I enjoy having a theory and making leaps across time. It may be true, partly true or completely wrong but it feels good at the moment.
One of the particular things about working as an archaeologist for the National Trust is that it’s difficult to escape garden archaeology. I noticed it when I first arrived, the Trust is full of diversity but gardens are important and English neo-classical 18th-century landscape gardens particularly so. Britain is quite famous for them.
It was the thing to do, particularly from the mid-17th to mid-19th centuries. One just had to do the Grand Tour and visit the key places of ancient Rome and Greece. Rich young men would have been fluent in the classical texts, say in the letters of Pliny the Younger. In the 1st century, Pliny praised the value of his villas as country retreats for health, relaxation, recreation and seclusion and when they returned 18th-century landowners created such classical landscapes in their grounds.
Very fashionable. Quite the thing and they had loads of money. Ralph Allen made his cash by quarrying Bath stone and supplying it to rebuild Bath in the classical style. He built a massive mansion above the city and on the valley slopes below he had built lakes, cascades, a grotto, an ornate ‘Palladian’ bridge and various garden buildings linked by paths lined with shrubs and statues in Greek and Roman style.
Henry Hoare made his money in banking and purchased the old Stourton Estate in Wiltshire. He appointed consultants to create a neo-classical mansion, dam the River Stour at its source and created lakes. Around the lake and on the valley slopes his designer placed classical temples, obelisks and a grotto. The walks and carriage rides enabled each garden building to be glimpsed from the next. Certainly something to impress his mates and his clients.
The source of all this was Greece and Rome. Surviving texts from Ancient Rome describe sumptuous gardens surrounding villas which were the source of the English designed landscape ideal.. so don’t we have evidence of designed landscapes from Roman Britain. Seems reasonable, we’ve got mosaics, painted plaster etc. copied from Rome.. what about landscapes. They’re less easy to see but Chedworth seems a good candidate.
Chedworth is not on its own. It is one of a group of villas surrounding Roman Corinium (Cirencester). The country seats of the rich. Impressing the neighbours/ clients/ boss has always been important.
Chedworth is perched at the head of a narrow valley sloping down to the River Coln. The National Trust only owns the villa ruins which were purchased for the charity in 1924 when the Stowell Park Estate was sold. All the land around the Roman mansion was once part of the villa estate so we wanted to know more about its setting.
These places were usually the centres of farming estates (as were places like Stourhead 1400 years later), though nobody has yet found the farm buildings for Chedworth villa. So last year we asked for permission from the Stowell Park Estate to carry out a geophysical survey of the field east of the villa. No farm buildings but a mound at the bottom of the villa marked the site of a circular building defined by a ring of circular features (column bases?).
This year Matthew met us during the excavations at the villa, Stowell Park Estate had given him permission to carry out a metal detector survey of the whole field.
We walked down the valley and he explained what he had found. The mound was definitely Roman. He took me to a pile of rubble on the other side of the valley in sight of both villa and the mound. He had found coins and building material there dating from the 2nd-4th century, including window glass and lead.
He said that the rest of the field had few metal signals and therefore these were two isolated buildings, perhaps pavilions and/or shrines which served as eye-catchers for honoured guests approaching the villa (I guess the tradespeople used the back entrance. In the 18th century, designers made sure that the lower ranks didn’t spoil the vistas when they made their deliveries). Other buildings and earthworks are known from the surrounding valley sides, including the circular ‘capitol’ excavated in 1864 on the crest of the ridge behind the villa.
So that’s my leap of imagination based on the evidence, an 18th-century Stourhead or Prior Park type landscape at Chedworth.