I recently visited the reconstructed Villa Ventorum at The Newt near Castle Cary in Somerset. It is an amazing reconstruction, and great museum. As part of the visit, you can taste Roman food, use a Roman loo, and experience the villa through a virtual reality suite. There is also a museum and the remains of the hypocaust to visit. I particularly like the fact there is an area showing the different building techniques used! The Newt in Somerset – how to visit.
The villa was abandoned in the early 5th C.[i] The Roman Empire was in decline at this time and Britain, as a province, was falling away from central authority. This coincided with the start of a process that would see the settlement of Anglo-Saxon England.
The rediscovery of the Villa Ventorum occurred in the mid-19th C. The Reverend William Phelps mentions the finding of a Roman building in the area in his work The History and Antiquities of Somersetshire (published 1836). The remains were possibly rediscovered with the development of a new turnpike road which started in 1831, between Shepton Montague and Yarlington. Also found were two coins of Constantius II, who was emperor between 337 and 316 AD. In 1966 evidence of a mosaic floor was discovered which was reburied until a formal excavation could be carried out. This took place in 2015.[ii]
Roman villas were luxurious farmhouses. In England they were the original country house. They sat within the estate that was producing the wealth. The estate was organised towards the practical functions of wealth production from the land. The villa provided luxurious accommodation for the owner, their family, and the reception of guests. There would be a hypocaust for heating and bathing, rooms for receiving guests, a formal dining room, bedrooms, and a garden to enjoy.
As I walked around and inside the Villa Ventorum, I was really struck by the similarity to an English country house in organisation and furniture. Gardens too evolve into grand statements. The magnificence of Blenheim, Hatfield, Hampton Court, Chatsworth or Holkham Hall all have their roots in the Roman villa. Roman gardens were designed with hard landscaping, walkways, water features, flowers, and shrubs.
I decided to examine initially the villa’s exterior as I would approach looking at a house for the first time.
On the west side of the villa an orchard of both sweet and bitter cherries which has been recently planted. Seeds and pollen from Romano-British villa sites provided the evidence that fruit trees grew in Somerset during the 3rd and 4th Cs[iii] (I wonder if there was cider then?). A vineyard has also been planted not far from the west side.
The villa’s vestibulum (entrance) faces west. This formal entrance has large doors and a lion’s head with a ring, a motif that is used time and time again through the ages. To the right of the entrance the hypocaust and bath house block can be seen. To the left of the vestibulum are the higher status rooms with the evidence of a portico. Back to the right between the vestibulum and bath house arrangement are functional service rooms.
Whilst not a fully symmetrical facade there is definite symmetry in the vestibulum and the spacing of the windows is consistent, as that of the portico columns. All giving a pleasing experience to the eye.
The central part of the elevation shows a first floor. This is a first-floor mezzanine or gallery overlooking an internal formal reception room and giving views across the garden and estate. Between the tablinum (a formal room for receiving business clients & could be curtained off) and the service area of kitchen and larger is a hallway, which reminds me of the cross passage feature that is so prevalent in 16th and 17th C English houses. The passage runs from the west to the east with doorways at each end.
The roof is covered in split-faced Lias tiles (there is a diaper effect, but my photos doesn’t show it that well). The portico is roofed in handmade tegula and imbrex (plural tegulae and imbrices) Terracotta tiles. These tiles originate from Ancient Greek and Roman buildings. They are more waterproof and durable than wooden shingles.
The garden has been recreated from research into works of classical writers from the 1st to the 4th C AD such as Columella (De re Rustica – ‘On Rural Affairs’), Pliny the Elder (Naturalis Historia), and Palladius (Opus agriculturae). Inspiration for the gardens comes from several sources such as the frescos discovered at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The plants reflect those that were known to be around in Roman Britain. Other Romano-British villas such as Fishbourne and Chedworth provided archaeological evidence on the ways gardens were structured with features, pathways, and walls.[iv] The garden is ordered for harmony and beauty with hard landscaping and water features. Plants are there for delight as well as medicinal and culinary purposes.
Hadspen Stone (warm honey colour) and Blue Lias have been extensively used for the garden and the villa reconstruction. Purbeck cobbles have been integrated with Blue Lias to give a decorative path.[v]
PLANTS, GARDEN FEATURES, & DINING
Outdoor dining was a feature of Roman gardens and at the villa a semi-circular stibadium in the northern part of the garden. Rockbourne Villa in Hampshire has an example. The seats would be stone or wood and a plant covered arbour to give shade is another feature.[vi] Very like what we may find in gardens today!
On the north end of the villa is a bed against the wall with acanthus growing. There are trained fig trees planted too. The Romans introduced several trees and plants to Britain: walnut, sweet chestnut, fig, damson, dates, olive, grapes, mulberry, cucumber, celery, and herbs such as fennel, dill, and coriander.[vii]
Water is collected in butts which are fed from down pipes running off the roof. The projecting cornice throws off water from the roof. The slanting portico roof provides even more protection for the walls.
THE GODDESS LUNA
The Goddess Luna is sited in the south of the garden. She is the personification of the moon (her Greek name is Selene). She is often depicted with a crescent moon on her head and driving a 2-horse chariot. There were temples dedicated to her in Rome on the Palatine and Aventine hills.[viii]
THE FARMYARD BARNS
The villa estate has reconstructed barns. Evidence from other Somerset villa barns demonstrated that they had purposes such as grain storage, lamb nursery, or smithy. The three Somerset sites that were researched for the remains of Roman barns were Keinton Mandeville, Cannington, and Somerton. There is also a reconstruction of a bakery and a wine press (no archaeological evidence found at the site). However, the remains of a corn drier was found and a reconstruction made.[ix] The barn was reconstructed based mainly on the evidence of the Keinton Mandeville barn with stone foundations, timber frame, wattle and daub, and a thatched roof. The Keinton Mandeville barn had the remains of a stone floor, but at Villa Ventorum it was constructed of rammed earth mixed with animal fat and ox blood and polished off for a hard-wearing floor.[x]
A ROMAN LOO REIMAGINED
The ‘Roman loo’. I have to say the marble was a bit cold. There was loo paper fortunately – didn’t bring a xylospongium (sponge on a stick, soaked in vinegar).
THE FAMILIARITY OF HOME
What struck me the most was the legacy of how the Roman villa ideas are very much in how we design and organise houses and gardens today. As I walked around the villa and garden, it was all very familiar. The villa is a fabulous reconstruction based on so much research. It is now a place that represents that authentic research as well as a great day out!
[i] The Newt, Villa Ventorum (Bruton: The Newt, 2021), p. 29.
[ii] The Newt, p. 29.
[iii] The Newt, p. 202.
[iv] The Newt, p. 191.
[v] The Newt, pp. 194-5.
[vi] The Newt, p. 197.
[vii] The Newt, p. 202.
[viii] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Selene”. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 7 Feb. 2018, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Selene-Greek-and-Roman-mythology [accessed 2 August 2022].
[ix] The Newt, p. 207.
[x] The Newt, p. 209.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Selene”. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 7 Feb. 2018, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Selene-Greek-and-Roman-mythology [accessed 2 August 2022].
The Newt, Villa Ventorum (Bruton: The Newt, 2021)