Sunday, 14 January 2018

Roman remains

Nicholas Crane has quite a lot to say about Colchester in The Making of the British Landscape, because it was the first Roman centre and as such the first British town.  Pre Boudicca it had no Roman walls: they came after.  Bettany Hughes in her recent series on key events in the history of the Roman empire devoted an episode to Boudicca, complete with computer graphics of what the main public buildings would have looked like, before the Iceni burned them down.

It set me thinking that Colchester should have a Roman city app.  With it loaded on our phones curious locals and tourists alike could see when we were walking along the lines of Roman streets, and trace the locations of the Roman buildings.  The one in Bettany Hughes' programme was huge.  It works for Pokemon so why not for ruins?  I fancy standing outside Fenwick, phone in hand, able to see the lines of a giant Roman temple superimposed on the modern day High Street.

Colchester has not really done very well with its Roman past.  The quiet lane that ran alongside one of the largest remaining visible stretches of Roman wall even as early as the start of the last century is now a dual carriageway.  A second length of wall borders a municipal car park.  At least the council has recently refurbished the car park and a new wooden barrier keeps cars back from the base of the wall, so you can see along the length of it and try and mentally block out the line of parked vehicles.  There are the remains of a chariot racing track somewhere on the other side of town, but you wouldn't know it from a visit to the town centre.  I've seen the odd article in the local paper, without ever quite being moved to go and look.

Firstsite has a Roman mosaic.  It is displayed in a glass covered pit in the floor, which gives a more realistic impression of what it would have looked like as a floor than if it were mounted vertically.  The trouble is, the glass floor had got dusty from people's feet, and also sticky, perhaps from classes of visiting primary school children being made to sit on the floor the way children always are in galleries, and has also picked up a few scratches.  Honestly, you do not get a very good view of the mosaic.  I think it might be better on a wall.  Or on a low plinth, roped off so that people wouldn't walk on it.

I believe there is an excavation of something Roman in the Dutch quarter, which I vaguely remember having peered at through some viewing window at some time in the distant past.  I can't remember what it was, and there are no signs in the High Street to encourage me to go and look at it again.

The most interactive Roman relict is the arch in the wall, opposite the multi-storey car park, which you can walk through.  You would think that the prospect of walking through an arch a couple of thousand years old that actual, real Romans had used would be at least vaguely entertaining, but I have never seen anybody else bother, even though it is freely accessible and not cordoned off.  You just have to be prepared to deviate a couple of yards from your desire line into the centre of town or back to your car, and walk on setts instead of asphalt for a couple of paces.  Nicholas Crane gives it a mention in the book and says it was always a pedestrian arch, to the side of the main gate.  There is a risk if you take the arch that you will look as though you are deliberately avoiding the Big Issue seller who always stands on the other side of the pavement at that point.

It doesn't add up to a lot, but still a great deal more than you would see of actual Viking remains in York.  I suppose the trouble is that York has the Minster, one of the great Mediaeval cathedrals of Europe.  Colchester has Britain's largest ever Norman castle keep.  But it also has terrible, terrible traffic.  And York has the national railway museum.

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