Caistor St Edmund The Roman town of Venta Icenorum (NHER 9786)
Eddie Holden’s memories of the area in the 1920s and 1930s
Well here goes to give you my side of living in the area of the Roman settlement, Venta Icenorum. Now this is where I started to get into history and, now, as I have travelled half the world, history has always come to the fore.
I was born at the hamlet of Mangreen, near to Swardson, home of Nurse Edith Cavell, then we moved to Markshall, with Caistor St Edmund. Now at this point life started for me, as I travelled to school at Stoke Holy Cross three miles away and walked it in all weathers.
Well we lived in the black house down Markshall Lane; black because it was painted with tar, and we were the last house in the row, next to the river bridge, near a big oak tree which is still there. But I think the bridge is long gone as it was only a tree trunk across the river with uprights and a handrail. It was a short cut to the White House Farm on Caistor road. It cut at least one half miles off going round. Anyway it was all marshland then, but now all ploughed up. It was marsh land from Markshall Farm to beyond Stoke Holy Cross water mill.
I can remember the river flooding every year, over the marshes, not very deep but about at least six inches, all over, and the wildlife was plentiful, with all types of web-footed birds. Now it has been said that the Romans used to bring boats up to what was called the moorings, to two towers near the riverside. Well if so the river would have had to be deeper and larger than now.
Well my own thoughts of these two towers which I climbed as a lad, maybe they were look out towers. There were rumours of rings on top of them, and they were supposed to be brass or bronze. Well I never saw them; if there were rings up there someone pinched them before I got there.
Now as young lads we played on the Roman walls, as Roman soldiers and the enemy. Swords were sticks, and bows and arrows were of willow branches, and the string was binder string we pinched out the barn. When the ploughing time came around a Fordson tractor came with a plough inside the walls and ploughed from the Norwich side to the Stoke side. Well about two thirds down the field towards the towers the plough would come to a stop as it had hit a wall or something, nearer to the Stoke side, This field was ploughed every year for wheat or root crops, and then laid to rest for grass and cattle for a year. The best parts of the walls were then next to Stoke Road at the entrance to the farm; they were very high there.
Moving on to the Church, my uncle and aunt are buried in the churchyard, and he is buried next to his old mate, John Skinner. They spent hours together. Now why was a church built on top of Roman walls in the 1200s AD? Was it easy to build there as the stone was already there for the church? Now I do know that my uncle had collected a lot of Roman coins, but as far as I know his wife’s family had them. I have lost touch with them, so I will never know what face is on the coins. And there were other things found while ploughing the field. But most people are dead now and who had them I cannot say. Yes this is where history started for me, as we used have history lessons on the site and as far as I can remember there were four gateways to the site, one to each side in the near centre of each side.
Now from the Stoke Holy Cross road and looking towards the river and on the left hand side about half way down I remember a dig or excavations being done there in 1934-5 or something like that. As you would play noughts and crosses, the diggings were like that in trench form. There were two towers about 12 to 15 feet apart, looking from behind the towers towards the river. The one to the right side was higher than the left side. From thinking back I would say the right hand one was about 12 to 14 feet high, and the left hand side was about maybe 10 feet high, maybe a bit shorter. But they were all covered with blackberry bushes then and elder trees. I am talking 1930s. Maybe the farmer wanted to make a road way and pinched one, but yes I am sure there were two round solid stone pillars or towers. Now I have been told that one had a ring on top, but I never saw one. But Derek Bales tells me he has been told that the British Museum took it away to London, maybe. It would have been valuable in those days if made of bronze. Well if my uncle was alive he might have shed some light on this; he was like me a bit of a history freak, and it was removed in his time.
If and when the excavations start again, I only hope they do as they have done in lots of other places. Build a framework over the site excavated so the general public can see what it was like to live in Roman times and a money-spinner. A frame of aluminium and sheeting at very little cost and the structure that's uncovered would be protected. But so many sites are excavated and then the earth returned and no one else sees them again. Shame really.
Well now, let’s carry on where we left off. Yes, the diggings. At the bottom of some of the trenches were what I can only say looked like drains or channels. Now these were deep, or looked deep at the time. In one wall I remember was a stone shelf or a stone slab projecting out of a wall, and in one of the other trenches was what looked like paving slabs to form a path or road. I do not remember them finding any Roman treasure then. While we at school during the day, who knows? But I did hear that the site had been plundered by metal detectors.
Now the wall that follows the road back to Caistor village from the car park. Well stay in the park and look along the roadside bank, and walk towards Caistor, and somewhere between the car park and the church at your back, there used to be a spring that ran down the bank to the bottom. It was a very small spring of water, but enough to form a large puddle. It was always very wet, and I have drunk the water that came out the ground. I would have thought it came from the fields the other side of the road. I wonder if a diviner could trace it. It could have been used by the Romans. On my next trip to the site I will see if it is still there. That’s maybe 70 years ago.
Now what puzzles me is the Romans left in 400 A.D or round about that time, as everything had collapsed in Rome, money was useless and so was gold. So they buried it thinking they would come back. Now as these places were empty, why didn’t the local rabble just move in and set up home? But it seems they did not, but built their own towns and cities. Or was the Roman way of life too far in advance for the local tribes? Even the Christian monks that came at that time did not take over the sites; they built their own monasteries and holy shrines. I sit and think a lot about these times.
Eddie Holden 2007