Friday 24 February 2017

Chedworth Roman Villa

Did you know that there are over 450 Roman villa remains in the UK? I did not know this. I very stupidly thought that about 20 Romans came over to Britain; a few of them stayed in London and built a couple of things there, a few went north to sort out Hadrian's Wall, and a few went to Bath. 

But I was wrong, as usual. A quick look on Wikipedia shows that even in my home county of Northamptonshire there are several villages that I thought were entirely featureless that actually have the remains of a Roman villa in them. Amazing.

Thanks to a lovely tour guide called Julian, I learned a lot more at Chedworth Roman Villa near Cheltenham today. We hadn't planned to join a tour, but one was starting as we arrived so we tagged along expecting to wander off at some point. But an hour later, I was still hanging on Julian's every word as he pointed things out that we would never have noticed without him. So Chedworth Tip One: join the tour.

Chedworth Roman Villa Mosaic

1. Who discovered Chedworth?
  • The villa was discovered in 1864 by a man called James Farrer 
  • His nephew owned the estate, and one day a gamekeeper found some tesserae (little cubes that were used to make Roman mosaics), which he showed to James
  • Jimbo wasted no time - he was a keen antiquarian and he soon had a band of men digging the place up
  • In one summer they uncovered pretty much everything that we see today
  • He built a museum in the middle of the excavated site on the spoils from the clearance - I was really disappointed by this, as I thought someone had accidentally built a house here and then discovered it was bang in the middle of a Roman villa. But no.

Chedworth Museum

2. When was it built?
  • Some simple structures were built on the site in the 2nd century AD
  • From the 330s to the 380s, the villa was extended and had its heyday - the west range and north wing housed the main reception rooms, while the south wing was a service area with a kitchen and a toilet
  • But then in the early 5th century, Britain ceased to be part of the Roman Empire - the collapse of the Roman system brought the decline of luxurious villas like the one at Chedworth
  • The once beautiful, elegant rooms would have been used for keeping animals until eventually the buildings started to collapse and rot away

3. Who lived there?
  • The short answer: nobody knows
  • However, it would have been someone of consequence - it was a big, luxurious villa that would probably have been owned by someone involved in the administration of nearby Cirencester
  • Hairpins and children's bracelets have been found, suggesting that a family lived there

4. What is there to see?
  • The outline of parts of the villa is visible - the Victorians used what stones were left to reconstruct the general footprint
  • The nymphaeum, or shrine to the nymphs, is situated in the top corner of the villa - Julian's pictures came in handy at this point:
Nymphaeum at Chedworth
Good old Julian showing us what the shrine
would have looked like in the 4th century
  • But the real show-stopper is the mosaic work in the west range - the pictures below really don't do it justice:
Chedworth mosaic in dining room
The huge mosaic in the dining room with its scantily clad ladies -
Julian got a lot of interest in those

The west bath house

  • We also got to see the pilae that would have been used to create the hypocaust system for heating the rooms - they're in their puffa jackets to protect them from the elements at the moment:
Pilae for the hypocaust

5. What didn't we see?
  • Snails. Apparently the Romans liked eating snails and brought some of their favoured variety with them. A few plucky gastropods made a run for it and escaped the cooking pot, taking up residence in the vicinity AND THEY'RE STILL THERE TODAY! Not the same ones obviously, but their descendants continue to squelch their way around the villa 1700 years later. 
  • More mosaics. Amazingly, some of the mosaics were covered over again post-excavation, as they'd be destroyed if left open to the elements. So you walk round on grass verges knowing that there are stunning patterns beneath your feet.
  • Scones.

I was very disappointed by the lack of scones but let's be clear; this was scone mission #153. My rough guess is that of 153 properties visited, only five have failed to deliver scones when I would have expected some to have been available. That's not too bad.

Anyway. I had dragged the Sidekick some distance and we were both hungry, so he had carrot cake and I had fruit cake. And they were both DELICIOUS.

Chedworth Roman Villa Cake
I was so disappointed that I couldn't even be bothered to turn it the right way up
for the photo. Then I tried it and it was absolutely lovely.

I've been pretty lucky with this Scone Odyssey so far. Every time a scone fails to materialise or impress, the property turns out to be brilliant - see also Penrhyn Castle and Coleton Fishacre. With 100 properties left to go, long may that continue.

Finally - a word about guided tours at the NT. I rarely join them and I really don't know why, because they are always useful. Red House, Acorn Bank, Quebec House - all of these properties were brought to life by an NT tour guide. So take my advice, readers: IT'S NOT A CHORE, SO DO THE TOUR. (You can have that for free, National Trust marketing team.)

Chedworth Roman Villa if you do the tour*: 5 out of 5
Scones: 0 out of 5 - there weren't any
Fruit cake: 5 out of 5

* I don't know what it would be like if you didn't follow a tour guide, but I'm guessing it wouldn't be as good.

Saturday 11 February 2017

Wicken Fen

I was extremely excited about going to Wicken Fen near Cambridge today, mainly because it has a windmill. I suspect that anyone born in the UK in the 1970s loves a windmill, thanks to legendary TV show Camberwick Green and its triangular-haired hero, Windy Miller. 

Wicken Fen wind pump

But two problems cropped up very early on:

1. The 'windmill' at Wicken is actually a wind pump - more on this later

2. Wicken Fen is renowned and revered for being home to 9,000 species of fauna, flora and wildlife, but you'll struggle to spot 8,999 of them if you visit on a sleet-ridden day in February (we saw a robin). That's a heinous exaggeration, before anyone complains, but to get the best out of Wicken you probably need take your binoculars on a spring or summer or autumn day, which I will do when I return.

Wicken Fen

Before we set off for Wicken, I knew what The Fens were, but I didn't know what they were, if that makes sense. Luckily they have a really good visitor centre and a very helpful guide book that explains it all, even if the guide book does contain about 20 words that I have never heard before in my life - "lode" anyone? "Carr"?

As you can tell, the guide book had its work cut out and this is what it taught me:
  • The Fens were created as a result of peat bogs, laid millennia ago, in the lowlands of East Anglia - because the of peat bogs, the area was part land, part water
  • Humans originally settled on the land areas - nearby Ely being one - and lived off the fish, the fuel (peat and sedge), and the building materials that were available in abundance
  • Efforts to drain the fens to make them usable for agriculture have been going on for years - the Romans tried to do it and so did just about everybody else since then
  • It was the Victorians that saved Wicken Fen from being drained - local naturalists had bought up parcels of the fen to protect the wildlife, and the National Trust stepped in as early as 1899 to take on the role of protector
  • The wind pump is the only one left - there used to be 1000s of them in the area, pumping water out of the turf pits so that the peat could be dug. Amazingly, it's still in working order.
*proudly* This plant is called sedge and it saved Wicken Fen -
it was too valuable to lose to drainage in the 19th century
and then, as the sedge market collapsed, the Victorians recognised
the value of the insects and wildlife that it attracted. Well done, sedge.
I read later that there are boat trips you can do on the fen from Easter to October - read about them here, as they sound fantastic and you should try and go on one.

The Wicken Fen scone
But while the Victorians might have come to Wicken looking for a long-winged conehead cricket, or a marsh dagger moth, my sights were firmly set on finding a tasty scone. 

I was accompanied to Wicken by my trainee sconeologist mum and sister. There was only one fruit scone left on the counter when we arrived in the tea room and we all looked at it, them presumably wondering how we were going to cut it into three and me wondering how I was going to break the bad news to them.

However, the lovely assistant checked the oven and said more scones would be available in 5 minutes' time, so a fist fight was averted.

The delivery of three hot scones to our table meant that Wicken Fen walks away with the award for Freshest National Trust Scone EVER. It was tasty as anything and it looked fantastic - a big chunk of a golden scone befitting a cold and gloomy day. I've always said that it's hard to ruin a fresh scone but even when I tried really hard to find something wrong with it, I couldn't. A triumph. 

Wicken Fen scone

So there you have it - if you head to Wicken Fen on a nice day, you could see everything from a water vole or an otter to a hairy dragon-fly AND you'll get a fantastic scone.

WICKEN FEN: 3 out of 5 in winter but I'll be BAAAAACK
SCONE: 5 out of 5
Wind pump making that "pum-eerrk-er-pah-dum" noise that Windy Miller's windmill made (oh, just watch it here from 0.20 seconds: out of 5 as it wasn't making any noise