Discovering the hidden jewels of Alcester
PUBLISHED: 12:26 13 November 2018 | UPDATED: 14:51 06 November 2020
The Warwickshire town of Alcester is considered one of the best understood Roman settlements in the country. Tracy Spiers digs below the surface to discover its hidden jewels
Scratch the surface of a pavement, garden or road in Alcester and an exciting historic Roman treasure will most certainly appear. From the outset this small Warwickshire market town looks like any other. It is welcoming, bustling, full of independent traders, has a thriving community spirit and an array of interesting architectural buildings which adds to its charm. Yet it is what lies beneath that makes Alcester so unique.
Imagine finding an unspoilt life-size Roman statue of a head and torso hidden in a wall or an old Roman Milestone incorporated into a building in the Middle Ages? Or discovering that what you have been using as a bird bath is in fact an earthenware bowl used for grinding up spices 2,000 years ago. These are great examples of upcycling which fit our modern-day thinking, yet the objects in question date back to 2nd or 3rd century AD.
Alcester’s story is one worth telling. The town has been subject to more than 100 archeological digs over the past 80 years and is now considered one of the best understood Roman settlements in the country. The best place to digest its rich past is Roman Alcester Heritage Museum. It was set up in 2005 after years of hard work by a small group of local people who believed that the many finds unearthed in Alcester should be on display. The old Magistrates Court, now also home to the town’s library, was converted into the interactive museum and is now considered “one of the hidden jewels of the Midlands.”
My husband Rog and and our 11-year-old daughter Rosie enjoy playing a game of Merils or Three Men’s Morris, the predecessor to Noughts and Crosses while her twin Kezia and I dress up in a toga and tunic. There’s a feast of Roman discoveries to enjoy from jewellery, nitcombs, hair pins, and domestic bowls.
Susan Juned, Chair of volunteer-led Alcester Heritage Trust, which runs the Museum in partnership with Warwickshire County Council, points out some of her favourite treasures.
“I started out as a botanist so I guess I like the fact that the first seeds in Britain of asparagus were found here in Alcester. Also we have a Roman tile with a pawprint of a dog, which makes you wonder who let the dog out!”
Susan also shows us some fine examples of Samian ware. There are no signs that any of the plates and bowls were ever used. It’s thought they might have been dropped and not considered fit for use and were found in a pit. Earliest traces of habitation around Alcester date back nearly 6,000 years ago. Neolithic people left flint tools and some of the earliest pottery found in Warwickshire. Bronze Age pottery, a small gold ring and at least two bronze cauldrons have been found here as well as Iron Age pottery coins and a rare bronze miniature shield.
When the Romans invaded Britain in AD 43, it led to the first fort at Alcester being built around AD47 on Primrose Hill, which was later replaced by a fort near Bleachfield Street. Excavations around Birch Abbey revealed a long, open gravelled area with ‘booth’ type structures around the edge, thought to be the site of a market place. Many Roman coins have been found both from excavations and from chance finds which indicate that from the 4th century Alcester probably had a market economy.
It makes a fascinating collection of artefacts which my family and I enjoy looking at, especially as it is in keeping with subjects my 11 year olds have been studying at primary school.
Linking these exciting finds with the KS2 national curriculum is something volunteers at Roman Alcester are passionate about.
“We do a lot with the schools, especially with years 3 and 4 when they study the Romans. It’s a great facility for the schools and they get the chance to meet Clodius, our resident Roman soldier and work with original and replica artefacts,” says volunteer Eileen Stone.
There’s nothing like seeing and touching objects that have survived hundreds of years that were once handled by human hands from different eras to bring history alive. My twins are quick to handle the objects they’re allowed to touch. Roman Alcester is all about being child-friendly and inviting that inquisitiveness and questioning.
“I love it when children come in and take part, start playing with the fort, dress up and engage with what is here,” adds Susan Juned.
“I also like the fact you can see evidence of everyday life, and it makes you wonder, how did glass survive in its entirety without being crushed? And looking at the brooches, particularly the eagle and fish ones, they could be sold today. It’s also fascinating to see the evidence of trading and links with Europe all those centuries ago.”
However, the evidence on show in this volunteer-run facility has no resemblance to what the eye can see in modern-day Alcester, as Susan is quick to admit.
“If you go into the town, Roman life is not there on the surface. All the evidence of the past has been found underneath.”
And it is only thanks to the dedication of local people who recognised their town’s important legacy that it is on show. Open 10-4pm Saturdays and 10-5pm on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Roman Alcester Heritage Centre, based in Globe House, Priory Road, was born thanks to lottery funding, but it relies entirely on volunteers and money raised from educational visits and donations.
Community and generosity of spirit is key to its success. But it spills out to other parts of the town. Exactly 400 years ago, a gentleman called Sir Fulke Greville III put up £300 to pay for what is now the town hall. To mark this anniversary, volunteers who run it have been carrying out major refurbishment projects, including repairing outer stone work, installing a stair lift and laying a new oak floor.
“We also buried a time capsule with items that portrayed a snapshot of a week in 2018 including copies of the local papers, a bus timetable, take-away menus and various events that were going on,” explains archeaologist Ian Greig, a Town Hall Committee trustee and member of Alcester’s Local History Society. We meet Ian as he installs a special exhibition to mark the anniversary paying tribute to the community groups that have used the hall over the years as well as the man who helped make it happen.
“Fulke Greville was born in Alcester and became Chancellor of the Exchequer and a member of Queen Elizabeth I’s court. He gave £300 which was a lot of money for a small town,” adds Ian. As well as a courtier and politician, Greville was also a soldier, poet and patron of the arts.
“It’s still very much a working building and the town hall is an important part of the local community. It is not just a museum piece but we have to make it fit for purpose, useful and up to date whilst complying to the Grade I building regulations. We felt it was important to install the stair lift to allow people with mobility difficulties to get upstairs and see the wonderful woodwork.”
The twins, Rog and I get chance to see it for ourselves. Originally downstairs was open-arched and used as a market area (similar to the impressive market hall in Chipping Campden), while upstairs important decisions were made in what was the town’s main meeting room. We are drawn to a painting of the Alcester Court Leet, ceremoniously dressed officers who carried out significant powerful roles during that time. Today one can still see the Court Leet in traditional clothes reenacting those roles to raise funds for the benefit of the local community. As we walk out of the town hall, a traditional looking painting shows the original market hall but on close inspection the faces painted are familiar ones - including that of Susan Juned.
Walking around the town is a fascinating experience for there is a mix of different-aged buildings. Alcester is just eight miles west of Stratford-upon-Avon so there’s a definite resemblance to Shakespeare’s England without the hype of tourism. Preserved Tudor cottages and other historical buildings are dotted throughout and lean at interesting angles. Pubs and teashops are inviting places to stop and ponder. We certainly enjoy spending time walking around this authentic atmospheric place, particularly Malt Mill Lane, home to 16th-century needle makers’ cottages, a reminder of Alcester’s industrial past. Alcester has the ability to give visitors that opportunity to walk through time, from Roman to medieval to modern day, which makes it incredibly unique and memorable. We end our visit in the 14th century with a visit to a circular dovecote in Kinwarton, just a few minutes drive from the town centre, which still houses doves today. But there’s no doubt the highlight for us is our encounter with Roman Alcester and a chance to experience 2nd century AD life in a fresh and tangible way.
Find out more at alcester.co.uk.