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     On a chilly March day I visited a part of Hampshire that has two of our most fascinating historical sites. Just south of the Berkshire border can be found the stately home of Stratfield Saye and the walled Roman town of Silchester within 4 miles of each other conjoined by a Roman road known as the Devil’s Highway. Along the A33 towards Reading is a twin lodged entrance gate of the 5,000 acre Stratfield Saye estate. Two years after Waterloo it was bought by a grateful nation for the Duke of Wellington. Alongside the road is an 82 foot high column erected in 1863 topped with a bronze statue by Carlo Marochetti, the same as on Woodhouse Moor in Leeds. I decided to look further at the man who gave us the wellie boot and New Zealand the name of its capital. Arthur Wellesley was born in Dublin on the 1st of May 1769 of Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Following his commission into the army in 1787 his career prior to the ‘big-one’ took off in India and then, in 1808, the Spanish Peninsula campaign. There he earned such distinction as to be awarded the title Earl of Wellington in 1811 and then in 1814 Duke of Wellington following Napoleon’s abdication. In February of 1815 the slippery Napoleon wriggled his way out of exile and Wellington was despatched to address this grave situation. Finally, on a field in Belgium on the 18th June 1815 Napoleon finally met his Waterloo enabling ABBA to release their classic single 159 years later. Stratfield Saye cost £600,000 and after being given to Arthur (he won’t mind me calling him that) it has remained in the family’s possession ever since. The 8th Duke, also called Arthur Wellesley, was born 100 years after Waterloo and passed away on New Year’s Eve 2014. The 1st Duke became Prime Minister in 1827 and died at Walmer Castle in Kent on the 14th September 1852. After a state funeral, his body was interred within St. Paul’s cathedral next to Admiral Lord Nelson.

   

     Leaving Stratfield Saye behind and following the rutted line of the Devil’s Highway and Roman road, I found myself within the inner circle of a Roman amphitheatre. Despite the warmth of the midday sun in this sheltered place, it chilled me to the bone when pondering the violence these walls must have witnessed. Measuring roughly 250 x 220 feet the amphitheatre was a place of 'entertainment' for the people of Calleva Atrebatum, the walled Roman town alongside. If required this elliptical arena could accommodate between 3,500 and 7,250 spectators. It was built on the eastern edge of town between 44 and 75AD using earthen mounds at first that were enclosed by a wooden wall with the soil being used to form the circular terraces. Structures such as these were used typically for gladiatorial combat, wild beast fights and public executions. Horse bones uncovered there also suggest that some sort of equestrian events took place but I’m guessing it wasn’t dressage! In the 3rd century the arena wall was rebuilt in stone with tiers of wooden seating rising up behind them. The simulation to the right shows spectators arriving at the amphitheatre around 250AD, if you look closely at the terraces you might just make out some members of the People’s Front of Judea.

     Just within the far eastern corner of the Roman town nestled the 12th century church of St. Mary the Virgin, the perfect lunch spot, but I wanted to circumnavigate the walls beforehand. So through a gate at the southern end of the churchyard I began in a clockwise direction. This town was the capital of the Romanised Atrebates, an Iron Age tribe who occupied this part of Hampshire and Berkshire 2,000 years ago. One leader of the Atrebates prior to the occupation was Verica, he was friendly with Rome but when he was overthrown by Caratacus (son of Cunobeline, better known as Shakespeare's Cymbeline) it prompted the invasion by Emperor Claudius in 43AD which led to the occupation of these islands. With the Romans in control, Calleva lay in the heart of the civil zone of the imperial province on a network of important roads, essential supply routes that eased the flow of trade and communications. Five of the seven wall gates led to the principle Roman towns in Southern Britain including London, Chichester, Winchester and Dorchester-on-Thames. Over 100 years of archaeological investigation has provided much information about the layout of the town. Within the walls was a regular grid laid out with a number of important buildings including public baths and the administrative forum basilica in the centre. The principle streets were crowded with shops and workshops and several small temples have been identified across the town as well as a possible Christian church. The surrounding defensive wall was built around 270AD and ran for 1½ miles. At its base it was nearly 10 feet thick and may have been up to 25 feet high with a wall walk and parapet. What remains today stands at an average 15 feet but can be followed all the way around.

 
 

     Unlike other Roman towns that evolved in the centuries following the Roman withdrawal in 410AD, Silchester was abandoned and the site was never developed. As such it has remained untouched over the centuries and its complete layout lies beneath the surface of the ground intact. Only two other towns in England are comparable, Caistor in Norfolk and Wroxeter in Shropshire. Excavation first began in 1864. The town area covered about 100 acres and in the centre was a massive forum and basilica. Other buildings included several Roman-Celtic temples, private houses of courtyard and corridor type, and a number of shops have been uncovered. In the south was a large mansion where several mosaics were found, in 1901 some were lifted and preserved at Reading Museum whilst three others were excavated by the 2nd Duke of Wellington in 1866 and re-laid in the entrance hall at Stratfield Saye, outrageous! Despite materials from the wall being used to construct Reading Abbey from 1121, Silchester and its amphitheatre has survived remarkably well intact.

     Having come full circle, I stopped for lunch back at St. Mary's Church before heading to the western gate along a track that bisects the town from east to west. In the middle I passed the last of a number of information boards that told me I stood at what would have been the heart of the old Iron Age and Roman towns. A rectilinear grid of gravelled streets was laid out in the late 1st century and continued to be used throughout the life of the town. The town’s main east-west street, roughly in line with this modern track, was the principle route to the West Country from London, a sort of A303 of its day. As such it would have been lined with shops and workshops. Immediately to the left of me would have been the 2nd century forum basilica complex. A massive public building that combined administrative and judicial roles with a market function. I stood there for a moment trying to visualise such a place with grand and elaborate buildings and a bustling, hectic populous. It took a huge leap of the imagination, especially when trying to picture it amongst acres of wide open green fields with only a few people milling around amongst the alpacas. That nothing of this exists at all is even more astonishing, despite the good state of the surrounding walls, this is a heck of a lot of history to have totally disappeared.

   

     In the car park were details of an 8 mile walk called the Silchester Trail, perfect as a shorter alternative to this walk. At the western gate I followed a track to the edge of modern day Silchester where a small green metal hut once housed a museum about the Roman town. I continued south to southeast via lanes, footpaths and an electricity substation to Bramley. The lack of good footpaths south meant an enforced wander along roads to Bramley Green, this tedium threatened to ruin the latter half of my day. It was saved by a footpath to Lillymill Farm from where I followed a delightful stretch along the River Loddon to Stratfield Turgis. Here I found a hidden graveyard next to the derelict 13th century All Saints Church just as the ghostly white form of a barn owl took flight, a creepy little spot to find at such a late hour. Everything from this deconsecrated church, including font and stained glass windows, had long since been moved to St. Mary’s at Hartley Wespall a mile away. I passed Turgis Court, one of several old properties around the River Loddon area with a moat, but why, what is the history behind these remarkable looking places? The moated old manor at Stratfield Turgis dates from the 17th century and has served as manor, court and farm house. It was less than a mile from the finish as I joined a lonely bridleway alongside the river whilst an amazing sunset percolated through the trees to the west. It summed the day up, perfect weather but chilly and by I had finished at 6pm with the going down of the sun, it had turned very cold indeed.

 
 

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