When I mentioned that I was planning to visit the Chedworth Roman Villa, someone said ‘seen one Roman villa, seen ’em all’. This was a rather sweeping statement but I admit that I had strong expectations of what I would find at Chedworth: namely, a few piles of stones and some displays explaining how much more there used to be before it all fell down and disappeared. As has happened several times before during this challenge, however, I came away deciding I shouldn’t necessarily trust in my expectations.
I thought I would simply take a quick wander through the villa’s foundations and that it would be an uneventful – and, dare I say, forgettable – morning before I knuckled down to the serious business of the Cheltenham horse racing festival, which is the main reason I was in the Cotswolds. Instead, it was a visit that I won’t forget for a while (probably a good thing as I am writing this blog entry a week later).
I have probably already mentioned in previous entries that it is well worth taking advantage of the various tours offered at National Trust properties. While standards vary from place to place and guide to guide, these invariably offer more than a basic visit, delivering specific insights and extra information that you may not glean from the guidebook or in-house information. I do not often mention my guide by name (I think Michael and his dog Wolfie at Montacute may have been the last time), but I want to give a particular shout out here to DeAnna from Idaho (well, originally from Idaho, I doubt she comes all that way every week just to give tours in the Cotswolds!). She made our visit truly memorable and treated us to an informative and entertaining hour and a half, turning a ‘pile of stones’ into a genuinely fascinating history lesson.
Her enthusiasm was infectious and her turn of phrase was fantastic; the sock room, the meandering swastikas, the frog orgy, the three-holer, the re-carpeting of mosaic, the ability to tickle the tesserae… all delightful ways to explain some of the sights at Chedworth. I won’t explain all of these to you, you’ll have to go and find out what they mean for yourself! In fact, I was so impressed with DeAnna’s tour that I would actually recommend people to phone ahead and find out which tours she is leading. The other guides may be just as good, but if you want to know more about some of those phrases above, go with DeAnna. For those who don’t like joining tours and prefer a more private approach, however, there is also an audio guide available to help explain what you are seeing around the site.
So, what are you seeing? As with most Roman villas, there are indeed a lot of stones in piles, and those at Chedworth are not always precisely where they should be as the Victorians who first discovered the villa, did a bit of rebuilding that was not necessarily accurate. However, we can’t really throw too much blame on the 3rd Lord Eldon and his guardian/uncle, the MP James Farrer, who were responsible for uncovering the villa’s remains, as they helped to ensure the preservation of the site and even constructed the first on-site Roman museum at the heart of the plot (later extended to encompass a hunting lodge). This was one of the earliest privately-owned museums in the UK.
The museum is one of three more modern buildings you will see at Chedworth (‘modern’ meaning not Roman!). The others are the reception building complete with shop and café (which offered an unusual but delicious Lime & Zucchini Cake), and the very modern shelter that covers the significant mosaics that can be seen at Chedworth. This was built at great cost so visitors can see the exposed mosaics and so that children can take advantage of an on-site activity centre. While we were there, a group of schoolchildren were dressed as Romans while taking a Roman cookery class. The new building is a clear example of how to entwine the ancient and the modern to best effect and is a perfect home in which to showcase one of Britain’s largest collections of Roman mosaics still in their original position.
If you can wait a little longer to visit, you may be able to see another very special mosaic in the future. A new building, similar to that already covering the main west front of the villa, is planned for the north wing but it could be up to ten years before the funds are raised for this facility. Once it is built, the mosaic that currently lies beneath the grass and paths of the north wing will be uncovered again and put on show. For now, it is as safe as it can be, just inches below the visitors’ feet, but I will certainly be interested in heading back at some stage in the future to see it ‘in the flesh’ rather than merely in photos. I bought some raffle tickets to make a small contribution to the fund so hopefully other visitors will do the same and the mosaic can be brought back into the light as soon as possible.
This demonstrates the fact that there are still more things to discover at Chedworth. DeAnna pointed out that the museum and hunting lodge are built on what was thought to be a spoil heap from the original clearing of the site, but haven’t shifted their foundations since, suggesting that they may be resting on stronger ancient Roman foundations, perhaps from a previous gatehouse. It is unlikely the Trust will tear down the lodge just yet but as technologies advance, this is one further aspect of the site that could be explored.
The mosaics would have to be the highlight of my visit to Chedworth but the trip was also highly educational – thanks largely to the guided tour – and terms such as ‘tesserae’, ‘hypocaust’ and ‘nymphaeum’ are far less intimidating now than they may have been before. I also learnt a lot about Roman hierarchy, Roman bathing, Roman dining and even Roman lavatory habits! I’m just glad that when I finally got my lunch – much later than anticipated – it didn’t include any of Chedworth’s Roman snails!
Highlights: The mosaics; DeAnna’s tour
Refreshments: Lime & Zucchini cake and a cup of tea
NB: On a practical note, there isn’t a huge amount of parking at Chedworth so if you go on a busy day, it might be advisable to use the woodland car park before you get to the main parking area as it’s not far to walk. We didn’t really have a choice as a coach containing a school party had blocked the main entrance while trying to get past a poorly parked car!