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Littlecote House Through the Ages

by Lisa Agnew

At the north-eastern edge of Wiltshire, bordering the county of Berkshire beside the River Kennet, sits historic Littlecote House, a Grade I listed building and now a hotel, although by no means your average run-of-the-mill generic accommodation.

In its day, it has played host to such regal personages as Henry VIII and his third par amour, Jane Seymour, his progeny Elizabeth I, and later, Charles II. Yet before the great house had even been built, these grounds were utilised by a particularly imaginative Roman architect who oversaw the building (or perhaps the refurbishment) of a unique Roman villa.

Initially, construction on the site began as a small military establishment set up to guard a ford across the River Kennet. From there, it evolved into farming huts and, from around 120 AD, was converted into a villa-type building. For a time, activities still revolved around farming and its associated traditions, work which incorporated baking ovens, malting tanks and grinding stones. After another fifty years or so, this building was replaced by a large two-storey winged corridor villa with an integral bath suite.

Roman Mosaic Littlecote HouseThe site continued to go through a number of changes over the next few centuries, notably a major rebuilding around 270 AD. After another hundred years, agricultural activity ended and the complex acquired a distinctly religious bent. A large barn was converted into a courtyard and a very early triconch (a square space with three semicircular extensions, usually found as throne rooms in Roman or, more usually, Byzantine palaces) hall was built alongside with its own bath suite.

Rediscovered in 1730 when the now-famous Orpheus Mosaic and a coin hoard, supposedly containing coins of emperor Vespasian (AD 69-79), was found, the area was only excavated from 1978 onward. Now it is the only fully exposed villa compound in Britain and has metamorphasised into a site of some controversy amongst archaeologists. The controversy centres around the interpretation of its now restored mosaic of the divine musician Orpheus, considered by many archaeologists to be covering the floor of a ritual chamber associated with the cult of Bacchus, the pre-eminent pagan god of the Romans in post Biblical times. The building, still labelled a villa despite this argument, does indeed resemble the form of later, Christianised, Byzantine churches. Other aspects of the architecture are also suggestive of an architect working on refurbishment of the building in the 4th century AD, when it may have been converted to accommodate visiting pilgrims. Many of the buildings seem to have been demolished or fallen into decay by around 400 AD -- corresponding with the beginning of the British Dark Ages and a prolonged period of inter-tribal fighting.

There is an especially massive gatehouse to the site -- the largest yet found on any villa in Britain. A display of material and artefacts from the excavations can be found within Littlecote House, which is in possession of its own enigmatic history. The estate includes 34 hectares of historic parklands and gardens, including a magnificent walled garden dating from the 17th century. However, the most harrowing incident to happen within the house and its grounds may be no more than legend.

Roman Mosaic Littlecote HouseIn 1575, the owner of Littlecote House was one William Darrell, known as 'Wild Darrell'. It is said that a local midwife was blindfolded and taken to the house by cover of night to deliver a babe. Upon its birth, the poor thing was dashed into the fireplace by the resident gent, and the midwife was handsomely paid to keep her mouth shut. It seems that she did not abide by the conditions of the bribe, and Wild Darrell was brought to trial for the murder of the babe, whose mother turned out to be Darrell's own sister. However, he managed to bribe the judge and got off scot free, only to die shortly thereafter in a hunting accident, when the ghost of the murdered baby appeared before him, startling his horse and preventing him from jumping a stile. The place where the stile stood is still known as 'Darrell's Stile'.

All the above is not fully backed up by history, but lends Littlecote House a suitably spooky aura, as the place is said to be haunted by various apparitions from that era, including the voice of a crying baby, the appearance of mysterious bloodstains in the chamber where the crime took place and the twisted body of murderer, Wild Darrell, still prowling the corridors.

The hotel cashes in on all this history and plays host to a medieval banquet in its Great Hall, with tabards, hearty mediaeval food and good cheer every Wednesday and Sunday. £25 per person. Call +44 (0) 1488 682 509 for details.

To reach Littlecote House in the midst of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, exit the M4 motorway at Junction 14 and take the A338 to the village of Hungerford. After approximately 3 miles turn right onto the A4 (Hungerford to Marlborough road) and, at the next roundabout, take the first exit to follow the A4. Shortly afterwards turn right onto the B4192 signposted to Littlecote House. After approximately one mile the road bends sharply to the right. Take the small road straight ahead and the entrance to Littlecote House is approximately .5 mile on the right hand side. The grounds, and the remains of the Roman villa, are open to the public.

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Littlecote House

Lisa Agnew is a freelance writer of articles and speculative fiction. She is based in Auckland, New Zealand. English by birth, she harbours a life-long fascination with the history and folklore of her native land. Her web site may be found at http://www.writingrealm.com.
Article and photos © 2007 Lisa Agnew


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