Visit to Roman Castor, St Kyneburgha’s Church and Durobrivae (Water Newton), August 25th 2018 (in support of the St Kyneburgha Building Preservation Trust).
After coffee and an introductory talk by Professor Stephen Upex who gave us an overview which brought to life of the extraordinary, but remarkably little-known Roman remains at Castor, we divided into small groups to visit St Kyneburgha’s church with members of the St Kyneburgha Building Trust as our guides. In the afternoon (having enjoyed an excellent lunch) we visited the site of Durobrivae for a guided walk with Professor Upex. The complex Roman landscape around Castor consists of three elements: the remains of a large building – thought to be the second-largest in Roman Britain – which now lies partly under the church at Castor; secondly the site of the now-deserted town of Durobrivae, once a thriving town of 44 acres, and finally, a vast area of industrial suburbs which lay outside the walled town. Ermine Street, the major route to the north, ran through the town.
Roman remains in Castor
The story of archaeological discovery at Castor goes back to Edmund Artis, an antiquarian and skilled surveyor who excavated and surveyed numerous sites around the village in the 1820s. Wherever he dug, he found Roman remains including mosaic floors and walls still standing to heights of up to 11 feet which he recorded with beautifully detailed, accurately surveyed drawings. He recognised that the scale of the remains around the church meant that he was dealing with something more than a villa, and used the term ‘praetorium’ to describe it.
What was this building, and why was it here? The story took us to the Icenian revolt led by Boudicca in AD 60. After this was put down, reprisals were imposed which involved the confiscation of land in the Fens, the heartland of the Iceni and it is likely that the land was subsequently administered as an Imperial estate with an administrative and tax collection centre at Stonea. However, at around 200 AD the centre moved to Castor where existing buildings were demolished and a new building on a monumental scale was erected. On the hill facing towards Durobrivae, it would have been an imposing and very visible sight. Built on massive foundations (some of which are visible now, protruding from the walls alongside the road behind the church), it probably stood three stories high. The building remained standing into sixth century, and was possibly the reason why St Kyneburgha founded her convent here. The earliest known collection of Christian silver (the Water Newton Treasure) was found in Durobrivae, and there is a suggestion that there might have been a Christian community surviving in the area, another reason why St Kyneburgha chose Castor as the location for her convent.
Castor featured in an episode of Time Team, which is now available on YouTube.
St Kyneburgha’s Church
St Kyneburgha was the daughter of King Penda of Mercia, and at around 650 AD founded a convent either in or near the former praetorium. A church was built in the praetorium courtyard, reusing Roman materials (including roof tiles and pieces of stone columns which are clearly visible in the exterior walls). After her death St Kyneburgha was buried in the church and a shrine erected over her grave: fragment of 8th century carved stone in the church is thought to have been part of the shrine. The Saxon church was the object of Viking raids and is known to have been in a ruinous state in 1012. It was rebuilt by the Normans, incorporating some of the fabric of the Saxon church and adding an impressive tower, to which a spire was added in the 14th century. In common with most parish churches, it was extended and remodelled several times during the medieval period. A section of 14th century wall painting depicting St Catherine has survived, as well as a stone altar of similar date which was found, broken, in the path outside the church.
To finish the tour of the church, we able to visit the tower in the company of the Tower Captain and view the bells, recently augmented to an eight.
Our walk around Durobrivae (Water Newton) started with the site of a fort. Understanding this had presented a puzzle since there was a half-legion based at Longthorpe only 4km away. Why was there a second fort here? Excavation has provided an answer. It seems to have been a temporary structure dating to the late first century AD which served as the base for work on an upgrade to Ermine Street, involving realigning a section of the road and improving the river crossing by building a bridge.
The bridge provided the perfect location for traders and those offering services to passing travellers, and settlement along the line of the road marked the beginning of the town of Durobrivae. The defences of the town are still clearly visible, encircling what at first sight appears to be just a field of grass, but various humps, bumps and changes of vegetation mark the sites of major buildings.
Aerial photography of crop marks and geophysical survey have enabled a detailed plan of the layout of the town to be plotted, but there is still much more to find out. By the end of the 2nd century AD, it was a thriving boom town with industrial suburbs which extended across a wide area, mass-producing pottery and other goods. The clear line of the once-busy but now overgrown Ermine Street can be seen running through the centre of the town. This section of the road shifted course to the line of the current A1 (probably in the 6th or 7th century) when the bridge fell into disrepair, and the route was diverted to cross the river at the ford at Wansford.
The final question was why did life at Durobrivae come to an end, and Peterborough take over? There seems to have been a mixture of push and pull factors at play. The foundation of a monastic community at Peterborough drew people towards it as it provided employment and opportunities for traders. At the same time, the collapse of the market economy at the end of the Roman period meant that the industrial production at Durobrivae ceased, and the town went into a slow, gradual decline, leaving Peterborough to grow.
Text: Penny English
Photos: Vicki Harley & John Stanford
Thanks to Professor Upex and the St Kyneburgha Building Preservation Trust team for the expertise in organising this visit.
To find out more go to the Trust’s website: http://www.castorchurchtrust.co.uk/