Roaming with the Romans

AS a “cheerful amateur historian”, Andrew McCloy thought he knew quite a bit about the Romans - but he figured without the snails and the elephants.The elephant, he discovered, was the beast of choice specially imported when the Romans pushed into Britain and established their first permanent settlement on a hill above the River Colne - it's the town we know today as Colchester.

AS a “cheerful amateur historian”, Andrew McCloy thought he knew quite a bit about the Romans - but he figured without the snails and the elephants.

The elephant, he discovered, was the beast of choice specially imported when the Romans pushed into Britain and established their first permanent settlement on a hill above the River Colne - it's the town we know today as Colchester.

Such tactics were the Roman equivalent of shock and awe.

“It must have been terrifying to see invaders riding these animals that you'd never seen before,” confirms the author of a new book called Exploring Roman Britain. “I think I would have turned tail and run as fast as my legs would have carried me.”

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The snails popped up, so to speak, when he went to the Cotswolds to research a Roman villa at Chedworth.

“The man from The National Trust said 'Have you heard about these?' and he lifted up some hostas and there were these large snails - about twice the length of normal garden snails, and with a lighter shell. They're called Helix pomatia and are Europe's largest terrestrial snail. Apparently this type of snail was brought over to Britain by Julius Caesar's army. Once they've been introduced to a particular location, they tend not to move very far, and they like chalky soil.

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“The Romans used to eat them by boiling them with garlic and some milk, seasoned with Mediterranean herbs and spices. Apparently they were kept in darkened rooms and fattened up on milk - and also given salt, to keep them thirsty. After guzzling on the milk they became so bloated that they couldn't get back into their shells - at which point they would be popped into the pot.”

Andrew wasn't tempted to do as the Romans did. In any case, the snails are apparently a protected species.

His book takes the reader on a series of walks around places that have strong Roman links: from Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland and bleak Hardknott Fort in the Lake District, to the dead-straight and pretty Peddars Way route in Norfolk and towns such as Chester and York.

Locally, of course, there's Colchester, aka Camulodunum and the oldest recorded town in Britain.

When Claudius led his forces into the heartlands of Britain in AD 43, he headed for this important tribal centre that had been the capital of King Cunobelin's territory.

“When most of the Roman troops departed a few years later, Colchester went on to become a thriving civilian town - the Romans' first colonia, or highest-ranking settlement in the province,” says Andrew.

“It was officially named Colonia Claudia after the emperor, pre-dating even the founding of London by a handful of years. In this respect, Colchester can claim to be the original capital of Roman Britain.”

He had been to Colchester before, but on his research visit was overjoyed to discover the delights of the castle museum, which he reckons is one of the most impressive Roman museums in the country. “It ranks right up there with the one at St Albans and is really user-friendly. You can pull on a toga, for instance - and my daughter (Jenny, 11) thought it was fantastic to be able to lock up her father with long chains and a collar as if he were a slave!

“There is also the replica chariot thought to be similar to the one used by Boudicca. Exhibits like that really give people a flavour of what it must have been like to live in Roman times. The thing with history is that visitors need to be helped with some kind of insight into what life used to be like, because often there is not that much left to see; so this museum does very well in that respect.”

History graduate Andrew, now 41, was captivated by the subject from an early age. Family holidays away from Surrey - along with school trips and cub outings - would invariably include visits to National Trust properties, museums and suchlike.

There's been widespread interest in Roman culture. In recent times we've had Adam Hart-Davis's BBC series What The Romans Did for Us, and the drama Rome. What particularly captured his imagination?

“I think I was always interested in the Romans and their empire: the scale, the grandeur. It was fascinating to think of an empire that stretched throughout greater Europe - and then, in four centuries, they had gone from Britain and we were into the Dark Ages.”

It is, he laughs, impossible not to think of the John Cleese character in the film Life of Brian - the one who repeatedly asked “What have the Romans ever done for us?” ­- but the truth is that they did a lot.

“It was a civilisation from two millennia ago that was ahead of its time. Even with something like herbs and spices . . . they might not have discovered them, but they brought them to this country and popularised them.

“Then there is the grid layout of streets that in many places has survived to today, heating systems, and aqueducts. Many A roads still follow the line of the original Roman roads. There are a lot of things, many of which we take for granted today. The Romans are even responsible for the three-course meal!”

Occupation effectively came to an end once the active legionaries were called back to defend the beleaguered empire in mainland Europe, although many veterans stayed behind and became part of the population.

“Old soldiers retired there and many married local women, and although it might have got watered down a bit, Colchester has got some pretty good Roman blood there,” Andrew smiles.

“To some people, four centuries might seem a long time, but in terms of history it's a drop in the ocean. Despite that, the Romans were greatly effective in bringing the locals round to their way of life.

“And much has endured. Look round the kitchen and see where we'd have been without them; without our trendy wine and a drop of olive oil. That's not a bad legacy!”

Exploring Roman Britain, by Andrew McCloy and with photographs by Andrew Midgley, is published by New Holland at £19.99. ISBN 1-84537-241-7

ANDREW McCloy wanted his book to celebrate the achievements of the Romans in Britain, but was also keen to strike an informal tone that was neither dry nor preachy.

A keen long-distance walker, and former information officer of the Ramblers' Association, he also wanted to show readers one can get so much more out of history by strolling, looking, and taking one's time.

His six-mile walk around Colchester begins at the Castle Museum in the town centre, housed in the largest Norman keep in Europe, but later swings out to Hilly Fields - now a Colchester council nature reserve but once an industrial centre where pre-Roman kings minted coins. A Roman armoury and brick kilns have also been identified.

“You understand so much when you start to stretch your legs. Nothing can be seen now (at Hilly Fields) but you can imagine - and you can see why the Romans settled in this area, near the river.”

He's rather taken with the whole Colchester experience, in fact. He writes of the castle: “Although missing its upper floors and having been rather battered during the Civil War, what remains of the 11th-century defence is mainly made up of brick and stone from the original Roman settlement. Despite some modern patching up, it's still an imposing edifice, and the perfect place to house the town's rich historical collection.”

He points out that the Normans built their stronghold on the base of the Roman temple, and guided tours of the vaults show some of the 1st Century foundations, with imprints of the original wooden shuttering used by the Romans.

“The Temple of Claudius was begun in AD 54 following the death of the emperor who had spearheaded the invasion of Britain. Emperor-worship was encouraged by the Romans, who believed it promoted loyalty and obedience, and certainly this gigantic stone temple must have been an impressive monument . . . However, some time around AD 60 or 61, construction was rudely interrupted by Boudicca and several thousand irate locals.”

The uprising was so intensive that the population of 30,000 was slaughtered and the town razed.

Andrew's walk goes through Castle Park to view St Helen's Chapel, “named after the town's patron saint and first wife to Emperor Constantius Chlorus, who, according to legend, originally built the chapel for her prayers. Tradition also has it that her son was born here, and he, of course, was Constantine the Great, the first Christian ruler of the Roman Empire”.

Behind the Mercury Theatre, named after the Roman god of travellers and merchants, is Balkerne Gate - the oldest surviving Roman gateway in Britain and the main entrance to Roman Colchester.

“There were once four separate gates here - two smaller side passages for pedestrians and larger central ones for traffic. Just two arches and what was probably the guards' room remain standing today, for originally the structure would have spread across the site occupied by the modern pub nearby.”

At one stage there were numerous temples in and around the town, and a second theatre on the edge of the town at Gosbecks. “It is thought that this larger auditorium, built near the site of the native Britons' original settlement, might have held up to 5,000 people, making it one of the largest Roman theatres of its kind found in Britain.”

Andrew explains that, after recovering from the devastation inflicted by Boudicca, Colchester developed into a thriving civilian centre, possibly home to as many as 10,000 folk - a figure not achieved by modern Colchester until the late 18th Century.

OUT shopping in Colchester town centre, we might not realise just how much history is beneath our feet.

Andrew McCloy points out that anyone glancing back after coming down the Vineyard Steps will see how the Roman wall underpins the modern buildings.

“The town's first walls were built after Boudicca's attack, probably between AD 65 and 80, and were on average 8 feet 8 inches thick. They incorporated a rubble and mortar core, and were faced with layers of brick and, in the absence of any decent local building stone, a hard clay stone known as septaria.”

The modern shopping centre between Sir Isaac's Walk and Culver Street West was built on the site of the original legionary fortress, he adds. The 20th Legion and two auxiliary units were stationed here when the Romans formed the original settlement in AD 43.

Six years later most of the troops left, as the legion moved to Chester, leaving behind mainly retired soldiers. “The 20th Legion went on to play a central role in quelling Boudicca's revolt, gaining its 'Valeria Victrix' moniker in the process, but of course it came too late to help Colchester's largely defenceless inhabitants.”

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