Despite dominating ‘England’ for only 400 years or so, the legacy of the Roman invasion and conquest of Britannia – first by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54BC, and then by the Emperor Claudius in AD43 – is quite remarkable. A Roman imprint can be seen in many of our towns and cities, at various fortresses (in the north along Hadrian’s Wall at Vercovicium, or Housesteads Roman Fort and Vindolanda, for example), and in the modern roads, some of which still follow the ancient Roman routes. And there are, of course, other ruins of settlements (such as Wroxeter – Viroconium – in Shropshire) and residences dotted around the countryside. Yesterday, we visited one of the most impressive and significant of the ruins of a private residence, at Chedworth Roman villa in the heart of the Gloucestershire Cotswolds.
Lying just north of Cirencester – Corinium, which was an important Roman town, and linked into three major roads, the Fosse Way (now the A429 to the east), Ermin Street (the A417) to the west and Akeman Street, Chedworth villa was undoubtedly the important and sumptuous residence of a wealthy family – but who? We just don’t know.
Lying hidden for centuries since its apparent abandonment in the late AD300s, the ruins were discovered in 1864, on land belonging to the 3rd Earl of Eldon, a 19th century landowner. The first evidence was some colored stone cubes – tesserae – from buried mosaics. Once uncovered, several beautiful mosaic floors were revealed in all their glory. The archaeology continues today, and while other mosaics continue to be revealed, most of the walls of the remaining ruins have been uncovered.
These are topped by ‘roofs’ to protect them against the elements. But an idea of what the villa must have looked like has been interpreted in a model at the entrance to the villa.
Today all that can be seen are the outline structures of the west and north wings, and a small part of the south wing. But what treasures lie inside the west wing. Some of the best mosaics are there, today protected by a National Lottery-funded building in which visitors are able to walk above the mosaic floors on a raised platform. The mosaic on the south side of the west wing covers what is regarded as the dining room. But to the north, there are bathrooms, plunge pools and the like for relaxation.
The central heating genius of the Romans is exposed in several locations, but particularly on the north wing, where pillars that supported the floors can still be seen.
Lying in the valley of the River Coln, a source of clean water would have been one of the main reasons for siting the villa here. And in the northwest corner of the villa, in what has been interpreted as a shrine or temple, yesterday’s trickle of water from the spring didn’t seem sufficient to sustain a large community that must have lived at Chedworth all those centuries ago.
The site is also a haven for wildlife, but we didn’t see any of the large edible snails (Helix pomatia) that are found at Chedworth and which were introduced by the Romans. I’ve never heard of these elsewhere but there surely must be other populations around the country. At Chedworth they’ve survived – even as a local population – for two millennia.
No doubt the continuing archaeology will eventually tell us more about the life and times of Chedworth, one of fifty or more villas in the Cotswolds. Another – but important – link in our rich history.