Long before it became fashionable, my parents had their own version of a sea-change. They abandoned their high-pressure jobs in London, and moved to Dorset, where they ran a successful bakery cafe with the eccentric name of The Horse with the Red Umbrella.
The cafe occupied (still occupies today) a corner site on the main street of Dorchester – a town first laid out by the Romans. It features in Hardy’s Wessex novels as Casterbridge, which “announced old Rome in every street, alley, and precinct.”
We lived not far from Maumbury Rings, the Roman amphitheatre, and walked through it each day to get to the cafe. The amphitheatre survives only because in the nineteenth century the planned route of the railway line from London to Weymouth was changed at the last minute, in response to local pressure.
Like most Roman towns in Britain, most of the original Durnovaria is now visible only in its street layout. The walls (refortified during the English Civil War) survived until the eighteenth century, when fashion dictated their replacement by a broad promenade on which citizens could stroll. A small section was left standing as a monument (whether to the building skills of the Romans or the destructive impulse of their successors is unclear). Similarly, the old forum building, which had existed to first-floor level and served as the town’s corn exchange, was finally demolished in the nineteenth century, to be replaced by a brand-new exchange designed in best Victorian historical pastiche style.
In The Mayor of Casterbridge Hardy emphasises the town’s old-fashioned appearance – a Roman plan overlaid with quaint mediaeval buildings. But as my research showed, nineteenth century Dorchester was anything but old-fashioned. When Hardy wrote his novel, the town had two major railway lines, two stations, a gasworks, numerous fine eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings, and flourishing Victorian suburbs. In fact, the dominant architectural note was, if anything, one of modernity.
But if you scratch the surface, Casterbridge is quickly revealed. Behind a modest row of eighteenth century terraced houses, back gardens are cratered with the foundations of Roman buildings. In our cafe, a skin-deep early nineteenth century facade barely disguises the low, beamed ceilings of a sixteenth century structure. A massive oak beam that runs through the cafe and two adjoining buildings has been dated to the time of the Spanish Armada. And when my parents decided to increase seating space by removing the low platform that ran next to a plate-glass display window, they found a cellar that stretched out under the street, following the line of the old Roman road.
A few doors up, work on a car parking area at the back of a hotel revealed a similar underground chamber, sealed since the conversion of the Roman empire to Christianity in the fourth century – a forgotten temple to Mithras.