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Fishbourne Roman Palace Garden, West Sussex

Lesley Bellew visits Fishbourne Roman Palace garden, arguably the UK’s first formal garden.

Archaeologists debate where the Romans first landed in 43AD – Richborough in Kent or Chichester in West Sussex - perhaps both. 

Either way, it did not take long for the Romans to exert their authority and Fishbourne Roman Palace, in Chichester, was built around 75AD. It was the largest dwelling of its kind north of the Alps, going up about the same time as the Coliseum in Rome.

Fishbourne Roman Palace garden with its original style box hedging
Fishbourne Roman Palace garden with its original style box hedging

The 100-room luxury palace featured exquisite mosaics, underfloor heating and elaborate baths - a bold statement of power - and it is likely the influential client king Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus lived in the palace, although historians cannot be absolutely sure. 

Comparable in size to imperial palaces in Italy, the four colonnaded wings were arranged around a rectangular formal garden with a wide central path linking the entrance hall to the audience chamber while small paths branched off to outline the garden on all four sides.

The palace burned down in the 3rd and was not discovered until 1960 (when a digger driver cutting a water-main trench hit a mass of ‘ancient-looking rubble’). As well as discovering the largest collection of in situ Roman mosaics in Britain, archaeologists unearthed the original garden bedding trenches which had survived centuries of ploughing.

Model of Fishbourne Roman Palace
Model of Fishbourne Roman Palace

The garden has been replanted using these trenches of dark grey loam which showed up against an ochre clay and gravel sub-soil. From these, the archaeologists were able to get a clear idea of the hedge-lined paths. Roman writer and historian Pliny frequently referred to box hedges lining the edges of pathways in gardens, so the 1968 planting at Fishbourne follows this thought. 

The archaeologists also discovered ceramic pipes which ran from the remains of a water tank in the corner of the garden. One line of pipes probably fed a pool in the entrance hall while others supplied small semi-circular basins set in recesses in the hedging (half of a marble basin was found in the 1960s). 

To learn more about the Roman planting, pollen samples were taken for analysis but no positive evidence survived. However, on the eastern side of the garden alternating tree-pits and postholes were found which suggested trees or shrubs had been planted against a trellis.

Pliny also referred to espalier fruit trees on a trellis where they ‘added an air of rustic simplicity to an otherwise formal setting’ and these have been replicated at Fishbourne as well as grapevines draped over a pergola and a small grove of fig trees.

Summer vines fishbourne
Summer vines fishbourne

The vegetable garden has been recreated following circumstantial evidence of dark, humus-rich soil containing heavily abraded pottery pointed to intensive cultivation. This area also had its own water supply through wooden pipes with iron collars. 

No Roman garden would be complete without a triclinium - an outdoor eating area - and the stone reconstruction at Fishbourne is based on examples from Pompeii. 

It is important to remember that the Romans’ mastery over nature was alien to the Iron Age Britons whose beliefs and superstitions centred on the landscape. While rivers and lakes were sacred places to make offerings to the gods and their ancestors, the Romans were diverting streams to build the Fishbourne Palace and piping in water to create ornamental fountains and fill baths. 

And if this wasn’t enough to puzzle the locals in their thatched roundhouses, it must have come as a shock to see fallow deer, imported from Europe to decorate Fishbourne Palace’s parkland. The exotic creatures would have been seen as yet another status symbol for Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus - who thereby created the UK’s first safari park!

Acanthus Mollis growing at Fishbourne Palace Garden, used as an ornamental plant as well as for medicinal purposes
Acanthus Mollis growing at Fishbourne Palace Garden, used as an ornamental plant as well as for medicinal purposes

Fishbourne Roman Palace opens 10am to 5pm, admission £8.70, children £4.30, family £22.

Roman Way, Chichester, West Sussex PO19 3QR.

For details visit sussexpast.co.uk (Sussex Past is the Sussex Archaeological Society) or 

visitchichester.org

Opening hours:

March - October open every day: 10am – 5pm

November – Dec 15 open every day from 10am – 4pm

Dec 16-31, Saturdays and Sundays only from 10am – 4pm

January: Saturdays & Sundays only from 10am – 4pm

February open every day from 10am – 4pm

Where to stay: 

The refurbished Goodwood Hotel is nearby and set in the heart of the Goodwood Estate. The hotel’s Richmond Arms restaurant uses organic farm produce from the estate including rare breed meat, milk and cheeses while small local producers and fishing boats complete the range of raw ingredients.

www.goodwood.com

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