Burgh Castle is a long way from what many people may expect when they hear the word ‘castle’. There are no turrets or arrow slits here, no portcullis or drawbridge or moat.
But a castle it certainly once was – known as Gariannonum, it was one of the chain of nine or more fortifications built by the Romans in the late third century AD along the ‘Saxon Shore’, the coast of the English counties of Kent, Suffolk and Norfolk. These forts defended the coast of Roman Britain against Saxon and Frankish seaborne raiders coming across from the northern European mainland. Norfolk and Suffolk form the landmass that bulges out into the sea on the eastern side of England, and even today Norfolk locals joke that it’s easier to get to Rotterdam in the Netherlands than it is to get to London. Burgh Castle is one of the best-preserved of these Saxon Shore forts, indeed it is one of the best preserved Roman ruins in England, and as such is a popular destination for visitors to Norfolk.
Most of these visitors arrive via the car park which is about half a mile from the castle, though it’s worth noting that the castle is on the route of the Angles Way long-distance path, a few miles from the path’s starting point in Great Yarmouth. It’s also possible to arrive by boat, mooring up at the public mooring stage a little way north of the Burgh Castle marina on the River Waveney.
From the car park there is a short walk along a path enclosed on both sides by hedgerows and trees, then across a field, through a gate and on the far side of the next field the walls of Burgh Castle appear – a great stone edifice spanning the field, and the only manmade object in sight. Even to modern visitors accustomed to large buildings, its size and position in the peaceful farmland make the castle an arresting sight. To the locals in the third century, it must have seemed even more imposing – not just a practical fortification, but a statement about the power of the Roman Empire.
Continuing across the field, visitors approach what was the east gate of the castle. As one gets closer, the sheer size and scale of the walls becomes apparent. At well over 12 feet tall, the walls survive almost to their original height, towering over all who approach them. One should pause a moment in the gate itself (now just a gap) to appreciate the width of the walls, which are several feet thick. Stepping through the gate into the fort, one can really appreciate its sheer scale and start to imagine its former glory.
To the left and right of the gate, the east wall is largely intact, measuring hundreds of feet in length. The north and south walls are also well preserved, so visitors are surrounded on three sides by the castle edifice and can get a clear sense of the internal size of the fortress. The inside of the fortress has just been left as grass and visitors can walk where they please, so it really is possible to stroll in the footsteps of Roman soldiers. This internal quadrangle once also housed a motte and bailey castle built in the medieval period. This was removed in 19th century, but in the southeastern corner of the castle some earthworks remain in the form of ditches
One of the joys of the fort is being able to get so close to the Roman walls (though visitors must of course not succumb to any temptation to climb on them!). One can clearly see how they were constructed, with a stone and mortar core with courses of bright terracotta tiles at regular intervals. The outsides of the walls are faced with neat rows of split flint, making them reminiscent of many of the local cottages. The circular bastions (defensive towers) also survive, projecting out from the walls. The roofed wooden walkway that once stood on top of the walls has long gone, but even without it the state of preservation is so good that it’s easy to imagine Roman soldiers patrolling along the walls, perhaps pensive as they looked out for potential trouble, or perhaps bored and sharing a joke…
The west wall of the castle has long since collapsed and nothing of it remains. In its place though – or rather in its absence – is a view across the surrounding countryside. The fort is on high ground and the view is truly spectacular. When built, Burgh Castle was on the shore of a great estuary facing the sea, but the coast line has moved and it now overlooks the marshland and waterways of Breydon Water, the gateway to the famous Norfolk Broads river system. It is a flat, watery landscape, now managed as a nature reserve, and on a clear day visitors to the castle can see for miles. It’s definitely worth taking a pair of binoculars to make the most of the view. It’s also worth taking an extra layer – although Norfolk generally enjoys a mild climate, the wind coming off the North Sea can cut like a knife. Indeed, Burgh Castle is only a few hundred miles from the northern-most extremity of the entire Roman Empire, and it is close to Britain’s most easterly point. Soldiers used to warmer climes might have wondered what they had done to deserve such a desolate posting!
Visitors should certainly take the opportunity to walk down to the water by following the path at the north-west corner of the fort. This goes down to the edge of the marshland and there is a boardwalk running through the reed beds at the foot of the steep slope on which the west wall once stood. This area would have been the Roman harbour and it makes for an atmospheric detour. Depending on the time of year visitors might see a great variety of birdlife including pink-footed geese, lapwings and marsh harriers, not to mention boats passing on the river.
Thus Burgh Castle may not be the turreted castle of fairy tales, but it is an impressive and atmospheric fortress, where visitors can experience both the grandeur of a Roman fort and the bleak beauty of the Norfolk countryside.
Burgh Castle is managed by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust on behalf of English Heritage. It is open during daylight hours although the car park is locked at 6pm. The sat nav postcode for the car park is NR31 9QB. The castle is free to visit, although visitors are encouraged to leave a donation. There are no visitor facilities other than interpretation material, but there are pubs in the village of Burgh Castle, a short walk away. Some finds from the castle are on display at the Norwich Castle Museum. There is an all-weather path leading from the car park to the castle which joins up with the boardwalk through the reed beds, giving the site good accessibility for wheelchair users. In normal times, the Trust gives regular guided tours between June and September; see the website for further details.
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