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HER 3858

Roman bath complex, Stretfordbury, near Leominster

The site lies in a field directly west of a Roman road, which is known as Stonechesters. This in itself is interesting as it is well known that many places of Roman origin have "chester" in their name (e.g Chester, Silchester, Kenchester). "Chester" derives from the Latin word castra, meaning a camp. The area in which the complex is situated is on a level spur on a rectangular tract of land, of c. 4 acres in extent. The bath-house is 126m due west of the modern road .

This area has at times turned up Roman coins and pottery sherds, and in 1981 Mr. Frank Attwell was granted permission for minor excavation on the site. Several trenches were dug, and these revealed wall foundations considered to be Roman. Unfortunately much of the area had been subjected to stone robbing. However, it was found that the area concealed a large and complicated structure.

The complex consisted of three rectangular buildings, all adjoining and running parallel to each other on a north-south axis.

Building A consisted of two rooms and a corridor entrance connected to Building B. Both rooms and the passageway contained hypocausts served by a furnace positioned at the south-easterly end of the building. The pilae (pillars of the hypocaust) that had supported the floors of the rooms were constructed of square red tiles. Due to the severity of the stone robbing in this area it was not possible to give an accurate height from the base to floor level.

Building B: Fortunately most of the foundations that had supported this building remained intact. Within the foundations were the remains of a large, channelled hypocaust system fed by a fire-box at the northern end.

Building C: This building was entirely timber framed, except for the dividing wall separating the two buildings. The floor area in this building was stone slabbed but not heated.

Building A and its use

The building was of stone and concrete with very little timber, due to the fire risk from the under-floor furnace. The materials used in a building such as this, where the temperature was subject to fluctuations, also needed to be stable and not subject to expansion and contraction due to hot and cold as timber would have been.

The building was divided into three separate chambers with interconnecting hypocausts, each heated from the same furnace in Building A. This furnace supplied hot water to the bath, as well as heat below the floor level which was then circulated within the floors in Buildings A and B, and finally drawn up through wall flues to heat the rooms.

The furnace was built out from the main wall, with parallel walls of alternate brick and stone courses. The hearth was of red clay tiles supported by stone slabs. The entire construction would have probably been arched over and a hot water tank, of copper or bronze, suspended above it and fed by a cistern placed close by.

The wall remains consisted of mortar-bonded stone, roughly squared and dressed on the face side only. The core of the wall was mortar and rubble infill. The stone, of local origin, is rather porous grey limestone, the mortar being of a lime base and yellowish-brown in colour.

In Roman baths it was common to find four rooms. First was the apodyterium or changing room, which led to the frigidarium (cold room). Beyond this was the tepidarium (warm room), with the last room being the caldarium (hot room). This last room would have been placed directly over the furnace to gain maximum heat, suggesting that at the Stonechesters site Building A was thecaldarium, Building B the tepidarium, the room attached to Building B the frigidarium and the timber room on the end the basilica (public hall).

Although no dateable evidence was found on the site, remains were discovered that identified its function as a bath complex. These remains included parts of a concrete bath discarded when the building was demolished. The section recovered was found to be a large section of the base which still had concrete attached to it, suggesting that it had been placed directly on to the floor. The bath was also found close to the furnace, giving further weight to the argument that Building A was the hot room.

Building B and ancillary rooms

Although no detailed excavation was carried out on this building, the determination of its dimensions and probable usage were considered to be of some importance. The wall-lines, therefore, were exposed, which revealed that the building had once contained a large channelled hypocaust system. At the northern end a small room, which could have housed a cold bath, projects out beyond the main wall-line of the structure.

Building C, the bath basilica

The foundations of this building were traced and the construction method was revealed to consist of a simple trench packed with six neat rows of flat stone laid on edge at an angle of approximately 5°. These were then covered with mortar to produce a flat base.

A timber building, divided into several small rooms (possibly latrines), seems once to have stood at the far end.

The limited investigation at this time failed to uncover any further buildings that the bath-house may have served, but this is not to say that they do not exist.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2004]