The Roman Painted House in Dover
In the holiday I dragged Bill, my long-suffering husband with me to the Roman Painted House in Dover.
I’d been there as a child but my memories had been ruined when my sister had forced me against my will to look at a skeleton they had downstairs hidden away in a niche. Much to her bemused annoyance I’d run out crying in hysterics and had refused to go back inside despite the rain. We even have pictures of this. I can only say in my defence that I was a difficult and imaginative child plus I’d also just seen the film Jason and the Argonauts. I’d been fascinated but also terrified by the fighting skeletons which emerged when the king had scattered the hydra’s teeth on the ground after Jason and his men steal the fleece. So I can only presume my irrational fear came from the fact that I didn’t want to see a proper one in real life, in case…well, in case it woke up and came after me. I should add that I had nightmares after this visit and my Mum had stern words with my sister who was actually about thirty at the time, so should really have known better.
When I was in my twenties, I’d taken a year three class there in my first year of teaching. It was actually the first trip I’d ever organised on my own. Fortunately it went smoothly and the children enjoyed themselves. It also laid to rest many of the bad memories I’d had against the site. I made myself look at ‘Fred’ the skeleton, who was still there and hadn’t moved. By then I’d seen a few skeletons and they didn’t hold as much fear for me, in fact I was almost blasé about it , but I made sure that no child was forced to look at him if they were at all unsure or hesitant. Which of course most of them weren’t. Just me then.
Since I started writing about the Custodians I’ve been desperate go back to Rome for research purposes. We’d been about to go a couple of years ago and Bill and I had even been about to the book flights, when the boiler had broken down and died after only five years since we’d had it installed. The money we’d put aside for our trip to the Eternal City was hurriedly withdrawn and given to the nice plumber who came out on Easter Monday to fix it.
We saved up again but now we can afford to go we have a diabetic cat who needs insulin twice a day and another cat who was supposed to have died from lymphoma eighteen months ago. So though we’d both love to go on holiday we daren’t leave the animals.
It’s actually jolly lucky for us the Romans made their presence felt here in this part of England where we live. I’ve been around most of the British Isles and visited many Roman remains but I’d never really paid that much attention. Certainly not to level of detail I’m interested in now. So in the holidays Bill and I are gradually visiting as many Roman sites as possible.
We’d recently spent a couple of hours in the Canterbury Roman Museum which is well worth a visit. But I hadn’t been to Dover recently and he’d never been to the Roma Painted House.
Dover was originally known by the Romans as Dubris or Portus Dubris and Dubrae. It’s been a port since Roman times due to it being the site of the estuary of the river Dour. It was also the sitr Julius Caesar had initially chosen as his landing place for his invasion of Britain due its proximity to Europe and it being the only low land for several miles on either side of the white cliffs. Unfortunately for Caesar the Celts were also aware of this and when he arrived with his fleet, the massed forces of Britons standing on the overlooking hills and cliffs dissuaded him from landing there. So he very sensibly sailed around the coast for another seven miles until he found an open beach where no one was waiting to welcome him.
Under Roman control it soon became an important military, mercantile and cross – channel port. It was also, along with Rutupiae now known as Richborough, one of the starting points of the Roman Road known to us as Watling Street.
Dubris was one of the bases for the Roman fleet which was known in the northern waters as the Classis Britannica. In time when the Saxons started harrying the east coast of Britain it became one of the nine forts of the Saxon Shore and was garrisoned by the Milites Tungrecani who were based at what is now Dover Castle.
The Roman Painted House was discovered in 1970 when Roman remains were discovered during the construction of a road in the middle of Dover. An eight week excavation followed by the Kent Arachnological Rescue Unit led by Brian Philp. To the units delight they found a Roman mansio which they believe had been built in 200AD. After it’s discovery the Kent Unit promoted a tourist -preservation scheme and the Roman Painted House as it came to be known was opened to the public in 1977.
Since then according to the website there have been over 700,000 visitors who have seen this amazing find. It’s only open 150 days of the year and is staffed entirely by volunteers, some of whom were part of the original dig.
Over the years the Roman Painted house has won four national awards, including "The Best Preservation of an Archaeological Site in Britain" (Country Life Award). "Outstanding Tourist Enterprise" (B.T.A. Award) and "Museum of the Year Award". The Unit also won the famous Silver Trowel Award, presented to it by H R H Prince Charles.
The site is actually part of a large mansio or hostel for government officials crossing the channel. It stood outside the great navel fort of the Classis Britannica which was the name of the Roman fleet who were there to protect the ships travelling back and forth between Britain to Gaul. It’s believed they also carried building supplies up to the north of the country to aid the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.
In AD 270 the mansio was demolished so that the fleet could build another larger fort on the site. But when the Romans build the new boundary wall they didn’t destroy the buildings next to it, they simply dropped loads of earth and rubble on top to create a new rampart. This action actually preserved the parts of the mansio which had been covered and forgotten about which is why the site has been called Britain’s buried Pompeii.
The Romans rarely destroyed their buildings preferring to build over them. Which is understandable given how thick and strong they built their walls and they didn’t have bull dozer either, so it’s really the only thing they could have done.
The burial of part of the mansio by the Roman army resulted in the unique survival of over 400 square feet of painted plaster, the most extensive ever found north of the Alps.
Above a lower dado of either red or green you can still see exquisitely painted panels which are framed by fluted columns. The columns sit on projecting bases above a stage, producing a clear 3-D effect. Overall twenty eight panels survive in part, and each has a motif relating to Bacchus, the Roman God of wine.
Though I’d been to the Roman Painted House before, I don’t think I’d ever really appreciated what I was seeing. It was like going back in time and quite stirring to witness the actual size of the rooms I’d spent so much time researching and writing about. I could definitely imagine my characters in these places talking and drinking. In a way I felt like a voyeur spying on my own creations. Which I know is weird, as they’re not real people. But this was their time and I had no right to observe or see their world. That’s how impressive these surviving room were. It felt as if I could almost step back time to when these rooms would have filled with life and laughter.
For Bill and I one of the most astounding aspects of the preservation was the hypocaust system. Because the walls survive to a height of between four to six feet it’s possible to see a substantial amount of the central heating system. I hadn’t realised that the inner walls would have been hollow to allow the hot air to rise. You could clearly see the vertical wall flues that would have made this building incredibly warm almost two millennia ago. We also saw the large arched flues outside the mansio where they made fires which then provided the hot air under the floor and up the walls of the building. These were just about big enough for a very small child to crawl into clean them but it must have been a hellish job. I’ve little doubt that this system was just as effective as our central heating today though as child labour is in short supply for now it's probably impractical.
The exhibition itself is a time capsule. It was created in the 1970s and that is evident in the furniture and information zones around the site. What some might find dated and old fashioned, Bill and I found charming and a throwback to a lost time when people read and digested information wihtout having to wear unreliable headsets or squint to read passages thanks to the glaring bright lights.
There are over thirty display panels which tell the story of the discovery of the Roman Painted House and the explain how and why the mansio was so well preserved.
They also have many artifacts on display, not only Roman finds which are supported with detailed information for those who like to get down to the nitty gritty. We were both astounded at the size of the roof tiles and the water pipes. They were huge.
I’ll confess I often find museums boring and can whiz around them in half the time most people do. But I read every single panel and notice in this place. I especially liked the facial reconstruction of a Roman girl’s skull found only a few miles away. She could have been any one we see or know today.
On the upper levels, they have touch tables for children with finds from the excavations, such as pottery, bones and tiles. Families can also try their hand at brass rubbing on a variety of figures, both large and small. I desperately wanted to have ago at the Roman games they had for people to try. I’d written about them so was keen to try them for myself but a family were firmly ensconced. No matter it gives me another excuse to go back at a later date so I can beat Bill. Though I doubt I will, it’s a strategy game and I never think a head.
Of course, there’s Fred as well, the infamous skeleton who isn’t actually Roman at all but a rather a medieval skeleton found in the nearby St Martin-le-Grand church. The volunteers who run the site nicknamed "Fred". He’s not scary at all. Though I didn’t see him this time. Okay, so I’m still wuss.
You can also see some of the remains of the Saxon Shore fort where the Classis Britannia was based which was built on top of the rest of the mansio. It’s only a small section of the wall, but it’s impressive. If you want to see more of it, you have to go to Dover Library and Discovery centre which used to be the White Cliffs Experience. There’s also another part of the fort which is visible but it’s under a pub off Market Street which was built on and named after the Roman Quay.
For more Roman remains there are the two Roman lighthouses known as the Pharos. Some believe they date back AD 50, only seven years after the Roman invasion of AD 43. These can be found on the two heights, the Eastern where you’ll also find Dover Castle and Western Heights where only some little remains of the Roman building.
Whilst we were at the Roman Painted House we had the privilege of talking to Brian Philp himself. He was the lead archeologist who led the excavations back in 1970 and still runs the Roman Painted House today. He’s written numerous books on the subject as well as several research volumes on other Roman sites in Kent. He’s an amazing font of knowledge and he gives talks to tourists, schools and academic and is understandably well respected by local archeologists for his dedication and passion.
I can only thank him for spending the time to talk with me and answering the many questions I had. His knowledge and input inspired me to base a book in Dubris because he knew so much about the site, the town and Roman Britain as well. Thanks to him, I know that a friend of Hadrian was in charge of the port and the Classis Britannia at the time the emperor came to Britain. I always feel that it adds some extra authenticity to a story if you include real people who were genuinely there at the time you’re writing about.
Brian and his team do an amazing job. This wonderful undervalued gem is part of our cultural heritage. It relies on volunteers who manage the site everyday apart from Sunday and Mondays from June to September. It’s thanks to their dedication that the site is still open and accessible to people who it relies almost totally to keep it open.
The excavation is one of the most important in the country and the exhibition itself is a slice of a time past. I think it’s important to keep that charming and passionate atmosphere which harks back to a gentler but equally passionate age. It’s a double slice of history which unfortunately is now under threat.
I agree with Brain Philp when he says that "Countries that destroy their past deserve no future".
Over the years it’s survived many attempts to close it down so business men can build over the prime land it occupies in the middle of Dover, but it’s withstood those attacks and I really hope it continues to do so.
Bill and I will be going back. Brain has suggested that I can promote some of my books with them and I’ll give the Roman Painted House some copies of the story I base there so they can put it on display with the other books they have for sale.
This place gets under your skin, so I can understand why Brian and his team willingly give their free time to ensure this part of our history isn’t lost and covered over.
If I lived in Dover, I’d volunteer as well. It would be the ideal place to write my Custodian books. Imagine actually sitting next to a genuine Roman room and writing about the people who might have walked there and I wouldn’t have to go to Rome and leave the cats.
Though actually as a cat is rubbing her face against my fingers as I type this which is incredibly distracting and annoying the idea of Rome is quite appealing as well.
Please if you come to the south East of England visit this charming and forgotten gem. It desperately needs the patronage of visitors if it’s to survive for another forty years.
I’ll finish this post with the message at the bottom of the web page, as I think it sums up the dedication and passion of the people involved with this wonderful and undervalued site.
"This major tourist attraction is managed and staffed entirely by volunteers, who have worked here for the past 39 years. There is no paid staff. Occasionally, through illness or other problems, some volunteers may not be available as planned and (rarely) days may be missed. If your visit involves a long journey, you might consider phoning the Painted House in advance to ensure that it's open when you arrive – ( 01304 ) 203279."