City of the Dead

In August challenge, Travel
August 9, 2009

“CHANGE, whose insistent tendrils seek out the edifices we have so carefully wrought and return them once again to dust”

John Kabat-Zinn, ‘Full Catastrophe Living’

Glorious weather today, perfect for a lazy pub lunch at The Wellington Arms in Hampshire, and then a long country walk. My companion suggested heading out toward the Roman ruins at Silchester, which I agreed to with no particular anticipation that it would be interesting – after all I’ve seen much more complete ruins at Fishbourne or indeed in Rome.

Which just goes to show that part of the delight of this little August project is doing things I never would otherwise have done. Silchester is astonishing. It was a major Roman city – on the road between London and Bath it was a market town, an army post, a centre of law and worship for the region. But unlike any other city in Britain it was totally abandoned – the perfectly usable buildings were left to crumble, the wells were stopped up. And no one knows why.

Here’s an artist’s impression of what Silchester would have looked like in its heyday:

Bustling little market town, right? Here’s what it looks like today:

And if you’re going “yeah, fine, but what *does* survive now from Roman days? Not much!” the point isn’t that the original wooden buildings aren’t around anymore, but that there’s *nothing* there. Contrast other similar-sized Roman towns: Bath, St Albans, Norwich, Chichester, Winchester… The Romans left and then succeeding generations very sensibly moved in and used their buildings, and built their own, and the towns developed and grew. That just hasn’t happened here. This town was shunned. It makes my writerly spider’s sense tingle. What *happened* here?

The walls are still standing, and in some places look pretty defensive.

Most impressive of all, just outside the city walls is a fairly intact amphitheatre. It would seat 7,000 people, the entrance and exit are still there. I tried a bit of declaiming from the centre, and the acoustics are still good. But… no one used it! Why would you abandon a beautiful space like this? You’d have thought someone would use it for something…

I couldn’t even get a picture which showed how wonderful this space is. I felt very inspired to try to put a play on here sometime. I wonder if the archaeologists working on the site would support something like that.

Academic writings about Calleva become sweetly emotional when talking about the abandonment. It’s a genuine mystery – something I love. The Guardian suggests the town was cursed.  The BBC website  about Silchester – or Calleva Atrebatum – says that the “abandonment of the town may have been the result of deliberate policy to cleanse it of its occupants”. The archaeologists from Reading University who are working there now mull on the meaning of “the deliberate infilling of wells”.

It’s an impressive and moving place to visit. And the mystery makes it all the more fascinating.

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