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A Private View: A Roman relic rises from the ruins in Caerwent

Founded in 1976, The Spitalfields Trust is a leading conservation charity that, to date, has saved over 50 historic buildings from collapse. Their work began in east London but has since spread throughout England and into Wales, where Caerwent Parva is their latest labour of love. Following years of extensive repair work, this astonishing home is now for sale. Here, the Trust’s founding member takes us back in time …

Dan Cruickshank
Architecture photography
Paul Whitbread
Portrait photography
Rachel Ferriman
A Private View: A Roman relic rises from the ruins in Caerwent

Drive five miles south-west from the historic town of Chepstow – just across the River Severn from Bristol – and you arrive at Caerwent. If you have your eyes peeled, you will notice something remarkable as you move towards the centre of what is now little more than a quiet, rural backwater that forms part of an extensive farming landscape: a long stretch of ancient wall, running through fields and grassland. Built of coursed rubble faced with squared blocks of stone or ashlar, which is now mostly missing, the wall rises in places to a height of five metres. The structure was evidently once noble and is ancient indeed, dating to the AD second century. It’s the remains of a town wall – once furnished with four gates, each facing the cardinal points of the compass.

The substantial ruins are an out-rider to one of the most historically important townships in Britain that is – in its way – of international significance. Caerwent was created as something of a model town in AD 75-80 by the Roman conquerors of the land. The form it took was of the usual type – with a grid of streets of slightly different scale and importance defining insulae or urban blocks, each accommodating houses or varied types, workshops, warehouses and gardens.

At the centre of this settlement was a Forum that served as an urban focus, gathering place and location for the settlement’s market with rows of shops along two of its sides. Along the north-facing side was a Basilica – a public building that fulfilled many functions including law courts. Such a building was, in the Roman world, a badge of honour and of civilization: only significant communities enjoyed the privilege of a basilica, and if that community misbehaved, for example rebelled, it could be disgraced by being stripped of its basilica.

To the east of the Forum was a large temple complex, built in around AD330, so a late arrival to Caerwent. (It might have replaced an earlier temple.) In the 330s Christianity was on the rise within the Empire, but there is no evidence that this was a church. Its central structure was square in plan, not cruciform, and its apse and altar were to the north, not the east. It was almost certainly a shrine to Romanised local gods. There was also a public bath – the epitome of civilized Roman life.

Although built in Roman manner, Caerwent – or Venta Silurum – was not created for occupation by Roman civilians or soldiers. It was built for a local ‘client’ people – the Silures – who had been conquered by Rome but then started to adopt Roman ways of life and trade. So the founding of a Roman-style market town for the Silures was part of the Roman policy to secure its conquest by wining hearts and minds and by persuading conquered people to live with Rome and to acquire the burnish of Roman civilization.

There is much evidence that this policy worked, but Boudica’s bloody uprising in AD 60 showed that the trappings of Roman civilization and Empire-wide trade possibilities did not always lull a conquered people into docile compliance, and the strong stone walls built around Caerwent, perhaps a hundred or so years after the town’s foundation, suggest that all was not well.

The military settlement in the region was the legionary fortress or castra at Caerlon that, complete with amphitheatre, barracks and baths, was from AD 75 to 300 the headquarters of the Legio II Augusta. This Legio had been one of the four that invaded Britannia in AD 43, when led by the future emperor, Vespasian, and stayed to become one of the great military powers in the land. Caerleon is ten miles from Caerwent so that – in times of trouble and with no substantial garrison – the Romanised Welsh in and around Caerwent must have felt very vulnerable.

When you arrive in the centre of modern Caerwent several things are immediately apparent. If arriving from Chepstow you will notice, although partly hidden from view, a substantial medieval church. This is St. Stephen and St. Tatham that dates primarily from the 13th century, but which incorporates much Roman fabric and is – as we shall see – a treasure-trove of Roman artifacts. Opposite the church, on the other side of the road through the town, is a large and somewhat gaunt two-storey, stone-wrought building that is, evidently, of some considerable age. This is Caerwent House that after years of desperate dereliction has recently been repaired by The Spitalfields Trust to form two independent dwellings, now known as Magna (large) and as Parva (small) in homage to the Latin of the Roman founders of Caerwent.

And once this visually impressive stone structure is noticed something else becomes most dramatically apparent. To the rear and east of this pair of houses are the substantial and very visible stone-built walls and ruins of the Forum, Basilica and Temple. It is these ruins that make Caerwent one of the most significant Roman urban sites in Europe.

The houses, now two rooms deep, have a fascinating and complex building history that could be very ancient indeed. Research has revealed that the front portion of the houses stand more or less exactly on the south-east corner of the Forum, with the front wall of the houses and what is now the spine wall between back and front rooms, seemingly founded on the back and front walls of the shops framing the Forum. The houses were no doubt constructed using Roman wrought stones found on site – most just rubble blocks but some worked and faced. But if any portions of the wall of the existing houses are not simply built using Roman fabric but actually incorporate fragments of in-situ Roman wall then, arguably and somewhat romantically, these could be the oldest houses in Britain with, in part, a building history stretching back almost 2,000 years.

The documented history of Caerwent House, and that apparent from exploration of its more easily datable details, sadly fails to confirm a Roman origin. Cadw/Historic Wales listed building description (the house is listed Grade II) states that the house is probably late 16th century or early 17th century in origin but rebuilt in the early 19th century, and cites a central stack in what is now the left-hand house and the curiously uneven spacing of the windows of the front façade as an “external clue to earlier origins of the house.” Research commissioned by The Spitafields Trust broadly confirms this and adds some more information about a building history that saw a simple, linear, one-room deep vernacular dwelling gradually enlarged and embellished to create a polite and spacious Regency home.

Key evidence is offered by William Coxe’s ‘An Historical Tour of Monmouthshire’, published in 1801, in which a plan of Caerwent shows the house as a long and thin, one-room deep structure. However, by the time of the 1841 Tithe map, the house had assumed its current two-room deep plan. Inside evidence survives of the Regency transformation, including the staircase in Parva and several most erudite marble fire surrounds.

On leaving the house, and walking towards the church, observe the narrow lanes leading off the main road. These are not just common lanes or drives; they are ghosts of the roads of the Roman town along which urban life would have bustled nearly 2,000 years ago, as it did at roughly the same time in Pompeii, with its similar streets of taverns and open-fronted shops.

Go into the church’s porch and you will see the most wonderful things that take you back directly to Roman Caerwent and its characters. There is on display an altar to the war god Mars – who was one of the emblems of the Legio II Augusta. It bears an inscription in Latin that reads “To the God Mars Ocelus” and records that the Optio (a junior legionary officer appointed by a centurion) named Aelius Augustinus “Paid his vow.” The officer had no doubt been based at Caerleon but perhaps retired to Caerwent where, as a veteran he could have claimed a plot of land on which he might have erected this altar, thanking Mars Ocelus (a manifestation of Mars that was a fusion of the Roman God with a local deity) for survival in battle.

Standing next to this altar is an inscribed stone that the church guide claims to be “one of the most significant Roman relics in Britain”. Known as the ‘Paulinus Stone’, it is a pedestal that once carried a statue of Tiberius Claudius Paulinus, the commander-in-chief of the Legio II Augusta and Governor of Britannia from AD 219 to 220. The inscription on the pedestal reads, in part, that this statue of the “Legate of the II Augustan Legion” was “set up by decree of the tribal senate by the Commonwealth of the tribe of the Silures.”

So, it seems the image of this great man was made for, and was always located in, Caerwent and was intended to show Imperial favour – even gratitude – towards the local inhabitants, then newly ensconced within their stone-built town wall. These, surely, are not bad neighbours for anyone choosing to move into the houses across the road.

Further reading

Dan Cruickshank was photographed at the Trust’s latest London project, 19 Princelet Street.

The Spitalfields Trust on Instagram

Caerwent Parva, Caerwent, Monmouthshire

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