They named it Castra Exploratorum, the Fort of the Scouts to you and I. Netherby Hall’s living quarters and gardens now sit astride what, at its height, was a major military outpost for the Romans secure behind the massive wall built by the Emperor Hadrian.
For almost 300 years it’s likely the Fort played a major role in keeping the northern tribes at bay.
According to the scant records of the time the site was used by Hadrian for his military campaigns from 80AD but the Fort itself appears to have been built at the same time as the Wall which was started in AD122.
From inscriptions historians have deduced that Castra Exploratorium was made up of at least two, possibly four, encampments with the first recorded garrison, in about AD125, being some 500 foot soldiers of the Cohors I Nervanorum. Later it was base to the 1,000 men and 300 horses of the Chohors I Hispanorum.
Much more information came to light in 1732 when workmen, digging for dressed stones, came across a building which turned out to be the remains of an elaborate bathhouse between the fort and the river Esk.
The bathhouse turned out to be identical in all details to three others found later on the wall at Benwell, Carrawburgh and Chesters, leading experts to believe they were probably designed and built by the same person.
When the bathhouse was uncovered, an inscribed altar was discovered in one room and a further 18 inscriptions also came to light.
One, a single tombstone, was of great interest. It was that of a woman, named Titullinia Pussitta, who was possibly the wife of one of the unit commanders stationed at the fort and the only woman (apart from domestic slaves in her house) likely to be found in the military camp.
However, there is also written evidence that a much larger settlement had built up around the Fort.
It is said Rome was not built in a day. It certainly did not decay in a day either. After the Romans quit their “tin islands” circa 410 their settlement at Netherby was taken over by local chieftains but almost inevitably fell into decay. However, its ruins were still very visible more than one thousand years later.
John Leland, who visited the site in 1539, wrote: “ There have been many marvelous buildings here as can be seen from the ruined walls. Men alive have seen rings and staples on walls as they had been for ships. On the one side of it there is the debatable ground and so it is both English and Scottish. The ruins are now about three miles from the flowing water of the Solway. Grass now grows on the ruins of the walls.”
Around the same time other reports talk of the outline of streets running from the fort down to the river being clearly visible.
In 1601, Reginald Bainbrigg, schoolmaster of Appleby, copied a Roman inscription on a stone that was part of the front of the house, during a visit.
He also wrote “Ships’ sides, anchors and iron rings such as ships are tied up to” had been found suggesting the place had been a port at one time but an “accumulation of sand” had cut it off from the Solway.
Seventy years later Sir Daniel Fleming described “prodigious heaps of (Roman) ruins” at the site and that was the last mention of them until the bathhouse find which indicates they were probably cleared away perhaps for new building projects.