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When the M5 motorway was built through Gloucestershire, skirting the River Severn on one side and the Cotswold Edge on the other, a large number of hitherto unsuspected Romano-British sites were discovered. On the basis of this (very linear!) sample, archeologists have conjectured that there are 4,500 Romano-British sites in the Severn Vale, of which 4,400 remain to be discovered!
It is believed that the Cotswold area was heavily farmed at that time. Some of the finest remains are of large country villas, with finely crafted mosaic floors and pavements, and it is possible to view several sites such as Chedworth and Great Witcombe. See our list of the more popular Roman Sites in the Cotswolds.
Cirencester (Corinium) was the largest Romano-British town outside of London and the remains of part of the city wall and the amphitheatre can still be seen. There are also fine displays of Romano-British life in the Corinium Museum. Gloucester (Glevum) was an early fortress town on the Welsh border, and second to Corinium in size.
A very visible remnant of the Roman occupation is the pattern of roads which converges on Cirencester: the Fosse Way, which forms the backbone of the Cotswolds and runs in a straight line for almost 400 kms; Ermin Street, which runs to Gloucester, and Akeman Street, which no longer goes anywhere in particular. Sections of these old roads are by-passed by modern roads and provide the basis for an extended ramble through the countryside.
The Romans were in Britain for nearly four hundred years, and while that may seem like a long time, Anglo-Saxon culture lasted for even longer, almost 500 years from the time when they entered British history until the downfall of the Saxon kingdom of Britain at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
When the Romans abandoned Britain, their towns and villas became ruins inhabited by ghosts and wild animals.It was the invading Saxons who laid the foundations for most of the communities which still exist in the Cotswolds, and in many cases the Saxon charters describing these ancient grants of land still exist. The Saxons founded the majority of the great monasteries which dominated the area until their dissolution several hundred years later. Most of the Cotswold churches are on Saxon sites, many have Saxon foundations, and a few are still substantially Saxon churches. There are inns, such as the Royalist in Stow which date back to Saxon times.
The most important Cotswold town in Saxon times was Winchcombe. Another site of great historical importance was Malmesbury, famous in Saxon times for its abbey, part of which still stands.
Medieval stuff is common enough to be genuinely surprising. A house you have walked past a dozen times turns out to have been built in the thirteenth century. The brass lectern in the local church was made before Christopher Columbus set sail for the Indies. A farmer's barn was built for a Norman abbot. The mausoleum in the local church is 700 years old and depicts a knight in full armour who might have shaken hands with Richard the Lionheart. It is surprising because you don't expect it outside of a museum. And it keeps happening.
Churches are the best place to start, because most of them are 1000 year-old community museums. All sorts of things end up in churches, like the Viking gravestone cemented into the wall of the (heavily Saxon) church at Bibury. You might find a very early example of a clock built by a village blacksmith, as you can in Castle Combe. The finest churches were adorned like grand ladies in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, using money earned from the wool trade, and the best examples of these magnificent "wool churches" are at Chipping Campden, Northleach, and Cirencester.