OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312.
Roman Gardens in Britain
The Romans conquered Britain in 43 CE, and Roman legions remained for about four centuries, until the departure of the armies in 449 CE. The nature of agriculture in Britain was a matter of no small importance to the Romans, who were primarily interested in that damp, far-off island because of its fertile and highly productive fields of grain.
Tacitus wrote in the Agricola that Britain’s "… soil will produce good crops, except olives, vines, and other plants that usually grow in warmer lands. Crops are slow to ripen, but sprout very quickly because of the dampness of the soil and the air."
During the centuries of contact between Britons, Romans, and Roman mercenaries from many regions of Europe, farmers and gardeners no doubt shared garden lore, plants, and techniques. As a result, many new plants appeared in Britain, some no doubt formally introduced by the Romans, and others arriving by other means that may have ranged from merchants to monastery gardeners to returning travelers.
One of the enduring signs of Roman influence in Britain is the villa, or Roman farm, which included fields, meadows, and pastures, as well as such outbuildings as barns, stables, workshops, housing for laborers, mausoleums, and shrines.
Prior to the arrival of the Romans, British domestic architecture tended to favor the roundhouse, a structure with a timber frame, wattle and daub walls, and a thatched roof.
In contrast, the primary residence in a Roman villa was typically rectangular. It had a masonry foundation, walls of wood and later stone, and a roof of tile or slate. The ideal location was stable ground, high enough to be dry but with a reliable water supply, and breezy enough to be healthy.
Villa residences varied from modest, with few rooms and sometimes a thatched roof, to very luxurious. Unlike urban Roman villas in Italy, British villas seldom had the interior pool, called an impluvium, just inside the main doorway, with an opening in the roof above to allow rainwater to fall into the pool. Most British villas with pools located them in a large "front garden" outside the house.
Like their continental counterparts, Roman villas often had painted walls (frescos) and, in at least some rooms, mosaics. By the end of the Roman era in Britain, c. 420 CE, an estimated 1500 villas dotted the countryside south of Hadrian’s Wall.
The part of a villa residence most likely to survive for archaeologists to study is the foundation. As a result, we know that villa floor plans were variations upon three basic themes, the hall, the corridor villa, and the courtyard villa:
The aisled hall is familiar to us from churches and barns. Aisled halls were the simplest form of villa home, with a large, open room divided into three aisles by the posts that supported the roof. Sometimes partitions at one or both ends of the hall created smaller rooms.
The corridor villa had a floor plan familiar from modern motels with their rows of rooms. A porch, called a portico, extended along the length of the villa house, giving access to each room or suite of rooms. The roof of the portico rested on the house wall on one side, and was supported on the other by pillars or posts that often rested on a low wall.
The winged corridor villa added wings to the central corridor to create a U or H shape. Again, a portico ran the length of each range of rooms, and some houses had porticos on both sides of the house. The portico provided access to the rooms, as well as a vantage point from which to view the approaches to the villa, an approach that sometimes included gardens.
The courtyard villa had substantial wings on three or four sides of a central yard. Again, a portico often connected the rooms of the villa. One wing typically served as the primary residence. Another wing or sometimes a separate building often housed a bath house, that lynchpin of Roman (and Romano-British) social life.
Gardens of Roman Britain
A turning point in all this was the excavation of Fishbourne, a villa near Chichester, in Sussex. Fishbourne is so large and luxurious that it is called Fishbourne Roman Palace. Here archeologists revealed not one garden, but at least three: a formal courtyard garden, a kitchen garden, and a less formal terraced garden on the south-sloping land between the villa and the seashore.
Villa gardens in Roman Britain shared some of the characteristics of their Mediterranean forerunners:
As villas in Britain developed, they also adapted to a climate quite different from that of the Mediterranean. Here it was cloudier, colder, and wetter, and gardens reflect this through:
A number of early gardens have been identified in Britain. A few can be described in some detail; for others, we know little more than that garden soil is present. Below are examples of several kinds of Romano-British gardens: