Caerwent: our last Monmouthshire castle

The interpretation boards at Caerwent
The interpretation boards at Caerwent

Isn’t it strange how the things you’re least looking forward to frequently turn out to be the most enjoyable and memorable?

I reckon it’s all down to the law of diminishing returns – the more excited you are about something, the greater the potential to be let down. As for anything that takes months in the planning, you can almost guarantee it won’t live up to your expectations.

It’s true. Those impromptu get-togethers, the last-minute dash to the pub, etc. always end up being far more fun than the glitzy (for that read high-cost) events like Christmas, weddings and special birthdays. (Okay, I admit I’m probably in the minority in that I find these modern all-day weddings a total yawn – in the old days you at least got the chance to escape for a few hours between the reception and the evening party.)

One of the bonuses of being self-employed is that I no longer have to conjure up plausible excuses for avoiding the dreaded office party at Christmas.

All this is a roundabout way of saying I wasn’t expecting huge things of our final Monmouthshire castle walk from Caerwent.

Oh, I knew the surrounding countryside would be beautiful, that we’d be walking through woodland and along undulating, mainly traffic-free lanes and that, at the highest point, we’d have views across the Severn Estuary. Harri always tries to include as much variety in his routes as possible, frequently adding optional detours to places of specific beauty or interest to add colour, so I was confident the walk itself would please.

 

It's possible to stroll along the top of the Roman walls
It’s possible to stroll along the top of the Roman walls

What I wasn’t anticipating was the Roman splendour of Caerwent. I’ve always (wrongly as it turns out) thought of the village as a sleepy little backwater with some vague Roman relevance but a place which is better known for its army training site on the other side of the A48.

Cadw describes the town the Romans called Venta Silurum (market town of the Silures) as ‘an archaeologist’s paradise’ and for anyone with even the slightest interest in Roman history, Caerwent certainly has the wow factor.

 

The remains of 4th century gatehouses line the walls
The remains of 4th century gatehouses line the walls

The small settlement of Venta was located about 11 miles from the Roman legionary fortress at Caerleon (Isca Augustus), where the National Roman Legion Museum is now located.

Venta itself was established as a civil settlement for the defeated Silures shortly after the Roman conquest of South Wales around AD 75, however the earliest buildings were likely to have been timber-built with the forum-basilica complex not built in the early part of the 2nd century during the reign of Hadrian.

The defensive – and sizeable – town walls were not erected until around AD 350, when it’s believed that the population of the 44-acre site had grown to around 3,000.

 

In places the Roman walls are five metres high
In places the Roman walls are five metres high

In The Buildings of Wales: Gwent/Monmouthshire, 2000, John Newman describes the walls as “easily the most impressive town defence to survive from Roman Britain, and in its freedom from later rebuilding one of the most perfectly preserved in Northern Europe.”

You’d expect that some of the best-preserved Roman remains in Europe would be crawling with tourists on a hot July day, yet when we arrived at about 10am the (free) car park was empty.

At this point I should stress that I’ve passed through Caerwent on many occasions over the years but from the car it’s impossible to appreciate the extent of the Roman remains.

The visitor has the choice of walking along the grassy top of the Roman walls (five metres high in places with no barrier) or stroll alongside them. There are various points where modern stone steps have been added to make it possible to switch between the two.

 

An earth mound is all that remains of Caerwent's Norman castle
An earth mound is all that remains of Caerwent’s Norman (motte and bailey) castle

At the south-east corner of the Roman town is the prominent earth mound upon which Caerwent’s Norman castle was built about 900 years ago. Unlike the Roman buildings, the earth and timber structure has not survived, although it’s well worth climbing to the top of the mound to appreciate the full extent of the surrounding Roman defences.

From the top of the wall you can look into the walled ‘town’ and imagine what it might have looked like almost 1700 years ago.

Over recent centuries, some of the Roman site has been built over (several older buildings were apparently built with stones removed from the Roman ruins); however, much remains open grassland, enabling excavation to take place. Most recently, in 2008, a dig involving 50 archaeologists and volunteers from Wessex Archaeology and Chepstow Archaeology found a row of narrow shop buildings and a villa with painted walls. 

 

The forum-basilica at Caerwent was only excavated a few years ago
The forum-basilica at Caerwent was only excavated a few years ago

In the centre of the town stood the open marketplace (the forum) which was surrounded by colonnades with shops, taverns and offices on three sides and space for market stalls in its central piazza. On the fourth side stood a huge basilica, measuring 260ft x 182ft, which dominated the town and was used for meetings and celebrations.

The adjacent Romano-Celtic temple was built around AD 330, although it is uncertain which deity the Romans were actually worshipping.

What’s most noticeable when you stand in the middle of the considerable ruins and look around is how much Roman builders loved their straight lines. With the exception of two curved walls in the temple, everything is square or rectangular, including the long culverts.

 

The excavated temple reveals a rare Roman curve
The excavated temple reveals a rare Roman curve

I was reluctant to leave this magical place which is so rooted in the past, but Harri reminded me that we still had a ten-mile hike ahead of us so we really ought to get going.

It was just after eleven and on this glorious late July morning we had been joined only by a handful of dog walkers. Where were the tourists? I can’t understand why Venta Silurum isn’t pulling them in by the hundreds. Quite possibly it remains in the shadows of its military neighbour, Isca, where people arrive in droves to view the military amphitheatre, Roman baths and barracks.

I think it’s a real shame if this is the case because the sites are impressive for different reasons and while there’s not a visitor centre at Caerwent, there are plenty of interpretation boards to enhance the visitor experience (I think that’s the right terminology!). There are also fewer reminders of the 21st century in Caerwent, e.g. very little traffic, which enables you to wander among the ruined buildings and imagine how it might have felt to live there in Roman times.

I stumbled upon this short film featuring Caerwent on the internet. At times, the speed of the film is a little at odds with the subject matter, but on the whole, it’s worth sharing.

And finally, we’re very excited to announce that our first hiking e-book – Castle Walks in Monmouthshire – will be available online in the autumn. Watch this space!

PS An app version is now available too.

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