Portus Lemanis: The Forgotten Saxon Shore Fort

An image of beautiful, green, tree speckled hills with the fragmented ruins of a Roman Fort nestled in the green. On top of the hill sits a large building that looks like a castle.
Some of the remaining walls of the fortifications at Portus Lemanis, with Lympne Castle in the background. (Credit: Me)

The ‘Antonine Itinerary’, effectively a sort of ‘map’ listing stations and settlements and their distances from each other along various roads of the Roman Empire was, allegedly, commissioned by Emperor Antoninus Pius.

Chances are it wasn’t – with Diocletian or Caracalla being most likely responsible for it, but that’s a tale for another time. Or not at all since the tale is the great mystery of “Who asked for the bloody map?” which is hardly the most thrilling episode in Roman history.

Either way the Iter Britanniarum, the list of Roman places in Britain, is where we obtain a lot of our knowledge of the history of our Roman settlements from. Many of them were obviously in fine locations, on main roads with wells, near water-sources and all the other amenities Romans would have expected. Therefore a lot of our Roman history is buried under streets we walk in towns and cities we still live in.

But there are also places now crumbled, ruined, forgotten and sadly barely explored in the middle of fields, on the tops of hills and overgrown and sorry. Portus Lemanis, also known as Lemanae, is one such place.

Another hillside scene, with the faint, grey-white wall of Roman buildings barely visible through the grass, shrubs and trees.
Barely visible, shrouded behind trees – there is something about this site that just upsets me! (Credit: Me)

On the beautiful southeast Kent coast, only a couple of miles from Hythe, all that remains to be seen of Portus Lemanis are a few aging and crumbled walls. Even then they can only be seen from a distance without permission of the landowner, because they are on private land. That is why my images are from such a long way away.

Those walls are indicative of a Saxon Shore Fort – this was the series of fortifications made along the south and east coasts of England by the Romans to spot and prevent Saxon invasions. In fact evidence seems to suggest the walls themselves are made of reclaimed stones and tiles so there was likely some kind of settlement nearby at the time of the fort’s building.

What’s significant about Portus Lemanis, though, is the number of tiles found there stamped with the inscriptions ‘CL BR’ – This stands for Classis Britannica and was, effectively, the Romano-British Navy, charged with protecting the waters of the English Channel. There is also an inscription and dedication to Neptune, Roman God of the sea, by Lucius Aufidius Pantera (epic name) who was prefect of the Classis Britannica.

What does this mean? Well, if the Classis Britannica had such a hand in building Portus Lemanis, or at least potentially adapting whatever settlement was there into a fortification, and if their prefect made a dedication there, they must have thought it was an important fort. There are suggestions the Classis Britannica may have even been based there at some point, which would make this one of the most significant 3rd century Roman sites in the UK that is basically an unexplored pile of rubble in a private field.

It deserves a thorough exploration and potentially a fucking museum!

More green field with bricks in it. This is why Portus Lemanis needs more exploration. It could be a significant Roman site, instead it's just a field with old bricks in it.
There are still significant structures visible above surface, this shot has likely been taken from the top path that goes through the village of Lympne. Well worth a walk, especially with Port Lympne Wild Animal Park nearby, you can often get some free zoo! (credit: Nick Smith / Part of Stutfall Castle, a Roman fort / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Roughly where the path is that I took my photos from is around where the shoreline would have been in Roman times, so it is also a stark and shocking reminder of how the land changes. The Romney Marsh that it looks down upon probably owes a little of its added land over the last 1,800 years to silting from the rivers and streams, particularly the River Rother (still one of the best named rivers in the UK). Most of it, though, is owed to reclamation built up since, likely, around the 12th or 13th century.

It all means this once significant Roman port now lies a few miles or so inland, indeed the views from the top of the hill, over the marsh, are absolutely stunning and there is a public footpath at the top that also affords decent views of Portus Lemanis depending on the condition of the trees, hedges and undergrowth.

The other building you can see on the top of the hill is Lympne Castle, in the modern village of Lympne. I believe it dates back to around the 13th century and is today mainly used as a venue – mostly for weddings. So if you fancy getting a significant Roman port in the background of your wedding photos I’m sure you can give them a shout and they’ll sort something out but…I’ve walked around there and seen the kinds of cars parked when there’s a do on…It ain’t cheap!

I extended a long, arduous, sunkissed walk because I wanted to share Portus Lemanis with people. I think it’s a real shame that these ruins are just left as they are. The sandy-clay soil has seen much erosion and subsidence and year on year whatever lies beneath is being lost to us. There have only been a couple of serious excavations of the site, one in the 1850s and one in the 1970s. I think modern archaeology and modern archaeological methods could reveal much of the hidden mysteries without even needing to disrupt the earth. Tools like ground penetrating radar could reveal much that we don’t know – and who knows what artefacts lie below?

A big hole in the ground with some old bricks in it.
An image from some excavations done at the site between 1976-1978 that show the significant amount of material beneath the surface (this was an excavation of the East Gate, I believe) just begging to be explored, catalogued and understood. (Credit: John Baker CC-BY-SA 2.0)

I would have loved to have got some better close-up shots, but as mentioned this is private land and so for me to try to do so would be trespassing. It’s a site kept hidden, a part of all of our history left merely to be swallowed by the soil, with only a distant glance and signs on some barely trodden footpaths to indicate that this is anything of significance at all.

It’s a shame, to me.

Fancy reading more about Roman British places?
We’ve got amazing finds of multicultural ethnicity in Eastbourne
Noviomagus Reginorum, modern Chichester an important place for the Claudian Invasion
and Fishbourne Roman Palace, a must-see, mosaic-laden gem!

Or have you come here from local interest and don’t know a lot about Roman history? Catch up with my ‘Roman History in a Nutshell’ series.

Introduction
The Founding – 753 BCE and Before

The Kingdom – 753 BCE – 509 BCE
The Patrician Era and the Conflict of the Orders – 494 BCE – 287 BCE
Wars with Etruscans Pre-753 BCE – ~264 BCE
Wars with Sabines, Veii & Fidenae ~753 BCE – ~287 BCE
The Latin Wars 7th Century BCE – ~338 BCE
The Gallic Wars ~390 BCE – ~284 BCE
The Rest of the Med ~2,000 BCE – ~3rd Century BCE
The Samnite Wars ~343 BCE – ~290 BCE

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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