For many years I’d planned to visit one of the archaeological dig open days at Roman Silchester, just north of Basingstoke. The dig that Reading University organised every summer for the last 18 years. Until 2014. The archaeologists have evidently discovered all they need to know about Silchester and the dig is no more.
However, the small matter of a missing hole in the ground didn’t deter us from visiting the site. It’s still open for all to explore, even if it is mostly left to your imagination. This is not a place to visit if you expect above ground ruins (apart from the walls), but do go if you’re happy to imagine and wonder what things may once have looked like.
Mortimer to Silchester
Our exploration started from the railway station at Mortimer. I’d planned a walk from Mortimer to Silchester and on to Bramley railway station to get the train back home.
From the station we walked down past St Mary’s Church and then followed a small brook. Although the banks were overgrown there were several places where you could access the stream. It was lovely and clear, very inviting on a warm summer day. The summer sun had bought out masses of butterflies and insects, with chirping grasshoppers all around.
Leaving the brook, we cossed the railway line and walked a short distance along a quiet road, onto the Devil’s Highway. This is a Roman road that leads up to Silchester. Nowadays it runs through a field of linseed; very pretty blue flowers but not a single insect to be seen. The last part runs through a cattle field; we skirted around the edge rather than take the footpath through the middle of the herd. That way we were ready to jump over the fence if needed!
Silchester – Calleva Atrebatum
The Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum was built on the site of a previous Iron Age settlement. The town was a major trading centre with local goods, such as chariot gear, exchanged for slaves and metals.
Our first stop was the amphitheatre. It is hard to believe that upwards of 4500 spectators once packed into the relatively small arena. Nowadays only the flint walls which supported the seats remain. A small track runs around the top of the seating bank.
We ate our picnic lunch overlooking the amphitheatre before following the walls around the site of the Roman town. There are information boards dotted around the site which help with interpretation.
The town was designed on a grid system, the layout of which can be seen from aerial pictures taken during a dry summer. It included public baths, the forum basilica, temples and housing.
This is where the recent archaeological action took place. From 1997-2014 the Town Life project excavated one block known as Insula IX. This area contained housing, which archaeologists have determined was of high status occupation due to the presence of exotic plants such as figs in the cesspit soils. Nowadays the area has reverted to scrubland; you wouldn’t know it was a dig site without the sign.
Silchester was abandoned in the fifth or sixth century for reasons unknown. Unlike most other Roman towns in the area it wasn’t settled on again which has made the archaeologist’s job easier! The present village of Silchester was built in the 17th Century on a site to the west of Calleva Atrebatum.
Silchester to Bramley
Leaving Silchester we took our first ever footpath through an alpaca field. They wisely stayed on their side of the field even though the kids were desparate for them to come over for a stroke.
The best laid walking plans sometimes go wrong. After passing the pretty church at Silchester we were supposed to cross the road and head into another field, following the Brenda Parker Way. However, faced with head high bracken and knee high stinging nettles and thistles we decided to give it a miss. We were all wearing shorts and had no desire to end up covered in stings. Future walkers take note!
Instead we walked along a quiet country lane to the next hamlet, Three Ashes. Picking up another footpath we found ourselves walking towards a huge electricity sub-station with pylons and wires humming overhead, not the most scenic sight. It wasn’t all bad though; after walking through a couple of arable fields we found ourselves in cool woodland. A welcome relief from the overhead sun!
Our walk had one last sting in the tail. Arriving in Bramley we were desperate for cold drinks so I popped into the bakery opposite the railway station to buy some. As I watched the crossing barrier gates come down (5 minutes before the train was due) I realised there was no footbridge to access the railway platform. We had to watch from behind the barrier, with some annoyance, our train arrive and depart without us. Aargh!
Despite the nettles, electricity pylons and missed train we actually had a very enjoyable walk. At some point we’ll head to Reading Museum which has a dedicated Silchester collection. This includes artefacts recovered from the site, including the famous bronze Silchester eagle, stone sculptures and gold jewellery. Perhaps we’ll visit in winter when I can look back and remember the warmth of our summer walk!
- Silchester is open all reasonable hours; there is no entrance charge; further details on the English Heritage website.