Dig a Drain and Find a Roman Palace

238 Reviews

Star Travel Rating

5/5

Review type

Things to do

Date of travel

April, 2022

Product name

Fishbourne Roman Palace

Product country

United Kingdom

Product city

Chichester

Travelled with

Couple

Reasons for trip

Culture/Sightseeing

It was actually for a water pipe, which perhaps shows how sleepy Fishbourne was in 1960. Despite some archaeological work in the nineteenth century and casual finds of Roman artefacts ever since nobody thought to carry out a test dig before sending the JCB. Almost immediately it gouged through a mosaic floor.

Work had to stop. Even in those days archaeology, once revealed, was respected. Two professionals and a team of volunteers went to work and over the summer revealed a palatial residence the size of Buckingham Palace. It was the largest villa north of Rome, and the one there was an emperor’s palace. Hence the signpost on the village street reads “Roman Palace”.

The excavation made Barry Cunliffe famous. His distinguished career has taken him all over the UK, to Brittany and Spain, producing a number of important books. Equally it made the village of Fishbourne, these days just above the flood level of the nearby inlet, an important site to visit.

It would be easy to spend a whole day there. I’m not sure about food from the site cafe but the coffee is good. For self-caterers the reconstructed gardens of the palace offer space and seating for a sandwich. Outside and inside there are toilets. Even if the hypocaust no longer heats the water, electricity does.

The gardens, on their original site, have been planted as the Romans would have thought fit. Flowering plants, edible, medicinal and aromatic varieties flourish. There is even asphodel. Irrigation is in part provided by the guttering from the weather covering of the excavation, designed to resemble a Roman-era building. However, not all water on site is productive. The sea may have retreated but its salt still finds a way into the channels and desalination is necessary. Presumably the present-day residents who have a view of the site from their bedrooms have no such problems as a result of that fateful trench.

Visits begin either with a video programme or a walk through displays of finds and reconstructed rooms. These give an idea of decorative effects and a possible image of an early resident. The palace itself has a walkway from which the mosaics can be observed. There are areas for hands-on experience with technical advisers. A few guides in Roman costume add to the effect. Going round is easily managed by wheelchair if necessary. One fascinating insight is provided by one mosaic having been laid over another. This may have resulted from new fashion or have been caused by subsidence. Several parts of the site show dips, presumably another sign of the nearby sea. There is still of course the channel dug through a mosaic that revealed the palace.

All this is just a couple of miles from Chichester. The only problem going there is when the road out of the village meets the A27. A roundabout looks to be helpful but all depends on a driver holding his or her nerve and picking the moment to venture into that relentless stream of traffic. It is only slightly easier driving out of the city to Fishbourne. The easiest way is perhaps to drive towards Portsmouth then follow the signposts. Better still perhaps is a local bus.

John.Pelling

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