At Burgh Castle you can explore the best preserved Roman monument in East Anglia. In fact, this is one of the most impressive Roman buildings to survive anywhere in Britain. The Burgh Castle fort was probably called Gariannonum by the Romans. During the 3rd and 4th centuries AD it was one of a chain of ‘Forts of the Saxon Shore’, sited at intervals around the coast of south-east England. There are other Saxon Shore forts in Norfolk at Caister-on-Sea and Brancaster. The forts protected Britain from attacks by raiders and pirates from across the North Sea, and may also have guarded harbours and merchant shipping.
During its long history this has also been the site of a Norman castle, and perhaps of an early Christian monastery. Visitors can enjoy the site at any time, and a series of interpretation panels and disabled-friendly paths are provided for your benefit. The parish church stands close by and is also very interesting.
Burgh Castle is more than just a historic site. It is rich in bird, animal and plant life and stands within a natural environment which can teach us much about East Anglia’s constantly changing climate and coastline. From this peaceful, secluded place, visitors can enjoy wonderful views westward over the rivers Yare and Waveney and across the expanse of Broadland.
The site was bought by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust in 1995. The Trust's landholding extends far beyond the Roman fort itself, and totals 37 hectares/90 acres. This ensures that the large area outside the defences occupied by the buried remains of the Roman civilian settlement or vicus is included in the area under Trust control. The remains of the fort itself are in the guardianship of English Heritage. The entire area owned by the Trust is open to the public free of charge.
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Access and facilities
The Burgh Castle site lies c. 6km south-west of Great Yarmouth and c. 5km west of Gorleston. It is in a dramatic position close to the southern edge of Breydon Water, overlooking the confluence of the rivers Yare and Wensum.
by boat: there is a public landing stage on the east bank of the River Waveney, a short distance north of the Burgh Castle Marina and Caravan Park.
by road: the site is 5km west of Gorleston-on-Sea. Leave the main A12 (Yarmouth-Lowestoft) road at the junction with the A143 (Diss and Beccles). Follow signs to Burgh Castle and Gorleston as you leave the A12. At the first roundabout that you encounter after leaving the A12 take the first exit, signed to Burgh Castle and Bradwell. Follow this road out of the built-up area; when nearing Burgh Castle village, give way and turn right at a T junction where it joins Mill Road (following the brown sign and finger post indicating Burgh Castle). Shortly after passing the Queen’s Head pub on the right, turn left into Butt Lane. A very short distance along this road, you will see the Burgh Castle car and coach park on the right-hand side. SatNav: NR31 9QB.
by bus: First Eastern Counties’ Service 5 (Yarmouth-Burgh Castle via Bradwell) stops outside the Queen’s Head (NB. the stop itself is not marked). The journey takes about half an hour. From here it is a very short walk along Butt Lane to the site entrance. For up to date timetable information, please visit http://www.travelineeastanglia.org.uk.
walking: visitors may follow the Angles Way long-distance path from Great Yarmouth to Burgh Castle along the southern shore of Breydon Water. Total distance c. 6km – this is a very enjoyable walk.
People may visit at any reasonable time. There are no toilet or other facilities at the site itself, although two small open-sided structures in the car park area, housing interpretation panels, offer some shelter from bad weather. Sometimes there are displays in the church. The Burgh Castle pub (the Queen’s Head) is nearby, at the junction of Church Road and Back Lane. At the west end of the village, close to the church, is the Church Farm Country Inn.
A major access and interpretation scheme has been created by the Trust, with funding and collaboration from Natural England and English Heritage. Interpretation panels in the car park area and around the fort provide information for visitors. A timber viewing platform overlooking the rivers and marshes is an ideal spot for observing wildlife, appreciating the remarkable view and imagining how different this landscape would have been in Roman times. An all-weather path around the property is wheelchair friendly, and disabled users can open gates with the help of RADAR keys (available for the registered disabled). The Trust is especially grateful to Natural England for their generous funding for these works. The footpath system allows disabled visitors to reach as far as the river.
The Trust's comprehensive guidebook to the site and to the other Saxon Shore forts in Norfolk is available from local shops.
More information about Burgh Castle
The changing coast
East Norfolk in Roman times
Burgh Castle’s setting has changed a great deal over the last 2000 years. In Roman times sea levels were much higher than they are now and the coastline quite different. The fort would then have stood on the eastern edge not of low-lying grazing marsh, but of an inland ‘Great Estuary’ which covered the whole of present-day Broadland. Large ships might have docked next to the fort and sailed up the rivers Yare, Waveney and Bure to reach Venta Icenorum (Caistor St Edmund), Brampton and other important places.
Sea levels and weather patterns are always changing, and ongoing climate change might lead to water levels rising again. One day, might the remains of the fort once again look out over an inland sea?
This fort was one of a series of at least nine Roman coastal forts in eastern and southern England known as the Forts of the Saxon Shore. The earliest of these were built sometime after AD 200. The later Roman period in Britain was a turbulent time, when life in East Anglia was affected more and more by seaborne raiders from the Continent. The present defences at Burgh Castle date to around AD 300. The fort formed part of an administrative network that included much of Europe, extending from Britain as far as Egypt, Palestine and Turkey in the east. This reminds us that Roman East Anglia was closely connected to a very much wider Roman world, and was an important part of a great empire.
The forts’ roles probably changed over time. Raiding increased during the 4th century AD. Perhaps the forts were first intended as defended trading or market centres, or as naval bases protecting merchant shipping. The network of forts was linked by a line of coastal signal stations. Some of these have been recognised, while others have now fallen into the sea. There were two other Saxon Shore forts in Norfolk, at Brancaster (in north-west Norfolk), owned by the National Trust and at Caister-on-Sea, to the north of Burgh Castle on the opposite side of the Roman-period ‘Great Estuary’, now owned by English Heritage. The Burgh Castle and Caister forts could well have been part of the same defensive system.
This section of the outer face of the wall is quite well preserved. A bastion is visible in the centre of the picture.
The Saxon Shore forts were under the control of one official, the Count of the Saxon Shore, who commanded soldiers from across the Roman Empire. The Burgh Castle fort was large enough for between 500 and 1000 foot soldiers, or up to 500 mounted soldiers and their horses. In AD 395 we know from an inscription on a tile that a mounted unit from the German Rhineland, the Equites Stablesiani, was based here. The remains of a cavalry helmet have been found at the site.
The defensive walls survive almost to their original full height, although a parapet (now missing) protected soldiers patrolling the wall top. The defences were strengthened by a series of projecting bastions, sited at the corners of the fort and at intervals along the walls. These huge ‘drums’ of masonry were added when the walls were half built. In the middle of the top of each bastion there is a hole in the masonry, which may have held the central support of a timber structure or (perhaps less likely) a large catapult.
The scene in Roman times was very different in many ways. The west wall of the fort has vanished – probably it collapsed down the steep slope below. The walls were once faced everywhere in flint and tile. This has mostly been taken away to be used in other building work, except in parts of the south wall. We know little about the buildings that lay within these defences because there has so far been little excavation. They could have been of timber or stone.
Vicus – civilian settlement
Plan showing the location of the fort, motte, vicus and church.
Today the fort appears to stand in splendid isolation, surrounded by open meadows, but in Roman times this was not so. Air photographs and surveys have shown that there was a large civilian trading settlement – or vicus– on the land to the east of the fort. This was built in timber and no longer survives, but would have dominated the landscape across which visitors walk to the fort today. It was a busy, noisy place, and probably provided essential services to the fort itself. This was a very important part of the Roman-period landscape. Archaeologists continue to learn more about it from air photographs and survey work.
An Anglo-Saxon monastery?
After the Romans left Britain, the abandoned fort was reoccupied in the Anglo-Saxon period. Timber buildings and over 160 burials excavated at the site in the 1950s and 60s may date to c. AD 700–900. Burgh Castle has often been linked with Saint Fursey, a missionary from Ireland who was involved in converting East Anglia to Christianity.
Some of the many Anglo-Saxon graves excavated at Burgh Castle (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery)
Fursey was given land around AD 630 to build a monastery at a place called Cnobheresburh. This may have been at Burgh Castle but we do not know for certain. The monastery might have been at the nearby Saxon Shore fort at Caister-on-Sea, where many Anglo-Saxon burials have also been found. Early Christian monastic communities elsewhere in Britain sometimes chose abandoned Roman fortifications to settle within. Perhaps the Burgh Castle and Caister forts were both settlements of this kind, regardless of which of them was actually Fursey’s Cnobhesburh.
The round-towered Church of St Peter and Paul lies immediately to the north of the Trust’s Burgh Castle property. While the present fabric is of medieval date it probably originated in the later Anglo-Saxon period. The walls contain some re-used Roman tile. It lies close to the site car park and is well worth a visit.
The Norman Castle
After the Norman Conquest in 1066, much property was taken from its English owners and given to followers of William the Conqueror. Many of these barons built castles in their new lands. In the late 11th or 12th century a small castle was built in the south-west corner of the fort. All that survives today are the remains of the motte, or mound, which once had a timber keep on top.
The motte re-used part of the southern defences of the Roman fort and the big gap was cut through the south wall for the surrounding ditch. The mound was mostly flattened, and the ditch filled in, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, its outline can still be seen clearly at the southern end of the fort.
Norfolk Heritage Explorer
Find out more about Burgh Castle using the Norfolk Heritage Explorer website. http://www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/SingleResult.aspx?uid=MNF10471.
Gurney, D., 2002. Outposts of the Roman Empire, A guide to Norfolk’s Roman forts at Burgh Castle, Caister-on-Sea and Brancaster (Norfolk Archaeological Trust)
Excavation report. Much of our present knowledge about Burgh Castle derives from excavations in the 1950s and 60s.
Johnson, S., 1983. Burgh Castle: Excavations by Charles Green 1958–61, East Anglian Archaeology 20
Bidwell, P., 1997. Roman Forts in Britain (London: English Heritage)
Davies, J.A., 2009. The Land of Boudica: prehistoric and Roman Norfolk (Norwich: Heritage/Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service)
Gurney, D., 2005. ‘Roman Norfolk’, in T. Ashwin and A. Davison (eds), An Historical Atlas of Norfolk, 3rd edition (Chichester, Phillimore), 28–9
Johnson, S., 1976. The Roman Forts of the Saxon Shore (London: Elek)
Pearson, A., 2002. The Roman Shore Forts (Stroud: Tempus)
The Fursey Pilgrims are dedicated to studying the life and works of St Fursey, who may have been associated with Burgh Castle. Their events sometimes include lectures and historical symposia. www.furseypilgrims.co.uk.