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Exploring Roman Calleva

Revealing the history of this Roman town and its impressive surviving walls.

Distance 4 miles (6.4km)

Minimum time 1hr 30min

Ascent/gradient 171ft (52m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Field paths and woodland tracks, 12 stiles

Landscape Open farmland, mixed woodland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 159 Reading, Wokingham & Pangbourne

Start/finish SU 643623

Dog friendliness Let them run free in Benyon's Inclosure

Parking Church of St Mary the Virgin, Silchester

Public toilets None on route

1 From the church, turn right along the road and bear off right to follow the Town Trail beside or along the top of the perimeter wall where possible. At a main gate in the wall, go outside and follow the path through woods to the left of the wall.

2 Halfway round, go through a gate and turn left along the track to a gate. Follow the bridleway, cross a stile and continue to the lane. Turn right, then right again at the junction and almost immediately turn left along Tadley Road. Turn right along a gravel track, passing beside a gate into woodland. Turn right at a crossing, following the path downhill to a fork. Keep left and cross the causeway beside the lake. Where the path curves left, keep right uphill to meet a track leading to a gate. Take the track just before the gate and descend into thicker woods to cross a stream and enter Benyon's Inclosure.

3 Keep right to cross a boardwalk and head uphill to a stile and a road. Turn right, pass the Red Lion, then take the second track on the left. Cross a bridge and follow the bridleway uphill, looking out for the yellow markers on a post on the left. Take Path 23 left through the edge of a copse to a stile and proceed ahead, keeping left along the field edge to a stile. Cross a farm track and the stile opposite, then keep to the left-hand hedge to a stile in the field corner and cross another track and stile.

4 Continue ahead along the edge of the field, following it to the left until you reach a gate on your right. Bear diagonally left across the field to a stile. Proceed straight ahead to cross a stile beside an oak tree. Pass under power cables, then turn right to a stile. Bear half-right across the field then downhill to a plank bridge and a stile. Gently ascend the field to a squeeze-stile and turn right up the track. Join a metalled drive leading to a lane. On your right is a gate leading to the amphitheatre. Walk ahead along the lane, turning right to the church.

Tucked away between Basingstoke and Reading is a pocket of peaceful, gently undulating countryside straddling the Hampshire/Berkshire border. Here you will find stretches of ancient woodland, open farmland and a web of narrow, leafy lanes leading to isolated farms, secluded villages, stately houses, and the historic jewel of the area, the fascinating site of the Roman town of 'Calleva Atrebatum'.

The walk begins by the impressive defensive walls and you should allow time to pause at the information boards dotted around the Town Trail. These offer more detail on the town's development and explain how the encircling walls were built.

Calleva was already the prosperous tribal capital of Atrebates and an administrative centre for a large area before the Romans developed the site following the invasion in ad 43. It became a key military and commercial centre and important roads radiated from it. Earth ramparts were built to protect the buildings between ad 160 and 200 and the facing walls which you see today were added between ad 250 and 275. The wall, 1¼ miles (2km) round, enclosed broad streets laid out at right angles, great buildings and luxurious villas.

The site was thoroughly excavated during Victorian times, exposing a partial plan, including a road network, foundations of buildings, and what has been interpreted as the earliest known Christian church in Britain. More recent excavations have revealed that Calleva was probably occupied until the 6th or 7th centuries ad and did not decline in the 5th century as earlier evidence seemed to suggest. Today, you can see little of the town above ground as the buildings were re-buried to protect them from the destructive forces of the weather, vegetation, vandals and souvenir hunters.

Just off your route is the excavated Roman amphitheatre. Built in the 1st century ad, it could accommodate over 4,000 spectators on wooden seats above the surrounding walls. Here the citizens of Calleva came to watch sports, gladiatorial contests and public executions.

Having strolled around the Roman walls, the walk takes you into Benyon's Inclosure, peaceful mixed woodlands that were once part of Pamber Forest, an ancient forest where King John is reputed to have hunted deer. Here, you may see some unusual insects, butterflies and flowers, including orchids and primroses in the coppiced areas during spring and early summer.

Where to eat and drink

Half-way round you will find the Red Lion, an attractive pub dating from 1575, with a flower-filled front terrace, a beamed bar with log fires in winter, real ales and an extensive bar menu.

What to look for

A visit to the Church of St Mary the Virgin, which dates from 1180 and features Roman bricks incorporated into the walls and buttresses, will reveal simple, 13th-century wall paintings and a fine and unusual organ from about 1770.

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