Closing in on a Roman legend

King Scar in the Wyre estuary
King Scar in the Wyre estuary

In the second of a two-part series, local historian Gordon Heald examines the clues as he attempts to unravel the mystery of just where on the Lancashire coast the semi-mythical Roman port known as Portus Setantiorum was located

Much time and trouble might have been saved in the hunt for the Roman town of Portus Setantiorum if interested parties had cast their eyes in a slightly different direction a bit sooner – towards some of the early detailed marine charts of Morecambe Bay, which cast quite a different light on the problem.

Wardleys on the river Wyre

Wardleys on the river Wyre

It has long been accepted that the coast from Lytham to Fleetwood has been eroding for centuries, possibly by two or three miles since Roman times, and the Fleetwood to Cockerham coast has been accreting as the Bay gradually fills up with sand.

However, the picture which emerges from the charts is that the estuary of the Wyre has been continually moving eastwards until halted by the Great Knott and, more contentiously, that the features at King Scar, and even King Scar itself, did not exist before the 1830s.

Published in 1693, Great Britain’s Coasting Pilot was commissioned by Samuel Pepys and carried out by Captain Greenvile Collins who, unfortunately, did not personally survey Morecambe Bay but relied on local knowledge.

Nevertheless, although it lacks detail, the chart shows a radically different picture with the Wyre flowing out to the north west at 45 degrees to its present course. The notion of the moving estuary was reinforced by the discovery, in 2007, by contractors constructing the foundations for new sea defences, of ground conditions indicating that the Wyre once flowed out to the west at Cleveleys.

Wyre's ancient ports by Gordon Heald

Wyre's ancient ports by Gordon Heald

The first really detailed chart is that produced by Fearon and Eyes in 1738. It shows the main estuary running out northwards but two considerable channels, the Neckings, running out to the west immediately adjacent to the shore with a scar named North Scar at the western end, considerably to the south of the position of King Scar, of which there is no trace.

The second chart is that surveyed by Lt J C Woollnough RN in 1817, which shows a very similar picture, except that the sands of North Wharf have expanded northwards to almost their present extent, but still no trace of King Scar.

The third chart, by Commander H M Denham RN and L T Geo. Williams RN, surveyed in 1842-44, shows a radically changed situation. The Wyre channel is 
essentially the same,
 although a little straighter, but the Neckings have disappeared, North Scar is very much reduced, and King Scar has appeared.

The Ordnance Survey, by Capt Tucker and Lts Hamley and Stanley RE in 1844-5, published in 1848, shows a very similar picture.

In the intermediate 
period between 1817 and 1842 considerable changes had obviously taken place.

For the reason we need look no further than the extensive marine works carried out during that time in order to turn the new town of Fleetwood into a viable and easily navigable port _ and the law of unintended consequences.

The Wyre channel had been straightened and deepened, the projecting end of the Great Knott removed, the Knott Gulf around the east side of the Knott blocked by a new embankment, and the Neckings closed off by piles at the eastern end.

Tidal flows were permanently changed and the accumulation of stony material at the western end of the Neckings, North Scar, migrated to form King Scar at the point where the combined outflow of the Wyre and Lune met the northwards longshore drift of material driven by incoming tides and south westerly winds.

The situation remained relatively stable for many years and, in 1995, the most prominent features at King Scar were the wreck of the Stella Marie at the highest point and the remains of the beacons first erected in the 1830s to replace the ancient structure at Rossall Point (pictured left).

Subsequently, change has taken place at an accelerating rate, possibly due to further works such as Lune Deep, construction of extensive wind farms and the cessation of dredging in the Wyre.

By 2013 the Stella Marie was concealed almost completely by the growth of large and extensive stony embankments which, by 2017, had increased to such an extent that the largest was only submerged by the highest spring tides and had become known as Wyre Island.

Thus the myth of deliberately man-made structures dating back to Roman times must finally be laid to rest.

So where, and indeed what, was Portus Setantiorum?

The word Portus does not imply any kind of military establishment, town or settlement but merely a harbour, so it might simply be a stretch of water which vessels can safely access and where they can shelter for loading and unloading, not necessarily with quaysides or the like but possibly where they can simply beach at high tide.

It need not necessarily be a port established and used by the Romans but could simply be a place long used by the Setantii, and either controlled or even suppressed by the Romans.

King Scar, or other offshore locations, now seem very unlikely in view of reasons given above and various coastal changes, especially since Philip Graystone, author of ‘Walking Roman Roads in the Fylde and Ribble Valley’ (1996) and other books on Roman roads, has also cast doubt in a private communication on the Roman origin of the portion beyond Kirkham of the road from Ribchester, having personally traced it as far as Puddle House farm near Poulton. The north eastern side of Morecambe Bay has been suggested but the fast moving, treacherous tides and constantly shifting channels and gullies in this part of the Bay, as well as its exposure to south westerly gales, make it a very unlikely location for a safe harbour in the days of small vulnerable sailing vessels.

Similarly, the north side of the Ribble estuary near Freckleton has been a candidate but this is unlikely for three reasons. Firstly, the river would certainly have been navigable up to Walton-le-Dale, where the Romans established an important industrial area, especially if sea levels were higher, and a port lower down would have been redundant.

Secondly, the location is a lee shore fully exposed to south westerly gales without any protection, evidenced by the very large number of shipwrecks recorded there during the 19th century, a key factor which led Peter Fleetwood Hesketh to establish his new port on the much safer Wyre instead of the Ribble.

Thirdly, the Ribble has been identified as Belisima.

Lancaster has also been mentioned as a possibility, since a company of bargemen, the Numerus Barcariorum, were stationed there, possibly to patrol Morecambe Bay, and the fortifications extended down to the river bank.

However, it appears to have been a purely military establishment attached to the fort and it seems likely in any case that it was known as Galacum. The one remaining practical location is the upriver stretch of the Wyre between Wardleys and Skippool, a key point which is both the highest navigable and lowest crossing point, situated on the ancient north-south coastal highway, and therefore an important communications hub.

It is accessed by two Roman roads; one on the north side of the Wyre recently traced by the Pilling Historical Society, from Garstang, where it joined the main Walton-le-Dale to Lancaster road, via Nateby to Wardleys; the other on the south side from the Roman fort at Kirkham, probably roughly on the line of the A585 to a crossing point at Windy Harbour or the Roman ford at Shard, rather than the ‘Danes Pad’. The Wyre had many crossing points in this area as well as the one paved by the Romans at Shard, including one accessed by an obviously engineered hollow way in a straight line with a uniform gradient from Stainall down to the river bank.

The fort at Kirkham was obviously located by the Romans to protect and control both the harbour and all the fords across the Wyre and the Ribble and was well served by roads. The Wyre has always been known as ‘safe and easy’, and there is no doubt that this stretch of the river would have been in use from the earliest times, both before the Romans and probably also by raiders after the fall of Rome who might have previously visited as traders during the years of the Empire, and certainly by the Vikings who have left their place names in abundance – Skippool, Thornton, Hackensall, etc.

It later became a well established port with world wide trading connections and all the facilities resulting from that and, by the 18th century, ships of 300 tons were actually being built in Wardleys. Decline only occurred after the establishment of Fleetwood lower down river, in a location capable of accommodating larger ships. Before the 19th century, because of the difficulties of overland transport, the natural and preferred position for ports was as far upriver as possible rather than out on exposed coasts subject to stormy seas.

Roman merchant ships would certainly have had no trouble in reaching this point on a flood tide, and could have been safely beached for as long as necessary.Is that the final conclusion? In view of the absence of any archaeological remains which might allow a positive identification, and the continuing debate over Ptolemy’s figures, place names, changing coastlines and sea levels, etc., the answer must be that we shall probably never be certain. But who knows, there is always the possibility something unforeseen might come up at any time.