Letting the past have a place in the future.

Within a matter of days a Bristol developer will officially present Bath and North East Somerset Council with a planning application outlining their proposals to redevelop the old Cadbury’s factory site at Somerdale in Keynsham.

Taylor Wimpey talk about ‘delivering regeneration’ and creating ‘ a new garden neighbourhood’ on the site of an old industrial complex that was the beating heart of local employment for nearly one hundred years.

The plan is impressive.View it at http://www.somerdaledevelopment.com Up to 700 new homes, a primary school, care home, new Fry’s Club building, recreational facilities – both formal and informal – and much of the old factory buildings either converted into apartments or brought back into use to ensure substantial employment on the site.

Chocolate production – which stretches back to Fry’s original new build in the 1920’s – came to an end two years ago – leaving local bitterness, lost employment and identity. A big blow to a town already recognised as being in urgent need of regeneration and revival.

B&NES say they want to turn the town’s fortunes around with new jobs and homes and a revamped town centre. That part of Keynsham has already become a £33 million pound construction site – setting out to regenerate a depressed area and encourage more private investment. The Council will be building new shops, public spaces, a new library and civic centre.

They will then redevelop the Riverside offices they currently occupy but are currently a little candid about what future plans they have. B&NES is apparently considering all options for the site and the relocation of the new leisure centre now proposed.

ImageBut back to Somerdale and proposals we do know something about. Taylor Wimpey gave the townspeople a chance to look over the plans for the 90 hectare site this week. Plenty of questions about new roads, possible traffic congestion and how the whole town might benefit.

There are plans to open up the banks of the River Avon with footpaths and cycling routes as well as a riverside cafe and wetlands nature reserve – created after earth is removed to extend the  natural plateau upon which the new homes will be built above the flood plain. The Hams is part of the River Avon’s natural overflow system and will remain so. A lot of it is within the Green Belt. Ecology and sustainable urban drainage is high on the developer’s priorities it would seem.

What will rise above the factory site is impressive but l want to draw your attention to what is beneath part of the site and of national importance.

Plenty of Romano British remains have been found in and around the town over the years. In fact when the Fry’s factory was being built a Roman villa was discovered. The biggest and most impressive structure now lies out of reach under Durley Hill cemetery and the A4 road. Keynsham offered the Roman invaders a natural ford over the River Avon and rich farmland and on a route leading from their religious and cultural settlement around the hot springs of Bath and their ports at Uphill and Shirehampton.

There has long been a view that a Roman town – known to scholars as Trajectus- the Roman word for bridgehead – lay in this area. It would be a sensible site to go for with good quality building stone available nearby and the flat Keynsham Hams – with their regular flooding – providing excellent pasture.

As part of their development plans Taylor Wimpey commissioned a full archaeological assessment of the site to try and settle the speculation once and for all. The small town or settlement is thought to have been built around 155 AD and it really does seem the detailed survey has found it.

A detailed magnetometry survey was undertaken within the exsisting sports pitches and flood plain of the Hams. The sort of geo-phys you see underway on television’s Time Team! It revealed tat the core of the Roman settlement covers at least 8 hectares. The remains of at least 15 buildings have been located with possible evidence for at least a further three buildings that have been disturbed by quarrying. The strength of the responses is consistent with evidence for occupation and also possible industrial activity. There is also some evidence for a circular structure which may represent a shrine or temple.

The original Roman building discovered in 1922 was apparently located approximately 200 meters east of the main body of archaeological features and this could now be considered as being associated with the Roman settlement, relating to a possible town house, rather than an isolated villa. This has turned out to be a site with real archaeological potential wouldn’t you think?

I cannot help wondering if Keynsham’s amazing Roman past should not be allowed to be part of its future. Could ancient Trajectus ever be a tourist attraction for the town? Something to bring in people and boost the economy? Down the road mighty Bath will never be able to uncover much more of her Roman past without demolishing her Georgian architecture above but Keynsham’s little Roman town lies tantalisingly close under acres of green grass.

The archaeological report will be considered in great detail by English Heritage and the Roman remains below the Hams are very likely to be considered of national importance and designated as a schedule monument. Something which is meant to allow them to remain intact and protected.

Taylor Wimpey – the developers – only refer to the archaeological remains once on their master-plan – but do promise that ‘all archaeological deposits within the hams will be preserved in situ and now new development or earthworks are proposed in areas of high archaeological sensitivity.’

The remains of Trajectus lie under what will be playing fields. Major excavation – if allowed – would cost thousands of pounds and any decision to leave remains exposed would mean spending more on enclosing them to weatherproof the site and prevent erosion. I sense a professional view is to acknowledge the location of Keynsham’s Roman past but to let it only be visible on paper in the form of the fieldwork reports and geophysical survey.

I have a feeling that any breaking of ground on the site will still be with the watchful eye of a Roman expert. Room amongst the mechanical diggers and spades for the odd archaeologist’s trowel. Perhaps a Time Team three-day dig – if only in the area of the speculatively named temple or shrine – would be of great value. I still believe there is room in the future for the past.

Taylor Wimpey also talk about building ‘ a new local centre which could include a medical centre, retail, community or leisure facilities.’ What about a museum? The town doesn’t have one. All that history and no where to show its past with pride.

I remember seeing a lot of Roman material in a cellar below the old town hall. It’s time that – and anything else found by accident or design – was given a centre-stage in a town that wants to get its pride in itself and its place in history back again.