Exploring Roman Silchester, Hampshire

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 for above ground ruins (apart from the walls). Do go if you’re happy to imagine and wonder what things may once have looked like.

Mortimer to Silchester

St Mary's Church, Mortimer (left) and St Mary the Virgin church, Silchester (right)
St Mary’s Church, Mortimer (left) and St Mary the Virgin church, Silchester (right)

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.

Stinking chamomile (I think)
Stinking chamomile (I think)

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 no insects anywhere. The last part runs through a cattle field; we skirted around the edge rather than take the footpath through the middle of the herd. 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.

Roman amphitheatre, Silchester
Roman amphitheatre, Silchester

We ate our picnic lunch overlooking the amphitheatre before following the walls around the site of the Roman town. The town was designed on a grid system, the layout determined from aerial pictures taken during a dry summer. It included public baths, the forum basilica, temples and housing.

Roman excavation site, Silchester
Roman excavation site, Silchester

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 high status housing, a fact that archaeologists have determined from 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 and unlike most other Roman towns in the area wasn’t settled on again. The present village of Silchester was built in the 17th Century on a site to the west of Calleva Atrebatum.

Crossing the alpaca field, near Silchester
Crossing the alpaca field, near Silchester

Silchester to Bramley

Leaving Silchester we took our first ever footpath through an alpaca field. The kids were desperate to stroke them but they wisely stayed on their side of the field.

The best laid walking plans sometimes go wrong. After passing the pretty church at Silchester we were supposed to follow the Brenda Parker Way through a field. However, faced with head high bracken and knee high stinging nettles and thistles we decided to give it a miss. Future walkers take note!

The route from Silchester to Bramley
The route from Silchester to Bramley

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!

Walking through the wheat fields, near Silchester
Walking through the wheat fields, near Silchester

Our walk had one last sting in the tail. We were desperate for cold drinks when we arrived in Bramley so I popped into the bakery opposite the railway station to buy some. As the crossing barrier gates came down 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 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!

More info

  • Silchester is open all reasonable hours; there is no entrance charge; further details on the English Heritage website.
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A walk to Hurst castle, Hampshire

£9 for a 10 minute bus ride? I thought the driver had misheard me so I repeated our destination, Milford-on-Sea. Yes, the figure was correct; £2.50 per child and £4 per adult for a single fare.  It would have been cheaper to get a taxi, and quicker given the bus was running 25 minutes late. With gritted teeth I paid the fare and made a mental note to avoid buses in future.

Fortunately we’d had a better experience with the train. Taking advantage of our family railcard and off peak travel I’d planned a trip to Hurst Castle, a spectacularly located castle overlooking the Solent and Isle of Wight. It’s possible to walk to Hurst Castle from Lymington railway station but I thought the short bus ride to Milford would allow a linear walk and reduce mileage.

Shingle beach walk to Hurst Castle
Shingle beach walk to Hurst Castle

My mood lightened a little as we left Milford-on-Sea and attempted to run up and over the shingle bank which heads out to Hurst Castle. Easier said than done as the pebbles slipped away under our feet and the wind blew hair and sea spray across our faces. Across the Solent we could see The Needles, glistening white against the clouds.

It’s a 1.5 mile walk out along the shingle to Hurst Castle. It was surprisingly hard walking along the top of the spit, even with a stiff breeze blowing us along. After a few minutes we admitted defeat and dropped down to the sheltered side of the bank, away from the waves and wind. We walked beside the mud flats and salt marsh; they’re a haven for waders and wildfowl although the only bird I recognised was an egret.

The approach to Hurst Castle
The approach to Hurst Castle

As we walked Hurst Castle slowly came into focus. It’s a strange looking building, more of a fort really, with destructive gun batteries and protective lighthouses alongside each other.

Hurst Castle

The castle was built by Henry VIII to guard the western approach of the Solent and help protect the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth. Despite the threat of invasion the castle saw little action for much of its early history although it was used to imprison Charles I in 1648. Significant renovations and the addition of armaments were completed during the Napoleonic Wars but life at the castle remained uneventful. Further modifications took place throughout the Victorian era and up to the end of the Second World War.

Hurst Castle
Hurst Castle

Entering via the guard room we first explored the early part of the castle. The Tudor tower housed the garrison and marks on the floor outline the living accommodation. The roof was used as a gun tower but nowadays is best for its great views across the marshes and the Solent.

The original Tudor castle sits between two large wing batteries which were added between 1861 and 1874. Later in the week we visited the Isle of Wight and it’s only after seeing the castle from the seaward side that you really appreciate the positioning and structure of the building.

Old lighthouses, Hurst Castle
Old lighthouses, Hurst Castle

We continued our explorations of the remainder of the castle. We walked up and down stairs, searched nooks and crannies and balanced along old railway tracks. The two lighthouses shown above no longer work. Instead the Hurst Point lighthouse fulfils their role and there’s a small exhibition in the castle about them.

Before we left, and in the interest of research, we felt obliged to pop into the cafe for a drink. We’d already eaten our picnic but the food looked good and the cakes tempting.

Hurst Point Lighthouse
Hurst Point Lighthouse

Return to Lymington

I had planned to catch the ferry back from the castle through the marshes to Keyhaven but it was a busy summer day and the queue was long.  In case you’re wondering, the term ‘ferry’ is probably a little optimistic. Think small boat with room for about 10 people rather than Isle of Wight Red Funnel car ferry!

There also appeared to be a drama happening in one of the channels as a boat was stuck in the mud. Our boat was called into action to rescue the passengers and take them back to Keyhaven. At this point I decided it was quicker to walk back rather than wait another 20 minutes for the next ferry. Fortunately the wind had dropped since the morning, making it a less arduous walk.

Walk from Keyhaven to Lymington
Walk from Keyhaven to Lymington

Our walk back to Lymington took us past more mudflats, the boats of Keyhaven Yacht Club and clouds of butterflies. I’d under-estimated how long it would take to walk this final stretch and we had to run to reach the railway station in time for our train. We arrived sweaty and hot with a couple of minutes to spare.

We really enjoyed Hurst Castle but if you plan to visit I would definitely suggest walking one way from Lymington or Keyhaven and using the ferry service as this looked like a fun way to travel.

More info:

  • Hurst Castle is open daily from the end of March to the end of October. Check the English Heritage website for exact dates and times. An adult ticket costs £4.40, a child ticket £2.80. English Heritage members have free access.
  • The ferry runs every 20 minutes between Keyhaven and Hurst Castle during castle opening times. A single ticket costs £3.50 for adults, £2 for children.
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