By Harry Pope
Eastbourne is on the Sussex coast, mid-way between Brighton and Hastings. No strategic value, so not a lot of reason to welcome a Roman settlement over 2,000 years ago.
There is a public wooden bench close to Eastbourne’s pier. It’s on the end of the Carpet Gardens, you can sit there quite comfortably for hours, breathe in the fresh air, the floral aromas, soak in the atmosphere of a seaside resort that isn’t full of seafront amusement arcades.
Just watch the world go by, never knowing that you are sitting on history. Because it is there, on this precise spot, almost 2,000 years ago, the Romans built a settlement. Probably.
The shoreline is different now, twenty centuries of twice daily tides have eroded away two miles of coastline, the Italian conquerors built their camp as safe as possible from winter storms, with the South Downs hills behind them, and a protected bay with the Hastings peninsula to the east, and Beachy Head to the west.
English people conveniently forget history where they were conquered, we were under rule from Rome for well over four hundred years, Julius Caesar was the emperor in charge when they defeated the rabble of the English armies.
The settlement at Eastbourne could have been as large as that at Fishbourne, further west along the coast close to Chichester, but unfortunately very little trace remains.
This was apparently a huge building, covering a considerable area, but any remains were covered with either buildings such as the now Claremont and Burlington Hotels terrace, and the Carpet Gardens with wooden benches. Or possibly the Queens Hotel, which is on the other eastern side of the pier.
The archaeologists definitely know that there was a Roman palace, they just don’t know precisely exactly where.
The Palace would have been surrounded by walled gardens, so the estate would have been considerable, on ground easy to cultivate. The two storey construction would have been built from massive greensand blocks on a solid shingle base, like all Eastbourne current seafront buildings.
Very likely the surrounding area would have been granted to a general, or wealthy merchant, in favour with the Roman governor in charge of England. The palace would have been a permanent structure, with bathhouse, kitchens, interior gardens, extensive open plan bedrooms as well as lounge areas. Opulence would have been essential. The settlement would have been there for a considerable number of years, certainly more than two hundred, but when the withdrawal from Britain occurred in 410AD the palace would have been quickly looted, the remains left to rot.
Brighton to the west was developed in the 18th Century, Hastings to the east a healthy fishing settlement with high density population, but until the railway came to Eastbourne in 1849 it had at best two thousand occupants, mainly farmers, fishermen, or smugglers. The undeveloped land was owned by two major wealthy families, seafront construction occurring slowly over the next twenty years or so. The Roman remains would have been undisturbed until this period.
But in the late 19th century, when a seafront terrace was built, a complete Roman mosaic floor was discovered when digging the foundations, so this was dismantled without any trace left behind so could be used as rubble.
The pier had been built in 1870, but the landward part had been washed away in a storm of January 1877, so to make the area attractive for the ever growing visitor numbers the seafront was completely re-built on three pedestrianised levels, taking into account the coastal contours. The end to the east closest to the pier was all on one level, which is where some of the Roman remains were discovered.
This was the last time, in 1879, that the Roman remains were seen, being either destroyed or buried by the Victorian builders.
The archaeologists have a problem. The main area that the Roman palace very likely existed is under seafront hotels, but in 2016 they had a window of less than a month in the autumn when the Carpet Gardens were dug up and left for the soil to recover before re-planting. So they were invited to bring their special geophysics machine that can detect remnants of buried constructions that are undisturbed.
I wish that I could give you a happy ending. But I can’t. The machine failed to detect anything of substance, just a few artefacts that although interesting were inconclusive. They did find a few very small sections of mosaic flooring, but this could have been casually discarded. They did discover fragments of pottery, tools, the usual evidence of a Roman settlement.
No further digs are planned, but I will return to this as and when more news.
Ever wondered what goes wrong on funerals? Harry Pope has been involved in the profession for well over forty years, writing a successful anecdotal account called Buried Secrets.
Ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of a family owned hotel? Harry and Pam owned one in Eastbourne, he has written an hilarious account called Hotel Secrets.