ON ONE OF OUR JOURNEYS ALAN AND I TRAVELLED AGAIN TO THE MIDLANDS OF ENGLAND, this time to visit the Romano-British city of Wroxeter. The ruins of this city, once linked to London by the old Watling Street, are in Shropshire on the borders between Wales and England. Long abandoned, the city was only rediscovered when a mosaic was found there in the eighteenth century. Since then it has been the subject of several excavations revealing impressive ruins. It is now generally recognized that during Roman times it was the fourth largest city in Britain, larger than Bath, Caerleon or Gloucester. Even this estimate may have to be revised upwards, for recent work involving aerial photography and ground-penetrating radar has revealed that at one time Wroxeter spread far out into the surrounding fields, so whilst it was probably always smaller than London, it may at one time have been larger than York and Colchester too. That such a large city should have disappeared without trace is one of the great mysteries of history. Even more so is the fact that it doesn’t seem to be mentioned anywhere in Roman records.
Arriving at Wroxeter, we got out of the car and made our way onto the site. Most of the city, particularly its residential quarters, is still unexcavated, but even so there was enough on view to get an impression of what it must have been like. The most striking feature was a large section of red-brick wall, part of the complex associated with an exercise hall and public baths. These had evidently been elaborate affairs with under-floor heating, steam baths, saunas and plunge pools. The gym itself had been an enormous hall – as big as a cathedral – with colonnades and porticoes supporting its roof. One could easily imagine soldiers practising their martial arts within its cavernous interior, though it could as well have been used by citizens for the ancient equivalent of aerobics. Either way, it was curious that this temple of the body was the best preserved part of the city and it gave a perhaps unbalanced idea that whoever had built the city was fitness mad.