IT has long been one of the great hidden secrets of the Romans in Northumberland. But now, an isolated Roman fort in the remote North Pennines is set to become more widely known as an essential part of the empire.
Whitley Castle stands in the 1,000-acre Castle Nook Farm, two miles south of Slaggyford, the last farm in the county looking west to the border with Cumbria.
The site also contains the remains of several bastle houses but the fort, with seven layers of defences and bath house, headquarters building and civilian settlement remains, is largely unknown to the world.
Farmer’s wife Elaine Edgar has worked for years to raise the profile of the fort, known to the Romans as Epiacum.
And now her efforts have been rewarded with a £49,200 Heritage Lottery Fund grant.
It’s the breakthrough Elaine wanted in order to promote the fort and, working with English Heritage which manages the site, turn it into a larger attraction.
“The fort is virtually unknown to the world,” said Elaine.
“It is effectively the gateway to the Roman Empire in Northumberland. Until now we have only had two or three visitors a year, mainly academic researcher types who knock on the farmhouse door and ask if they can walk across and take a look at it.
“But now, with the Lottery Fund money, we will be able to develop and promote the site and give it the prominence it deserves but has never had.”
While thousands flock annually to the Roman heartland of Hadrian’s Wall a dozen or so miles to the north, Epiacum has stood out of sight and out of mind.
But now, with a special working group of “enthusiastic volunteers”, plans are being put in place for an interpretation centre, educational activities, talks and a website expounding the historic glories of the fort.
A new company, Epic Epiacum Ltd, has been set up with Elaine one of four directors alongside John McGough, Martyn Slater and Paul Frodsham of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty office, which works alongside English Heritage.
“It is an absolutely outstanding spectacle,” said Elaine, “a real hidden gem situated apart from Hadrian’s Wall, but a vital part of Roman history.
“Quite uniquely, the Romans built this fort in the middle of the North Pennines and we believe it may have been a collecting point for lead of the North Pennines.
“The Romans’ strategy was to build walls round what they wanted to protect, and they would have wanted to protect their lead stocks.
“My husband John and I have been here for 30 years, and my interest in the Roman history has really deepened in the last five or six years. The farm is called Castle Nook because it is quite literally in the nook of the castle, which is a scheduled ancient monument and occupies a four-acre site.
“Roman artefacts have been found, including a small bronze dolphin which it’s believed was part of a bath-house tap, as well as pottery and nails.”
In 2008, TV’s Time Team archaeologist Stewart Ainsworth came to Epiacum and described it as “a gem ... far better than anything on the Wall”. He added: “It isn’t in the Hadrian’s Wall corridor, so it largely fell off the radar.”
Altars to Hercules and Mithras have also been found at Whitley Castle, suggesting the presence of a temple in the area.
However, excavations are forbidden at the site and many of its secrets remain hidden.
With the Lottery funding, an initial 18-month development project will run until January 2014 and by then a whole new understanding of a hidden chapter of Roman history will be established.
Ivor Crowther, head of Heritage Lottery Fund North East, said: “Epiacum Roman fort holds hidden clues as to the way our ancestors lived and how the local community developed all those years ago.
“By exploring its history, volunteers will not only expand their knowledge and learn new skills, but also share the intriguing story with others and provide a record of the area for people to learn from and enjoy.”