Leicester’s archaeological history hit the news when the skeleton of Richard III was discovered beneath a car park. For centuries, it had been said that the king’s body had been thrown into the River Soar, which passes through the centre of the city where it meets the Leicester branch of the Grand Union Canal. Close to this junction lies the Jewry Wall, which is the location of an even older archaeological site. This is one of the largest surviving sections of Roman masonry in Britain, and the adjacent museum – currently closed for refurbishment – contains three Roman mosaics and decorated wall plaster.
There are numerous other archaeological sites of interest within reach of the region’s canals, such as the Saxon burial ground at Offchurch near the Grand Union Canal three miles east of Leamington. At Piddington, near Northampton and a few miles from the Northampton Arm of the Grand Union, there’s a superb museum on the site of a Roman villa, which contains significant archaeological finds. And right on the bank of the Grand Union at Cosgrove, a Roman villa, bath house and temple was discovered in 1957 – an urn filled with silver coins had been recovered along with other artefacts during the construction of the canal.
Impressive as they are, none of these is quite as spectacular as the vast section of Roman masonry in the centre of Leicester. The wall is all that remains of the Roman town called Ratae Coritanorum that was once located here. The wall was constructed in AD 160 as the entrance to the public bath but was later incorporated into the west wall of a Saxon church, which is how it survived. Roman Leicester was located on the site of a native settlement belonging too the Coreiltavi tribe.
The Roman town had a forum, basilica and baths. Within the 9m section of exiting wall, the holes for timber scaffolding can be seen clearly, while the foundations of the baths can also be seen to the east of Jewry Wall – a name that may have derived from ‘Janus’ or ‘Jury’. Until the remains of the baths were discovered in the 1930s, it was believed the wall was the old Roman gate to the city. The nearby Jewry Wall Museum contains significant Roman remains, including some lovely mosaics, and reopens in early 2019 following an extensive refurbishment.