At Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire, past blogs have concentrated on the place itself… though it is only one luxury home among many.
How does Chedworth fit into the wider local Romano British landscape?
Who were the neighbours?
The ground surface of the surrounding countryside is hard to see because much of it is shrounded in woodland and it has long been an ambition to have a LiDAR survey flown across the area. This would enable a high resolution 3D scan of the ground surface.
This process is particularly wonderful because the ‘first returns’, (the light impulses that bounce off the tree tops) can be filtered out leaving only those that hit the woodland floor (second returns). Suddenly the trees are gone and the earthworks they hide are visible at last.
The Roman route to Chedworth is easy to find. From Corinium (Cirencester). Take the straight road heading north-east towards Bourton on the Water (another Roman settlement). This is the Fosse Way and after 7.5 miles, take a left at Fosse Bridge.
Here, the road meanders north-west five miles along the River Coln until it reaches Wycomb, another Roman small town, and along this road the rolling countryside is studded with Roman villas.
A busy and wealthy landscape.
After leaving the Fosse Way, the road hugs the south-west side of the river and the villas lie in valleys facing east towards the Coln. The first great house lies in Listercombe Bottom. Mosaics were discovered here in 1760 with some additional excavations in 1930. The arrangement of buildings here is not well understood.
A mile further along the river and right beside the road is a stone platform where a grand columned Roman temple was excavated in 1926. This is clear on the LiDAR and then just round the corner Chedworth villa’s valley opens up.
The LiDAR shows the entrance drive which can still be traced in the field though it was once regularly ploughed. It runs straight across the field to the villa’s lower courtyard.
Chedworth’s valley is distinctive. We’ll come back to it at the end.
Back to the riverside road …and half a mile further on we come to something particularly exciting at Cassey Compton. The old Ordnance Survey maps mark earthworks here but the LiDAR shows the details clearly. The river skirts the south side of the site but at a later stage a straight leat was constructed which cuts through the middle of the site. It’s the sort of thing done to power a water mill but the regular earthworks at Cassey Compton match the size of Chedworth, particularly the long rectilinear ranges subdivided into rooms.
A site undamaged by ploughing or excavation it seems. It may have later medieval buildings overlying it.. but underneath, it looks like a villa and there is the potential for waterlogged deposits at this riverside site where wooden and other organic artefacts may be preserved.
On the upper edge of the valley, just to the south, are other rectilinear earthworks that might be structures. Another villa? Seems unlikely in such close proximity but pairs of villas are not unknown here.
Another mile or so down the valley is the village of Withington and and another villa was found here in 1811. The antiquarian Samuel Lysons excavated and found intricate mosaics. Then, in 2007, Time Team investigated more Roman finds, discovered 150m east beside the Coln. The excavations uncovered another elaborate villa-like building. Do these two sites represent separate ownerships or homes for different parts of the same family?
Three miles on there is Whittington Roman Villa excavated 1948 beside Wycomb settlement and a mile away down a separate valley to the north-east is Compton Abdale Villa excavated in 1931.
So Chedworth was part of a community of villas, a society of wealthy families meeting, doing business, helping each other out, gossiping and probably trying to outdo each other in fashion and style. I’m getting a bit Jane Austen I know.
The journey back from the market at Cirencester would meander along the Coln and around each bend of the river would lie a mansion set in its garden and park surrounded by the fields of the owner’s tenant farmers.
Most of these Roman fields have been ploughed away in modern times but under the woods, above Cassey Compton, the LiDAR reveals a surviving group of earthworks typical of ‘celtic’ fields used during the Romano-British period.
So back to Chedworth and the LiDAR shows a distinctive square-ended valley where the villa was built. Narrow coombes run up slope from its north-west and south-west corners. There is also a slighter central combe… though all cut by the creation of the railway in the 19th century, a clear point of reference snaking across the LiDAR image.
As well as the formal straight central drive leading to the lower courtyard, there is also the present drive which continues the route used in Roman times to give access to Chedworth’s South Range. Merchants and tradesmen would perhaps have uses this for deliveries to the villa’s store houses and kitchens with the option to continue up the south-west coombe to the ancient ridge top route known as the White Way.
Another route can be seen as an embankment leading from the Coln-side road and running along the north side of the villa. The metalling for this track was found during excavations in 2003 and 2017. The LiDAR shows that the track has been cut by a post-medieval lime kiln but beyond this its route can be seen running up the north-west coombe to join the White Way.
Looking across the villa to the south, the LiDAR shows a ditch and bank on the ridge top and this may be the remains of an Iron Age enclosure. We have found scraps of pottery and a burial dating to this period so it may be a pre-Roman in date.. though only the north and west sides of this potential enclosure are visible. There is perhaps a bank defining the south side with the hollow for a pathway or track running through the middle of it.
The LiDAR is a wonder and the more you look, the more you see: old excavation trenches; water pipe routes; garden beds; boundary banks and wall alignments. Mysterious patterns that emerge when a false light is shone across the image from a certain direction but which disappear as the light is rotated around the landscape.
These images will not date the features they show…though a kind of landscape stratigraphy can be discerned. Beyond that…it is time to journey out into the real landscape and ‘ground truth’ where the LiDAR has unravelled significant earthworks ….beside the rivers and beneath the trees.