A few miles north from Roman Britain’s most affluent regional stronghold at Cirencester, a community of wealthy individuals set about creating one of the most elaborate country houses of the fourth century. Designed to be the ultimate des res of its day, complete with excellent links to the city via the Roman-built Fosse Way, Chedworth Roman Villa was indeed a grand design, complete with underfloor heating, intricate mosaic decoration and two bath-houses. Built towards the end of Rome’s imperial domination of Britain, the villa is a fine example of the advances in Romano-British engineering and although little of the original building remains today, its rectangular foundations continue to relinquish clues about the lives of its occupants.
Hidden in its woodland idyll, this is as tranquil a site today as when the Romans left it. Their enclosed farmstead was organised into ranges of domestic, agricultural and office buildings – the fertile land beyond cultivated by the villa’s labourers. “The Romans chose to build here primarily for its natural spring, enclosing it in a temple, the nymphaeum, as a shrine to their water god,” explains Alex Auden, Operations Manager for this National Trust site. “Life here was highly civilised. Not only did the spring supply fresh water for bathing, drinking and cooking, but it was also expertly channelled to flush the latrines. Even now we continue to use this spring as we’re not piped into the mains supply. It means that we have to use recycled utensils in our café as the water source is not enough to operate a dishwasher.
“Although the property was run as a working farm, this was an incredibly luxurious place to live,” says Alex. “Hints to what lay beneath the forest floor were first discovered in 1864 by two local gamekeepers when tesserae – pieces of mosaic – surfaced during the search for an errant ferret. From the items excavated it became clear that the property was occupied by one of the richest families in the country.”
Thanks to the joint foresight of the Victorian landowner Lord Eldon and his uncle James Farrer, the plot was carefully and quickly cleared and Roman antiquities, including coins, jewellery and glassware were removed and catalogued for display. Part of the Victorian legacy is a hunting lodge that sits, controversially, amid the ruins. Built by Lord Eldon to show off his treasures to his society friends, much in the way that the Roman occupants did before him, the lodge is now used as the Trust’s offices, with a small museum room set aside to display an array of discoveries. At first sight the lodge appears to be at the centre of a very unusual garden, peppered with pillar stumps and low walls.
“Archaeological digs are still being undertaken here, as the work of the Victorians only revealed part of the entire site,” says Alex. “However, if it wasn’t for their efforts the villa would not be as well preserved as it is.”
Work to improve the site and the presentation of its treasures is an ongoing process, but following the completion of the latest £3 million redevelopment project, new additions include an environmentally-controlled conservation shelter that allows visitors to view fragments of 12 different floor mosaics in the west range. “It was important for the National Trust to preserve the items that the Victorians discovered, but it is only now, thanks to this major redevelopment, that we feel confident that the right level of protection for these artefacts has been achieved.”
This state-of-the-art conservation shelter replaces a long outdated shed which protects the site’s west range foundations. Its primary function is to shelter a 35 metre-long corridor of colourful mosaic flooring, which is set to be uncovered little by little by archaeologists and volunteers this summer as part of a live excavation feature. Each piece of white, blue and grey mosaic was chiselled from local stone, the orange from terracotta tile.
While this beautiful corridor will be an exciting new development for visitors to see in its entirety, National Trust curator Rupert Goulding explains that its presence has been known about for some time: “The mosaic floors have been protected and re-excavated over the several decades to keep an eye on their stability. Now that our shelter is in place the corridor can at last be fully revealed.”
Further into the building is an interpretation centre, enabling school groups and families to handle replicas of excavated items and piece together their own mosaics. Visitors can also enjoy an excellent new audio tour, with the colourful commentary leading them through each of the site’s exposed 30 ‘rooms’ and exposing the historical facts, as well as eavesdropping into the imagined lives of those who lived and worked here. Conjecture it may be, but society airs and graces appear to have changed little across the centuries. Costumed actors busying themselves with the handicrafts of the day are another effective means of transporting visitors back through the ages. In the room that has been identified as the villa’s Dining Room efforts have been made to bring an imaginary family meal to life though an audio visual display and simulated food smells that scent the air. The mosaics seen here are among the finest in situ, the colours so vibrant and the patterns representing the four seasons.
“We keep finding little bits of tesserae around the site, indicating that there’s more waiting to be revealed,” says Anna. “A lot of the site remains hidden, extending under the road and the Victorian house. It’s difficult to know what other secrets lie there. Not all the rooms have been assigned a particular function – as yet we can’t be sure where the family would have slept, although with underfloor heating the residents would have been warm in most rooms. Other areas are more easily defined, such as the bath houses, which had regularly stoked fires to provide hot water to bathers.”
The suggestion that the latest developments are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding and interpreting Chedworth’s secrets is a sentiment shared by Rupert Goulding: “I like the layers of history, both Roman and Victorian, and the potential of the unknown that awaits discovery. We plan to run training excavations with the University of Birmingham next year, when we hope to unearth new things.”
So far the Trust has only been able to cover and protect the west range, but eventually archaeologists hope to explore the north range, where another bath house is situated, preserving it, funds permitting, with a similar conservation shelter. “We think the most important parts of the villa were actually in that area, including some high status rooms,” continues Rupert. “Another area of interest is the south wing’s kitchen and service area. Laser scanning, which reveals data that cannot be seen by the naked eye, has been used to help us understand the fabric of the building.”
“This property is changing all the time – as we uncover more and more our theories evolve,” Alex concludes. “With our audio tours visitors will hopefully be able to rebuild the site in their minds far more vividly than any sign can convey. We’d like to encourage people to visit during the week if possible, as weekends can get incredibly busy.”
Judging by the number of cars searching for a space on an unusually sunny weekend, word of the latest developments at Chedworth has travelled far and fast. Not only is this a place to learn about the lifestyles of the Romans, but as a beauty spot and novel adventure playground, this off-the-beaten-track attraction is a discovery in itself.
Chedworth Roman Villa, Yanworth, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire
Tel: 01242 890 256