Today in our blog we are taking you to explore the remains of a large Roman villa that stands quietly in a magnificent countryside setting. The range of buildings is extensive, with a bathhouse complex and a water shrine. The villa is built around three sides of a large courtyard and overlooks a rural valley inside Gloucestershire. Join us as we delve back into the history and time of Great Witcombe Roman Ruins.
Built around 250 AD and then abandoned sometime in the 5th century, so much of great Witcombe’s remains still exists and is wonderful to see. The site was discovered in 1818 by local farmers, and not long after, roman mosaics were found as well as the reveal that the villa had two bath suites with a columned gallery entrance which was quite a Romanesque detail in architecture. There is the also the possibility that the villa was constructed upon an existing Iron Age building.
The villa was built because of the ever growing series of springs on the slopes of Birdlip Hill, the rich farmland of the Cotswolds made the area a popular one and great access between Gloucester and Cirencester meant that great Witcombe was a desirable place to live. Even though the springs may have caused problems as the use of the buttresses on the downhill side of the house suggest that the foundations slipped and had to be shored up.
The villa was built on several terraces and made up of local limestone, infused with white marble. The villa had 2 large wings with a courtyard and the second phase of construction saw an extension to the bath complex that is set below the courtyard and protected by a cross wall. A large structure, similar to a barn was then added to the house, also at a lower level, this could suggest that the buildings were used by a cult worshipping water sprits.
There were many finds from excavations in 1938 that include knives, plaster, brooches, pottery and glass and interestingly a corn drying kiln was revealed and a temple or shrine room that was situated in the north west wing of the villa, its here that in the middle of the room a small cistern can be found, this was of course a common addition of a roman temple, a small statue and several animal bones were uncovered suggesting that these could have been used for offerings. It was reported at this time that parts of the villa were very well preserved. Walls of 6 ft high were documented, some still plastered. The bath house was one of the most complete examples known at the time and several mosaic floors were recorded. Poor conservation techniques and heavy rain have destroyed most of these features.
When visiting here you are able to read the information on the boards dotted around the English Heritage site to give you some more interesting information. The villa stretches north to south, with the family house at the northern end of the site, linked by a long gallery to the leisure complex at the southern end. The baths and exercise area is just as large as the house itself, which just emphases the importance of the baths to Roman lifestyle. At the centre of the site, between the house and baths, is the octagonal dining area. You can easily make out the statue niche on one side of the dining area and there are two buildings at the lower part of the baths complex, it’s such a shame but these buildings are the ones that house the roman mosaics, unfortunately there is no window access or any access at all, we are just left to wander and simply imagine what they would have been like.
It was great to visit here and in our opinion it is one of the most beautifully situated roman sites in Britain, the valley setting is just breath taking and it’s so easy to imagine why the villa owners decided to build here. It’s worth making a trip to visit here.