Two miles west of Chichester there's a fairly ordinary village suburb - a few small housing estates, some ribbon development and the A27 scything through on a big viaduct. A couple of houses look out over the northeast tip of Chichester Harbour but, other than that, Fishbourne's nothing special. Apart from the enormous Roman Palace, that is. It was discovered by accident 50 years ago while workmen were laying a new water pipe, and subsequent digs revealed the presence of something very special beneath the soil. Not just a villa, but a palace so large it was equal in size to the emperor's gaff back in Rome. In English terms, Fishbourne's unique.
Nobody's 100% sure who the owner of the palace was, but the smart money's on the Wessex chieftain who ruled these parts around the time of the Roman invasion. We know very little about him except that his name was probably Togidubnus (and not Cogidubnus, as my Latin textbook repeatedly insisted). But a lot more is known about his place of residence, despite the fact that only a fraction of its hundred rooms still sort-of exist.
My first thought on visiting Fishbourne Roman Palace was that it looked a lot like a small secondary school. A scattering of low-rise 1960s buildings arranged round a car park, what else could it be? One's a classroom, another's a canteen, another's got toilets, but the largest (and longest) is where the main action is. At the nearest end is a small museum which explains the history of the palace and its eventual rediscovery. The displays date back to 1967 when the site opened to the public, and don't look like they've been updated since. There's nothing interactive, no buttons to press, just a presentation of the facts accompanied by a few models and some recovered artefacts. I loved it. Everything's smart, clear and concise, laid out in line with the finest graphic design of its day. In fact the entire building has a timeless simplicity, which I thought perfectly complemented the skills of those who created the palace below almost two millennia ago.
There's a video presentation to watch, which you won't be surprised to hear is narrated by Tony Robinson. I would have watched it, but at the crucial moment a coachful of foreign schoolkids turned up and swarmed the auditorium so I gave it a miss. But the main attraction is the palace itself, or at least what remains of the North Wing[photo]. A series of long-collapsed rooms, through which a woodenwalkway weaves providing views of the finest surviving mosaicfragments. Some mosaics are barely there at all, the odd patch merely hinting at past splendours. Others reveal geometricsimplicity, not especially amazing apart from the fact they're still here. Some have sunk into the earth, dipping down sharply where postholes and pits have caused long term subsidence. And one in particular is amazing, the large mosaic of Cupid on a Dolphin (although its intricate perfection is solely because it's been completely restored to demonstrate how fantastic this place used to look) [photo]. Elsewhere there are the remains of walls, and doors, and even a Roman central heating system. But mostly it's all floors, because the whole of the palace burnt to the ground in suspicious circumstances somewhere around 270AD.
Head out of the main building and the palace's centralgarden has been recreated. Nothing formal, just a few hedges to mark where the edges of the colonnade would have been. As for the other wings, what's left of those is still buried beneath the ground. East and West to each side where the grass is, but the South Wing is somewhere beyond the fence beneath the houses and gardens on Fishbourne Road. What secrets lurk under the vegetable plots and living rooms we may never know. But the North Wing's impressive enough, and a very civilised reminder of the creative talents of our ancestors.
What's on this weekend? Spring Into Summer Saturday 30 & Sunday 31 May
40 free guided London walks. Purley Festival Friday 29 - Sunday 5 June
Bunting week, below Croydon. E17 Art Trail Sat 30th May - Sun 14th June
250 arty Walthamstow things.