‘They’ say that our past is all around us, if only we know where to look. Well, out on a Bank Holiday drive earlier this week, I wasn’t looking but stumbled over it anyway.
I knew that there were Roman remains in Harlow, Essex but Roman is not really something I personally search out, being more interested in the older stuff. However, heading home across Essex I spotted a small sign approaching a roundabout; “Ancient Roman Temple Site” and was intrigued, and with time enough to take a slight detour from my chosen path, took the turning. And I’m glad I did, because this small sign was a pointer to one of the most important sites in Essex – a large Roman temple built upon an earlier Celtic one, and an even earlier Bronze Age pond barrow!
The site is incongrously set within an industrial estate. Look on Google Maps satellite view, it’s the estate to the north of the town. There’s a small patch of green amongst the warehouse units, just north of the railway line. The markings look a little like a sports field, but that’s it!
The site is freely accessible on a small hillock raised from the surrounding ground, with the River Stort a short distance to the North (behind the industrial units). Despite the distant roar of traffic, the site was filled with birdsong during my visit, and exudes an air of peace and tranquillity – but then it was a Bank Holiday!
So what can be seen at the site today? Happily the information boards, although slightly water damaged are actually quite useful in visualising what was here. On the ground there’s very little, bar some paving slabs demarking the limits of the outer temple, a raised area showing the inner temple, and what look like a couple of concrete blocks marking the altar stone. Nothing remains of the earlier temple and barrow, but they are marked on the map on the information board, and imagination can fill in the gaps from there.
The following timeline is taken from the northern of two information boards that I saw at the site:
5000 BC Mesolithic Hunter Gatherer Encampment
2000 BC Bronze Age Pond Barrow
200 BC Celtic Temple built
AD 80 Roman Temple built
AD 200 Temple rebuilt
AD 375-400 Temple destroyed
AD 500 Saxon Temple built
AD 600 Site finally abandoned
So, with over 5500 years of use this has obviously been a significant site, and the name of the town, Harlow supposedly comes from the Saxon settlers who called it Hearg-Hlaw, or ‘Temple Hill’.
Roman remains were unearthed here in 1764, and the temple was investigated in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Larger scale excavations took place in the 1960’s and 1980’s and finds can apparently be seen in Harlow Museum.
So when you’re next out on a drive, keep an eye open for roadsigns pointing to historic sites, you never know what you might come across!