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Around Roman Rockbourne

Roman discoveries link Rockbourne and Whitsbury, by the Wiltshire border.

Distance 4.5 miles (7.2km)

Minimum time 1hr 45min

Ascent/gradient 295ft (90m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Field paths, woodland bridleways and tracks, 9 stiles

Landscape Rolling fields, areas of woodland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 22 New Forest or OS Explorer 130 Salisbury & Stonehenge

Start/finish SU 113184

Dog friendliness Off lead in woodland, under control on farmland

Parking Rockbourne village hall car park

Public toilets None on route

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1 Turn left out of the car park and take the lane right towards Manor Farm. Turn right, signed to the church, and cross the gravel drive to a stepped path to St Andrew's Church. Continue along the right-hand edge of the churchyard to a junction of paths. Keep straight on behind houses, ignoring two paths right, then cross a stile and turn immediately right through a gate.

2 Follow the field edge down to a junction of paths. Keep on the left to a gate and maintain direction across two stiles and along the field edge to a stile in the corner. Climb the stile immediately right and bear left along the edge of a meadow to a stile. Pass in front of a thatched cottage to a stile and track, opposite Marsh Farm.

3 Bear left, then right through a gate and keep to the left through pasture to a gate. Bear half-right to a gate in the corner and proceed along the field edge, eventually reaching a stile and lane. To visit the Roman Villa, turn right to a T-junction, and turn right, then left into the entrance. Retrace your steps.

4 Take the track opposite. Enter a copse, then at a junction of tracks, take the arrowed path left up a steep bank into a field. Keep to the left-hand edge and head across a field to a track. Turn right, then left downhill through the edge of woodland. Pass a house to a lane.

5 Turn right, then left along a bridleway, and gently climb through Radnall Wood. At a fork of paths, bear left (follow the blue arrow) and pass behind Whitsbury House to a lane. Turn left, then right along a track between properties to a lane. Turn right, then bear off right (by a fingerpost) along the bridleway through Whitsbury Wood.

6 At a junction with a track, bear left and walk beside paddocks to a bungalow. Turn left along a track between paddocks towards Whitsbury church. Turn left at the T-junction and shortly enter the churchyard. Go through the gate opposite the church door and descend to the lane.

7 Turn left for the Cartwheel Inn, otherwise turn right, then left along a farm drive and keep ahead, bearing left, then right between paddocks, uphill to a gate. Turn left along the field edge, then head across the field to a track.

8 Turn right and follow the track left to a junction of tracks. Cross the stile opposite and walk back to Rockbourne church. Retrace steps back to the village hall.

Pevsner claims the village street in Rockbourne is one of the prettiest in Hampshire. This is certainly true, for the long, gently winding street in this peaceful and sheltered village, tucked in rolling downland on the borders with Wiltshire and Dorset, is lined with Tudor and Georgian houses and splendid thatched and timber-framed cottages.

By far the oldest known homestead is the Roman Villa, discovered south of the village by a farmer out ferreting in 1942. He unearthed oyster shells and tiles and the significance of the find was recognised by local antiquarian AT Morley Hewitt, whose first excavation hole revealed a mosaic floor. It was not until 1956, after Morley Hewitt had bought the land, that full-scale excavation began. Only then was it realised that the Rockbourne site was to be one of the most interesting Roman villa complexes to be discovered in the country.

The Romans invaded Britain in ad 43 and quickly established roads, forts and towns. In the countryside, notably in southern England where the soils were fertile, they established farm estates with a villa at the centre. Villa architecture changed over the 400 years of Roman occupation. Simple circular houses were modified with the addition of wings, corridors, verandahs and courtyards, and housed heated bath suites and various farming activities.

Excavations at Rockbourne identified over 70 rooms, including the pre-Roman circular hut and elaborate bath houses with underfloor heating. A treasure trove of Roman remains were also uncovered, in particular mosaics with geometric patterning, hoards of coins, elaborate ironwork, intricate jewellery, and shards of pottery with graffiti ranging from a simple symbol to a string of letters. Morley Hewitt's detailed study of the site has revealed much about the everyday life of the Roman Britons at Rockbourne. Sadly, the excavations have been filled in for their own protection, but you can see the outlines of the rooms and buildings marked out in the grass, the hypocaust heating systems and some mosaics.

The walk takes in the neighbouring village of Whitsbury, where foundations of a Roman building, containing a hypocaust and New Forest pottery of the 2nd and 3rd century ad, were found in a field between the church and Glebe House.

There is evidence of even earlier habitation in Whitsbury. At the northern end of the village, by Whitsbury Stud, is a fine example of a fortified Iron Age camp. Whitsbury Castle covers 16 acres (6.5ha) and is surrounded by a triple circle of great banks with two deep ditches. Re-occupied after the Romans departed, it was from here that native Britons probably engaged the advancing Saxons in battle, holding them at the River Avon for over 50 years. The Castle Ditches formed part of a group of fortifications, with Clearbury Ring and Old Sarum, guarding these lonely uplands.

Where to eat and drink

Both Rockbourne and Whitsbury have good pubs. The Rose & Thistle in Rockbourne is a thatched 17th-century building, with an unspoilt and tastefully furnished interior. Expect a relaxing atmosphere and imaginative pub food. In Whitsbury, the Cartwheel is noted for its range of real ales, home-cooked food and peaceful garden.

What to look for

Interesting memorials to the Coote family, who lived at West Park to the south of the village, a large house that was demolished in 1945, can be seen in St Andrew's Church, Rockbourne. Lieutenant-General Sir Eyre Coote was the most famous, distinguishing himself as one of Clive of India's officers at the Battle of Plassey, in Bengal, in 1757. With only 3,000 men Coote advised Clive to attack an army of 55,000. The British won and successfully took control of Bengal. He is buried in the church and a 100ft (30m) monument was erected in West Park by the East India Company in 1828 to commemorate him. You will clearly see the monument on the early part of this walk.

While you're there

Visit the museum at the Roman Villa, which displays many of the fascinating artefacts found on the site. It also explains the development of the site, how the evidence was collected and analysed, and describes what life would have been like on this large Roman farm over 1,600 years ago through a series of themed displays.

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