A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

The Roman Bath House near Prestatyn, North Wales

Roman baths at PrestatynSituated in what is now Melyd Avenue, on the edge of the small North Wales resort town of Prestatyn, about 20 miles west of Chester, these well-preserved remains of a Roman civilian bath house were discovered on March 30th 1934 by Mr F. Gilbert Smith, a local architect, surveyor and enthusiastic amateur archaeologist.

Prestatyn lies five miles north of the main east-west highway from the legionary fortress at Deva (Chester) into North Wales.

It is very likely that a Roman branch-road linked the industrial settlement at Prestatyn- a government controlled centre of lead production- with the main highway near St. Asaph, and continued south through the territories of the Deceangi in the valley of the River Clwyd, to the fort at Ruthin and the Berwyn Mountains, the realm of the Ordovices.

There is also some evidence that another road followed the coast south east to Deva via the silver/lead mines at Pentre (Flint) though this route may have been supplied by sea.

The bath-house was built in about AD 120 and extended in about AD 150. It had a cold plunge-bath at the far end which was fed by a local spring by means of a timber aqueduct. The floors and roof were made with tiles transported all the way from the workshops of the 20th Legion at Holt near Wrexham, over 40 miles to the south-east, and may have been built by legionary masons. Some of these tiles, stamped with the legend LEG XX VV and their symbol of a wild boar, may be seen in situ to this day (but see update at bottom of page...)

In reply to a letter from Professor Robert Newstead of Chester enquiring as to the nature of his discovery, Gilbert Smith wrote,
"The Prestatyn site seems to have been a small military station occupied by a unit of the Twentieth Legion (LEG. XX VV); and if so, then the barrack blocks and headquarters buildings must have been erected within the lines of the defensive ditch on elevated ground... The presence of the bath house outside the ditch on the south is quite consistent with the general layout of Roman forts and small military stations. But why there should be traces of other buildings outside the defensive ditch is puzzling. I can offer no explanation, nor have I been able to find a parallel".

Roman baths at PrestatynThe site was excavated over successive seasons by Smith and Newstead until work ceased with the coming of the Second World War.

There things lay until 1984-5 when re-excavation of the bath house and surrounding area was undertaken by the Clwyd-Powis Archaeological Trust. Their work revealed part of a civilian settlement established shortly after AD 70. Samian Ware pottery discovered here indicates an occupation during the second century and there is evidence that the site continued to be occupied until the late 3rd or early 4th century AD.

Apart from the stone bath-house all the other excavated buildings were of timber. Preservation of organic remains was good because of waterlogging, and in some cases parts the timbers of the Roman buildings had been preserved.

Tantalising evidence also exists for the presence of other, more imposing stone buildings yet to be discovered within the settlement, in the form of fragments of stone columns and column bases which have been found in the immediate vicinity.

Here is the page on CPAT's excellent website that describes and illustrates the excavation.

Once their work was finished, the bath house and its immediate surroundings were consolidated and landscaped by Rhuddlan Borough Council and opened to the public, much as we are privileged to see it to this day.
Once today's visitor has managed to find the site- there currently being little in the way of signposting- they cannot fail to be charmed by the compact remains set within a small landscaped park, and grateful to those responsible for its preservation.

Twenty-odd miles away and twenty years earlier, things had been somewhat differently handled in Chester- the great legionary fortress of Deva. Readers of our Chester: a Virtual Stroll Around the Walls may recall our story of the discovery of a vast gymnasium and bath house complex "with walls up to two hundred feet long, standing to twelve feet in height", not a scrap of which was preserved in situ, or even effectively recorded, as a result of the construction of the Grosvenor Shopping Precinct by Grosvenor Estates during the 1960s.

Ah, but they do things differently now, surely? Today, there are umpteen bureaucracies in place to ensure these fragile relics of our ancient past are adequately preserved and protected. That may be the case, but we're sorry to report that, in the Summer of 2001, despite strong evidence for the presence of extensive Roman, and even Iron Age, archaeology throughout the large area surrounding the Prestatyn bath house, there is a distinct danger of most of it disappearing under a sea of new houses, for K & C Developments of Kinmel Bay, Rhyl, have applied- or rather, re-applied, for planning permission to erect on land immediately adjoining the excavated remains.

Thay had originally applied for, and, remarkably, obtained, planning permission for 35 houses within the bounds of the Scheduled Ancient Monument back in 1979 and got as far as building an access road, street lighting etc before work came to a halt. There things stayed until June 1984 when they sought to change their plans in order to erect eleven larger houses instead- and once again in July 1990 when they declared their wish to build 25 "four bedroom, double-garage" properties.

Roman baths at PrestatynBoth of these latter changes were objected to by the local council and CADW (the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage) on the grounds of endangering the Roman Monument and Iron Age deposits and for reasons of traffic increase in the adjoining secluded residential area (Cadw, incidentally, in the Welsh tongue means 'to keep').
Currently, we're told, meetings are being held and the implications of the current application are being "looked at" by all relevant authorities.

Nontheless, the fact remains that K & C do still have their original permission- which unfortunately pre-dates legislation that would have better protected the site- and could erect their 35 houses any time they like. Nearby residents are somewhat nonplussed by the fact that, while they are forbidden to use metal detectors or dig below a certain depth in their gardens, on the other side of the fence, a commercial developer is apparently legally allowed to effectively bulldoze away all evidence of the past by the laying of foundations and drainage for his new housing estate...

Strange but true. Mind you, remembering the oh-so-recent scandal of the erection of a County court house and associated car park by Deeside-based David McLean Developments on top of a substantial portion of the great military amphitheatre in Chester- perhaps not so strange after all.

The residents, the local MP and some councillors are up in arms and who can blame them. In the face of overwhelming competition from the Mediterranean, fading seaside resorts such as Prestatyn need all the help they can get to attract visitors. The potential for this site, encompassing not only the as-yet undiscovered wonders lying beneath the ground (Roman historian D W Harris even conjectured that this may be the site of the 'lost' Roman settlement of Varae)- but also the beauty of the place with its wetlands and rich variety of wildlife (including at least 19 resident badgers, we're told)- could, properly managed, prove to be a priceless asset to the town and a magnet for visitors from all over the world.
Or, if the developer gets his way, and the local councils and CADW fail to get their fingers out in time, we may end up with just a few humdrum houses instead...

Photographed in 1998 by Steve Howe- with the assistance of daughters Eve and Cleo.
Go on to part 2- more photographs from 2001 and some from 2008- here

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