Bishops Tachbrook-Chesterton-on-Fosse-Venonis-Lutterworth-Croft-Leicester

With Mother Goddesses and slaughtered goats galore I have come to the post which will encompass the last two days of the physical section of this project. The project is by no means finished after this; the exhibition, article, and related activities will all need documenting posts, but a part of it (the walking and sightseeing), has ended.
I have decided to include two days in one post due to the fact that both share a common thread. This is, namely, that over the last two days I have attempted to not only get as close to actually walking the real modern Fosse Way as possible, but also to think about the nature of the Roman occupation.
My path over the last two days was firstly stamping over to Chesterton-on-Fosse near Bishops Tachbrook, and then zooming up the Fosse by car to Venonis (where the Fosse and Watling Street (another Roman road) cross). And secondly, village hopping towards Leicester, and walking a small mile of the Fosse myself.
But before my own thoughts here, of course, is Pausanias-Thomas:
1. Passing northwards for 8 miles on the ‘Fosse Way’ from Ettington one comes to ‘Chesterton-on-Fosse’, a small enclosed settlement. It is an extremely strange shape with one side of its rather large ramparts being much smaller than the others. This may be because one side is bounded by a small stream, and that theory appears to be borne out as this is a crossing-point for the Fosse over this river. There seems to be a toll collecting here, and soldiers living behind the ramparts enforce it. The proximity of soldiers has led to villas appearing only a few miles away. What makes Chesterton a worthwhile visit however, is the major use of curse tablets (some written in barbaric tongues), within the walls of the fort. The Britons have really taken to this custom, and in most more civilised areas one can see great numbers of these tablets hung up or at the bottom of wells. This might be because their ancestors were used to throwing metals into water in honour of their animal-headed gods, and with some injection of culture the present-day British continue this custom, although in a different form.
2. The next settlement is around 20 miles, or a summer day’s walk, away and is called Venonis. It is an important place as it straddles both the ‘Fosse Way’ and ‘Watling Street’. Venonis’ houses run along both roads, and it grants travellers bed and board. It has no major buildings, and relies on the trade of those passing in both directions. There is of course a shrine to Hecate there, but the most interesting point to comment on is the name it possesses. Venonis could be named after the poison plants, nightshade and the like, that grow in the region. The original inhabitants had quite a difficult time controlling these until they prayed to Hecate. In return for their worship of her she would remove the most malignant and hardy plants for her potions. This alliance with her has benefited the occupants greatly.
3. It is 12 miles on from Venonis to Ratae Coritanorum (‘Leicester’), this is the tribal capital of the Coritani, though of course they are now largely civilised. It was originally a legionary fortress, but with that abandoned it developed a very civic aspect. There are several interestingly dedicated columns to Mercury here, and there is also an amphitheatre. The violent sports practised in these arenas have drawn British crowds to an extremely large extent. They appear to have sated their lust for war with the blood sports practised on the sand before the crowd.
4. From here it is………
The first day was the route between Chesterton-on-Fosse and Venonis, and some of the memories that I will hold least dear to me occurred on this day. To get from where I slept to Chesterton was either a march along a roaring country lane or either through ploughed fields (with an eye on the sky-line if farmers appeared). By 12, when I finally completed the few miles to Chesterton, I had done both, and very nearly come close to death on the so-called lane. I do not know which I am troubled by more, in hindsight, attempting to avoid farmers by occasionally flinging myself down on the mud when I saw a figure appear in the same field (so that I was not convicted for trespass). Or else when walking past Leamington Football Club (quite a professional outfit really), I had to cling to the hedgerow, trying at the same time to be as big and as small as possible (big enough so the cars could see me, and small so that they wouldn’t hit me). I must apologise for the footprints in the fields I made, but I will not to some of those drivers who came mighty close to taking my life.
When I reached the general location of Chesterton I realised that yet again it was site on private land. With a rush of blood to the head I decided that this was not going to stop me, and leapt the fence. I was well rewarded when I did. Chesterton’s ramparts are something to behold, and its shape is very very odd (whether for the Pausanian reason I gave above I do not know). When you stand knee-height in the long grass at the foot of the ditch Rome literally towers around you. Part of Rome’s ‘fear-factor’ must have been because they built so many large structures that they overawed their conquered subjects. This site was relatively new in the 2nd century, and was occupied till the 4th. It could have been a cause to the mini-explosion in villas in the region as soldiers were stationed there, but it also had its own extramural settlement which has been little studied. An extramural settlement which may have produced the curse tablet (the most significant find from this region). Curse tablets were the objects (usually in Britain metal) with which someone could directly speak to the god against another mortal. They could be compared to a text message or letter—they were a living ordinary person’s own words. Unfortunately the one found here was largely broken.
Pondering all this I moved crabwise across fields searching for routes towards the Grand Union Canal which could take me quickly towards Rugby where my family would fortunately drive me along the Fosse to High Cross, a distance of 21 miles. I eventually, and fortuitously, stumbled upon the canal and began quick marching along it. By the time I reached my welcoming party I had been informed by two different canal boaters that I looked depressed: this was not great for my morale.
But I had finally reached transport and well-known faces, it being also the first car in a while that I had not been slightly fearful of, we moved north from Long Itchington. On this journey the Fosse took on a different aspect as a place of injury and death. The number of signs warning of the dangers of going too fast on this straight road and listing the number of fatalities was sobering to say the least. Whether this would have been same in the Roman period it is almost too awful to ask but I doubt that the fast galloping horse can cause the amount of carnage that a 80 mile-an-hour moving car. The legacy of the Fosse here is not a good one. The ruler-like form of its route allows both for quick travel, but also acceleration which cause accidents.
With this on our minds we reached Venonis which is still an extremely major junction in Britain’s modern road network. Venonis (or modern High Cross (Venonis sounds better though)) is one of the settlements mentioned Antonine Itinerary, a 2nd century compendium of the empire’s roads, this above all points to its significance. Its junction is still important, but the modern village plus campsite (adorned with English flag), is not. The only surviving historical object that I could see (no Roman materials to report), was a 19th century grave marker which interestingly referred to High Cross by the Latin Venonis. In the account of it above I talked of Hecate, goddess of crossroads and witchcraft (the two seem to have gone together for the ancients), and though I doubt the natives would have called a deity here this (if they had one), a Roman traveller could easily make a link between their Hecate and the British god of the same kind of character. The Romans were good at this and often combined native gods with their own. Venonis’ supposed meaning—‘place of the poison plants’- is also of interest, and so I decided to combine Hecate with it to spice the area up somewhat.
After an overnight stop in Lutterworth (not the most beautiful place around there), I, alone, began jumping between villages around the Fosse to discover what I could make of its location here. It was on this hilly section that I saw that the Romans had placed the Fosse in a valley to save the trouble of building over or digging through hills. The road was ever-so-slightly turning so as to continue on the flattest path. The highlight of this day was the actual part I walked of the Fosse (it became a footpath for a moment). I was, as I had been in Greece, actually stepping on the ancient footprints of our ancestors (though probably a metre higher than them due to the build-up of soil). This was simply a very enjoyable experience and the blackberries on the bushes (which were probably cleared in Roman times), were very much in season. By 1 I had reached the little village of Croft and starting to reach the grey concrete of Leicester’s suburbs, and there I decided to call the journey complete. Outside a fast-food outlet (I wonder whether there would have been fast-food places along major roads in the Roman road), I was picked up by taxi taking me to the station for a more modern form of transport.
I did not get to explore Leicester, and in the time I had would not have done it justice, but I do have these few notes about it. What Pausanias-Thomas reported is generally true; though nevertheless we should pause to take in the tribal capital nature of Leicester or ‘Ratae’ (for short). The tribe that moved here was forced to go to the southernmost region of their lands to settle around an abandoned legionary fortress. Their former heartlands were now dominated by the legionary stronghold of Lincoln (where, incidentally, the Fosse terminates), and by state-owned (or emperor-owned—no difference) lands. The suffering and misery of their set-up there must have been extraordinary, and the Fosse bringing them more soldiers and tax officials must have added to this. With the 2nd-century the hardship must have been mostly over, although Leicester’s finds have never equalled those uncovered at other better placed tribal centres (such as Cirencester).
My travels have moved me through many different regions and landscapes, and have been certainly enjoyable (though occasionally quite tough), and very thought-provoking. All of these thoughts will eventually mature, and the posts will keep on coming. However, for now, the places which a Pausanias-like individual would have seen in the 2nd-century, on the Fosse road between Cirencester and Leicester, have now been all accounted for. Yet, we should note, at the last, that Pausanias, as the great Hellenic that he was, would never have deemed it worth his bother visiting Britain. It, for him, was the land over-the-sea, occupied, and completely under the thumb of a Roman culture that he despised and often tried to ignore when talking about his Greece. The country which the British empire-builders thought was most touched by Rome and its mentality was a backwater, for many Roman subjects like Pausanias, and unworthy of much notice.
Then again, as much as I don’t want to subscribe to the same views of British ‘greatness’ (if it even could even be heralded in this way), coming from its Roman heritage; views which have been spewed out enough times to sound ludicrous when said. What Pausanias would have missed out on when he did not visit is the reaction of the ancient British culture to Rome, and Rome’s reaction to its new territory. Britain was one of the most heavily garrisoned places in the ancient world, and it was occupied by Rome longer than the British empire had control of India. This had an extreme effect, and is both interesting and intriguing, and still being worked through by both scholars and, in my mind, the public. The Scottish independence campaign and UKIP have used the fact that foreigners in Britain are still largely seen, unfortunately, as invaders: a possible legacy of Roman and then Norman occupation of these isles. Though Rome’s occupation was seen as a ‘good thing’ I think its brutality (its movement of peoples, imposition of culture, and surveillance through the army), has left definite scars on the British psyche.
Till next time:

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