Frustratingly I live in a Roman city but one with virtually no Roman ruins – the only ones in Derby are of two wells which are not exactly photographically exciting but I have family living near a villa just outside Oxford so decided to pay that a visit – the first very briefly on a very cold March day and the second on a considerably warmer July day!
This villa was built during the late 1st Century AD but reached its heyday around the 4th Century AD – it was in use during the 300 years of the decline of the Roman Imperial Empire and was occupied until the beginning of the 5th century AD.
The villa looks south-east over the Evenlode Valley and is very close to the Evenlode River – this valley is exposed and the area very flat. The villa originally comprised of 60 rooms in a ‘winged-corridor type’ and also has a beautiful mosaic floor that is now protected from the elements by a special building which sadly was not open on either visit.
The villa was originally excavated in 1813-1816 by one Henry Hakewell and then subsequently in 1910 by Professor Haverfield and yet again the 1970’s but some of the villa has been covered over by earth again to protect it for the future. The only access to the villa is down a narrow track which would have been used by servants or slaves and the family or guests would have entered from the opposite direction – you can see the remains of Akeman Street which was a re-used pre-Roman track to one side of the villa.
What is striking is that when you first come down the track and look over the site how vast it is and how huge the villa must have been:
The second impression as you approach the villa is how much of the rooms can be clearly seen which in itself is fascinating – my only issue with this in some ways is that the ruins are not more protected for future generations.
The two photographs below show two aspects of the villa with the rooms clearly laid out and the building that covers the mosaic plus a map of the layout of the villa in the centre – the red ‘you are here’ is where the signs are as you enter from the track so my photographs are effectively towards the right hand side from that entry and then at right angles going away from the covered building i.e. the north-west range and the south-west range of the building.
The next two photographs show the different coloured outlines for the villa map and showing the phases in which the construction took place. Clearly much of what can be seen is of the later Roman phase of perhaps the 3rd and even 4th Century AD when the empire was declining but England was still under Roman occupation. Half of the villa has been recovered to preserve it for the future.
The next photographs show the north baths including the pillars which would have been under the flooring to transport the heated water and I am anticipating that the curved areas would have been for the fires to heat the water.
The penultimate photograph of the ruins show what appears to be from the map one of the areas that was constructed during the early phase of the villa – it is hard to tell the difference when you visit the villa as the different phases have been incorporated seamlessly and any obvious joins eroded over 2000 years.
Finally I took a photograph from near where the south baths would have been looking up the south-west range towards the building – this shows the scale of the villa as you also can look across to the smaller cottage that I believed was a 19th Century farm dwelling and is preserved in its own right.
The final set of photographs are of the information on the mosaics on the building and also a image of the mosaic acquired from Google images but apparently taken by English Heritage who own and look after the site – sadly my photographs of this floor were taken through the window and were not of sufficient clarity for publication on this blog but nevertheless I was able to fully appreciate the sheer beauty of it and the incredible craftsmanship.
This mosaic floor was apparently in a reception room and also gives further insight into the wealth of the owner – information at the site states that the owners were probably very important members of the native British population who had adopted the Roman lifestyle. Due to the size of the villa it would have served as a community in its own right for slaves or servants who worked within the villa and also who laboured on the surrounding farmland. I do question though whether it was originally built by Roman general or patrician sent to the far reaches of the Empire but there was no large Roman settlement at nearby Oxford other than rural dwellings and a thriving pottery industry. It is not unlikely the British owner could possibly have been part of that industry due to his obvious wealth.
It is hard to appreciate the size of this villa through mere photographs but it is quite an incredible site and relatively easy to visualise when you are able to walk around it and effectively explore the rooms. Derby may not have the ruins to explore but if it had I may not have taken the time on one very cold day to initially go and see this villa and then have the absolute pleasure of going back to appreciate it fully and do further research.
Ashmolean Museum. 2005. Site Name North Leigh Roman Villa. [Online] Available at: http://www.ashmolean.org/ash/amps/oha/SitePages/NorthLeigh.html (Accessed 14 September 2016).
Ashmolean Museum. 2005. Anglo Saxon Oxfordshire. [Online] Available at: http://www.ashmolean.org/ash/amps/leeds/AS_Oxfordshire/oxford/oxford-roman.html (Accessed 14 September 2016).