In 1879, Brading farmer Mr Munns was using an iron bar to dig post-holes for a sheep pen, when he started to unearth mosaic pottery tiles.
As chance would have it, he knew a local antiquarian, Captain Thorp of nearby Yarbridge, and by the following morning they had begun to uncover one of the best preserved Roman mosaic floors in northern Europe.
The Isle of Wight holds the dubious distinction of being the last place in England to be converted to Christianity –when the Romans arrived 20 centuries ago, they must have found its warm, sheltered climate a welcome change to the damp cold of much of the rest of newly invaded Britannia.
The site here is thought to have been developed around 50 AD from an earlier iron-age farm. By the middle of the second century, the buildings at Brading had become an impressive villa, with stone and wooden structures on three sides, surrounding an elegant courtyard.
The roofs were covered with lime and clay tiles, and the interior walls were plastered and decorated with extensive paintings. There were the usual Roman mod-cons of under-floor heating, plunge pool, and extensive mosaic floors — demonstrations of the owner’s wealth and sophistication.
One of the most unusual is the famous chicken-headed man, possibly a pun on the common Roman name Gallus, meaning cockerel in Latin.
Roman for a day
Moving around the elevated wooden walkways, it is possible to get a real flavour of Roman life, from the religious devotions before the various house gods, to the daily activities around food, games and personal decoration.
Sheep grazing and cereals provided the farm produce for trade, whilst hunting in the local woods would have yielded deer and wild boar for the feast table. Life was good. However, a devastating fire in the third century left the building in ruins, and although it was used for another 100 years to store grain, it then fell into decay and eventually crumbled, passing out of all memory and knowledge.
Two millennia is an almost unimaginable length of time — that’s about 80 generations.
The clarity and immediacy of Brading’s displays bring Roman Britain back into close focus,
and bridge a dark gulf of years between today’s family visitors and the forgotten families that lived off the land.
The villa’s award-winning visitor centre, with its living roof of stonecrops is easy to see in various shades of green and red, depending on the
It is only now that you can appreciate how close the villa would have been to the end of an extensive harbour. Now reclaimed as grazing meadows alongside the narrow River Yar, 2,000 years ago it was a broad watery inlet from the sea.
This would have been perfect for receiving shipments of Samian ware from southern France, quern mill stones from Germany, and olive oil and wine from the Mediterranean. You can spot evidence of all of these trades in the villa’s extensive archaeological excavations.
Either on the way down there, or after your visit, go back on the A3055, just north of the villa, take a left at the traffic lights and head up the steep winding street leading to Brading Down Road. Pull over at one of the many viewpoints along the chalk downs here to enjoy the sweeping vistas towards Sandown and the sea.
As well as the fascinating and informative displays, part of the fun in a visit to Brading are the family activities on offer most of the year, including dressing up in appropriate (or perhaps inappropriate) Roman garb, ancient games, mosaic making and story-telling. There are also guided tours and lectures.
HOW TO GET THERE
Brading Roman Villa is east from Moreton Old Road, off the A3055 north of Sandown, just as you come into the southern corner of Brading itself. It’s well sign-posted – take the narrow but easy driveway less than half a mile, to the car park. Look out for vintage cars or touring expeditions, which regularly rendezvous here.
FIND OUT MORE
Dark Horse Inn
10 High Street,
Brading PO36 0DG
Enjoy traditional pub fare from this authentic, family-run pub.
Priory Bay Hotel
Seaview PO33 1YA
Country house hotel, set in its own 60-acre estate.
Isle of Wight Steam Railway
Havenstreet, PO33 4DS
Pre-Beeching nostalgia with vintage locomotives and carriages and friendly uniformed staff.