Turn off the busy A29 just south of Pulborough, and life starts to slow down. The villages of West Burton and Bignor feel like they have barely changed in the last 100 years, and as you travel from one to another, you cross the route of the old Roman road of Stane Street and pass the gates of Bignor Roman Villa, one of two significant Roman sites in West Sussex.
Bignor Roman Villa: a story within a story
George Tupper was a farmer. In 1811, he was ploughing a field in a sleepy and rural corner of Sussex when his plough struck something. Stopping to examine it, he found a coloured stone and made one of the most significant Roman finds within Britain. The Tupper family still manages Bignor Roman Villa by way of a trust, although after the initial discovery, local man John Hawkins, and antiquary Samuel Lysons took over the management of the excavations. The villa first opened to the public in 1814.
The villa’s story
There was probably a Roman timber-framed farmstead on this site in the 1st century, with the first stone house being erected in the 3rd century. At this stage, it was a very simple property, with just four rooms. But by the late 3rd and early 4th century, it had been added to with the addition of a North and South wing, with new rooms and a heating system. When eventually complete, Bignor Roman Villa had 65 rooms, baths, a central courtyard, and a number of farm buildings. In short, it was a very grand property indeed.
With two entrances, Bignor Villa would have been impressive to approach, with its surrounding wall, gates, long drive, elaborate porches and formal courtyard gardens. The site covered 2 hectares. We don’t know who lived here and whether they were Roman or British Roman but the size of the villa, the extravagance of the mosicacs, and the luxury of the heating, bathhouse, and some of the many artifacts found here suggest they were wealthy and therefore undoubtedly important too. Similarly, we don’t know why they left (although a good guess would say this was probably at about the time the Romans withdrew) or why such an opulent villa was allowed to slowly slide into decline and decay.
Stepping back in time
When you arrive, it feels suitably fitting that the drive is flanked by vines. After all, the Romans made wine in Britain. But perhaps what strikes you most is the total silence. You have the South Downs hovering benevolently behind you, and it’s not hard to close your eyes and imagine Roman life here. Traffic from Stane Street stopping here for a rest. Women bathing. Servants busying about. Grand Roman gentleman greeting guests. And local peasants gazing in awe at how incredible it all looked.
Once inside, the mosaics here are utterly compelling. They are so intact, so vibrant and tell so many stories. There’s the Ganymede room which would have had a central water feature surrounded by brightly coloured mosaics of dancing girls and of an eagle carrying off Ganymede (who in Greek mythology was a Trojan prince). Then there’s the North Corridor, thought to be the longest on display in Britain.
There are rooms where you can see the underfloor heating system which was apparently so effective, you couldn’t walk on it barefoot. What is thought to be the winter dining room has elaborate mosaics of a man (possibly Venus), cupids and gladiators and you can imagine opulent dinners taking place here. Then there are rooms where some of the walls remain intact and there are mosaics depicting the four seasons and geometric patterns. It’s a lot to take in and quite astonishing that this was buried underground for hundreds of years and yet remains so startingly.
Outside the main building are the baths. They included heated changing rooms and a cold plunge bath, a warm room, a hot room, and a hot bath. How fabulous!
As you enter the villa, there’s a small museum to your right (and a coffee shop) and it’s here the reality of Bignor Villa really hits home. It’s filled with artifacts and day-to-day items from Roman life. There are pots and bowls, belts and badges, nails, tweezers, figurines and even an animal footprint forever cast into stone. There are a couple of infant skeletons and details of a beautiful ring that was probably worn by the villa’s owner (although I couldn’t see it in the museum).
Bignor Roman Villa is a special place. And you probably need more than one visit to absorb all the stories and history it has to offer. It does close during the winter (at the end of October) but if you want to learn more about our amazing Sussex history, it’s definitely one for your list.
If you are in the area or would like to visit other Roman sites of interest, you may also like: