In a landscape as divorced from that of Greece’s as it could possibly be (greens and browns as opposed to yellows and greys), the British section of this journey began. My plan is to follow the Fosse Way from Cirencester to Leicester, and my first day was to start in Cirencester and to reach Bourton-on-the-Water. With no equivalent guide to Pausanias I was to rely on the straight-running Fosse, and a handful of Ordnance Survey maps. The maps were essential so as to help me navigate around the Fosse (it being a major road made walking along its length was impossible), whilst sticking to its general course.
To make sure that this part of the blog did not slide into a litany of places visited and my increasing number of blisters I have decided to not only describe the whole of my walk as if I was Pausanias travelling it, but also then to add my impressions to that description.
So to begin:
1. Corinium Dobunnorum (Cirencester) stands on the Fosse Road about 120 miles from Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter). When going into the city there is a large new amphitheatre on the right built out of earth and wood. It can hold the whole of the city’s population. The city itself has a grid structure with many fine town houses. There is a forum, theatre, and basilica. The basilica is being rebuilt because it has sunk into the earth, and the rebuilding has been ongoing for several years. Both the forum and basilica are in the fine Italian style and made of local stone with some marble.
2. It is said that the city was originally a fort constructed by the cavalry in the conquest of Britain, but it was later abandoned as the invasion moved on. However, the site was not left empty as the Dobunni, who were living in the area, had moved their capital to this fort, when it was operative, so that they could trade there.
3. Recent invasions in the empire have forced the inhabitants to build a wall of stone and earth for protection. This encloses 96 hectares and makes the city the second largest in the province of Britannia.
4. The Mother Goddess cult is peculiarly strong here, there are many statues both bronze and stone in the city. This could be because of the fact that the majority of the inhabitants are native Dobunni. Their coins originally had a three-tailed horse on them, and the interest in the number three linked to a divinity may come from there. There is a legend though that in a famine an old man of the city prayed to every deity he knew for the town’s relief from disaster. But the suffering would not cease. Then starving he wandered out of the city and fell on the road. Raising his head he saw three suns in the sky, three beetles crawling before him, and he saw three kites circling. Then it was that he remembered about the Mother Goddesses, and raised his hands towards them. The famine was cured. The city has honoured them most highly ever since.
5. If you walk along the Fosse Road from Corinium Dobunnorum it runs straight except for near the gate of the town where it slips around several mounds made by the ancestors of the Dobunni. The road is otherwise hilly, but nondescript except for the many black grouse that nest near it. It is around 20 miles from Corinium Dobunnorum to Bourton-on-the-Water. This is a small market town. The river is very low here so the townspeople aren’t able to use it for travel. They have to rely on the passing of people along the road for the majority of their trade.
Cirencester is very much the typical beautiful and in many ways idyllic Cotswold settlement. Its houses are all of the same yellow brick, and its streets are lined with small tearooms, alternative food shops, and of course clothes shops (though the odd superstore does creep in). The stone was probably the same that was used by the Romans in their house building. The amphitheatre still exists intact with huge grassy mounds and large entrances (some bored kids were playing a strange kind of football in it). The amphitheatre has been estimated to hold up to 8,000 people- nearly enough to accommodate the population of the modern city, and certainly that of the ancient. The forum and basilica have only been located by pieces of grand building material, but would have stood in the 2nd century AD on the old site of the fort. This is why the basilica had to be rebuilt- it was sinking into the remains of the old fort.
With regards to the fort, it seems to have been built to hold some Thracian horse who were supposedly guarding the road from the untamed Britons in what is now Wales. These cavalry eventually abandoned the fort in 75 AD, but the city flourished with largely Dobunni settlers. Why the Dobunni abandoned their central settlement at Bagendon (laying protected in earthworks a few miles north), is an intriguing question, and not in my mind answered. Whether it was because they were forced to move to where soldiers could keep an eye on them as they were deemed untrustworthy, or due to the Romans wanting to show clearly who were the powers in the land (they now having the strength to move peoples); or for trade reasons is hard to guess. The museum considers the last point but I was less convinced.
However, it did become clear from both the museum, and the size of the amphitheatre that this city was an important place for the Roman province. To have a basilica, forum, and amphitheatre all point to it being an extremely important place in the 2nd century AD. It even appears to have had its on ruling council or senate. Again I do not agree with the museum who argue that it kept this status throughout Roman rule as surely the importance of the military garrison at York, especially in the 3rd century, demoted Cirencester from the status of second city in Britain which the museum and some other sources grant it. What is clear, then again, was Cirencester’s richness- the museum’s collection of mosaics, wall plaster, bronze and stone pieces, and supposed Christian graffiti is simply marvellous. The graffiti is also interesting as it could suggest that Cirencester was an important early Christian centre in Britain. That Cirencester paid host to many cult statues to the Mother Goddess in the second century is true-the museum houses many elaborate ones- though the myth that I attached to it is not- it is a very Pausanian technique to tell a fable, although he usually goes for a longer discourse.
In an aside, my chat with the museum curator firmly removed the myth of all Roman roads being straight from my head. For she pointed out that the Fosse kinks around the barrows in the region showing a peculiar Roman respect of the ancient traditions.
When I did get out of town (its roads are extremely difficult to navigate), I went by the Monarch’s Way footpath (named so because the hunted Charles II seems to have fled down it after his defeat at Worcester in 1651). The green hills of the Cotswolds rolled around me as I sailed along and even though I was quickly lost I was entertained by some cyclists who engaged me in a detailed conversation about which of the local pubs I should visit. My lack of proper path led me to head down lanes frequented more by the car than by the walker. This, even if slightly dangerous, did get me to Calmsden (though it was not my original destination), in good time. The problem was that whilst there, and in the process of eating my tesco lunch, motorists had a strange habit of pulling over to ask after my general health. No matter, I soon rejoined the footpath towards Chedworth and its famous villa. I could not mention this in my Pausanias-like description as he focused on towns, but I could not avoid one of the most famous villas (in terms of its art), in Britain. It also has a personal significance to me as it was there that I first fell in love with the ancient world and the process of finding it- namely archaeology. And so I was in drawn again to its site.
By the end of walk there I almost wished it had less significance for me. Modern Chedworth seems to have roads not marked on any map. And when I extricated myself from its coils I had to face the ill-marked footpaths that had led me wrong earlier. Inevitably I got lost, and ended heading through Chedworth woods which appear to be mainly home to pheasants. I was possibly trespassing, even now I am unsure, but I did get to see the largest number of pheasants I ever have. This is why I have written above that there were many black grouse to see in the 2nd century (these birds, as the RSPB inform me, inhabit the same kinds of areas that pheasants do). With several bramble scratches I reached Chedworth villa, and while trying to locate its temple I fell into conversation with a gentleman who told me that it was fruitless trying to search for it as it lay on private land, and may even have been Dobunni and not Roman. Slightly dimly I ignored the advice and set forth along the wood’s border to locate the temple. Of course I never found it, it was on private land, and covered in foliage. So with a slightly depressed air I began climbing again towards a village called Hampnett. From this modern settlement I stepped along the ridges to Northleach. It was here that my luck finally turned for as I walked into the village square a bus to Bourton-in-the-Water drew up which I promptly boarded (saving my soles). I also, on the bus, had the pleasure of travelling for the first time up the Fosse Way.
Having settled in my residence (more exactly the Mousetrap Inn which serves very good food incidentally, though the shower is rather uncontrollable), I came to reflect on some of my experiences. Some could question why I had chosen to seek out Chedworth with such fervour (the map reveals that it lies a distance from the Fosse), and as my desire was not entirely personal I will explain I’m more detail. Britain’s population was really quite large in the 2nd century (possibly near 10 million), and all those people must have lived somewhere. Unlike in Greece where most would have lived in the many cities that dotted the landscape, Britain did not have many major settlements. Therefore the majority must have lived in small farms and villages, and these are sadly mostly ploughed over or covered in soil. In light of this I decided to seek out all of the Roman remains that are in the vicinity of the Fosse, and this is what led me to Chedworth. It has some of the most complete in situ remains, and is relatively near the Fosse.
It is also noteworthy that although you can get drawn by the beauty and starkness of Greece it is the countryside and landscapes most known to you that really draw delight. It sounds conservative to say so, but I felt more at ease here when lost (even with the pain in my feet), for I knew the land more than in a Greece. Both landscapes have their merits, and the British has certainly been picked over more often with some kind of dwelling unlike unspoiled (in many ways) Greece, but it is the home wherein the heart lies.
Tomorrow I shall walk from Bourton to Ettington, and take a taxi from there to Bishops Tachbrook.