Andrew Swift visits one of Roman Britain’s best kept secrets, some 30 miles outside of Bath
Bath’s Roman Baths are one of the finest historic sites in northern Europe. Walk around the city streets, though, and there is hardly anying to indicate the Romans were ever here, and what they left has consequently disappeared beneath newer buildings.
Thirty miles to the north, however, is a Roman city whose subsequent history has been somewhat different. Although it receives only a tiny percentage of the visitors who beat a path to Bath, Caerwent is, in the opinion of many, the best preserved Roman city in Britain.
Its walls are largely intact, rising to over five metres in places, and within them it is still possible to get a sense of what life was like almost two millennia ago. Even today, far less people live in Caerwent than lived there during its imperial heyday. Much of the land within the walls is given over to grass, as it has been for centuries, and the village consists of little more than a church, an inn, a derelict manor house and a handful of houses.
When the Romans came to this part of Britain, they had to deal with the warlike Silures. After establishing a legionary garrison at Isca – modern-day Caerleon – to keep them in check, the Romans built a new town called Venta Silurum, or ‘market town of the Silures’, on the road from Glevum (Gloucester) to Isca.
After the Silures were granted semi-autonomy in the 1st century AD, a forum-basilica was built and Venta Silurum became an administrative centre. Earthen ramparts topped with timber palisades were thrown up to protect it. A grid of streets was laid out. Large villas appeared, with tessellated flooring, bath houses and underfloor heating. A new temple was built, new shops and workshops opened. The ramparts were replaced by stone walls with fortified towers and gateways. The area within the walls amounted to around 50 acres, making this a good-sized provincial centre – the walls the Romans built around Bath enclosed only around 23 acres.
However, by the late 4th century, Venta Silurum, like the rest of Roman Britain, was in decline. By the 5th century much of it was ruinous. Thereafter, it was largely forgotten. A monastery seems to have been established here by the 10th century, and the Normans later built a motte in the south-east corner, but that is about all. Chepstow to the east and Newport to the west, both protecting important river crossings, were where commercial and political activity was concentrated in the middle ages. Venta Silurum – or Caerwent as it was known by now – remained a grass-grown ruin. When John Leland came this way in the 16th century, he found little more than a church, 16 or 17 cottages built from the ruins, and ‘pavements of the old streets’ in the fields.
It is not that different today. Fields – many of them still untouched by archaeologists – predominate, and the feeling that this is a place that time forgot hangs heavy. When Time Team came here in 2008, they discovered, in just three days, a row of shops in one part of the site and a large villa in another.
Somewhat surprisingly, Caerwent is not a World Heritage Site, nor is there a museum, or even a visitor centre. Entry and parking is free and, if you visit, you will probably have this astonishing place almost to yourself. For the moment at least, this must surely be one of Britain’s best-kept secrets.
To get to Caerwent, head west along the M4 and turn onto the M48. Once across the Severn Bridge, leave at Junction 2, head north along the A466, and at the next roundabout bear left along the A48 for four miles. Don’t take the first turning for Caerwent (just past the speed camera), but carry on for another mile and turn left at a sign for the Roman City. After half a mile, turn left into the car park.
Having parked, turn right out of the car park and follow the road through the old west gate. After 50m, cross and either go over a slab stile or through a gate a little further along. Walk alongside the west wall, turning left after 150m along the south wall.
After passing the site of the south gate, through which a grassy track still leads into the village, carry on along the top of the wall. After passing the Norman motte in the south-east corner, turn left along the east wall. After passing the garden of the Coach & Horses pub, drop down to the site of the east gate. Cross the road and carry on along the road past the Burton Homes. (Note: if you continue along the grassy bank, you will have to retrace your steps.) After 175m, just before the main road, turn left.
After 250m, you come to Northgate House – until recently an inn – and the site of the old north gate. Another 100m further on, by the pelican crossing, turn left to enter the city.
After 150m, go through a kissing gate on the left and head past the forum-basilica. You can, if you wish, divert into the field on the left to see the walls in the north-east corner of the city. Otherwise carry on, bearing right past the temple. After going through a gate, turn right along the road past the derelict shell of 16th-century Caerwent House.
Cross over to visit the church, where some Roman artefacts are preserved, before carrying on along the road for 100m and turning right past a row of Roman shops. Bear left across the grass to pass the site of a villa known as Courtyard House. Carry on through a handgate to follow an overgrown path as it bears left and left again round the perimeter of the field where Time Team uncovered another villa, before turning left along a footpath to return to the car park.
Nine miles to the west lies the Roman legionary fortress of Caerleon, with a Roman amphitheatre and barracks, as well as a museum where finds from Caerwent are on display. Alternatively, you can take the minor road north of the A48, opposite the Roman City turning, to Wentwood Forest.
Length of walk: two miles, plus diversions
Approximate time: two hours
Facilities: Coach & Horses pub; disabled toilet in car park
Level of challenge: Straightforward; some grassed areas and uneven ground. The site and car park is open daily from 10am – 4pm; dogs on leads welcome
Map: Ordnance Survey OL14