There was a time when Rome must have seemed to rule…..everywhere. Certainly, Imperial Rome had its set-backs (the Teutoburger Wald, Germany, in 9 AD for one), but, for about four centuries, her writ stretched from Asia Minor to North Africa to Hadrian’s Wall (and, for a while beyond even that). Before the withdrawal of the last Legions in 410 AD, the province of Britannia, even though it was on the periphery of the Roman world, played a major role in the Empire. Rebellions were started here, Emperors visited and great legionary fortresses (Eboracum = York, Deva = Chester) were built. Wales was no exception, and the fertile south was dotted with farms and military camps. The superb Roman baths and the ruined amphitheater at Caerleon (the Romans called it Isca Augusta, or the ‘Fortress of the Augustan Legion’) show the sense of permanence brought by Pax Romana.
Just around the corner from my brother’s house in Barry, South Glamorgan lies an enigma. A couple of hundred yards back from the pebble beach is an area of Roman remains, which have been excavated and designated as an Ancient Monument. The site is to the west of the Water’s Edge Apartments and (apart from the side facing the sea) surrounded by modern housing. It was during the demolition and site preparation of this area in 1979 that the first pieces of Roman masonry came to light, and the next year the Glamorgan-Gwent Archeology Trust undertook an 8 week dig to reveal the ‘bones’ of the building. The Vale of Glamorgan Borough Council and South Glamorgan County Council jointly stepped in and purchased the land, as soon as the Welsh Office (this was before the National Assembly for Wales existed) had designated the site an Ancient Monument.
Excavations revealed a strange building, constructed using the local Lias limestone; it had no hypocaust, so it wasn’t a villa, it had over 20 small rooms, arranged around a small courtyard, but without extensive cooking facilities. What was it, then? Why, a mansio, a sort of official way station where travellers spent the night before continuing their journey in the morning. Local tiles, pottery shards and other finds indicate that the building was 3rd century. Curiously, the dig also revealed that the mansio was partially dismantled before it had been completed! This was not unusual, as Roman structures were constantly being modified. In 2006, the Channel Four ‘Time Team’ program had featured the excavation of a mansio at Alfoldean in West Sussex which had also suffered a sudden change of use.
The tides of the Bristol Channel are notoriously fierce and travellers who wanted to reach Somerset, and the South West of England on the opposite shore, including the Roman town of Ilchester (Lindinis), would benefit from being able to rest up in the mansio whilst waiting for slack water. As well as being the possible site of a ferry to the far shore, changes in the shoreline since Roman times indicate that there could have been a small harbour or landing-place close to this spot. This conjecture is supported by the fact that, before it was cleared, there existed here the ONLY colony in Wales of the Mediterranean bulbous meadow grass (Poa bulbosa) which could have arrived along with trade items or on ballast aboard Roman vessels.
Just when you think you know about a locality, something surprising pops up………..