May 14, 2010

Within These Walls

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Caerwent:  A Roman City in the Vale of Gwent

It was Julius Caesar who made the first moves to invade Britain, when in 55BC, he sent out a small expedition to explore the possibility of trade and wealth in this distant and legendary island.

It wasn’t until nearly one hundred years later however, in 43AD, that the Romans really well and truly got a grip on the island. Claudius sent 40,000 men to the UK, which provided the foundation for Roman rule for the following four centuries.

The UK was never to be the same again. Roads criss-crossed the island, cutting through forests and linking habitable places together for the first time.

Towns and cities were also constructed, some of which can still be seen today. This can perhaps, best be demonstrated in the sleepy Welsh village of Caerwent, about 25 miles east of the Welsh capital, Cardiff.

Under its subtle and genteel meadows lies some of the best kept Roman ruins in Europe. Founded in 75, this was once a market town known as Venta Silurum. The Romans had reached the site in 47, by which time they had most of southern and central England under their control. But the Welsh proved a tougher nut to crack, the area being mountainous and ruled by four tribes. South East Wales was ruled over by the Silures tribe, described as having ‘swarthy faces and curly hair’. The Silures inflicted the greatest ever defeat on the Romans in the UK in 52, when they took apart a Roman legion and the scalp of the Roman general and statesman Scapula. In fact, it took the Romans over thirty years to bring the unruly Welsh to heed when ‘Romanisation’ could begin to take place. The Romans had for years been using a clever trick of turning enemies into friends, usually by befriending the local tribe chief and bribing them with carnal pleasures. The Welsh it appears, were a little wiser to them.

By 200, the city had acquired a network of streets, with some twenty blocks and main public buildings. The population of the 44 acre site is thought to have been around 3,000 at its height. By 115, a Basilica Forum had been created, suggesting some form of self-government. Despite being one of the smallest Roman settlements in the UK, local legion veterans were attracted to settle here thanks to its wealth.

Today, the village is a peaceful and unassuming place. Its layers of history can be found in the largely unexcavated fields that are encased in stone. The foundations of the city that once sat here lie largely untouched and guarded by grimacing stone walls, some of which rise over 5 meters. Small flowers now bud from them while farm animals chew at the cud, seemingly unaware of the history beneath their hooves.

The town itself is a simple affair. A main street houses a smattering of public buildings – a church, a Post Office and the Coach and Horses Inn. Locals now gather here for their ‘feasts’ at midday. Scribed on the blackboards are Today’s Specials: Chicken Curry, Pie and Mashed Potato with gravy.

“Two more fish and chips please.” says the lady waiting at the bar. It’s obvious from the casual slacks that she’s wearing that she’s expecting a hearty meal.

The other pub around the corner, the Northgate Inn, makes the most of its historic gardens. Excavations at Caerwent have revealed remains and everyday objects from the post-Roman period. Metalwork, including elaborate penannular brooches and fastening pins, have been dated to the 5th-7th centuries. These days, a blackboard shows sign of competition. “First to 13” it reads. Game and winner unknown.

Down at the Post Office, a small red post box sits squat in the wall. Its ‘GR’ emblem reminding us that Elizabeth has not been reigning forever. Lambs with their mothers now frolic and graze in the grounds of the Basilica Forum.

Despite the thousands of feet that have once marched upon Caerwent, the Romans haven’t entirely left yet. Their legacy is reflected in the names of streets and buildings that make up this small but uniquely historic village.

Getting there:

By Rail: Nearby railway stations: Chepstow, Severn Tunnel Junction (bus connection to Caerwent)

By Car: Take the A48 eastwards from Newport or the A48 westwards from Chepstow.

Nearest Airport: Cardiff Wales (35 miles away)


Coach and Horses Inn

Nearby Attractions:

Historic Roman town of Caerleon

Celtic Manor, host to the 2010 Ryder Cup

Article and Photos by  Patric Morgan

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