Silchester, Hampshire

BBC presenter Professor Alice Roberts visits a once bustling city now lost in the countryside

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Approaching Silchester today, you drive along country roads, then come across the village. With a population of less than a thousand, it’s a tiny fraction of the size of nearby Reading. But 2,000 years ago, Silchester was no sleepy backwater. The Iron Age, then Roman, town was the largest settlement for miles around, and Reading didn’t really exist.

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You get your first glimpse of Roman Silchester,
or Calleva Atrebatum, driving or cycling along
Wall Lane. Through high hedges, you see the ruins of a tall wall, with alternating courses of flint and
flat stones.

Retracing old footsteps

Reaching the 12th-century church of St Mary the Virgin, this is where you can start your walk around the walls of Calleva. Open the gate into the churchyard and pick your way past the graves to drop down a slope. The path leads through another gate and along the edge of a field. After passing under heavy boughs of old oak trees, you climb up, until you’re walking on top of the Roman wall.

Continuing on this undulating path, look out to your right across expansive green fields grazed by cows. But two millennia ago, you’d have seen a bustling town, with terracotta-tiled roofs. In the centre, there was a forum basilica – a town hall and market-place in one – as well as a few small temples. This thriving town survived the arrival of the Romans, the Boudican rebellion, and only disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Looking out from the walls today, you see fields all around. But the early town would have been surrounded by woods on three sides. Calleva Atrebatum means ‘Place in the woods, of the Atrebates tribe’.

A miniature Glastonbury

Continue along the Roman wall, over gnarled roots of ash trees. In summer, stands of rosebay willowherb and tall campulas fringe the field margins, and a tented village – a miniature Glastonbury – spreads right up to the wall. This camp is home to archaeologists from Reading University, who have been digging at this site every summer for 20 years, uncovering its secrets.

Next, you find the wide North Gate. The largest of seven town gates, this would have seen heavy traffic on the road linking Silchester to Dorchester on Thames.

On the final stretch, you’re on a grassy path, which splits away, with a small meadow and tall brambles separating you from the wall. Through a kissing gate, you see the wall for a final time, before it dives under a track. Heading down that track, on to Church Lane, you’re back where you started.

Silchester is an incredibly precious place. Other Roman towns have disappeared underneath later cities. But here, under these green fields, the entire town of Calleva lies sleeping, just waiting to be discovered by archaeologists.

Useful Information

How to Get There

From Reading, head southwest along Bath
Road then turn left onto Sulhamstead Hill. Continue south towards Basingstoke until you reach Wall Lane and turn left. Follow signs
for the Roman city.

Find out More

Silchester Town Life Project

Department of Archaeology, University of Reading, P.O. Box 227, Reading RG6 6AB

0118 378 6255

www.reading.ac.uk/silchester

Online resource covering all things Calleva Atrebatum.

Eat
The Horse and Groom

The Street, Mortimer
RG7 3RD

01189 332813

www.horseandgroom
pub.com

Country pub offering great local food and ale.

Stay

The Hind’s Head

Wasing Lane, Aldermaston,
Berkshire RG7 4LX

01189 712194

www.hindshead
aldermaston.co.uk

17th-century coaching inn with many original features.

Nearby

The Vyne

Vyne Road, Sherborne
St John, Basingstoke RG24 9HL

01256 883858

www.nationaltrust.org.uk/vyne

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