Rome wasn't built in a day... at Wroxeter

PUBLISHED: 11:51 16 February 2011 | UPDATED: 11:59 28 February 2013

The Romanesque wooden end-frame hand built by modern day workmen

The Romanesque wooden end-frame hand built by modern day workmen

Sarah Hart followed the trials and tribulations of the team that, with a lot of help from their Shropshire friends, constructed the house for the Channel 4 series, Rome Wasn't Built In A Day

The villa that Shropshire built

Wroxeter, once the fourth largest city in Britain, has a new Roman villa.
Sarah Hart followed the trials and tribulations of the team that, with a lot of help from their Shropshire friends, constructed the house for the Channel 4 series, Rome Wasnt Built In A Day

Hardhats off to those Romans, they certainly knew how to throw up a building or two.

So when a TV company plucked six (mostly overweight ) builders from different parts of the country, stuck them in a Shropshire field, handed them a 2,000 year-old building manual and told them to do as the Romans did but in a quarter of the time it seemed an impossible task.

Six months later, after lots of swearing, expert guidance and extra manpower, a short-fused professor on their case and the odd non-Roman wheelbarrow (when he wasnt looking), they managed to pull it off.

The entertaining story of how ordinary builders, used to modern building methods, created a Roman villa, on the site of an ancient Roman town, using genuine Roman techniques, has been broadcast in the recent Channel 4 series, Rome Wasnt Built In A Day.

None of it would have been possible without the wealth of Shropshire craftsmen on hand to mentor the men a stream of local volunteers
and a team of Shropshire builders who stepped in to keep the
ambitious project on track at its most crucial stage.

The beautiful villa, built from stone, lime mortar and timber, and as authentic as building regulations and time constraints would allow, opened to visitors at Wroxeter Roman City, near Shrewsbury, a few days ago.

It is a valuable addition to this English Heritage site, bringing to life Roman history in a way that old ruins can never do. There is a fully functioning bathhouse, slave quarters, a mosaic and frescoes. The walls are daubed in vivid red and golden ochre, a stark contrast to the weather-beaten Roman ruins just across the road.

Its hard to picture Wroxeter as it was from what it is now. When you think, there were 15,000 people living here and there would have been a lot of buildings like this, says Mark Badger, regional head of visitor operations for English Heritage.

Putting it next to genuine Roman remains really adds something. Were hoping for a big public response.
The idea behind the TV series was to discover just how our Roman conquerors set about building their great cities from the point of view of the men who built them.

You see it through the eyes of ordinary people, not through the eyes of learned academics or master craftsmen. We were working with bog standard builders doing what bog standard builders did almost 2,000 years ago, says the programmes sound recordist Simon Jones, who lives at Cressage, just down the road from Wroxeter. Although he admits the TV builders over-did the tea breaks!

The villa was designed by Dai Morgan Evans, professor of archaeology at the University of Chester, based on excavations at Wroxeter, once the fourth largest city in Britain.

It was the job of Jim the foreman, Kevin the plumber, Darren the bricklayer, Tim the plasterer, Fred the carpenter and Ben the labourer to build it from scratch, felling trees, breaking stone, making their own lime mortar. All back-breaking stuff!

The real Roman builders, though, had a big advantage. They would have been much fitter, used to working together, accustomed to the building techniques and there would have been many more of them, including slaves.

So it wasnt much of a surprise when, nearly half way through the build, Jims motley crew still hadnt erected the giant oak frame that would form the backbone of the building. And it dawned on TV company Darlow Smithson Productions that Fred Farray, the London shop fitter theyd hired, was way out of his depth to design such a major structure.
They turned to local craftsman builder and carpenter Dylan Hartley for urgent advice. His brutal assessment? The six hadnt got a hope in hell of completing the villa by the October deadline.

Not only were there just six of them, they were arguing and not working well as a team, Dylan recalls.

The TV company ended up taking Dylan, his team and Shropshire timber-frame specialist Bob Ockenden onto the payroll for the mammoth task of constructing the frame. One thing Dylan hadnt prepared for they also gave him the job of firing Fred.

He wasnt very happy, he was really fuming. And they were filming all the time, the director saying dont do anything stupid, remember this is all on camera! Fred implored foreman Jim Blackham to keep him on but he sacked him a second time. We felt sorry for him. Out of all the six hed been the most enthusiastic about the Romans, says Dylan.

A few hours later Fred called Dylan at his Ratlinghope home. I thought he was going to give me a mouthful, but he said Dylan I really enjoyed working with you and Bob, Im really sorry for the way I behaved.

Back on site there was the urgent task of designing the frame. Bob,
from Priest Weston, whose timber-framing skills have taken him all
over the world, sat down with the architects drawings.

It took a week to design the frame, a week to source the timber and five weeks to build it, he says.

By his reckoning it would have taken almost a year to construct the frame from scratch, entirely by hand. To keep the project on track Morgan Evans agreed to a 21st century leg- up. Dylan, Bob and a team would assemble most of the frame from pre-cut beams of French oak using hand-held power tools to cut traditional mortise and tenon joints. However, the visible end frame would be constructed completely by hand. That job fell to joiner Dale Dilly, from Snailbeach, carpenter Rick Garbett and builder Sam Howells, both of Shrewsbury.

The amount of work we had to put in for one tree was absolutely colossal. We spent weeks simply attacking trees with axes, says Sam.
Everyone amassed for the crucial frame raising. Thirty tonnes of frame was assembled on the ground in sections and painstakingly winched and levered into place the Roman way during one long, tense and exciting day.

As the sun went down over the Shropshire hills there were 15 of us sat with a crate of beer. It was a fantastic feeling, says Dylan. The frame was the breakthrough in the build. Without Bob, Dylan and his men wed still be there now, struggling to put up the first section, muses Professor Morgan Evans.

Dale, Rick and Sam remained on site for another two months working alongside their TV counterparts and Telford builder Keryl Holt wattling and daubing, nailing boards, laying thousands of cedar roof shingles. Keryl, also a sculptor, carved stone columns, a pagan altar and a
Roman fertility symbol that will bemuse visitors.

At every stage of the project experts were brought in to coach the TV builders through traditional building and craft processes. County historic environment manager Colin Richards, archaeologist Mick Krupa and lime production company Lime Green, of Wenlock Edge, showed them how to turn stone into lime putty and make lime mortar.

Wem blacksmith Mike Salt worked with Kevin to forge tools and Roman fixtures and fittings. Grinshill stonemason Mark Woolley taught Darren to carve stone. Much Wenlock potter Mike Fletcher helped Ben throw Roman-style terracotta pots. Pontesbury artist Aidan Hart directed Tim and Ben on the techniques of fresco painting.

It must be said that the frescoes are not up to the usual Roman standard. But some Roman frescoes are crude. Not every Roman town would have had a skilled artist, points out Aidan, who has frescoed for churches and the Prince of Wales.

He grew fond of his two pupils. They were bright, witty. Tim was a skilled plasterer and an incredibly hard worker. He did super human feats of plastering vast amounts of wall space in one day.

Ben Gotsell, 21, recently contacted Aidan to say how he had inspired him and that he had enrolled on a silver-smithing course back in London.
Tim now wants to learn more about lime-plaster.

In Mike Salts traditional forge Geordie plumber Kevin Fail, a blacksmiths apprentice in his youth, was reduced to tears.

He said it took him back to his childhood to find a working forge like this. He thought theyd all disappeared, says Mike.

Were lucky in Shropshire to be home to so many living traditional crafts. It was absolutely incredible that everything we needed was within a really small radius of Wroxeter, says producer Lynda Regnier.

And shes full of praise for all the volunteers from the Shropshire Embroiderers Guild, who produced beautiful Roman curtains, to the Girl Guides and schoolchildren who cut thousands of tiny mosaic tiles.
The villa is something Im proud to have been involved with, says Dylan.

Its impressive, but sufficiently rustic to give a real impression of how basic life was for people in Roman times. Even for the privileged merchants who would have lived in a house like this. How cold it would have been with the wind blowing through the cracks in the wood and the gaps in the windows?

I was surprised to see how small the slaves room was, how many of them would have squeezed into it. They couldnt lie down, they had to sleep sitting up.

On the night of the wrap party, as the film crew and builders toasted the completion of the building with drinks at the nearby Wroxeter Hotel, thieves broke into the villas steam-room and stole its specially-crafted copper tank. That has since been replaced by one made from galvanized steel.

Today, as visitors tour the villa, delight in it and get a deep sense of what life was like for the Romans, they might spot something that Roman builders were unlikely to leave behind a pair of socks nailed above the bathhouse door!

Getting there:
The Villa Urbana near Wroxeter Roman Town, Wroxeter, SY5 6PH, is open to the public daily from 10am.

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