I’ve visited St Albans many times––often at the same time of year; often for the same purpose: Christmas shopping––but I have rarely taken in much of the Roman history for which the city is justly famous; a brief tour of the Roman Theatre many years ago, but that is about it. I’ve strolled around Verulamium Park many times, too, but never wondered what was housed in the rather nondescript, concrete bunker, which is visible on top of the hill. If I had ever speculated about the purpose of the grey-slab building, I would have probably guessed public loos, or perhaps a civil defence throwback from World War Two. It was only the chance of seeing a small sign saying “Roman Mosaic” with an arrow pointing in the direction of this edifice, which allowed me to discover the truth.
Concrete convenience though it may appear, the mystery bunker turns out to be a cleverly-designed, ergonomically-sensitive example of modern architecture, which houses a stunning Roman mosaic floor above a hypocaust. Many of the finer features of the bunker I only read about after my visit and so, for me, a proper appraisal of this building arrived too late but, at the end of the day, for all its worthy construction, it is ultimately the frame to the picture. The mosaic is the star attraction.
The mosaic covers the floor of one room of what would once have been a large Roman town house dating to around 180AD. The design itself is composed of roughly 220,000 tiny stone tiles, or tesserae, forming a geometric pattern. The mosaic floor sits above a series of hollow chambers, which comprise a hypocaust that would have provided underfloor heating to the house.
A big thing is made of the fact that one of the roundels in the mosaic is mistakenly laid at a 45° angle to the way it should be in order to achieve a perfect symmetry. I’ve looked at the mosaic long and hard, and I can’t spot the dodgy workmanship. Maybe the fault is blindingly obvious and I am simply not seeing the wood for the trees or, maybe, I have just got so used to the slapdash deficiencies of modern-day builders that I have lost my critical faculty. Whatever. All I know is that if my shower room was ever retiled to this high spec. I’d be leaving glowing reviews on Checkatrade.
I lingered for longer in the bunker than the length of time I would normally devote to visiting a museum. For one thing, I had the place to myself but, more than anything, it was because it succeeded in transporting me back to an antique time when the pressures of Christmas shopping seemed less important.
© E. C. Glendenny
E. C. Glendenny enjoys a moment of peace in Verulamium.