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5. The conservation plan, 2019-2024

How the villa was presented in 1991:

The excavation and restoration of the Roman villa complex, of which the Orphic building and the mosaic are part, took a total of thirteen years to complete, 1978-1991. 

Littlecote Roman VillaAn aerial view of the villa as restored, 1991
(Note the gravel within the villa rooms and the old early Roman roadway)

At the end of the project, the villa was presented showing the key rooms at the height of its life c AD365:

• The majority of the villa walls were consolidated to a height ranging from ground level to about 70cm above ground level,

• The Orpheus mosaic was completely lifted, replaced on a level base with missing areas added with new tesserae. (The mosaic was initially left uncovered and exposed for many years – see below).

• The internal room areas were covered with a loose gravel, and

• Several detailed information boards with illustrations of the villa, created and installed by Bryn Walters and illustrator Luigi Thompson, were placed around the site.

For more information and pictures of how the site was in 1991, see Littlecote Roman Villa - 4. The Rediscovery and restoration of the villa, 1976-1991.

Making plans to restore the villa:

The Hungerford Historical Association was founded by Hugh and Lois Pihlens in 1979. At that time, the big local historical event was the discovery of the Littlecote Roman villa and its restoration. Hugh contacted Bryn Walters who agreed to be the HHA’s very first speaker – in September 1979.

In 2018 the HHA committee was making plans for their 40th Anniversary meeting (September 2019), and Hugh made contact with Bryn Walters again to ask if he would honour the Association by giving the 40th Anniversary talk. He kindly agreed but floated the idea of a volunteer group from the HHA carrying out some simple restoration work on the villa site, which was by this time in very poor condition.

Roman Villa complex with cover building 2An aerial view of the villa after the cover building was erected in 2000
(Note the gravel within the villa rooms is no longer visible, and some walls becoming obscured by grass)

The condition of the villa in 2018:

A timber cover building had been erected over the Orpheus mosaic in 2000 (see below), but apart from this, no significant conservation had been carried out on the villa site since 1991. By the end of 2018 it was clear that nature was taking over the site, with many sections of the walls, especially those that were at or barely above ground level, being smothered in moss, grass and weeds.

20181231 DSC00094 (Medium)

20181231 DSC00100 (Medium)Walls of the south range nearly smothered by moss, grass and weeds, 31st Dec 2018

The hypocaust area of the west range had deteriorated badly as a result of the archaeologists being obliged to simply re-point the original flints here without proper consolidation:

20181231 DSC00105 (Medium)

20181231 DSC00104 (Medium)The hypocaust area of the west range, 31st Dec 2018

20181231 DSC00106 800x600The west range, nearly smothered by moss, grass and weeds, 31st Dec 2018

1. Clearing the walls, 2019-2021:

There was a great response from members of the HHA to the idea of helping restore the villa. The first working party was on 18th March 2019 when 17 people attended, including Bryn Walters, Bernard Phillips and Luigi Thompson.

The volunteer group adopted the unofficial name of “The Friends of Littlecote Roman Villa”.

20190318 09.47.03b (Medium)The first working party, 18th March 2019

20190318 FOLRV first meeting L,B&B 3 (Medium)Luigi Thompson, Bernard Phillips and Bryn Walters, 18th March 2019

A total of 17 working parties met through 2019 (two others were rained off) and great progress was made clearing the walls of the east and south wings, with a start being made on the west wing.

20190415 14.42.58 (Medium)Working on the east range, 15th April 2019

20190715 14.17.46 (Medium)Working on the south range, 15th July 2019
20190902 09.42.07 (Medium)Working on the south range, 2nd September 2019
20191021 09.46.17 (Medium)Working on the west range, 21st October 2019
Starting them young!

The Covid pandemic resulted in a UK national lockdown in March 2020, and an inevitable delay to resuming working parties. However, we did manage eight sessions between 29th June and 30th September 2020, with an average of 13 volunteers attending. We completed cleaning the walls of the west range.

20200810 14.11.35 (Medium)Socially distanced working on the west range, 10th August 2020

Planning the way forward:

Clearing the moss, grass and weeds from the walls brought a huge improvement to the overall appearance of the site. However, it was very clear that much further work could be done to improve the site. There was a second UK lockdown in November 2020, giving time for background planning.

The various further tasks identified included:

2. Felling several overhanging branches on the oak tree adjacent to the gate house.

3. Painting the guard rails near the hypocaust areas of the west range.

4. Clearing a 30cm turf strip around the outside of the walls to reduce weeds creeping back onto the walls and to aid future mowing.

5. Restoring the Orpheus mosaic itself.

6. Clearing the river bank.

7. Re-creating the gravel surface within the villa rooms to improve the interpretation of the site.

8. Rebuilding the crumbled hypocaust area of the west range.

9. Restoring the Orpheus cover building – maybe enclosing it.

10. Renewing the interpretation panels.

2. Felling the tree branches overhanging the gate house:

We had asked the hotel ground staff to fell some branches back in 2019 but without success! One of the volunteer group (Colin Honeybone) then offered to fell the branches and this work was carried out (with Hugh Pihlens’ help) on 6th April 2021.

20210406 09.56.13 (Medium)Colin Honeybone (and Hugh Pihlens) felling the low branches, 6th April 2021

20210406 10.39.55 (Medium)The much-improved vista around the gatehouse, 6th April 2021

3. Painting the guard rails near the hypocaust areas of the west range:

The guard rails around the sunken hypocaust areas of the west range were very rusty and unsightly. On 7th May 2021 Hugh Pihlens painted them black with Hammerite.

20210507 13.37.05 (Medium)The rusty rails, 7th May 2021

20210507 16.41.51 (Medium)The newly painted rails, 7th May 2021

4. Clearing the 30cm "mowing" strips:

This work had started on the east range in 2019 but was resumed in 2021 when Covid rules allowed and the working parties were able to recommence. The first working party of 2021 was on 8th April.

20210408 10.49.51 (Medium)Clearing the turf strips on the south range, 8th April 2021

20210622 16.02.03 (Medium)The cleared mowing strip in the south range, 22nd June 2021

Work on the turf strips is to continue through 2021.

5. Restoring the Orpheus mosaic itself.

In 1991, on completion of the restoration, the Orpheus mosaic was left exposed in summer, and poorly covered in winter.

littlecote 02The Orpheus mosaic before the cover building, c.1991
littlecote 03The Orpheus mosaic before the cover building, c.1991

However, it was clear that this precious and important mosaic needed some protection from the weather. An open-sided cover building was erected in 2000 by Liddiards of Aldbourne, funded by Warner Hotels.

IMG 4821The open-sided cover building, 2010

However, the original 10 years of exposure and a further 20 years of only partial cover had resulted in much damage to the mosaic itself.

20210224 10.28.14 (Medium)The Orpheus mosaic central panel, 24th February 2010

20210224 10.30.17 (Medium)The Orpheus mosaic, 24th February 2010

There was evidence of bird droppings, leaves, owl pellets and even a dead bat! The tesserae were discoloured green, some areas loose and others were missing.

Indeed, over the years, the mosaic had been observed to have turned totally green every winter, not helped by the leaking roof; the resident owl fouled the walkways and handrails on a daily basis, the jackdaws fouled the mosaic with droppings and nesting materials during the season, and the main villa in the west range was hardly visible, being full of head-high alders and other growth. The hotel groundsmen were stretched and not able to do much more than mow the grass.

The plan agreed in 2020-21 was for The Friends to clean and restore the mosaic under instruction from Bryn (starting 24th May).

20210524 10.10.06 (Medium)Work to clean the mosaic started on 24th May 2021.
Luigi Thompson showing how to do it!

20210524 10.33.26 (Medium)An enthusiastic start! 24th May 2021

20210609 141627 (Medium)Already the colours are starting to zing! (24th May 2021)

20210600 Clean mosaicThe south apse looking really clean (June 2021)

20210708 11.47.42 (Medium)Working east, showing before and after cleaning, 8th July 2021

20210721 15.02.15 (Medium)Peter Cox, Lois Pihlens, Nicola Fitzgerald and Pauline Mobey, 21st July 2021

Work cleaning the mosaic continued through 2021 and was completed on 31st August 2021.

20210831 10.57.56 (Medium)Yvonne Haddrell, Pauline Mobey and Susannah Hobhouse
celebrating the completion of the cleaning of the Orpheus mosaic, 31st August 2021.

6. Clearing the river bank:

1991 North rangeThe cleared river bank, c.1991

The main problem was the spread of the willows (mainly goat willow and white willow) which had allowed a tangled mess of nettle, bramble and Hemlock Water Dropwort to cover the area right up to the walls of the north range. A particular problem was a stand of Common Reed (phragmites australis) 30 x 5 metres in the river close to the north range.

20210530 09.54.35 (Medium)The overgrown river margin, 30th May 2021

Work to clear the jungle at the river bank began on 9th June 2021 and continued through 2021.

20210609 10.11.40 (Medium)John Parry starting the clearing, 9th June 2021

20210629 12.22.19 (Medium)Some progress, 29th June 2021

20210629 12.21.40 (Medium)Starting to clear the river on the approach to the north range, 29th June 2021

Advice was sought from Action for the River Kennet (ARK). In summary, the willows could be cut back to 50cm high, and coppiced annually, and a 1-metre wide strip of marginal plants to be left (and managed by strimming) along the river edge to stabilise the bank and encourage wildlife.

20210723 15.08.02 (Medium)Tricky work in the river" Hugh Pihlens and Bob Hitchenor, 23rd July 2021

20210723 15.28.02 (Medium)Carrie and David Whiteley, Bob Hitchenor and Lois Pihlens, 23rd July 2021 

Work to clear the river bank will continue through 2021 and 2022. We hope to develop a pleasant and colourful strip of marginal plants including Purple Loosestrife, Iris pseudocorus, comfrey and watermint. There will be ongoing maintenance required! 

7. Re-creating the gravel surface within the villa rooms to improve the interpretation of the site:

When the original excavation and restoration was completed in 1991 the internal room areas were gravelled. They looked splendid and the gravel within the room areas greatly enhanced the interpretation of the site.

Littlecote Roman VillaAn aerial view of the villa as restored, 1991
(Note the gravel within the villa rooms and the old roadway)

Unfortunately, the fine gravel (with no underlying weed-supressant membrane) proved a great growing medium for grass and weeds, and over a neglected 30 years the room interiors were indistinguishable from the surrounding areas.

Much thought and discussion took place through 2020-2021 over what should be done.

In October 2020 it was agreed with Bryn that we should go ahead and spray off the room areas with Roundup as the first stage of the plan. The initial treatment session was on 12th May 2021.

20210512 10.00.11 (Medium)Colin Honeybone, David Thorpe and Hugh Pihlens spraying off
the room areas of all four ranges using Roundup Pro Vantage, 12th May 2021.

20210530 09.46.02 (Medium)The rooms of the south range already showing differentiation, 30th May 2021

The intention is to progress to laying geo-tex weed-supressant membrane over across the room areas, and cover with gravel (20mm Kennet Golden).

In order to fund this project, the Friends applied to the Association for Roman Archaeology for a grant of £2,000 which was accepted and granted in August 2021.

This work was carried out by the Friends of Little Roman Villa during 2022, using geo-tex and gravel supplied by Bourne Leisure. The overall appearance of the villa site was greatly enhanced:

20230105 Drone image IMG 3861An aerial view of the villa as restored, January 2023
(Note the gravel within the villa rooms)

8. Rebuilding the crumbled hypocaust area of the west wing:

When the original archaeological work was carried out (1979-91) there was a significant dispute between Bryn Walters and the local English Heritage inspector regarding the approach being used to conserve the walls.

Luigi Thompson explained (April 2022): "Our policy of conservation for all the walls was to take them down to the foundations and then rebuild them using our mix of 2 part sand - 1 part grit sand -1 part white cement.

The problem arose with our regional English Heritage inspector who interrupted this approach and insisted that we only pointed up the walls not take them down.

We all knew what the result would be. Ice would expand the remaining old dead mortar in the walls and they would eventually fall apart. He would not be persuaded otherwise and so the inevitable has happened. Bryn argued so much with the inspector that eventually he brought in the English Heritage chief buildings surveyor who completely agreed with Bryn so we went back to our original policy. We never saw that inspector again!

The work we are faced with now is entirely down to his interfering ego.

The original Roman mortar is lime based and, where it is protected from weathering, it can be as strong as the day it was made, but not when it has been buried for so long."

Whilst nearly all the walls of the villa are bedded in strong mortar, which is secure after over 30-40 years, the areas around the hypocausts of the west wing deteriorated rapidly. Even by 2010 they were in poor condition.

IMG 4823 (Medium)Lois Pihlens looking at the deteriorating hypocaust area, May 2010

20181231 DSC00104 (Medium)The hypocaust area, 31st December 2018

20200810 14.52.27 (Medium)The hypocaust area, 10th August 2020

Large parts of this west wing will need expert restoration, and it was agreed in 2020 that Luigi Thompson would lead this project. He expects to do this work with Bernard Phillips’ help in 2022.

To prepare for this work, volunteers began cleaning the area in August 2021.

20210831 11.17.20 (Medium)Room 20 – The triclinium (central dining and reception room)
already looking better after the session on 31st August 2021.

9. The Orpheus mosaic cover building itself:

In 1991, on completion of the restoration, the Orpheus mosaic was left exposed in summer, and poorly covered in winter.

Not until 2000 was a building erected over the mosaic. The open-sided design was opposed by Bryn Walters and his colleagues, as well as the former Inspector of Ancient Monuments from English Heritage, but the then management at Littlecote went ahead and built it anyway, with the dire results discussed above.

IMG 4821 (Medium)The open-sided cover building, 2010

The open-sided building allows wind, leaves, rain and birds in. After 20 years, there are significant signs of deterioration with missing roof shingles, missing boards on the gables and rot in some board walk supports.

20210419 Littlecote maintenance B (1) (Medium)Missing and loose panels on the east gable, 19th April 2021

20210419 Littlecote maintenance B (2) (Medium)Rotten timber and collapse of the south-east ramp, 19th April 2021

20210608 17.16.40 (Medium)Signs of jackdaws, crows and pigeons nesting in the roof, depositing twigs and guano on the mosaic, 8th June 2021

In many ways, the plans for this building are the most important of the whole project as it is the underlying Orpheus mosaic that is the most important heritage artefact on the site.

A meeting was held on 23rd June with Bourne Leisure and Warner Hotels management to discuss the problems with the building, and a meeting was held with their architect on 24th June. 

10. Renewing the interpretation panels:

Four excellent interpretation panels were erected in 2006, the text by Bryn Walters, illustrations by Luigi Thompson, artwork by Applegraphics Ltd, Winchester, printing and encapsulation by Stewart Signs Ltd, Eastleigh.

An additional board was erected in 2000 when the cover building was erected by Warner Holidays.

These were cleaned by the volunteers in 2019 and 2021, but the site will benefit by them being replaced in due course. Replacing these will probably be the final task of the project.

See also:

- Littlecote Roman Villa - 1. Introduction.

- Littlecote Roman Villa - 2. The history of the villa, AD 60 - 1700.

Littlecote Roman Villa - 3. The Discovery of the mosaic, 1727.

Littlecote Roman Villa - 4. The Rediscovery and restoration of the villa, 1976-1991.

Littlecote Roman Villa - 5. The Conservation Plan, 2019-2024.

Littlecote Roman Villa - 6. Exploring and Understanding the villa today.

- Littlecote Roman Villa - 7. The Ongoing Care of the Villa.