04 October 2015

Wall – a little-known Roman site
in the Staffordshire countryside

The Roman settlement at Wall is in a tranquil location in south Staffordshire, near the M6 toll road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Throughout Britain, Roman sites and ruins are popular tourist attractions. The better-known sites that I have visited include the Roman baths at Bath, the amphitheatre and walls in Chester, and Hadrian’s Wall which starts (or ends) at Wallsend near Newcastle.

London takes its name from Londinium, now part of the Square Mile or the City, Bishopsgate takes its name from the Roman gate that stood at the junction of Wormwood Street, while the street called London Wall loosely follows the north edge of the old Roman wall.

The most complete Roman building in London is the second century Temple of Mithras, at the corner of Queen Street and Queen Victoria Street. The crypt of Saint Bride’s church on Fleet Street includes portion of a Roman building with a decorated floor.

But many of these sites are difficult to visit either because of the large number of tourists, as in Bath and Chester, or because they are in the middle of busy commercial areas, as in London.

Little-known Roman site

The site at Wall seen from the front porch of Saint John’s Church, looking across to Watling Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

One quiet mid-week afternoon this summer, I decided to return to a little-known Roman site that I had first visited over 40 years ago, and that is still relatively undisturbed because of its rural location, despite being close to a busy motorway junction.

The village of Wall, three miles south-west of Lichfield, is in tranquil and rural south-east Staffordshire, and has a story going back 2,000 years. The Roman ruins in a field beside the village are the remains of a once important military fort and staging post on Watling Street, the Roman military road from London to Chester and North Wales.

The village street names in Wall recall a 2,000-year link with England’s Roman past (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

This is Letocetum, established in the early 1st century AD on Watling Street, near the junction with Ryknild Street, now the A38. The site is mentioned as Etocetum in the Antonine Itinerary and the name be a Latin form of a Celtic name meaning “grey-wood,” perhaps because of the ash and elm trees on the site.

A small native settlement may have occupied the site before the Romans arrived, possibly as the main trading station on the boundary between two British tribes, the Corieltauvi in the East Midlands and the Cornovii to the west. These tribes offered little resistance to Roman rule.

Early Roman presence

The mansio offered hospitality and refreshment to visiting Roman officials (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The first Roman activity in Wall began around 47-48 AD when a marching camp was built. This was a defended enclosure built by a legion at the end of a day’s march. Eventually a permanent series of forts was built on higher ground to protect the imperial Roman highways.

When the Roman XIV Germanic Legion first settled at Letocetum, it used existing trackways. A stone-surfaced road was needed to allow reliable movement, and Watling Street was given a stone surface past Letocetum around 70 AD. Watling Street stretched from Letocetum to London in one direction and to Wroxeter in Shropshire and Chester in the other direction. Ryknild Street connected Letocetum with Cirencester to the south-west and Yorkshire to the north-east.

As the Romans advanced into Wales, the fort or staging post at Wall provided overnight accommodation, fresh horses and other facilities for travelling Roman officials and imperial messengers.

Tracing the buildings

The heated rooms at the bath house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I stood in the field and with the help of the signs and a locally-produced guide, could figure out the foundations of many of the original buildings in the settlement, including a Roman hostel or mansion and a stone bathhouse, built ca 130 AD after Letocetum ceased to have a military function and became a civilian settlement.

The mansio offered lodgings for officials travelling along Watling Street, while the bath house served the travellers and the growing civilian population. When the first mansio and bath house were completed, workers were needed to provide wood for the bath house, to look after animals, and to repair vehicles used by official travellers. In this way, the civilian population continued to grow.

The courtyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The first mansio was built between 54 and 60 AD, and fully occupied one terrace. It was of a sleeper beam construction, the walls were wattle and daub, some were plastered and some were painted with simple linear decoration. The rooms were arranged around a square courtyard about 19 by 19 metres. At some stage, the thatch roof went on fire and the building was destroyed, probably at the beginning of the second century.

The evidence for the layout of the second mansio is fragmentary. It had a courtyard with walls of plaster and daub and some rooms were painted in vivid colours. A large well in the courtyard was over six metres deep.

The changing room (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

This second mansio was dismantled ca 140-150 AD when the third mansio was being built. At the same time, the well was filled in. About the same time, the second hilltop fort was abandoned and the town stopped being a military site.

The third and best-understood mansio was built on a stone base ca 130 AD. It was at least two storeys high, fronted by a colonnade with a tiled roof and supported on wooden columns. A large door formed the main entrance, and the entrance hall led to a colonnaded atrium or courtyard with a plastered floor. The central area may have been open to the sky, with an herbaceous garden, and timber posts around the edges of the colonnade supported a balcony above.

The entrance hall was flanked by rooms accessible from the central courtyard. The room on the west had washing facilities, the room to the east may have been a guardroom. On the west side of the courtyard, three small rooms opened out onto the central colonnade at ground level. These rooms were probably used as private accommodation in the mansio.

The Roman baths

The exercise hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

To the west of the mansio was the public bath-house, separated from it by a cobbled road about three metres wide. A paved area led to a colonnade with large doors opening into a large, covered courtyard that may have been a basilica.

The earliest bath house was unearthed during excavations in 1956. The condition of a worn coin found there indicates this bath house was built around 100 AD. The surviving masonry is of high quality with finely dressed stone and a wall that is 1.2 metres thick. It is thought that the second mansio, the last fort, and the first bath house all ended approximately at the end of the military period on the site.

At the far north end of the bath complex, the stoke-room or praefurnium had wood-burning furnaces with underfloor heating for the tepidarium or warm bathroom, the caldarium or hot bathroom, and the laconicum or dry sweating room.

The fields by the site may still contain remains from Letocetum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In the field between the mansio site and Watling Street, a round depression in the ground may mark the site of a Roman amphitheatre. A large earthenware vessel in the likeness of Minerva was found near the modern church, so this may have been the site of a temple of Minerva. A rectangular cropmark in the field north-west of the bathhouse is only visible in dry weather but may be the site of another temple.

A Jubilee Milestone in Wall … but a Roman milestone in Chesterfield has been missing since the 1970s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The settlement reached its peak in the second and third centuries AD, when it covered 8 to 12 hectares (20 to 30 acres). At the end of the third century, the town relocated within high defensive walls astride Watling Street.

A lost Roman milestone at Chesterfield, south of Wall, recorded the name of the Emperor dating it to 268-270 AD, but has been missing since the 1970s.

The fall of Wall

The site at Letocetum is managed by the National Trust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The late defences at Letocetum were built about 300 AD beside Watling Street, about 150 metres east of the mansio. They included a stone wall about 2.7 metres thick, three ditches and a turf rampart. These defences may have built during a general uprising by Welsh tribes. The revolt was soon quelled, but to guard against further disruptions a series of strongholds was established at Letocetum and other places along Watling Street.

Letocetum lost its public buildings near the end of the third century, and the bath house and mansio were abandoned, probably for economic reasons. The latest coin to be found at Letocetum dates from the reign of the Emperor Gratian in 381 AD. Roman administration collapsed at the beginning of the fifth century and nothing has been found at the site that dates after this time.

Letocetum went into decline after the Romans withdrew in the fifth century. The place lost all importance when nearby Lichfield developed as the seat of a bishop in the 7th century.

The Museum in Wall is run by local volunteers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The present village of Wall emerged on the site once occupied by Letocetum, but was never more than a small village. Wall House on Green Lane dates from the 18th century, and probably stands on the site of the mediaeval manor house. Wall Hall, dating from the mid-18th century, stands on the site of a 17th century house. By the late 18th century, several houses were built on Watling Street, west of Manor Farm, and they formed the lower part of the village.

Saint John’s Church may stand on the site of a temple to Minerva (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The parish church, Saint John’s Church, is a Grade II listed building, and may stand on the site of a Roman temple to Minerva. It was built in 1837 and was consecrated in 1843. The architects were Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1877) and William Bonython Moffatt (1812-1887), and is one of their first churches as partners. Some of the stained glass windows are Charles Kempe, one of the great artists of the Tractarian Movement.

Wall remained part of Saint Michael’s Parish in Lichfield until 1870. Today it is united with Saint Michael’s and Saint Mary’s in Lichfield.

Saint John’s Church was designed by the architects Sir George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffatt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The site at Wall is owned by the National Trust and managed by English Heritage. But the place is so quiet and so relatively unknown that there is no-one at the gate to charge an entrance fee and the museum, which is run by volunteers, is often not open. The Wall Heritage Walk leaflet, available from the museum and in the village, takes visitors along self-guided walk around the village and the countryside of the Roman settlement.

A small local library is an imaginative use for a redundant telephone kiosk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Watling Street became part of the road designed by Thomas Telford linking London with North Wales and the ferries to Ireland. The re-routing of the A5 with the Wall Bypass in 1965 relieved the village of traffic, and Wall returned to the quiet life. But the A5 junction and the M6 toll at Wall junction make Roman Wall an ideal place to visit during a stop on a long journey.

After visiting the site, we had lunch at the Trooper, an inn that is more than 150 years old, before continuing on our walk through Chesterfield and other small villages in the Staffordshire countryside, before returning through Shenstone to Lichfield.

The Trooper … late lunch and refreshment in Wall after visiting the site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Canon Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature was first published in the October 2015 editions of the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

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