Hidden treasures: Discover Welwyn's Roman baths

PUBLISHED: 11:13 22 June 2012 | UPDATED: 21:32 20 February 2013

Three flasks made of glass and pottery

Three flasks made of glass and pottery

Claire Pitcher discovers some secrets of Welwyn's Roman past hidden away in an embankment underneath one of the county's major motorways...

HOW many of us have driven north along the A1(M), just past Welwyn Garden City? Junction 6 to be more specific. Commuters, daytrippers, holidaymakers, lorry drivers all with no idea that nine metres below them, preserved inside a steel vault, are the remains of Roman baths, which 2,000 years ago belonged to a wealthy countryman.

Now run by the Museums Service of the Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council, the baths at Dicket Mead Villa were discovered by building technologist and tutor of archaeology Tony Rook after he discovered Roman tiles in the bank of the River Mimram close by. With the help of his wife Merle and a band of volunteer diggers, they uncovered the four buildings over a period of 10 years between 1960 and 1970. It may sound like a long time, but as with any archaeological dig, the process was painstaking, with permissions from the landowners needing to be sought and every single item found identified and tagged and there were thousands. But time was also against them, as the plans to build the A1(M) straight through the middle of the site were already underway this was a race against the clock.

Playing detective

As Tony and the Welwyn Archaeological Society worked tirelessly on the excavation, they had no idea what they were really uncovering. As Tony admits himself, archaeology is like detection: As we shoveled off the earth a small length of curved wall was exposed. Merle asked, What is this then? A chapel? A dining room? I hazarded a guess myself: Wrong place and too small. Perhaps its a bath. Two weeks later the top soil of a small arch began to appear nearby. The furnace! I cried. Weve got ourselves a bath house!

Tony and the society were keen to share their find, so they invited local schools and the public to take a look. Hundreds of people came to see the fascinating site and Tony gave regular talks, ending on the news that there would soon be a road across the baths.

Mission impossible

To save them, he would have to arrange cooperation between the Ministry of Works (responsible for ancient monuments) and the Ministry of Transport (responsible for roads). It was like trying to mate two elephants and we didnt have time to wait for the outcome, he says.

But the outcome came, and after many wrangles with departments it was agreed that Tonys plans to construct a steel vault over the baths would go ahead: Like a sculptor who, looking at a block of marble, can see a statue in it waiting to be released, I had a picture in my head of the finished vault. Everything I did seemed to be concerned with ensuring that happened, he says.

In 1973 the construction was complete and the motorway opened to traffic that August. Tony and the rest of the society were allowed into their vault for the first time. Then came the job of turning it from a site in a shell to the museum-esque attraction you can visit today. It took nearly two years, but they opened to the public in May 1975. The Museums Service now welcomes thousands of visitors a year to the site.

The baths

Constructed around 240-250AD, the baths were in use for about 50 years, with repairs and alterations. Roman villas at the time had private baths where family, friends and visitors, men, women and children met and stayed all afternoon, every afternoon. This villa had at least four buildings, with one of them having a large suite of baths. The suite probably belonged to the owner of the villa estate, while the one visitors see today was used by the estate manager or bailiff who may not even have been Roman.

Why the Romans came to Welwyn

With important settlements in Roman times like Verulamium, London and Colchester it is clear to see that Welwyn and the surrounds were on the route between these areas and important Roman settlements further north like York and Lincoln. Welwyn was quite a rich area in Roman times, as shown by the Welwyn Chieftains burial (the finds from the burial are in the British Museum) and also the discovery of Roman villas like Dicket Mead (the bath house) and Lockleys in the local area.

The Romans in Welwyn were not soldiers, but civilians. And they werent all men; there were women and children too.

The spa day

To experience the Roman bath, people would first undress, oil the skin, become very hot, scrape themselves clean, have a bath in very hot water and then cool down with a cold shower before dressing. If you were rich and lazy, your slave would more than likely do most of the work.

Find out more

Told in his own words, Tony Rooks The Story of Welwyn Roman Baths is priced 4.95 and is available from local bookshops or online.

The Roman baths are open on Saturdays, Sundays, Bank Holidays and Hertfordshire school holidays from 2pm- 5pm (or dusk if earlier). Entry costs 2.50 for adults, children free.

For more information call 01707 357850. Welwyn Roman Baths, Welwyn Bypass AL6 9FG.

Sunday 24th June, 2pm-4pm
Legion XIIII at Welwyn Roman Baths

As part of Welwyn festival, members of Legion XIIII will be setting up their tent and Scorpion Catapulta to entertain visitors. Visitors will be able to try on scaled-down replica Roman armour, shields and helmets. They will present a humorous slave market where they sell visitors children back to their parents called Gaius Aquilas Slave Emporium. The Museum Service and Welwyn Archaeological Society will also be putting on activities during the afternoon. 2.50 per person.

Meet the curator

Jenny Oxley has been curator at the baths and Mill Green Mill in Welwyn Garden City for three years. Handling two sites is a busy job: I manage the casual staff who work at the site, greet visitors and show people around. I check that everything is running smoothly, fix any maintenance or other problems and support the staff working at the site. My role as Curator is also to look at how the site is interpreted for visitors, so how the collections, objects and the monument are displayed to the public.

Over the last few years, much of Jennys work at the bath house has been focused on improving the site, including installing new signage, new display cases and adding more activities so that those visiting the site have a more enjoyable visit. I also co-ordinate special events at the site like Roman Day in June and craft activities in July, she says.

Roman Day forms part of Welwyn Festival week and takes place at the baths. Jenny explains what visitors can expect: We usually have people dressed up as Romans from Colchester Roman Society who chat to visitors about what life was like in Roman times in terms of food, drink, daily life and work. They bring along replica equipment, and there is a Roman scribe, planner and doctor, as well as lots of other characters.

In July and August the Museums Service also runs Roman themed craft activities for children and has also invited Celtic Harmony to the site to run Celtic games activities like archery, discus and javelin.

Jenny is able to immerse herself in all aspects of running the baths, but what is her favourite thing about it? Meeting the visitors. Everyone is always very friendly and very knowledgeable about the site and other Roman sites nearby. The Roman Baths is fascinating because it is one of very few private bath houses in Britain. There were quite a few public bath houses like those at Verulamium and Bath, but very few were part of private residences as the one at Welwyn was.

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