the aesthetics of the area. It was a great display of public action and conservation.

By the end of the project in 1926, they raised a grand total of £1,244 11s 10d to buy Bridge House and donate it to the National Trust, thereby securing its future.

Visitors walking at Dora's Field, Cumbria
Visitors walking at Dora's Field, Cumbria | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Dora’s Field

William Wordsworth bought this small plot of land from the Backhouse family in 1826 as a defence strategy. The Wordsworths were tenants of Lady Anne le Flemming at Rydal Mount, just behind behind Dora’s field, but in 1825 Lady Flemming had plans to give the tenancy of Rydal Mount to a relative.

Under threat of eviction and desperate not to be forced away from the idyllic Rydal, Wordsworth bought the field and made it clear to Lady le Fleming that he would build on the field – therefore blocking the view from Rydal Mount.

In the end this contingency plan was not needed as the threat was withdrawn, and Wordsworth gave the field to his daughter, Dora. When she tragically died, Wordsworth, his wife and their gardener planted hundreds of daffodil bulbs in Dora’s memory.

Dora’s Field was gifted to the National Trust by Wordsworth’s grandson, Gordon, in 1935 for the benefit of the public. The Trust now maintain the paths and prevents the open areas from returning to dense woodland and losing the open views. 

A group of walkers enjoying views over the valleys at Great Langdale

Discover more at Stagshaw Garden and Ambleside

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Things to do at Stagshaw Garden and Ambleside 

Make the most of the lakeshore paths, lofty peaks and ancient woodlands in Ambleside with these recommended walks. Step back in time at the Roman fort and 17th-century Bridge House.

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Our work at Ambleside Roman Fort 

Ambleside Roman Fort was built almost 2,000 years ago on Lake Windermere's shore when Cumbria was a land of mountainous warfare. Find out how we're protecting its important remains.

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