From THE ROMAN VILLA SITE AT ORPINGTON, KENT,
©Copyright Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit, 1996.
SAVING THE SITE FROM DESTRUCTION
By mid-July it was becoming clear that the villa-house was not only more extensive than previously supposed, but that what survived was also substantially more complete. As a result the Kent Unit explained the matter to Council officers and to the site architects, all of whom readily responded and began to look at alternative arrangements. The Unit also sought the support of Bromley councillors in the hope that any suggested modifications to the car park might be approved. These moves were keenly supported by the Council for Kentish Archaeology, whose chairman Mr. Peter Grant, wrote to the chairman of the appropriate Bromley committee. In addition, Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, a Kent archaeologist in his own right, kindly visited the site and added his support. So, too, did Ivor Stanbrook, M P -- Member of Parliament -- for Orpington, who visited the site early one Saturday morning -and agreed that the villa was important to the constituency.
On the very last day of July it was possible, again with the agreement of Bromley Council, to open the site for a grand open-day for the public. This was advertised locally and thanks to good weather more than 2,000 people poured onto the site in about six hours. This meant there were never less than 300 people on the site at any one time and it took six guides all their time to take large parties round. Another ten diggers had to act as marshalls and another 15 carried on with the actual digging under the close gaze of hundreds. Everyone visiting showed a great interest in the work and discoveries and subsequently many wrote helpful letters to Bromley Council to encourage the preservation of the site. In addition, two large groups of the Friends of C K A -- Council for Kentish Archaeology -- were given special guided tours on other days.
All this helpful official and private interest resulted in the Recreation Committee of Bromley Council readily agreeing, at meeting on 18th August, 1988 that the car park could be changed and the main part of the villa saved from destruction! This news was welcomed all round. The architects had come up with acceptable modifications and all interests were met. A victory for Bromley and the environment and an example for other local authorities to follow. Indeed, such was the interest of Bromley Council and its officers, that at a meeting of its Policy and Resources Committee held on 24th August, it was agreed in principle that a protective cover-building could be placed over the masonry to make it permanently available to the public. This, of course, subject to various local agreements and conditions.
On completion of the excavation the walls were sheeted over with plastic and some 300 tons of sand poured into the site to restore the area to its original level. This protected the walls from the weather, possible vandalism and vegetation for the next three years, including during the whole of the building programme.
THE PRESERVATION SCHEME
Once the decision to save the villa and open it for permanent public inspection had been made, the whole matter lost its on-site impetus. Detailed discussions and meetings followed throughout 1989 and by the end of April, 1990, the project was finally agreed. This followed a design, layout and programme, produced by the Kent Unit and work started on 8th May, 1990. The whole project was then undertaken by the Kent Unit which did the bulk of the work ably assisted by the Bromley and West Kent Archaeological Group, only using sub-contractors where this was essential. The total cost was estimated at £83,000.
The initial tasks were to clear the site, mark out the building, cut deep foundation-trenches and pour in some 80 tons of concrete. Sub-contracting bricklayers constructed the footings and Unit staff then set all the steel and cast the final concrete ring-beam. The next major task was the construction of a large steel, portal-frame building, about 15 by 15 metres in size, fabricated in the Midlands and constructed by the suppliers, This was clad with carefully selected pebble-dash wall panels on two sides and profiled sheeting on the low-pitched roof. The Unit then supervised the cavity-wall brick infilling of two more sides and the insertion of three double doors and 22 windows. It then provided all the underground services, window glazing, internal lighting, extractor fan and welding of steel roof-brackets. By the end of October the building was weatherproof and watertight so that the next, indoor phase could begin. All this was completed in 170 days of non-stop work.
The next phase was the re-excavation of 300 tons of soil placed over the villa to protect it from weather and the building works. This long task was followed by consolidation work on the Roman building, laying of internal floors, the wall-lining, barriers, displays, graphics, notices and external paving. These tasks were undertaken at intervals in 1991, following bureaucratic delays and some dragged on until 1992. Finally, the whole scheme was completed by June, 1992 and arrangements then agreed for the provisional opening to the public in September and October 1992. This proved highly successful and the villa was opened for a full season (April to October) in both 1993 and 1994. This was done under an agreement, whereby the Unit carried out the total management of the scheme on behalf of the London Borough of Bromley. The formal opening ceremony took place on 7th April, 1993. The final cost, external delays considered, was about £85,000.
Whilst the eventual outcome proved highly beneficial to the citizens of Bromley, the whole process from start to finish actually took four years of very hard work. Even though the outcome had provided satisfaction in itself it was additionally helpful that the scheme won high awards. Initially, in 1989 the Kent Archaeological Trust gave the London Borough of Bromley an award for preservation following its agreement to reduce the car park and thus save the villa from destruction. In 1994 the scheme was entered for the British Archaeological Awards, held at York in November that year. The scheme won (jointly with another) the first prize for the Best Presentation of an Archaeological Project to the Public, securing a fine plaque, a cheque for £500 and a certificate, all presented and sponsored by The Virgin Group. It won an highly commended certificate, effectively the second prize, for Best Project Securing the Long term Preservation of a site, this time sponsored by English Heritage.