Roman Villa at Walkern
An article by Julian Evan-Hart for the Walkern Journal Dec 2008 / Jan 2009
On Sunday 2nd November 2008 between 11.00hrs and 16.00hrs residents of Walkern and passers through either from or to Stevenage may have spotted a group of people in one of the fields outlying the village. I can imagine that some may have expressed concern at what appeared to be a surveying team and may further have thought this was some activity in advance of possible future building development. This was not the case at all please be assured of that. They were part of a survey team but not concerned with future building at all: their interest was in a building that once stood in this area around 1900 years ago.
For many years I and several colleagues interested in local history have been aware of extensive scatters of Roman building debris over this field?.and have often picked up broken tiles, oyster shells , iron nails and even some fragments from a Roman glass bottle. Recently I made contact with the Archaeology Rheesearch Group based in Cambridgeshire, their stylised name being due to their close proximity to the River Rhee. This group have their own magnetometer and Resistivity equipment and carry out many surveys mainly in Cambridgeshire. However one of their members Bruce Milner helped me research for a book on wartime aviation in that county and happened to mention his other past time. I immediately thought wow wouldn?t it be marvellous to have such surveys carried out on the site at Walkern.
Further research showed that the tenant of the land in question was David de Boinville. Now that name was familiar to me as David and I used to attend the same Infant School in Stevenage called the Chilterns some 40 years ago. So I set about making contact after 4 decades?.David was very enthusiastic and this survey could only have ever been carried out with his permission and help so at this stage everyone involved would like to express their gratitude and thanks to him for enabling this venture which has so enriched out understanding of local history.
The survey took 5 hours to complete and the results are astounding. We now have, in addition to a photographic and written record of small finds made during some exploratory Sondages (metre square mini excavations) earlier this year, actual image of what this Roman building looked like?how incredible technology is these days. Some of the small finds made during the mini excavations included iron roof nails, tile, tesserae*, various pottery shards and even a fragment of deep blue coloured glass.
So just who were these early ?Walkernites?? At a guess probably a wealthy Romanised Celtic family. They probably farmed the areas around Walkern and had this building as their family residence and administrative centre. They must have done well from the agricultural proceeds as they could afford tessellated floors, many solid tiled roof sections and floorings, even a suspected multi coloured mosaic picture as well as plastered walls which we know from evidence had white and rich red panelling and probably pictures too, as well as this in wintertime they would have had the luxurious benefit of central heating in many of their rooms, incredible when you think many of us in Britain did not have established central heating until the late 1960`s.
So there you are a glimpse back in time at a grand Roman building that you all live very close to? I hope you all enjoy this incredible time line.
Is this what our villa looked like?
This is the proposed floor plan of a roman villa excavated at Bancroft, Milton Keynes dated between AD 170 and AD 340. The Roman landscape was probably similar to that around Walkern – a settled, intensely farmed rural area, with a mixture of native farmsteads and villas in the Roman style. The inhabitants of these villas were probably natives copying Roman fashion and not new settlers. Cattle and sheep were the most common animals kept and wheat and oats the favoured crops. The 3D model sitting on top of the floor-plan is based on the experimental Roman villa constructed at Butser Ancient Farm.(Courtesy of www.armadamodels.co.uk)
Other Roman finds in Walkern
A Roman Vase was found in Walkern in 1925, when the foundations for the school iron gates were being made. It is a cinerary urn and is on display at the Letchworth Museum. A decanter was also found.
The Rev. John Skinner of Somerset, wrote the following in his diary during a visit he made to Walkern in 1826 ?A little beyond Walkern Parsonage, the traces of a Roman road are very visible, running Northwards in the direction of Royston: Of this I made a sketch, and had time permitted, I should have traced it by walking instead of by my pencil. At Clay End, between Walkern and Bennington, a Roman gold coin was found some years ago, and shewn me by Mr Waddington, the then possessor of the property [Clay Hall]”