Ribchester - the Ribble Valley community hoping to borrow back Roman treasures


Martin Pilkington visits the Ribble Valley community that wants to loan back a precious Roman helmet.

Ribchester has its own answer to the Life of Brian question ‘what did the Romans do for us?’ as the ancient invaders not only founded the village, but they set a layout still intact two millennia on.

‘The earliest remains found are of Bronze Age burials on the north side of the village,’ says Patrick Tostevin, curator of its Roman Museum.

It was the Romans in about AD70, however, who made it a substantial settlement, building a fort to control a ford and strategic crossroads.

‘The Roman street plan you can see at the museum is the same as it is now, except with the church instead of the fort,’ says Rector Gill Henwood, who adds that the 13th Century St Wilfrid’s is possibly unique, built on the site of a Roman fort.

Alan Ormand, treasurer of Ribchester Local History Society, adds: ‘An aspect of the village that is uncommon is that the area it covers has remained almost unchanged. We have a river at one side and hill the other, so apart from a few housing developments it has stayed pretty constant.’

In many villages a church reflects the history of the place, and St Wilfrid’s definitely does that, but Ribchester and the adjoining hamlet of Stydd go two better, with a chapel once run by the Knights Hospitallers and a fine ‘barn church’ from a time when Roman Catholic worship had to be clandestine.

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Saint Saviour’s Chapel in Stydd is a reminder that, even centuries after the Romans left, Ribchester remained a significant way-station for travel. ‘It would have been the chapel of a monastic foundation, to look after travellers andalso to care for those no longer able to look after themselves,’ says Gill Henwood.

From a distance you would not think St Peter and St Paul’s Roman CatholicChurch at the end of Stydd Lane is a religious building, and that was theintention. When it was built in 1789 Catholic worship in public remained illegal.

‘They built it as a mirror image of the barn and house the other side, essentially to camouflage it,’ says Alan Ormand. Very much not blending into the landscape, though, is the nearby Almshouse constructed 70 years earlier to provide homes for the poor. Surely this is one of the quirkiest architecturalflourishes in rural Lancashire. Pevsner described it as ‘curious and engaging.’

Gill adds: ‘The village still has many families rooted here for generations, a real strong connection with place. But then, many new people move here because they value the school and the community feeling. So there’s a healthy mix.’

Ribchester has staged several successful food events and that fascination is being transmitted to the younger generation.  When we visit St Wilfrid’s School the children are studying foods of the world in the form of wiggly noodles

There are more established traditions too. ‘It’s a vibrant village, a lot of thingshappen here,’ says Alan Ormand. ‘We have the Field Day on the third Saturday in June, with processions, fancy dress, and music. And the music festivalaround the same time.’

Long gone are the mills whose workers in the 1950s supported 27 shops in the village. Now there is just a Spar and deli – and pubs of course, though the White Bull is, temporarily it is hoped, closed. However, Bee Mill is still home to some thriving businesses Charlie Hutton has brought something different to the village, the pottery-painting cafe Potter’s Barn opened a year ago.

‘In winter we’ve got a beautiful log fire, and when the sun shines I put wroughtiron tables in the garden,’ she says. ‘Our homemade soups are a real hit with the walkers and the cyclists.’

So Ribchester is still looking after travellers as the Knights Hospitallers didin medieval days, although we suspect the soup has greatly improved.

Heading back home?

The museum is well worth a visit, housing a replica of the bronze Roman ceremonial parade helmet, pictured left, found as part of the Ribchester hoard in the 18th century.

The helmet and several other precious artefacts were dug up by a clogmaker’s son and this rare item is on show at the British Museum.

Next year is the Ribchester museum’s centenary, and curator Patrick Tostevin is seeking the temporary return of this magnificent helmet.

There are many signs of recycled Roman remains in the village. ‘It’s accepted now that the pillars in front of the White Bull in the centre of the village are Roman,’ says Mr Ormand. ‘Without doubt the fort was recycled, the stones reused for barns and whatever. It is highly likely the church has lots of Roman material in it.’www.ribchesterromanmuseum.org.

Village makes music

The annual music festival started 20 years ago as a result of the 800th anniversary appeal for work to be done on St Wilfred’s. ‘This was a way of celebrating the completion of all that work, and ittook on a life of its own,’ says festival chairman Tim Rainford.

‘We’re only a village of a few hundred souls but we’ve been able to put on a fantastic standard ofmusic over the years, with people brought here to perform from all over the world, including somebig names such as Pascal Rogé and Richard Rodney Bennett.’

Though finding sponsorship has become harder Booth’s Supermarkets continue to back the festival,and it has a strong Friends group that raises significant sums every year. The 2013 festival takesplace from the 21st to the 23rd of June, with other individual events through the year. For moreinformation see www.ribmusicfestival.co.uk or call the box office on 01254 878881.

Worth the journey

Where is it? Ribchester is in the Ribble Valley. From the A59 takes the B6245. Programme PR3 3YE into your satnav for the village centre.

Can I park? There’s a good size pay and display next to the Potter’s Barn.

Are there places to eat? There’s a cafe and the Ribchester Arms is popular for quality pub food.

What should I do? There are a couple of art galleries, the Roman museum, the churches and some nice walks by the Ribble.