Evidence of Roman life in the parishes of Whitchurch and Ganarew.
Whist there is so much evidence of Roman activity and building within a short distance of Whitchurch there is little evidence of an actual Roman settlement within our parishes and there are only 2 records of buildings, or remnants of buildings, with Roman connections or origins. A further couple of references to Roman buildings may be regarded as possible ‘sites’ but exact locations are not given and it may well be that these are mistaken for the previous two locations. Several sites are, or were, in the romantic Victorian times, misleadingly stated as having Roman connections but these must be viewed with extreme caution. For example a Roman sword found within the perimeter of the hill fort on Little Doward does not mean the site was inhabited by Romans although they certainly entered and perhaps even fought in it. Similarly we must not assume that any of forges known to be operating in our area during medieval times were operating in Roman times or were even operated by Romans.
The only local industries that possibly involved the Romans were farming, iron ore smelting and forging.
Forges are well known to exist much later such as the one at ‘Old Forge’ where the Garren brook enters the river Wye and which was first mentioned in 1575 as a ‘blast furnace powered by a water wheel’. It went out of production soon after New Weir Forges opened. Whilst it is quire possible, there is absolutely no evidence that the same industry was operating there in Roman times.
Romans are said to have smelted ore in Whitchurch at a site known as Vagas Field in Whitchurch which has been lately partially covered by the A40 near the ‘South Garage’. There are also record of a roman figurine and coins found there deep within a pit full of cinders (slag) . Could this be the same site? There is a record of cinders with possible roman connections found on the Whitchurch – Ganarew border. Perhaps this is also the same site or it might even be Sellarsbrook.
Iron ore smelting took place outdoors in the open in clay kilns The same process had been used for hundreds of years. A mixture of ore and charcoal was fired in the kiln force ventilated by hand powered leather bellows to a temperature of around 1,200 degrees. The resultant iron was raked from the ashes and slag in a congealed lump, often called ‘bloomery‘, and was very impure. A solidified slag known as ‘cinders‘ was then a waste by-product. Bloomers had to be refined by forging to remove the slag and some impurities before a useable wrought iron was obtained. All that survives today is an area of burnt or darkened soil and considerable quantities of slag or ’cinders’ dumped in sometimes very large spoil heaps or in pits.
Dating of a site and the process to Roman times would be purely speculative as it cannot by done by cursory examination of the cinders, or even a chemical analysis of the ingredients because the very same smelting process had been used for centuries beforehand and afterwards. So there is no reliable evidence that can tie down the operation of an specific early forge site to period, let alone the Roman period, least of all to it being a actual Roman activity. In the absence of any other more direct references to a ‘Roman’ smelting works we should not assume that there was any direct Roman involvement at all.
Initially any local Roman buildings would probably served military purposes and would have been constructed from timber and thatch because it was so plentiful in our area. As they became more permanent they were reconstructed in stone. Later, Romans residing in the area would have used stone for their homes whilst the British would still have used earth and timber dwellings so most remnants of stone buildings of the first 4 centuries AD were most likely attributable to Romans .
Remains of a Roman building and hypocaust, are known to have existed at Sellarsbrooke but now lost under the floors of Cellarsbrook House. This would have been a villa belonging to someone important, at first a Roman family and later possibly abandoned when the Romans left Britain, or taken over by a Romano British leader.
Early maps referred to this building or it remains, as ‘The Fort’, perhaps because of its exceptionally thick wall, but there is no reliable evidence that it had military operational connections. The Victorians again no doubt.
On the right hand side of Monmouth road out of Whitchurch on the border with Ganarew, remains of a tessellated pavement were found suggesting indicating that a Roman dwelling once existed there. The site has not been fully explored but roman coins have apparently been found there or nearby. Does this refer to Sellarsbrook or Vagas Field?
There is a suggestion made in one of the ‘Pink books’ published by the Ross Civic Society, ‘A landscape History of Ganarew, Herefordshire’, that because the Sellarsbrooke remains incorporated an under-floor heating system usually associated with a larger military site, and because Monmouth was not equidistant between Usk and Weston under Penard, that Sellarsbrooke was actually Blestium. However the large size of the Roman settlement and its defensive ditches and embankments known to exist within the site of the present Monmouth, together with other substantial finds within the town, and the absence of any other Roman buildings ever being found at Sellarsbrooke, it is practically certain that Monmouth is where Blestium stood.
Within Herefordshire there were a few well known Roman towns and settlements including Bravonium (Lentwardine) in the north, Magna (Kenchester) in the centre and Ariconium near Weston under Penyard, South West of Ross. Further south were Blestium (Monmouth) and Gobanium (Abrgavenny), Venta Slvum near Caldicot, and Burrivm (Usk). Glevum (Gloucester) to the west. These Roman towns needed connecting roads along whith a few halfway overnight resting points and river crossings etc. These brought about other much smaller settlements with the attendant industries of farming, mineral extraction, mainly iron ore, and timber to service the local requirements of the Roman army and its supporting civilian population.
Paved Roman roads were built primarily to transport troops between important defensive towns and forts. None of these are thought to have been purpose built in our area although a ‘Roman road‘ is said to have existed between Blestium and Ariconium but, so far as I can tell, no evidence of it as a Roman construction exists today.
Remains of an ancient ‘road‘, thought to have been Roman, are said to have existed on the Gloucesterhire side of the Wye and connected with iron works in our parishes presumably a river crossing near Symonds Yat. There is nothing to suggest that the Romans built new roads here and as many tracks existed before roman times used to transport goods by pack horses and by persons on foot, they would also have been used by Romans during their period of occupation.
Although the best known ford existed until comparative recent times near Goodrich castle, and later to have been served by a ferry in the vicinity, there must have been several other fording places, some in our parishes. Tracks or roads existed along both sides of the Wye used by boat hauliers among others. Suitable fording places were probably just downstream of the present New Weir at Symonds Yat and were also undoubtedly used by Romans in their time of occupation.
On the east, Gloucestershire, bank it is reputed that the Romans ‘slaughtered’ a great many rebellious British tribesmen giving name of ‘The Slaughters’ to the area just upstream of the suspension footbridge at Biblins.
Richard of Monmouth produced a ’History of the Kings of Britain’ (still svailabe at Monmouth library) in 1140 ad in which he describes a Roman engagement under Aurelius Ambrosius (if he was indeed a roman ##) with the local rebel tribes led by Vortigern, who, according to some writers, died in the same battle. This took place in the vicinity of Ganarew. Published about a century after the event this was appears to be little more than just a translation from an earlier document but using some highly imaginative embellishment. So how much is fact and how much is fact and fiction we don’t know.
## During the closing years of the 4th century Rome was already into its decline and troops were being withdrawn from its occupied teritories to fight off the invades at home. In early 5th century all roman soldiers were withdrawn from Britain. In the interim period when Roman control was weakening here, some more wealthy Romano British leaders and retired Roman soldiers, stayed on to make the best of their new homelands but several rebellious leaders found a new freedom and came forward to claim interests and property for themselves and quire rapidly the whole Romanised culture and organisation reverted to the previous largely tribal society. Vortigern and Aurelius Ambrosius were just two of the leaders. By 600 AD practically no Romanisation existed and Britain had gone back 250 years.