Titsey – In Search of a Roman Mosaic

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Situated on a main road that leads from London to the southern coast, Titsey, now just a tiny village, used to be a large bustling settlement during the 500 years the Romans occupied Britain, some two thousand years ago.  The entire area is now part of a protected estate that once spanned 55,000 acres and has been owned by the same family for 400 years.  The last remaining descendants were two brothers who never married and died in the early 1990’s.  They arranged for the estate to be protected in perpetuity by  creating the Titsey Foundation. A quaint little church, the old vicarage, several ancient cottages and a dairy farm line the road known as Pilgrims Way, immediately opposite the private entrance to the stately manor house situated at the bottom of Titsey hill.

Titsey Manor House
Titsey Manor House

In the early 1980’s, we used to live on the estate at the old vicarage known simply as Glebelands, situated on Pilgrims Way,  made famous by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. For hundreds of years pilgrims used to follow that road to get to Canterbury Cathedral over 50 miles away. The word Glebe means near a church and our massive house, second in size on the estate to the manor house, once served as the rectory for the vicar of the church on the Titsey estate in days gone by.

In the spring of 1984, the oppressive gray clouds of winter finally melted under the crystalline spring sun. On such a glorious day, I couldn’t resist ambling along down the narrow lane called the Bridal Path that ran alongside our house. After about a mile, I turned off the road and began to wander aimlessly into the pristine woods. As I was about to head back home something on the ground caught my eye. Staring up at me from the forest floor was a large circular piece of a mosaic depicting a beautiful woman outlined in vibrant azure tiles. As an amateur archeologist, I recognized it immediately and knew at one time it must have graced the floor of a large villa that had once stood on that very spot, but had long since disappeared over time. It was a shock to find such a thing out there in the middle of the forest. For some strange reason, I thought it best to cover the mosaic with leaves to protect it and vowed one day I would come back and examine it more closely.

We moved back to the States shortly after my discovery and I never got the chance to go back, that is until our recent trip to London in early April of this year, twenty-five years later. For two gloriously sunny days I wandered around in the woods. Like a pig rooting for truffles, using old sticks, I scattered mounds of leaves, dug up the earth, heaved broken branches out of my path, all to no avail.  At the end of the first day, as I was leaving, I stumbled over something sticking out of the ground. It turned out to be an old Roman terracotta pipe.

Partially buried Roman pipe
Partially buried Roman pipe
Close-up of Roman pipe
Close-up of Roman pipe

It was lead lined with a divider in the center, presumably to allow water in on one side and out the other and clearly from the Roman era.  I was so excited, I could hardly believe my luck at finding the pipe. I wanted to examine it more closely but it was getting late and I did not want to be stranded in the woods in the dark.

Knowing I was going to be back the next day, I decided to head back to town walking down the narrow country lane in the direction of the train station at Oxted, three miles away as the crow flies. I figured it would take me about an hour to walk back to Oxted, hopefully arriving while still daylight. Imagine my surprise, when along came an SUV that stopped next to me. An American family of three women, mother, grandmother and daughter, were in the car. They had just arrived in England at Gatwick airport where they picked up their rental car. Sadly, it did not come equipped with a global positioning system (GPS). They were completely lost and asked if I could direct them to the on-ramp for the M25 highway. I told them that I could at least get them to the main road and from there perhaps they could find someone to give them suitable directions. As we drove, I looked at their map and didn’t have a clue how to help them. After all, it had been 25 years since I was last there and I couldn’t remember how to get onto the highway. We actually drove under the M25 bridge, but there was no entrance to the road above. As we approached Oxted, I mentioned that if they took me to the train station, the cab drivers there would surely be able to help them. I felt bad for the woman driving. They were all clearly exhausted from their flight and  still had a long way to go before reaching their final destination of Sheffield, a good 3 hour journey to the north. The woman driving was becoming frazzled. When we stopped at the train station she said she would find her own way and didn’t want me to ask for directions. As she sped away I felt bad that I couldn’t help them but was very grateful they had given me a lift into town.

The next day I was back in Oxted. This time accompanied by a tiny coal spade, a sandwich and a drink, all of which I picked up at local shops in Oxted to sustain me for my afternoon of digging. I got into a cab and asked him to take me back to the woods. This time I asked the driver to come back for me at a set time. Mind you, I didn’t have a watch on, but figured I could guess the time by the position of the sun.  The cab driver asked me what I was doing, and when I told him, he got very excited about my little treasure hunt. As he dropped me off, we shared tidbits about our mutual Irish heritage. He was from Cork and so were my ancestors. He said I had the luck of the Irish with me. “From your lips to God’s ears”, I thought as I exited the cab.

Finding the pipe the day before was a clear indication that I was at least in the right area to search for the mosaic. The Romans were nothing if not dedicated to routine. All of their Britannic structures followed specific designs and layouts.

British Museum
British Museum

Based on my research done on Thursday at the British Museum, I determined that if I could figure out the line of the pipe I could probably ascertain the layout of the villa which would give me a clue to the location of the mosaic. The villa would have been built facing east in the direction of the Roman temple which had already been unearthed about a mile away in Titsey wood. There used to be a river that ran through the area known as the River Eden. It would have come near to my location in ancient times, but there was very little evidence in the tomography as to its actual location today. I had studied the maps on the internet before I left and had a good idea of where it would have gone, but was not able to tell once there.

With my short handled coal spade, I began to hunt and peck, squatting down, scratching the ground, and praying to St. Anthony, the patron Saint of all things lost,  the Blessed Mother, my guardian angel, and pretty much all the Saints in Heaven to help me find at the very least a single mosaic tile. After two hours, I could find no trace of the mosaic. However, I did find what I think may be remnants of roof tiles or a wall. I brought back a handful of small interesting rocks that were unusual in shape and color. I have a friend who owns a rock shop and she is going to help me to try to identify them.

In the end, my little spade simply wasn’t up to the task of trying to dig out the pipe. After awhile I simply tried to see if I could find post holes that might have lined up with the pipe, as it rose up out of the ground vertically. It was not to be.  My time there was coming to an end and the cab driver showed up just as I came out of the woods. My little spade was left laying  on the  ground next to the pipe secured under a large rock to mark the spot. I haven’t given up my quest of finding the mosaic. We are going back to London in the late summer and I will try again. Hopefully, next time, the “Blue Lady” will make her presence known to me as she once did all those years ago.