Caerleon Net

Extract From:


- By E. Donovan -


Donovan visited Caerleon over four successive Summers (1800 – 1804) and devoted some 73 pages of text and four pages of engravings to the village. A not inconsiderable proportion of his observations bear great similarity to the writing of Coxe (Tour In Monmouthshire, 1801) - that text has not been included here.

The town of Caerleon, including the village of Ultra Pontem, which lies immediately contiguous to it, on the opposite side of the river Usk, is by no means so considerable in point of extent, or of population, as we were at the first glance inclined to conceive: the houses straggle over a wide space of ground, but the area within the walls is laid out chiefly into orchards, fields, and gardens. There is nothing also in the appearance of the place to denote respectability, except the houses of some few gentlemen, resident in the town. Caerleon, it is to be regretted, has neither trade, nor manufactures; both of which might be conducted here with spirit and convenience. Mr. Butler, who has a house in the town, is proprietor of a considerable tin-work, long since established in Lanverchra parish, at the distance of a mile and a half from the town, in the road to Ponty-pool. - The remark of a late tourist (Barber), that "Caerleon derives all its modern consequence from a participation in the manufacture of Ponty-pool" is entirely erroneous: the japanned wares, for the manufactory of which the town of Ponty-pool is celebrated, being confined, in those parts, ex­clusively to that place, and the town of Usk.

In the garden of Mr. Butler, I was shewn the base of a stone pillar, of a noble size, that had been recently taken up in this spot; other remains of pillars bad been discovered also near the same place before. The gardener assured me still further, that whilst digging very lately in another part of the ground, which he distinctly pointed out, his spade accidentally struck upon what he conceived to be a low flight of stone steps, and which, to all appearance, were yet lying in their original position. The number of these steps altogether, could not be ascertained; two or three, only, were uncovered, and no more were sought after, because at that season of the year, the removal of the earth, to pursue their course, would have proved injurious to the garden; and those even, which his curiosity had prompted him to disclose, were again covered with the mould, and the ground planted as before.

This garden is separated only by it lofty wall, from a piece of ground on the premises of Mr. Gethin, wherein a very curious old Roman monument was discovered about two years ago. Mr. Gethin's men were digging a saw pit, by their master's orders, in the spot, when they found at a small depth below the surface of the earth, one remarkable large fragment of an inscribed stone; and three others, also, were soon after perceived within a few feet of the same place. There is every reason for believing that these fragments altogether belonged to the same pillar: their aspect, the similarity of the free-stone, and tenor of the inscription, tending most completely to confirm that idea. Almost immediately after these fragments were dug up, much of the inscriptions were defaced by the facility of the mason employed to clear off such superfluities; fortunately for the satisfaction of the inquisitive stranger, a portion of them were transcribed by Mr. Evans, of Caerau, before the characters were entirely obliterated. [ Footnote ] These massive fragments of useful stone, were not destined to remain long unserviceable to the owner. After a short deliberation, upon the advice of several neighbours, who wished they might be preserved for the reputation of the place, they were ordered to be sawn into pieces of a convenient size for the repairs of his house, and premises: certain pieces of the stone we readily recognized in the corner of a wall, and the framework of a window; - the reader will best conceive with what an emotion of astonishment and regret we detected at the same time various other portions of this classical memorial of antiquity that were consigned to a far more ignoble purpose; literally that of re-edifying a dirty pig-sty!

It is worthy of observation, that the spot in which these discoveries were made, lies on the north side of the Church, close to the burial ground: a spot precisely in the center of the old town; and from the number of squared stones, pillars, and other striking vestiges of some unknown stately building, that have at various periods been perceived here, a conjecture has prevailed, that the celebrated temple of Diana, built by the Romans in this city, was situated on, or near, the place where the Church now stands. That such remains did not constitute any part of the old Cathedral, for several reasons, we think sufficiently evident. Many heathen memorials have been discovered within, or about the town; some of which are yet extant. The most remarkable of these are the two votive stones mentioned by Camden, one of which commemorates the restoration of the temple of Diana in this city, by Titus Flavius Postumius Varus, in the following words:

T. Fl. Postumius Varus
V. C. Leg. Temp. Dianae

Which Gibson reads Titus Flavius Postumius Varus Veteranus Cohortis Legionis Secundae Templum Diana restituit. Horsley, whose opinion is entitled also to consideration, defines it in a different manner, though nearly to the same effect. The other stone mentioned by this author, is an altar dedicated to Severus, and his two sons, Caracalla, and Geta. Both of these were removed from Caerleon by Bishop Godwin; and are to be seen now, in a very illegible state, in the walls of the court-yard of Mathern-Place, in Monmouthshire.

Ruins of Roman buildings, pillars, pavements, bricks, monumental stones, urns, sarcophagi, and coins must have once been numerous here beyond all conception; since, after an interval of fourteen hundred years, during which they have been certainly sought after, and applied to various purposes, the store appears inexhaustible. Some few of the more industrious among the labouring poor, find every winter a profitable employment, in digging at a venture for the stones, and even bricks and tiles; many, if not the far greater number of small houses about the place, have been also built, and are kept in repair with the materials purloined from these subterraneous resources. There is no kind of restriction upon the inhabitants, to prevent their digging for these materials in the Broad-way, which has hitherto furnished them with plenty. The space enclosed within the walls, if examined with the like unceasing perseverance, would be perhaps no less productive. Last winter, in clearing the Bear-house field, opposite to that in which Arthur's table is contained, in order to set potatoes, a vast number of large and small stones were found, more than a dozen of which were estimated at little less than half a ton, or a ton weight each; and some much more. The expense of raising these stones out of the ground is trifling, rarely exceeding six-pence, or nine-pence per ton, except for the largest; the discovery of these was of some consequence to Mr. Hughes, who has the lease of the field, the whole being of fine free-stone.

Such is the prevailing taste of travellers, to obtain possession of every portable relic of antiquity, collected about this place; and such the indifference of the people to preserve them, that they scarcely ever remain for any great length of time in the town after they are discovered. A small number have indeed been hoarded here with more than ordinary care, in the hands of various individuals, most of which we saw; for being under the escort of "John", as the people familiarly called our Ciceroni, we found an easy access to them, without the formality of any other introduction. – When Mr. Wyndham ascended the lofty keep of Caerleon Castle, he observed a large Basso-relievo of a Venus, with a dolphin sporting in her hand, which he admired, and pronounced to be an undoubted piece of Roman sculpture. Since that time, the tower has been razed to the foundation; and this stone became the property of Mr. Richards, an inhabitant of the town. From recent exposure in his garden, the figure has assumed, no doubt, a much ruder aspect than it at first exhibited, but remains of Roman sculpture being far from common, indifferent as it appeared, I purchased it [ illustration ], in addition to various other antiques [ illustration ] that had been collected about the town (fragments of inscribed, or figured Roman bricks, tiles, and specimens of pottery, together with a few pieces of Roman money, impression of an ancient Episcopal seal of Menevia, &c.). – At Mrs. Prichard's we saw a large and curious tile [ illustration ], that had been dug up some years ago in her own garden; a spot in which some other curious antiques have been at intervals discovered likewise. The shape of this tile is remarkable; it is flat, and rather wider at one extremity than the other, with a raised ledge along each side. The impression in relief, upon which the abbreviations LEG. II. AVG. appear, prove it indisputably to be the work of the second Augustan legion, which we know was partly stationed at Caerleon. Amongst the ruins, in various places about the fields in the outskirts of the town, fragments of this kind of tile occurred pretty frequently. They seem to have been all about the same size, namely twenty-three inches in length, fifteen in width at the broadest end, and fourteen at the narrowest; all the inscriptions upon this peculiar kind of tile, when perceptible, are uniformly alike, so far as we observed; fragments of other bricks attracted notice as we proceeded, in which the legends were rather different.

Against the wall of an out-house, in the garden of Mr. Williams the currier, is placed a stone about three feet in length, and two in breadth, inscribed with Roman characters; now scarcely legible through a coat of plaster, with which the surface has been whitewashed. Several of the letters are indeed visible through the lime; and with the obliging assistance of Mrs. Williams, to whom the words appeared to be familiar, we contrived to trace the following: "Julia essevunda vixit annos xxxv." Mrs. Williams then conducted us into an enclosed piece of ground, opposite to the house, now converted into a kitchen garden, in order to shew us the exact spot where this stone was found. It was observed some years ago upon the removal of the earth, to the depth of three or four feet below the surface, lying horizontally in the ground: beneath it they perceived both the remains of burnt bones, and wood charred by the action of fire; from whence it was inferred that this had been a place of interment in the time of the Romans. The stone in question was assuredly intended to record the memory of some one who had lived thirty-five years.

At the close of half an hour's saunter beyond the town, we reached the cold bath, erected of late years by Mr. Butler, where several inscribed stones are preserved, that have been found in the neighbourhood; and which are supposed to be sepulchral memorials likewise. These, I must confess, did not entirely answer the expectations I had formed of them from common report; unluckily they are all of a small size, and being placed with other materials in the main wall, are only visible within the building. Having procured the key, we therefore entered this damp and gloomy place, to inspect them; but not without the utmost caution, the temporary, loose, and crazy flooring over the spring, audibly foreboding, at the pressure of every footstep, that we might otherwise, very possibly, dip headlong into the water, contrary to our own wishes, and certainly without permission of the owner. After wandering for a few minutes in the dark, we were just enabled to perceive the objects of our visit, at the farthest end of the place. To decypher the characters with which they are charged, now became a matter of difficulty, the window shutters being nailed too securely to be thrown open, at the same time that the door-way could admit only a very scanty ray of light, to illuminate that particular part of the wall in which they are present stationary. We contrived, however, after being accustomed to this light for a little time, with some trouble, to trace the letters and ornamental lines with tolerable fidelity [ illustration ]; one is in the Roman, and another in what has been termed the early British character.

Returning from hence along the broad way, we passed through the town, and again arrived at the scite of the old castle. Traces of this ancient building, as before observed, are few and inconsiderable in our days: even upon the mount, which formerly sustained that gigantic tower, the pride and strength of Caerleon Castle, we found a farmer's man hoeing potatoes: no vestige of its masonry is now perceptible, and the steep ascent is divided for the humble purpose above-mentioned, into narrow strips, that wreath in a spiral manner, from the base to the summit of the hill. – Fortunately, to relieve the reader, already, no doubt, fatigued with the dry prolixity of detail, inseparable from the pursuits of the antiquary, our ramble about the town in search of its antiquities, terminated here; after being amply gratified with a much wider range of remark, and speculation, than we could possibly have entertained the least conception of, in the outset of our morning's walk. – Once more, therefore, we are to return, and take a transitory view of modern Caerleon.

This town is situated upon rising ground, in a remarkable deep bottom, that is prettily embosomed by lofty, verdant hills; which opportunely rise at a less or greater distance, to skirt its environs. Here the Usk assumes the importance of a noble river, that would be highly advantageous to Caerleon, should it ever rise to the consequence of a manufacturing town. It is at present of small consideration in this respect; but it certainly contributes, in a striking manner, to beautify the fertile tract of country, through which it undulates, in the immediate vicinage of the place.

Footnote: Mr. Evans is persuaded, that the whole formed originally a kind of pillar: two of the parts he is convinced belonged to one stone, and measured together nine feet in length, nineteen inches in breadth, and fifteen inches in thickness. The mutilated abbreviations on one side, he interprets as a votive inscription by the second Augustan legion, and the other probably indicated the time at which it was erected. The third stone, from its superior size, might serve as the base, and the only inference to be drawn from it seems to be, that it was dedicated to the consulate of Maximus and Urinatus Urbanus. [ Back to text ]