Suspected Romano-British Temple

The Weir Gardens, Swainshill, Herefordshire

NGRef: SO4341
OSMap: LR148/149/161
Type: Suspected Romano-British Temple
north-western buttress - 61kb
The North-Western Buttress
overlooking a bend in the River Wye
Roads
Probable Trackway: N (½) to MAGNIS (Kenchester, Herefordshire)

"A delightful, tranquil riverside garden, particularly spectacular in early spring,
with beautiful views over the River Wye and to the Black Mountains."
Above blurb heisted from the National Trust website

The New Weir Roman site occupies an idyllic setting on a natural terrace in a scarp on the north bank of the River Wye, about ½ mile south of the Romano-British walled-town of Kenchester in Herefordshire, and only ¼ mile west of the Roman road leading south to the fort at Abergavenny and the legionary fortresses at Usk and Caerleon. An octagonal stone cistern was uncovered on the site in 1891 and limited excavations conducted in 1977 revealed a tessallated pavement in situ, and two large stone buttresses intruding into the River Wye, the southernmost in ruins but the other still standing over 4m high. Scattered Roman building material including large dressed stones, grey and white mozaic tesserae, and painted wall plaster was recovered from the terraces behind the buttresses, also from the area around the octagonal cistern, and this was interpreted as representing two separate building complexes, perhaps with a connecting corridor or verandah. It has been suggested that the ruins of the New Weir site represents a high-status Roman villa complete with terraced gardens and a nymphaeum, a Romano-Celtic shrine devoted to the water nymphs which inhabited the River Wye. Limited finds from the site have permitted a rough period of occupation around the third or fourth centuries.

Hereford Altarstone Possibly from the Wier Gardens

It is possible that the Roman altarstone found in 1821 beneath the Billiard Hall beside the Hereford Public Library and recorded in the R.I.B. may have originally come from the Wier Gardens site. This stone is heavily damaged with the last four lines being completely obliterated, but the name of the god is discernable and the entire text reads DEO SILVANO ...S... ... ... ... ... "To the god Silvanus [...]" (RIB 303; altarstone; origin unknown). Silvanus was the Roman god of the natural open countryside and an ideal candidate for inclusion among the deities worshipped at this suspected Temple here on the banks of the Wye.

Visit to New Weir in March 2002

This marvellous place is easily accessed from the A438 west of Hereford down a short track protected by cattle-grids, to an ash-covered car park beside the river at the extreme south-eastern end of the site. The Wier Gardens is run by the National Trust, and a small fee is payable on entrance (link to their web-site at the bottom of this page). A visit was arranged in late March 2002 by Peter Williams of the Association of Roman Archaeology, with a view to observing the effects and extent of recent high water levels of the River Wye on the Roman remains.

The Octagonal Cistern or Water Tank

Roman octagonal cistern - 62kb
Roman Octagonal Cistern
in the Wier Gardens

Almost the first thing the visitor notices upon entering the National Trust gardens is the octagonal cistern close to the left of the path. This was discovered by workmen digging a trench for a new water pipe in 1891, who unfortunately removed several of the upper stones before the nature of the stonework was realised, and did not replace them back in their correct positions. This explains the stone water-tank's less than perfect outline. Despite the fact that the central opening in the lowest stone was found to be plugged with tesserae, the original excavators did not believe that the remains were Roman, and assigned to it a medieval date.

The Northern Buttress

buttress from river-level - 62kb
The Northern Buttress
viewed from the River Wye
erosion damage to buttress - 61kb
Serious Erosion Damage
exposing the buttress core

A short distance north of the cistern two massive buttresses intrude into the stream of the Wye. The northernmost of these structures remains over 4m in height from its base, making it the tallest free-standing Roman structure in Herefordshire. The base of this buttress is constructed of several massive stone blocks of at least four courses cemented together, upon which are several more courses of smaller finely-dressed stones. The structure is badly damaged by erosion at its western corner, where all of the upper courses have been lost, thus exposing the rubble and mortar infill of the buttresses core. At this point, several "lewis holes" are visible in the larger foundation blocks, which were used both for lifting the massive stones and to fix them in place.

The Southern Buttress

buttress and natural calcium deposits - 61kb
The Southern Buttress
covered in calcium deposits

The southernmost Roman buttress is almost completely destroyed by natural erosion. There is a spring in the gardens here which emerges from the spring line in the terrace about twenty-or-so feet above the level of the River Wye and was evidently incorporated within the structure of the buttress itself. It is very likely that this contributed heavily to the deterioration of this particular Roman structure. The spring water evidently contains a large amount of dissolved minerals as the southern buttress has now been replaced by a very natural-looking mound of calcified deposits, over and through which runs a little rivulet of clear fresh water. It was observed that there is a calm area in the surface waters of the river below this lower intrusion, which would have made an excellent "landing-stage" for the villa/temple complex above, although no evidence has been found to support this.

Massive Roman Masonry Blocks in the Wye

massive Roman masonry under the Wye - 64kb
Roman Masonry Blocks
visible just beneath the
surface of the River Wye

The bed of the River Wye is here strewn with many large, dressed stones measuring around three or four feet on a side, each of which must weigh many tons. These huge pieces of masonry must have been transported here from some unknown Roman quarry along the River Wye itself. During our visit in early Spring the Wye was yards lower than its Wintertime flood level, and its waters crystal-clear, many Roman stones being apparent just below the surface. These massive stones were seen deposited on the river bed immediately opposite the two buttresses and also further downstream opposite the octagonal water-tank. They must have originally formed part of a large building set back into the riverbank terraces between the two buttresses, and also incorporated into a substantial structure in the area of the cistern.

A Marvellous Discovery

calcified Roman water chute - 107kb
The Roman Water Chute
in the bank below the spring
within the south buttress

The water from the spring in the southern buttress is depicted on the excavation plans of 1977 as flowing directly towards the River Wye, and this is exactly what is currently observed at the site, the water obviously taking the path of least resistance. Upon descending to the level of the river in order to more closely observe the effects of erosion on the Roman structures, Peter and myself observed what at first appeared to be a ceramic box-flue of the type used in Roman bath-houses. This was embedded in the bank of the southern buttress buried some three feet below the current ground level and evidently exposed during recent subsidence.

wooden water chute close-up - 61kb
The Calcified Moulding
of the wooden water chute

Upon closer examination this was found to be the remains of a wooden chute, probably used to direct the flow of the spring above, and angled by about 45° from the more direct modern run-off. The structure was about a foot across with sides of around four inches, forming a shallow U-shaped channel. The calcium deposits in the water had evidently built up over the years, completely surrounding the wooden trough which had rotted away during the time it remained buried. The area immediately below the spot where the chute protudes is strewn with pieces of Roman building material including bits of broken tile, several tesserae and a piece of green-painted wall plaster.

Site Under Threat From the River Wye

Roman masonry backed by modern stones - 63kb
Underwater Roman Stones
backed by modern packing

The entire site is under threat from the River Wye which often floods up to the level of these Roman remains, and therefore has the potential to severely damage the archaeology. Last year (2001) several tons of hefty stones were laid about the base of the Roman structures on a carpet of fibre-glass in an effort to reduce the effects of erosion, but it was seen during our short visit that these expedients are mostly ineffective, and surprisingly large areas of this covering have been washed away over the course of just one year. Now exposed to the elements by the eroding effects of the fast-flowing river, the survival of the recently discovered Roman water-chute depends on the rapidity in which effective rescue operations can be arranged.

See: The Roman Inscriptions of Britain by R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright (Oxford 1965);
All English translations, including any inherent mistakes, are my own.

The Weir Gardens Related Lynx

The Weir Gardens from the National Trust WebSite
Ordnance Survey Map of the Area from MultiMap.com

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