Sunday, 30 June 2013

Lydney Park – a hidden gem from Gloucestershire's Roman past

Growing up in the North of Ireland in the 60’s and 70’s, I had a fair mix of school teachers. Some were great, others were average, and one or two of them were an embarrassment to their profession. One of my best teachers taught History and English, and something he said one day stuck with me. He told us that while Ireland had had its share of Viking marauders, Welsh raiders, Norman colonisers and English occupiers, the Romans were “the biggest non-event in Irish history.” The biggest non-event in Irish history – the Romans! In my young mind that was a truly fabulous statement. I relished the concept. 

In holidays across the Irish Sea in England and Europe with my parents, and later as an adult, I have always loved to come across the Roman remains and artifacts I never experienced in Ireland. From Hadrian’s Wall, to the remains in Wroxeter, Glevum and Corinium to the Temple of Mithras in the City of London, they have all caught and inspired my imagination. Despite their accursed straight roads and dodgy imperialism, the Romans really were a creatively consolidating bunch of folk.

Shortly after my student days and early career, when I moved out of London to live in the Gloucestershire area, I was delighted to be surrounded by fascinating sites like Chedworth Roman Villa, Woodchester and Great Witcombe. The Romans in Gloucestershire certainly weren’t a non-event!  Hidden away and unknown by many-- though perhaps best of all-- was Lydney Park, high above the sweeping banks of the dark river Severn.  

Lydney Park has remained unheard of by the masses perhaps because it is located slightly more off the beaten track. Its private ownership by the Viscount Bledisloe has helped to maintain its seclusion. The family only opens it for a few days each year between April and June. Blink and you’ve missed it! The male and female figures (pictured below) who appear to act as sentinels to the gardens have curious energies about them if you care to spend a little time with them.  

Lydney Park makes for an impressive day out, even if you just visit the grand old house, museum, tea-rooms and beautiful gardens. In addition to the human history to the place, they have also cultivated one of the greatest collections of rhododendrons, alongside bursting azaleas, acers and magnolias. The private and secluded valley with its statues, lakes and follies just sets the place apart from many other gardens. With its cultivated nature and joyous beauty, it is a place that exemplifies the best of humananity's relationship with nature.

However, the most interesting element of a day trip to Lydney Park is the Roman connection. Parking on the grass at the bottom of the verdant valley described above, you leave civilization behind and climb a gently meandering path up through ancient trees and bushes until you are high above the Severn Vale, with occasional sights of the river and the Cotswold Scarp beyond. At the top of the climb you will find the exceptional remains of Roman civilization. 

Here on Camp Hill, known locally as Dwarf Hill, you will find the lasting legacy of a Roman settlement as old as AD49. There is some evidence to suggest that the Ancient Britons had previously occupied the site as a hill fort as early as 100BC. When the site was unearthed a vast hoard of pottery, metal work and jewelry was uncovered. In close proximity were the remains of timber sheds from about 200 to 300AD associated with iron mining.

Looking around you will see the walls and remains of a south-east facing temple (pictured above) with its courtyard temenos, dormitories and guest-house built snuggly around it.  Over to the left you can spy the remains of a reasonably sized bathing suite (pictured below). Using one’s imagination, helped with imagery from the restoration of the Roman baths at Chedworth or even Aquae Sulis, it’s pretty easy to drift off into a reverie of a forgotten time of ages past.

The area is a great place to sit and meditate if you want to reconnect with the tradition of the Romans in Britain. 

The temple is alleged to be dedicated to the local god Nodens. The writer JRR Tolkien suggested that Nodens, supposedly of the ancient tribe of Silures, was a derivative of an Irish Celtic or Germanic deity from much earlier. The ascertainment is that he was a variant of Nuada of the Silver Hand in Irish mythology or Lludd Llaw Erient in the Welsh.  Another theory put forward by lesser mortals than Tolkien is that Nodens was a local healing deity. I guess we will never really know, but my intuition tells me this is closer to the truth than Tolkien. Certainly, a great deal of religious artifacts and votive offerings, some of which are suggestive of healing, have been found at the site. These include model dogs, a bronze greyhound, bracelets, pins and some writing tablets referring to healing. The amount of dog related artifacts is interesting given the wide association of dogs with healing across many cultures past and present. 
I will leave you with the words found on a mosaic in the temple:

“To the god Nodens,  Titus Flavius Senilis, officer in charge of the supply depot of the fleet, laid this pavement out of money offerings; the work being in charge of Victorinus, interpreter on the Governor’s staff.”

Regrettably the mosaic was destroyed at some time in the 1800s. 

If you’ve missed a trip this year, put a reminder in your diary to visit this hidden gem in 2014! Check out the opening dates on their website here:

The Springtime of Dion Fortune

There she is staring out at you...or maybe that should be "in to you"! Whether writing as Violet Firth, Violet M Steele...