Decision day for Keynsham?

The old Somerdale factory site
The old Somerdale factory site

Bath and North East Somerset councillors meet this Wednesday – September 25th – to consider a planning application from Taylor Wimpey Uk which – if approved – will transform the old Cadbury’s Factory site at Keynsham into a mini new town with 700 homes, a 70 bed care home, 210-place primary school, medical facility, shops, office and start-up industry space and new sports faciities on a 220 acre site.

It’s a development  that could create up to 1,000 jobs – in addition to the nearly 1300 who would be employed during its construction. The developers talk about ‘delivering regeneration’ and B&NES has not hidden the fact that such an undertaking would help in their attempt to turn the town’s fortunes around with new jobs and homes and a revamped town centre.

Despite concerns about access planning bosses have recommended the Somerdale application for approval. However, there is likely to be much debate about aspects of the proposals. There could be sticking points over what the new homes look like and the question of density. Councillors may disagree on what should be demolished of the old factory and what should stay and there could be discussion about working out green spaces for play and wildlife. Oh and of course there’s the flood plain to consider with the River Avon skirting the site.

The Virtual Museum of Bath – with its heritage and history remit – is most interested in knowing what provision is being made to protect and/or promote the town that is already there!

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 that 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.

Here’s a quote from the report Councillors will consider on Wednesday.

ARCHAEOLOGY – since the construction of the Fry (later Cadbury’s) chocolate factory began in 1921 a number of significant Roman-British finds have been made across this area. These include a substantial villa or town house with associated well and burials found during the construction of the factory, and further discoveries of pottery and buildings on the Town Hams during levelling works in1990 and archaeological evaluation in 1995 and 2001.

Following the closure of the Cadbury’s factory the site has been subject of extensive archaeological evaluation (2012) in advance of the current planning application for the comprehensive redevelopment of the former factory site, goods yard and recreation ground….. Evaluation has revealed startling evidence of the what is almost certainly the ‘lost’ Roman town of Trajectus.

Plots of the geophysical survey data show streets with numerous town houses, some with classic central courtyards and what appears to be the plan of Romano-British temple overlooking the river. The surviving remains of the Roman town are of such high quality and potential that they are certainly of national importance.”

This quote is from a more detailed appraisal – contained within the overall officers’ assessments – by Richard Sermon who is the Council’s Senior Archaeological Officer. He told me:

“Whilst the Roman buildings and cut features on the Town Hams are not under direct threat from the current development proposals, there are a number of associated works on the Town Hams, such as relocation/formation of sports pitches, which directly overlay the Roman town. Given that previous ground works on playing fields and golf course have caused considerable damage to the archaeology, I believe it is essential that any future works are brought under statutory control.

Therefore with the agreement of the landowner and developer I have requested that English Heritage designate the remains of the Roman town as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Whilst we still await the outcome of English Heritage’s assessment, the scheduling of these remains on the Town Hams would not present an obstacle to the current development proposals at Somerdale, but provide clarity with the future management of the site.”

I have made my own approach to English Heritage and we will certainly not have a designation any time soon. Rachel Williams who is Senior Designation Officer for English Heritage in the West told me:

‘The site has been identified as nationally important, and this is taken into account through provisions with the National Planning Policy Framework. The scheduling recommendation is likely to be submitted to the Secretary of State in November.’

We will have to wait and see what listing it gets. At least it seems likely Trajectus will lie protected below the soil of the Town Hams – but what reference to it there might be on the surface remains to be seen. Keynsham’s illustrious Roman past continues to be basically a lot of light hidden under a big bushel!