LONDON A-Z An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums Crofton Roman Villa
Location: Crofton Road, Orpington, BR6 8AF [map] Open: Wed & Fri 10-1 & 2-5, Sun 2-5 (Apr-Oct only) Admission: £1 Brief summary: mid-suburban Roman remains Website:http://cka.moon-demon.co.uk/villa.htm Time to set aside: half an hour
[In a brilliant piece of planning, I visited today's museum in October before it closed down for the winter. In a none-too-brilliant bit of timing, you won't be able to visit today's museum until Easter. So don't get too excited by what follows]
London was once a Roman stronghold, but the centre of the City has been so wholly and utterly developed over the centuries that barely any trace remains. Modern London boasts just one Roman villa open to the public, and that only because the boundaries of the capital have been stretched out to encompass chunks of Kent. Originally a remote rural farmstead, it's now conveniently located immediately adjacent to Orpington station. Ideal for commuting, if only the former residents had hung around for long enough.
The first modern Britons to uncover Crofton Roman Villa were Victorian navvies working on a railway cutting. There were no preservation orders in those days, nor was there any knowledge of what was being churned up, so a large part of the foundations were irrevocably lost. Wiser workmen laying driveways for new council offices in 1926 quickly realised that they were carving through Roman remains, but archaeological interest was lacklustre and yet more damage was done. Only in 1988, when the council planned to raze the area for a car park, did the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit step in. They excavated what was left, then built a protective shed around the site, and the public are now invited inside to view what they managed to save.
From Crofton Road, the bland municipal exterior looks like it might hold a youth club, swimming pool or church hall. Indeed no expense has been wasted outside - this is simply a big shed containing Roman leftovers. No permanent staff are employed, just a group of kindly volunteers who give up their time in case any members of the public might open the door and step inside. I would have had the entire place to myself, but a well-intentioned local parent had hired the villa for their child's birthday party and so a crowd of well-behaved under-10s were quietly assembling mosaics on a trestle table.
My volunteer guide, having swapped one pound coin for a quaint old admission ticket, gave me a quick rundown of the history of the place. The villa was owned by well-to-do farmers in around the 2nd-4th centuries AD, and stood on a ridge above the fertile banks of the River Cray (now culverted beneath Orpington's main shopping street). Of the 20 rooms thought once to exist, remnants of at least 10 survive - all at foundation level. Don't come expecting grand walls and tessellating pavements, although there is plenty of ancient brick infrastructure and also some illustrative reconstructed tiling. Here context is key, with labels and plans aplenty to explain what everything in front of you used to be. But best to hear it all from the guide ("that bit used to be the hypocaust - you know what a hypocaust was don't you?"). Mine confessed to being a retired teacher, in common with many of the other volunteers here, and her enthusiasm and expertise were put to good use.
I managed to explore the fenced-off perimeter of the Roman remains whilst carefully avoiding getting too close to the assembled birthday crowd. They were still busy mosaicing while I perused the "touch table" of genuine ancient stuff and the sandtray in which children pretend to be archaeologists. Then we swapped places, and I went to stand on the raised platform at the rear while they went to sit in the dressing-up corner. I earned a different perspective on the old villa, including a close up of where the underfloor central heating used to be, while the kids were held distantly spellbound by a selection of animal bones.
This is a defiantly low-key attraction, with the emphasis very much on archaeology rather than entertainment. The admission charge is merely tokenistic and couldn't possibly support the building's upkeep. The bookshop contains dense volumes solely of local interest rather than popular sciency tomes. And the Roman remains themselves require not inconsiderable amounts of visualisation, far exceeding the passive spoonfeeding most tourists seem to desire. Oh that there were more London museums like this, ploughing their own specialist furrow with love, care and conviction. by train: Orpington