30 April 2017

Roman Wales: Caerwent

Caerleon may have a reputation for the best Roman ruins in Wales but, to be honest, I preferred Caerwent, or, as the Romans called it, Venta. It may not have a museum full of interesting finds but I liked the fact that it had less modern buildings built on top of it so you could walk around it more freely, and perhaps it was also the beautiful setting and the fact that the sun had finally come out.

As my friend Jill left me her guide book to read, I’ve copied from that an illustration of the layout and I will number my photos and comments according to the numbers on the map. Only the areas shaded brown can be seen as ruins today – the other structures have been worked out from excavations and ground-penetrating radar but are not visible above ground. I didn’t take photos of everything – I was too busy just enjoying – and, as you’ll see, I was also a little obsessed with the walls.

I Courtyard House
Though my photo shows only one room of this house – one of two that had under-floor heating – this was a large and very impressive house which had been constructed in the early fourth century. It was built around two courtyards and, as well as having hypocaust heating in at least two large rooms, it also had mosaics on the floors, tessellated pavements and brightly painted walls (plaster remains were found during excavations).

VII Pound Lane
These are the remains of shops and a blacksmith’s workshop, which all faced on to the main street (in the background of my photo), though even these buildings were altered many times from their first incarnation in the late first century AD to their abandonment in the mid fourth century. Nearest the camera and at the rear of the shops was a large fourth-century house set around a courtyard (the green lawn, centre left). The family who lived here must have been wealthy as excavations have revealed thirteen rooms, a fine mosaic pavement, and a hypocaust heating system.

IX The temple
The temple complex, near the centre of town, was built around 330AD and has been the subject of two major excavations, the first in 1908 and the most recent between 1984 and 1991, though no evidence has yet been found to identify which god was worshipped here.

Unfortunately, I have no photos of one of the most impressive ruins of all, the Forum-Basilica, the civic hall and market place around which life in Caerwent revolved. Though parts of it have subsequently been built on, the original basilica was immense, measuring 260 feet (80m) by 182 feet (56m). Only the stubs of walls remain so the grandeur of the buildings themselves cannot easily by imagined by the casual visitor but the best thing about this area was that you can actually walk where the Romans walked, on the paved stones of the piazza.

The walls
Fortunately, large parts of Caerwent’s Roman walls still remain so you can walk alongside them and be impressed by their size, and along the tops of them and imagine how it might have been to be a Roman centurion guarding those walls so many centuries ago.

This is the west wall, looking south from where the west gatehouse would have been. You can get an idea of the height of the wall from the relative size of the man who was out walking his dog. The wall stands around 10 feet (3m) tall on average, though in some places it is still over 17 feet (5m), and it was about 10 feet (3m) thick at the base.

To quote from the guide book:
The builders began by laying rows, front and back, of facing stones of roughly hammer-dressed limestone blocks. Then the core was filled with pieces of limestone bedded roughly on edge, followed by a slurry of lime mortar; the whole structure was raised course by course. This method of construction resulted in the herringbone pattern of the core so clearly visible here [photo above].

The south wall also stands up to 17 feet (5m) tall in places but it has an additional feature: six hollow towers were added to strengthen the defences on this side. Though most of these towers had their stones robbed many years ago for local building construction, one is still relatively intact and, from close examination of its construction, archaeologists have determined that it had two internal levels as well as the top level – all wooden platforms.

This view looks west along the length of the south wall. The earth mound on the right is all that remains of a motte that was built by Norman invaders in the south-east corner of the town in the late eleventh century.

We walked along the east wall as far as the central gate and then back through the centre of Caerwent to the carpark. It had been a fabulous walk around, though we had both been itching throughout to find a handy trowel and have a bit of a dig at some of the intriguing lumps and bumps that can be seen in every piece of vacant land. There is so much of Caerwent still waiting to be discovered!

17 April 2017

Caerleon: an alternative view

Caerleon may well have the best Roman ruins in Wales but that’s not all it has to offer. Here’s a small selection of the other local attractions that caught my eye.

First up, the lovely historic Church of St Cadoc that sits in the heart of the town, typically plonked by the early Christians right on top of important Roman ruins. Small parts of the church’s interior date from the 12th century – we weren’t able to see inside as the church was in use when we visited – and the 16th century tower is extant but most of the building was reconstructed in the 19th century. I particularly liked this ornate old lamp stand near the front door and the hinges on the old wooden side door.

The post and pillar boxes – always a favourite of mine – were a real mixed bag. Standing just outside the church yard was the finest Victorian pillar box I’ve ever seen, of such elegant design and very well maintained. Further down the main street, outside the small post office was a nice pillar box from the reign of George VI. But then, tucked away in a small side alley, was the saddest Victorian wall box I’ve ever seen, with paint peeling off it and partially obscured by scaffolding. The sign says it dates from c.1880 and had been ‘recovered from an old smithy in Llandeilo’. Such a shame it hasn’t been looked after.

Easily missed, on a side wall of a building in the main street, we discovered this intriguing sign. I’ll just copy here what’s written on it:
The Mynde Wall
Chartist Uprising
In the last quarter of the 21st century we have taken the Right to Vote for granted. This was not always so, and in 1839 after the failure of petitioning the Government of the day, the men of Britain and South Wales sought to change the system through marches and demonstration – this was known as The Chartist Uprising. John Jenkins the owner of Mynde House and Master of the Ponthir Tin Plate Works, concerned for his property, constructed the Mynde Wall in order to keep marauding demonstrators out. The wall in front of you is what remains of his efforts.

Down by the river side ... Caerleon sits on the western shores of the River Usk, a tidal river hence the colour of the water and those high muddy banks. The narrow old stone bridge you can see in the photo was built in the early 19th century. Though we couldn’t see any signs of it, a Roman harbour was discovered here during excavations in August 2011, and Caerleon continued to be a major river port until docks were built in Newport during the Victorian era.

Also down by the river side we found an interesting old stone tower, but there was nothing to explain its history. Turns out this may be all that remains of Caerleon Castle, which was built around 1219, though the British Listed Buildings website also mentions the possibility of it being a chain tower for controlling access to the upper river. I liked the silver knight standing guard on top.

Next, a couple of random bits of sculpture. Caerleon has some lovely old buildings, with beautiful pieces of architectural adornment like this carving of a head. And, down another side alley, where we found a cafe for tea and cake, there was also a sculpture garden full of bizarre artworks, large and small. It was very cluttered so I didn’t take many photos but I did rather like this bull’s head attached to one wall.

And lastly, to finish off this alternative look at Caerleon, I just had to include this shop sign because, well, I’m Annie and this blog is definitely one of the Vintage Annie variety!

16 April 2017

Roman Wales: Caerleon

Suggest a visit to Roman ruins and, before you can say Carpe diem, my shoes and jacket will be on, my camera in my backpack, and I’ll be waiting at the door! 

So, when my equally Romanophillic friend Jill came to visit, I didn’t take any persuading to spend a day looking around the Roman ruins at Caerleon (and nearby Caerwent, but that’s for another blog).

In Roman times, from around 75 to 300AD, Caerleon was known as Isca and was one of only three permanent legionary fortresses in Britain

In its heyday, it was home to over 5000 soldiers of Augustus’s Second Legion. 

Nowadays, it’s a small town that acts as a satellite commuter suburb for the city of Newport but it stills has some significant Roman ruins and so is an important tourist destination.

We started at the museum, which has an impressive collection of artefacts found during local excavations. Finds range from the expected pieces of military equipment and domestic goods to children’s teeth and a treasure trove of gemstones recovered from a drain in the bath house. There is even a recreation of a burial, with a model of the face of the deceased made using modern forensic techniques.

Next we visited the ruins of bath complex. Though only a small portion of the huge original complex remains, you could certainly get a feel for how big it must once have been, and the interpretation boards, displays and lighting were very well done. I was particularly impressed with the decorative drain cover and the sculpted stone head, the exact significance of which is not known.

Quite a large portion of the fortress wall remains so we walked alongside that to return to where the car was parked. Though much eroded and with the guard towers long since robbed of their stones by local house-builders, it was still possible to imagine how tall and impenetrable it would once have looked to enemy forces.

Sitting just outside the wall are the remains of the amphitheatre, one of 75 such structures in Britain and the best preserved. Wooden grandstands, erected on the base that we see today, would once have held up to 6000 people, watching military parades and bloody battles. Bizarrely, in medieval times, people thought this structure was the site of King Arthur’s legendary round table. It would have been an extremely large table!

Our last piece of Roman Caerleon was a very brief look at the remains of one of the barrack buildings – brief because, although we had successfully dodged the rain and hail showers thus far, another wintery blast forced us to beat a hasty retreat. Though the centurions enjoyed reasonably large rooms, the legionnaires’ quarters were small and spartan, with eight men sharing a very cramped space. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be a Roman soldier.

09 April 2017

Caerphilly: the Castle artworks

One thing I didn’t expect from my visit to Caerphilly Castle was the wonderful artworks on display here and there. I’m not talking about paintings by Monet or sculptures by Henry Moore – these are artworks that relate perfectly to their surroundings and help to tell the story of the castle and its history

The artworks were part of a £260,000 investment four years ago by CADW, the Welsh government’s historic environment service, and were intended to ‘increase public access, enjoyment and participation in Wales’s heritage’. I didn’t see the castle before these improvements were made, obviously, but I certainly think Caerphilly is one of the better castles I’ve seen, in terms of how it maintains the interest of its visitors, and explains the features and history of this amazing place.

These are four of the special features that caught my eye:

This giant wooden statue is hard to miss as it appears to hold up the castle’s leaning tower – that’s a 10-degree lean, apparently, which is even more than the famous Pisa tower. Created by sculptor John Merrill, the 20-foot-tall statue represents the 4th Marquess of Bute. His great-great-grandfather, John Stuart, acquired the ruined castle in 1776; his father John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess, had the site surveyed and the great hall reroofed in the 1870s; and then along came the next John Crichton-Stuart, the 4th Marquess, who was responsible for restoring the dilapidated ruins of the castle between 1928 and 1939. Go the Butes!

When I was researching the sculptor, John Merrill, I found a fascinating series of photos of his progress on this artwork which you might also enjoy looking at – they're on his website here.    

Though you can’t see it in my photo, on top of the castle walls behind this stone-sculpted knight is a covered boardwalk (it’s probably got a technical castle-ish name but I don’t know it) where his enemies are housed, preparing to repel his attack by showering him with arrows and stones and the dreaded burning oil, so he’s hunkering down behind his shield to protect himself from that assault. It’s a cracking sculpture, don’t you think?

This knight in rusty armour gave me a shock, lurking as he does in a dark corner. I don’t know his story – maybe he’s just one of the many knights who served in the castle guard – but he’s a tall, dark and handsome fellow.

The King and the Queen

These four pieces were my favourites though, unfortunately, the light was very poor in their little round tower room so I wasn’t able to get good photos, particularly of the backs of their heads (which were also carved). Sculpted in 2013 by Rubin Eynon, the piece is entitled ‘Four Heads’ and, as a signboard indicated, they are ‘the villain, the king, his wife and her lover: A tale of power, greed, lust and violent death at the top of the medieval world’.

The Lover and the Villain

This dramatic piece of medieval history goes something like this:
The king was Edward II (1284-1327), a tyrant whose vicious rule and battles with his barons turned his kingdom against him. The villain was Hugh le Despenser (1286-1326), Lord of Glamorgan and owner of Caerphilly Castle. Hugh was a close friend of Edward’s, and aided and abetted the king’s tyranny. In 1325 Edward’s queen, Isabella (1295-1358) went to France, in theory to negotiate peaceful relations between her husband and her brother, the French king Charles IV but, in fact, she had other plans.

In France Isabella met up with Roger Mortimer (1287-1330), who had led a revolt against Edward II in 1322 and was the sworn enemy of Hugh le Despenser. Roger became Isabella’s lover and, together, they returned to England with an army and wrested control of England from the king. Both the king and the villain tried to escape Isabella’s clutches by fleeing to Wales but were soon caught.

Edward was forced to relinquish his crown to his 14-year-old son, Edward III, and died a few months later, probably murdered on Isabella’s orders. The villain Despenser met a rather more gruesome end: he was hung, drawn and quartered in Hereford on 24 November 1326.

But wait, there’s more. Initially, Isabella, with Roger Mortimer a very active co-ruler, ruled England as regent for Isabella’s young son but, in 1330, Edward III took back his authority, and Roger the lover, accused of over-stepping his authority and assuming royal power, was also hanged. Isabella was allowed to live on, in style but without the power she had once enjoyed, until she died a natural death in 1358.

Here endeth this lesson in English and Welsh history, and the tale of the villain, the king, his wife and her lover, and a brief look at some of the extras Caerphilly Castle has to offer. But there’s lots more to see and explore so, if you ever get the chance, do go and visit this magnificent place.

03 April 2017

Caerphilly: the Castle

Caerphilly has the distinction of being the largest castle in Wales (and the second largest in Britain) so you certainly get your money’s worth when you visit (particularly when the chap in the ticket office sees your grey hair and charges you the cheaper senior admission price even though you’re not actually that old!) (I am no longer insulted by such things, preferring instead to enjoy the benefits my aging brings!).

The Castle dominates the town but not in the way you would normally expect from a castle. It isn’t sited menacingly on a lofty hillock; instead it sits in a natural bowl surrounded by water, like a gigantic plug in a basin of water. I always expect castles to sit where they can defend access to a territory and forget that many were built to protect their people from attacking armies, which Caerphilly is certainly well equipped to do. (You can read more about why Caerphilly is a masterpiece of military architecture here.)  

Caerphilly Castle was built in the late 13th century by one of Henry III’s most powerful barons, Gilbert de Clare, to secure the surrounding area and prevent the Welsh leader Llywelyn the Last from adding the lowlands of south Wales to his kingdom – he already controlled much of the rest of Wales.

This castle is a truly impressive location to explore, with narrow winding stairways, guardrooms and grand halls, battlement walkways, a dramatic leaning tower, panoramic views, working examples of trebuchets, the ruins of a mill, huge wooden doors, and, sometimes, if you’re really lucky and your timing is right, there’s even a dragon! (My timing was wrong but I will be going back again soon!)