One of my (many and varied) interests just got a tad more interesting today.
In the course of conducting more research into one of my storylines (Nex), I uncovered snippets of information about one of the features related to the factual (rather than speculative) basis for the story.
A Spot O’ History
Way back when (otherwise known as a period between 1962 and 1971), my family lived at 6, Stockham Way, Wantage in what was then Berkshire and is now Oxfordshire. The goalposts got moved by politicians, in case you were wondering.
Our back garden was pretty large but couldn’t be used to cultivate the usual veggies because only a few inches down into the topsoil you hit solid rock.
It transpired that an old road – at the time someone said it was Roman – ran beneath the garden, and so the Thames Valley Police Force (Dad was a police constable and the house was a police house) were persuaded to bring in contractors toting jackhammers and sundry heavy machinery to smash up the rock and cart it off.
None of us thought to explore more and see whether any Roman artefacts might be found. Roll on the invention of Time Travel, say I!
The original good quality topsoil was replaced with riverbank soil – poor quality and with a huge number of tree roots, as we discovered over time – and life went on.
In the 1990s a residential development (Marns Hey) across the road from where we’d lived happened to uncover some remains of an ancient dwelling, but for the usual commercial reasons the archaeologists were given only a short period of time in which to excavate and explore, before the housing project went ahead and presumably buried everything in concrete and piping.
The information on the dig is difficult to come by, but the initial reports suggested that the dwelling was a Roman villa.
To my mind this gelled very nicely with the idea that a Roman road ran nearby, part of which had been hacked up from our back garden. I’ve since read a more informative article from the archives of the Witney Gazette [Updated link: Witney Gazette Updated again: Witney Gazette] that puts some flesh on the bones, so to speak.
If you look at an aerial view of the location …
… it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that the slab of concrete that extends from Denchworth Road (off the bottom right corner) up to Stockham Way (we always knew the slab as “The Runway” and it was where we sometimes parked our car) could pass in front of the villa, through our back garden and across the small playing field that bordered it (and still does). In fact, you can easily (well, I did, and I’m nothing special) convince yourself that the road might run up to and include the roadway that eventually leads to Stockham Farm (just visible at the top of the frame, if everything works as I intended).
A few years ago I managed to establish contact with the owner of the farm, Bill Wasbrough, after whose family Wasbrough Avenue is named (Wasbrough Avenue is the back stretch of the circuit that includes Stockham Way, and now forms part of Stockham Park, a sprawling housing estate that has grown out of the original development).
Through Bill I obtained an old map of the area that showed the landscape before the development began, and it does look as though the road existed in the 1800s in the form that I think it still does today:
At the time that I learned of the discovery of the Roman villa (several years after the event), I was working on an idea for a sequel to the movie Gladiator, after having discovered some interesting factual info about the characters upon whom the movie is based. (WriteSafe.com originally held a draft of the story, but the site since seems to have fallen into disrepair and I don’t know when it will be revived. Fortunately for me the Wayback Machine kept a copy and if all else fails I have my own backup.)
The antagonist in the movie, Commodus – played excellently by Joachin Phoenix – was in reality one of twins. His brother, Antoninus, died when he was a child and I found a way to use that as a lever to create a second thread to the story, based partly on the tenuous connection with the Romans stationed in Britain at the time.
It occurred to me (wrongly, as it turns out) that the remains at Marns Hey might have been a dwelling built for a Roman Praetor (or possibly Consul in the time period in which my version of the story is set), and that the road passing by the villa might have been a transport route for goods coming into or going out of that part of the country, and perhaps subject to oversight and maybe even taxation.
As it turns out, my most recent research has elicited the fact that the current thinking is the Roman villa – now thought to be around 150 feet by 90 feet in size and with boundary ditches to retain livestock – was owned and occupied by a wealthy farming family.
That appeared to knock the Consul connection on the head, but of course Imagination can always find a way to work around such obstacles. Well, mine can.
Since the farming family was wealthy, chances are they would have connections at a high level with the Roman administration.
Indeed, the patriarch of the family might even have been a long-time friend of the Consul in my version of the story. Perhaps the patriarch was a former Legionary who had originally trained with the Consul and subsequently retired after his twenty years’ service to become a farmer, and so could have accommodated the Consul while he conducted his investigation into the contentious deaths of the Roman soldiers (you’d have to read the treatment :)).
Either way, the pieces of my imagined jigsaw still fit together well enough for me. My intent is not to have the sequel produced as a film, but rather as a novel. Too much time has elapsed since Gladiator was filmed, and in any case Joachin seems to have abandoned his film career for one based on his music, which is a little disheartening – I still feel he hasn’t explored to the fullest extent his abilities as an actor, but you can’t blame someone for wanting to change direction in their life.
Good-oh. Someone finally put Chelmsford 123 on YouTube: