A FORGOTTEN corner of the Roman Empire in Northumberland is set to be brought squarely into the 21st century spotlight.
Whitley Castle, a fortification on farmland at Slaggyford in west Northumberland, stands 12 miles south of the Roman Wall, close to the border with Cumbria.
It has stood largely unseen for the 2,000 years since it formed the heart of a Roman settlement near the ancient silver and lead mines.
Now, thanks to a £49,200 heritage lottery grant and the enthusiasm off volunteers, all that is about to change.
A four-strong team of directors of newly-formed Epiacum Heritage Ltd plus a steering group of six are leading the promotion of the site – known to the Romans as Epiacum – as a prime tourist attraction.
With the backing of English Heritage, they hope among other things to integrate the site’s fascinating history into the curriculum of 13 local schools.
Epiacum, meaning “surrounding the point”, has multi-tiered earth defences and stands on 1,000-acre Castle Nook Farm, owned by Elaine and John Edgar.
Former teacher Elaine is the driving force behind the project to develop the site into something it has never been before.
“The whole project is about raising awareness,” she said at an official launch in nearby Knarsdale, “and we will do that through a range of events.
“This has always been a relatively unknown part of the Roman Empire in Northumberland.
“We are remote but quite central – an hour from Newcastle and the Lake District – but this was a very important site.”
Alastair Robertson of Alston, who is on the steering group and has written two booklets on Whitley Castle, said: “This has been like discovering Machu Picchu [a 15th century Inca site in Peru uncovered by archaeologists in 1911] in the North Pennines.
“I was one of the very few people who knocked on Elaine’s door in the mid-1990s asking to look at the fort and now it has a big future.”
Epiacum, with seven earth defence layers, is believed to have acted as a storage centre for the mines of old, but was also a southern gateway to the Roman Wall.
Paul Frodsham, of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, said: “Whitley Castle has the potential to be a real icon in the North Pennines.
“A huge amount of work has been done on Hadrian’s Wall, but not here, which is good in a way because it hasn’t been messed around by 20th century diggers.
“I personally hope it provides a focus for a huge amount of work to be done in time to come.”
Stewart Ainsworth, of BBC’s Time Team, has championed Epiacum for several years and told a 100-strong audience at the launch: “It is probably the best-preserved fort in the Roman Empire and a flagship for our project.” Mr Ainsworth, who is to be president of the Friends of Epiacum group, added: “Whitley Castle was at the hub of a thriving landscape and was vitally important, but it was largely unexplored.
”One trench was dug in 1958, and that was it.
“It is also unique in that it has a pure diamond shape, whereas other Roman forts were either square or rectangular.
“Ever since I got to know Elaine, it has been a desire to allow people to share what we can see there and long may it be so.” Elaine added: “The Heritage Lottery grant will help us justify the future development of the site, which we want to include things like a visitor centre. We are working as a team towards that.”
As a scheduled ancient monument, Epiacum cannot be excavated by humans, but the site’s substantial mole colony is impervious to human law.
It has dug up a sizeable collection of Roman artefacts, including a rare jet bead and a bronze dolphin brooch.