Friday, 8 May 2015
What have the Romans ever done for us.....?!
There are many sites in Gloucestershire to visit if you have an interest in the Roman occupation of Britain. Some of them, such as Chedworth Roman Villa at Yanworth and the Corineum Museum in Cirencester are very popular tourist attractions that offer an informative and interesting visit and an enjoyable day out. Others are hidden, often known only to locals and take a bit more effort to find. Some are marked on a map but you could easily miss them if you didn't know they were there. At these you won't find visitors centres, information boards, tea shops of gift shops but you will feel if you have been on an adventure!
To keep you in suspense a little longer, I am going to talk about Chedworth Roman Villa first! The villa is owned and managed by the National Trust and the site includes the villa itself, a museum, a lovely little café and a gift shop. We really enjoy a day or half day out here, often combining a visit with a circular walk from the villa through some beautiful countryside that includes quiet back lanes, ancient woodland and arable farmland. There are several walks you can do from here that you will find in many local walking guides and in publications available from the gift shop. Our walks usually either start or finish with something from the on-site café which you can access without having to pay to go into the villa if you prefer not to.
I love the history of the accidental discovery, in Victorian times, of one of the largest, most complete Roman villas in the UK. It was discovered by a gamekeeper working on the estate where the villa, was located. At this time the villa was completely buried under several metres of soil. He noticed that every time one of his terriers went into a rabbit hole it would bring up with it some tiny mosaic tiles. Presumably he eventually mentioned it to his master who arranged for a spot of digging to take place, whereupon they uncovered a small part of the Roman villa we can see today.
Chedworth Roman Villa was home to some of the richest people in the country during its heyday in the 4th century. You can see some of the inventions brought to this country by the Romans - including mosaics, bathhouses, latrines and even underfloor heating. It is possible to get up close to the mosaics, some of which were only excavated in 2015, on elevated walkways. You can read the story of the Victorian gamekeeper who unearthed the first clues to what lay beneath an ordinary field in the heart of the Cotswolds in the museum. I love the fact that there is still a breeding colony (not sure if that is actually the correct terminology) of edible Roman snails, presumably ancestors of the original snails bought over with the Romans, living within the grounds of the villa. Sharp eyed children should have no problem finding them! Speaking of children, if you check the National Trust website you will often find special events for children at the villa.
Address: Yanworth, Near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL54 3LJ
Telephone: 01242 890256
OS Grid Ref: 163:SP053135
I first became aware of the existence of another roman villa in Gloucestershire in 1996, located in the middle of Spoonley Wood, just outside Winchcombe. I was reading Bill Bryson's book 'Notes on a Small Island' where he mentions it:-
'On a hill above Winchcombe there is a little-visited site so singular and wonderful that I hesitate even to mention it......' He goes on to describe the ruins of a Roman villa that are to be found in the middle of woodland, covered in undergrowth and virtually hidden from view.
I wasn't living in Gloucestershire at the time and, although it intrigued me, I quickly forgot about it. In 2003, when we moved here, I remembered the story and decided to have a look on an Ordnance Survey map to see if it was marked (it is). Shortly after that we paid our first visit and it was every bit as magical as I had hoped it would be. Only in this country could the mosaic floor of a Roman villa that has long since vanished, be found by wandering through a wood, deviating from the path down little animal tracks, to a small clearing where some thoughtful person has erected a little wooden shelter that stands over a piece of hessian sacking weighed down with four bricks! Carefully remove the bricks, lift up the sacking and gaze upon an intricate mosaic floor where once a Roman family stood! In the middle of a wood, with birdsong overhead and not a soul to be seen! Further exploration will uncover some low walls and flagged stone paths, all evidence of the villa that once stood here. I love it!
OS Grid Ref: OL45:CP045255 - Spoonley Wood
Not too far from here is another, even better preserved, mosaic floor. This one can be found inside a stone barn (built, presumably, to protect the mosaic) that stands in a small copse of trees in the middle of a field just off Corndean Lane in Winchcombe, adjacent to Humblebee Cottages. this one is marked on an OS map, but only with a small white square. Whilst finding it is not so exciting it is an even better example than the one in deepest, darkest Spoonley Wood.
OS Grid Ref: OL45:CO023261