It would be easy to miss Caerwent, a small village in South Wales. You might glance up as you drive by the Northgate House Bed and Breakfast, see the vestiges of a stone arch in the garden and think nothing of it. Off you’d go, none the wiser. But that would be a shame because the stone arch belongs to the north gate of a Roman town, and stretching back from the road is one of the best Roman sites to visit in Britain. Venta Silurum, to give it its ancient name, came into being in the late 1st century AD, and was the capital of the local Silures tribe becoming the largest civilian settlement in Roman Wales.
I headed first to the town walls. The town was enclosed with earth defences in the late 2nd century, the surviving near-complete circuit of stone walls dating to the 4th-century, and most can be easily walked. Their scale is hard to believe- it’s so rare to be able to walk or see Roman walls unencumbered by other, more modern buildings that this was a real treat.
I started at the West Gate by the car park and walked south, away from the main road and the traffic. It was pretty quiet, just me, the birds and the breeze. The most impressive section is on the south side where the facing stones mostly survive and there are large bastions at regular intervals. Most of this stands to 5 or 6m in height. I stopped about halfway along for lunch, by the now-blocked South Gate, looked out over the cornfields and watched swallows swooping for insects. Beyond them and a line of trees are the towers of the new Severn Crossing, a reminder of modernity in this quite timeless space.
Further on in the south-east corner, is the location of the castle motte. They’d removed part of the walls to put this in place, and as I looked at it I realised that the Roman walls were then already seven centuries old, almost as old as the mound is to us today. I followed the walls around the east and south sides, passing by the North Gate in the bed and breakfast’s garden. One of the truly special experiences that visiting Caerwent gives you is walking the walls and being able to feel the scale of a town in the ancient world.
Back inside the town I headed to the centre, starting at the temple. Dating to the mid-4th century, it’s perfectly preserved in plan. Reading the panels helped me to visualise the whole structure. You enter first into an outer enclosure with the central sacred area surrounded by another wall. Inside here is the ambulatory, a walkway surrounding a central tower in which sacred statues and cult objects were kept, each area more sacred and cut off from the outside than the last.
Right next door is the heart and soul of the old town, the forum and basilica, essentially the market place and town hall. Now a large open space with low walls outlining the buildings and paving where the open forum was. It would have been busy, hard to imagine as the only person there. But as I traced the walls of the basilica and those surrounding the forum, walking slowly around them, the size of the buildings became clear – it measured 80 x 56m – and I could imagine how this would be the focal point for everyone in the town, no doubt visible for miles around.
The ancient streets around the basilica were fronted with all sorts of buildings, including shops and houses. Some of these excavated buildings remain uncovered, including a large group on Pound Lane which took me a few minutes to untangle. Described on the panel as ‘shops and houses’, what was in front of me were buildings put up over 200 years from the 2nd to 4th centuries, with overlapping walls, changes to layout and function, including shops, workshops and houses. Looking at these walls, and clambering around a bit to work them out, I could see how they’d been put up, changed and replaced on the same spot over generations. This is one of the things I love about archaeology, looking at change, how life wasn’t static and, just like in our own world, things don’t stay still. For me, it’s in understanding things like this that I can, in some small way, connect with people’s lives from so long ago.
There’s also a fabulous 2nd to 3rd-century courtyard house, with rooms positioned around a couple of courtyards, some with the remains of a hypocaust, an underfloor heating system. Standing in the larger courtyard, it was easy to see the rooms around the outside. Undoubtedly a very pleasant and comfortable house, and on a warm if blustery day like the one when I visited I’m sure the courtyard would have been a lovely place to sit.
I popped see the church of St Stephen and St Tatan before I left, and was amazed to find in the porch a Roman altar – the irony of it being in a church wasn’t lost on me – and an inscribed stone statue base. Inside the church there’s also a mosaic fragment, a few Roman finds and a medieval cross slab embedded in a walk.
I’d also intended to go to Caerleon, the Roman legionary fortress a few miles further on near Newport, but instead ended up spending a truly wonderful four hours at Caerwent. Anyone with an interest in Britain’s ancient past should visit, it’s an absolute gem.
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How to get there: Caerwent is on the A48 between Chepstow and Newport. Coming from Chepstow you need to stay on the A48 through the village with a left turn to the car park a few hundred metres further on, following the brown signs. The car park post code is NP26 5BA.
Other information: There’s no visitor centre as such at Caerwent or a museum. There are toilets by the car park and a pub at the east end of ‘Caerwent Road’ by the east gate. There’s no other cafes or eating places as far as I could tell.
The organisation who look after the remains at Caerwent have an information page on their website which can be found here.