We are sitting in the portakabin which serves as the Education Room. On the wall by the door is a notice requesting teachers to keep their charges in order, along with laminated posters about Life in Roman Britain.
We sit, giggling like a lot of naughty school-kids. Giggling is good because it stops our teeth chattering. It is very, very cold at Bignor Roman Villa this morning.
It may be cold but there is no doubting the warmth of our welcome from Lisa our guide. She serves us up home-made cake (since you’re asking, coffee and walnut
for Mr B and a boozy Sussex fruit cake for me) and hot drinks which warm us up for a few minutes at any rate. Our new friend Pam slips us each a Kit-Kat – now this is the kind of friend I like, one armed with chocolate bars. I am pleased we offered
Pam and her husband Alan a lift to Bignor (and not just on account of the Kit-Kat bar, I’m not that shallow, you know.)
Having eaten our fill of cake and
Kit-Kat, we start the guided tour. Lisa, it turns out, is rather more than an employee or a volunteer – she actually married into the family which owns the Villa. So you could, quite accurately, say her tours for groups like the Questers (that’s
us, by the way!) are a true labour of love. Especially as there is no electricity at the villa which means she has donned eight layers of clothing to try to keep herself warm. This time last year, she tells us, the visitors were able to enjoy a picnic outside
in the balmy sunshine while she was in tee-shirt and shorts. What a difference a year makes, I think, shifting from one icy foot to another.
Led by Lisa,
we discover more about the Roman remains which were discovered by her husband’s six-times great grandfather in 1811. George Tupper was apparently minding his own business, ploughing his fields, when he struck what turned out to be the Summer Dining
Room Fountain. I wonder what he thought at the time? Did he break his plough on the edge of the Summer Dining Room Fountain, I wonder? Was he tempted – even a tiny, tiny bit – to turn his back on a discovery which would take over the lives
and fortunes of his sons and heirs for more than two hundred years? Fortunately Our George was made of sterner stuff; what is more, among his near neighbours was an archaeologist who soon took matters in hand and started the painstaking business of uncovering
And what discoveries he made! A Roman corridor, set with mosaics, the longest on display in the country, even though only a third is currently
exposed. A geometric mosaic on which Lisa’s husband’s grandfather remembers playing marbles. Mosaics of Venus, of Medusa, of cherub gladiators engaged in mortal combat (you can tell they are cherubs because of their wings), of Zeus dressed as an
eagle, making off with poor Ganymede. This is a direct copy of a mosaic in Paphos (Mr B and I have seen the original, if you’ll excuse the name-dropping.) Apparently in the 4th century AD tradesmen used to visit rich villa owners, offering
to sell and install for them one of a range of mosaic designs – much as we might be cold-called by a carpet company today. They doubtless went by the name of Mosaics-R-Us...
One of my favourite mosaics is of a dolphin – though it doesn’t look like any dolphin I have ever seen. As Lisa muses, it is as if the craftsman, instructed to create a mosaic of a creature he had never seen, went down the pub that
evening and asked his mates for advice. Hence the dolphin mosaic gracing the floor at Bignor Roman Villa has eight legs, scary teeth and a tail like a mermaid. That’s what I love about Lisa as our guide, she never lets facts (or the lack of them) get
in the way of a good story.
By now we are seriously chilled. As in bitterly cold, not thoroughly relaxed. Mr B says he can’t feel his feet. “Feet?”
I say, “What are feet?” We all crowd into the one-time dining room with its exposed hypocaust (under-floor heating) where the first occupants of the villa would have entertained their Most Important Guests. Oh, those clever Romans! If only
the under-floor heating was in full working order this morning.
Our organiser has a surprise for us all before we leave – an envelope containing a
small refund on the £10 apiece we had paid for this visit. We all open our envelopes and, as one, pay our unexpected windfall into the Donation Box. We sign the Visitors Book, the entries in which we are assured by our guide, are saved and
become part of the rich archive of the Villa’s history. Alan and Pam invite us back to their house for ham and tomato sandwiches and shortbread.
If you are
ever down this way, do pay a visit to Bignor Roman Villa. Look out for the dolphin with the eight legs and for the long corridor and the geometric mosaic where one of the Tupper family once played marbles. Say hello to Lisa for me. Enjoy the home-made
cake and write something witty but supportive in the Visitor’s Book.
But maybe wait till it warms up a bit...