With the Mother Goddesses certainly smiling in my favour at the back-end of yesterday’s adventure around the Fosse, I struck out eagerly from Bourton-on-the-Water. My final destination would be the small commuter town of Bishops Tachbrook which lies just south of Leamington Spa, but not too far from my road. During the journey, however, I would hopefully explore some of the more backwater sites of Roman Britain. Places such as Dorn and Ettington have yielded enough Roman remains to classify them as sites of occupation, but they often appear to be left out of archaeological or ancient historical accounts of Britain in this era. This could be because the finds there were not of the greatest quality, or due to the fact that the more important sites around (such as Chedworth or Cirencester), shift the focus from the Dorns and Ettingtons of 2nd century Britain. This, I believe, should be rectified, and so I was most eager to see these villages.
Before I don my Pausanian hat I must remind readers that the modern Fosse is not what a 2nd century traveller would have seen, it is roaring with cars and trucks as it A-roads its way north. The Fosse Way no longer offers safety for the single walker. Therefore I have to scout around it for footpaths running parallel to give me as close an experience as possible to travelling its route. This could be seen as something of a betrayal to my bold headline that I am ‘walking the Fosse Way’, but it does give me a greater sense of the landscape of the region, and thinking space, without having to keep an eye on cars. It is also helpful in this case to explore the less well-developed sites of Roman Britain on lanes much like the ones the locals would have used to navigate around the Fosse; it gives that greater sense of ‘closeness to the past’.
1. ‘Stow-on-the-Wold’ lies 4 miles north-east of ‘Bourton-on-the-Water’. It is a small Iron-Age type place eclipsed by its larger southern neighbour. The population is too small for their earthworks, and live mainly on bartering with the wool and meat they garner from keeping small flocks of sheep.
2. ‘Dorn’ is a further 4 miles on. This is a more impressive settlement, and more in touch with civilisation. It has a large bank and ditch system for protection and livestock control. Indeed it is almost large enough to be small town in Greece. The inhabitants very much enjoy using samian-ware and other such fine pottery pieces as found on an Italian or Greek dining table. There are villas very close to it, and the villagers are not unused to coinage. They even seem to have a great belief in the goddess Regina in this region. This is either because of a local queen who had importance in their history, or due to an interaction between the goddess Juno (queen of the gods), and a local. What the story is behind this I am not entirely sure, but in the past Juno appears to have given prosperity to a certain community of little influence in return for worship. The worship of her then spread from there as the many surrounding communities attempted to soak up the rewards they saw offered to one of their number.
3. ‘Ettington’, along the Fosse, is a further 10 miles. It is here that the Fosse is crossed by a local road running between ‘Alchester’ and ‘Alcester’. It has little importance, and there is very little to say about.
My observations and journey:
I enjoyed travelling the actual Fosse so much after slogging through the hard miles of country lanes the day before that I started the day with a treat. Bourton slipped behind me as I headed north-east on a bus full of the sixth formers of the local secondary school. At first the bus was packed, and then it was empty as they suddenly disgorged themselves from every available space. It is (very) occasionally intriguing how tightly humans can squeeze themselves so everybody has at least some room. With the bus considerably lighter we sped on to Stow where my map had informed me that there were remains of a Roman nature. I still have no idea whether this is actually true. I walked to the spot the OS map had indicated, and explored up and down the road. There could have been remains there, but they were long covered in weeds and brambles. What’s more a high stone wall and several ‘Keep-Out’, and ‘Beware of the Dog’ signs lay between me and my goal. I took a photo, but did not linger: curtains were twitching all around. Stow is, however, remarkably beautiful if always a slightly damp town. Its high position on a plateau gave it protection, but also exposed it to the elements. I have now been to it five times in my life, I have never seen all of it dry with yellow Cotswold stone agleam. There appears to be a great amount of moss in Stow. The sheep industry really thrives here, and this is what has made it famous– possibly even in Roman times, although those Roman walls remain, for me at least, distant.
Then again, I was more interested in Dorn which was meant to possess some truly spectacular earth ramparts and ditches of enormous size. Proper archaeologist territory. There had been high end pottery found here in the past, there were coin finds in surrounding fields (suggesting high usage in Dorn- the more coins you have the more you can casually lose), it had good connections with villas, and even a stone statue of the goddess Regina came from near here. Arriving from Moreton-in-Marsh where a bus from Stow dropped me I marched through fields on footpaths (not well marked ones I might add), to Dorn. The settlement was very much of a damp squib. It again lay on private land behind a considerable hedge. A busy farm next door showed me that I could not sneak through undetected. I turned away deflated, and hoping for a least some sign of human occupation headed away towards the villa at Ebrington.
On the way to Ebrington I had two good experiences that cheered me. The first came when climbing a rather steep hill just beyond Dorn. An older lady stopped to inform me that I was her saviour. She was worrying that if she had fallen in the ploughed field no-one would have found her. I, though, could have looked after her had she toppled. This was nice on one level as it came as the first proper human interaction that day, and on another because it revealed that the camaraderie between travellers is really not dead in Britain. Secondly, though it is not as noteworthy, cars on the lanes between the hill villages I passed took greater care around me– nodding and waving– almost as a kind of support team.
This may taking those interactions and my thoughts on them too far. But it was uplifting as I wound through small roads towards Ebrington. I was further buoyed by what I found. In a cow field and under a herd of the creatures were the definite shapes of structures. This, paired with the more unusual vegetation growing along these hummocks (revealing the richer decayed deposits beneath), consolidated my feeling of happiness. It was not overly intriguing, but it was a find.
From Ebrington I swayed across more hilltops, and down more valleys into smaller and smaller hamlets (one of which contained a war memorial commemorating two sets of three brothers who had died in WW1). Finally I reached Ettington which my research had indicated as being even more nondescript than Stow, and so calling off the search for any meaningful settlement there, and taking a taxi to Bishops Tachbrook; I looked forward to the promise of a bath. The transport I took was needed- night was closing in, and they alleviated then pain on my pins which had gone 25+ miles today. Not only this, but they actually gave me the chance to go along the straight Fosse Way– and of course it is rather straight.
My back-of-beyond leg had ended and I had the impression that it was not fruitless. These small villages on the roads of Roman Britain must have resembled something out of Wild West films. Small tight-knit communities living on few resources wary of those who come in after dark and fearful of any kind of stranger (even when reliant on them for some scale of trade). These places may have been left out of many works on the subject of Britain under Roman rule because they tended not to change, but carried on scraping on the edges. It is my view that these people could not be ignored, and that is why I hoped to, at least, see the general location of their settlements (high and cold as at Stow, or on the edge of nowhere like Ettington), to gather an impression of their lives. An impression that I hope to continue and develop.
I must also apologise for the occasional typo in this blog. I am writing it on a machine that is not that conducive to blogging and this may allow the odd mistake to slip in.