It's not much to see. Ruined walls and deep grassy ditches in a remote field above the Kentish marshes. But what's important isn't what's here now, but what was here originally, and what it signified, and that's hu-uge. [5 photos]
Go back 2000 years and the Isle of Thanet was an island, separated from the mainland by the Wantsum Channel. On the landward side was a small peninsula along one edge of a natural harbour, the ideal spot for a large fleet of invading ships to tie up. Nobody's quite sure where Julius Caesar landed in 55BC, nor the more successful Claudius in AD 43. But Richborough and the gentling sloping coast of East Kent are strong candidates, and the area soon became a bridgehead for conquest and colonisation.
The Romans called it Rutupiae, and made it their chief empire-facing port. Shops and granaries were established, along with barracks for a sizeable garrison, after which a prosperous border town grew up which at its height housed over 4000 people. But by the 3rd century things were in decline, extra defensive ditches were dug and additional rectangular fortifications thrown up, ultimately to no avail. Much later the harbour silted up, the river Stour eroded much of the evidence, and today it's hard to comprehend how fundamental these fields once were.
The remains of Rutupiae can be found just over a mile north of Sandwich, another town which used to be much more important than it is now. Walking from one to the other is no fun, following a narrow lane beset by agricultural vehicles. At one point a path breaks off alongside what remains of the river, but it's a lacklustre track littered with mediocre houseboats and a suspicious number of parked-up vans, and I almost preferred walking in the road. Most visitors drive, as both cars in the car park proved.
Make sure you collect the audio trail from the English Heritage visitor desk, otherwise you'll be wandering round the site without much sense of what you're looking at. This leads you through Richborough's history in chronological order, always standing beside something relevant, greatly reducing the risk of you thinking everything you can see was part of the initial settlement. Two of the ditches turn out to be three centuries older than the others. The ruined rectangular walls aren't original, but a last ditch attempt to repel rebellious Celts. That stone here might have been a Saxon font, and these foundations were once a pub. Don't rely on the handful of information boards to guide you, because they've seen better days and what you're supposed to be reading is cracking off.
The one truly amazing relic doesn't look like much - a raised platform of flint in the shape of a cross. It's all that remains of a 25m-high arch the Romans built to stake their claim on Britannia, a lofty classical portal in a barbarian land. It would have been visible to ships approaching from the continent, for a little extra wow, and later in its life was used as a watchtower. Symbolically it was built to mark the start of the key Roman road which headed off inland towards Canterbury, London and ultimately Chester. Yes, Watling Street began right here, and countless legions would have set off from the middle of this field.
Officially this English Heritage site is called Richborough Roman Fort and Amphitheatre, not that you'd realise the amphitheatre existed unless you were particularly awake. The amphitheatre's now a gentle grassy bowl the other side of the road, up a slope, across a meadow, marked by a sign that merely says 'footpath' rather than hinting where it leads. I only found instructions for crossing to the amphitheatre in a folder on a table in the small museum in the visitor centre, and I bet most visitors depart without ever making its acquaintance. Thankfully they're not missing much.
What I found truly evocative about Richborough was how the site bears witness to a civilisation lost. The Romans once dominated our land, these acres the hub of their supply chain, bustling with military might and continental trade. They must have thought they had it made. And yet their power waned, their buildings fell, and changes in sea level hid much of the evidence, until Richborough became little more than a trace on the marshes. It'd be all too easy for us to go the same way, our society ultimately destabilised by complacency, disorder and/or climate change, and we should never forget the warnings of the past.