16th April - Barnstaple

Had to go into Barnstaple to register with a local optician and get the correct size for the lovely ring Ron bought me for my 60th birthday.
I also wanted to do some research into Roman/Romano British Devon (i.e. 5th/6th century)  so a trip to the local museum seemed an obvious place to start.

The Heritage Centre beside Queen Anne Square was nice - but nothing Roman, and the guy inside, while a lovely man, had no idea about anything Roman in Devon. So, instead, I asked him where the old (circa 1720) jail was, as stupidly I couldn't remember.
He didn't know that either.
 (more re this conversation below)

The River Taw at Barnstaple

So Ron and I went to Barnstaple Museum. Again, zilch.

I asked "Have you any information of Roman/Post Roman Devon?" and was promptly told that there isn't anything as, apart from a couple of marching camps and Exeter, the Romans weren't in Devon.

Hmm. That seems a tad unlikely to me.
The might and efficiency of Rome having nothing to do with Devon, apart from Exeter and a couple of campsites?

Would they leave the north coast unguarded? Were they not interested in Devon Tin (or Devon cream teas and/or cider?)

Highly improbable.
I shall continue my research. Mind you if there is no evidence for anything happening here in the late 400's then I am at liberty to make it all up in this next novel I'm planning - Foals of Epona.


  1. Linda Hutton9:55 am

    Hi Helen,
    I think there are two things about your search for Romans in Devon. The first is that even into the earliest Anglo-Saxon period Cornwall as a Celtic kingdom was a lot bigger than the modern county. And just as the Romans didn't go far into Wales except the south coast, they didn't go that far into Cornwall/Devon. Let's face it, there aren't the big Roman roads down there which would imply that they were there long term. Your best bet might be trying to trace trade routes, because if memory serves me (and so often these days it's fuzzy!) the Romans traded for the precious tin coming out of Cornwall by sea, not by road. So maybe Roman harbours?
    However... as an early medievalist myself, I've found that often those of us looking at the first Ango-Saxon settlements are more interested in what came before than those studying Rome and its colonies. I've come across this in Scotland too! It's almost as though there's so much that's grand and magnificent about the Romans still to be studied, and so the scruffier edges just get ignored. Small scale Roman settlements seem to have rarely got a look in wherever they are unitl recently, and only now are peole looking at things like Roman marching camps on the edges of the main Roman province of Britain - and that's just what you need. So I would suggest looking for something on 7th or 8th century Devon, because there might well be referrals back to the time you're interested in.
    And the only other trail I could suggest to you is badgering your way into a university library which holds loads of back copies of Current Archaeology. I've found over the years that they are really good at reporting the minor Roman finds from all over the place - the stuff that doesn't make the headline news. They may well have several short news items which would set you up for a wider search.There may also be a pamphlet from the Placename Society on Devon, and that could well gve you clues as to those settlements which have names of Roman origin.
    Good luck with the research and your lovely new family member (three rescued lurchers take over the sofas in our house!)
    Linda Huttom

    1. Thanks for all that Linda - much appreciated. More than "Roman" I am searching for the Romano-British i.e. the people who _were_ here during the 5th/6th century (and before) I agree, the "Romans" probably didn't live here extensively, there were not the big villas, and Exeter was possibly the only big town (although near Newton Abbot a large settlement has now been discovered. Roads would not be practical, but I can't see the "Romans" not having a road route from Exeter to the north coast (Barnstaple area) The fact that a marching camp was situated on the River Taw a few miles from Barnstaple rather proves this (and I would assume a Roman road more or less followed the present main A 377 road, purely because of the terrain. It doesn't make logical sense that "Rome" would just ignore Devon (apart from Exeter) because of the valuable tin trade in Cornwall. Like Wales, the Romans weren't widely settled - but they still made sure that everything was secure, just in case. The Welsh Celts remained Welsh Celts, but along the border with 'England' and the coast "Rome" had its influence because of trade.
      I am assuming the same for Devon. There'll be nothing on Dartmoor, Exmoor, Bodmin, but to the south and for me, the north, there must have been _something_.
      What has riled me, I asked at Barnstaple Museum if they had any information about a Roman/Roman British presence in Barnstaple, and was told a flat no - totally based on the fact that there has been no archaeological evidence, apart from "an insignificant marching camp at North Tawton." Well, in my mind a marching camp is highly significant - if it was there where were they marching from and to.... presumably Exeter to somewhere on the north coast which is more than likely to be Barnstaple because of the River Taw. I find it so irritating that the only stuff in the Museum is stone, bronze and iron age and then Saxon. It's as if they are saying "we had people living here in the Stone and Iron age, then they all went on holiday until the Saxons came back and opened it up for business."
      Who was here in between? Where were they? That's what I want to know!

      And on the other hand, if we don't know the answers to these questions, as a novelist I now have an ideal opportunity to make it up! *laugh*

      I'm thinking here, a few years ago it was widely believed that the Romans didn't use saddles. They sat on a cloth blanket or rode bareback. That was assumed because there had been no evidence to prove they had saddles. Then one was found and it was realised that the fancy blankets on sculptures etc were actually cloths covering the saddles - now, no one would claim they didn't have saddles. When there is something logical, just because archaeologists haven't found the proof doesn't mean it didn't exist!

  2. Remember a little while ago that it was widely held that all medieval men had to be midgets because there was a small suit of armour found and because doorways were smaller in castles? For years that was 'fact' until someone rightly pointed out that the armour was for a child and that smaller doorways were an easy defence mechanism.

    The 'facts' of history change all the time and a lack of Roman presence in Devon does not indicate a lack of Romans. It merely indicates that there were no large settlements. You won't find evidence of a Celtic settlement in North America, that doesn't mean that they weren't there.


Thank you for leaving a comment your interest is very much appreciated! It will be published as soon as possible - depending on whether I am at my computer or walking up the lane, or being chased by the goose or helping mend fences after the pony has broken through YET AGAIN.... :-)