Roman history and more in Harlow

Don’t be fooled by stories of Harlow’s post-war origins. This unassuming Essex town goes right back to the days when the country was known as Anglia and the Romans ruled the land.

With its ‘New Town’ status, Harlow isn’t exactly synonymous with ancient history. Built after World War II to ease housing pressure on the capital, it was designated as recently as 1947. Luckily, the digging required to create a brand new town also unearthed some previously hidden history, revealing the ancient secrets of a forgotten settlement. This Essex town has an unlikely Roman backstory, which in itself acts as a gateway to even older tales of the Celtic and Bronze Ages.

The Romano-Celtic temple

As you approach Harlow via motorway, you’re likely to spot signs directing you to “Ancient Roman Temple Site”. This unadorned name doesn’t actually encompass the full importance of the site, as archaeologists believe that the Roman built their place of worship over an earlier Celtic temple, which was itself built over a Bronze Age barrow. Clearly a site of some importance in the old religions of the country, the site’s mystical significance held fast while the gods it paid homage to became unrecognisable.

Today, following the signs will lead you to a patch of land north of the town centre, not far from the River Stort. At first glance the location appears unremarkable, though a small hillock gives some indication as to its intriguing past. It’s here, once upon a time, that a grand Roman temple stood – one of the most important on the island of what was then Britannia, in fact. Centred on a 25-square-foot chamber complete with a veranda and courtyard, numerous brooches, coins, and pieces of pottery were discovered here during digs in the 1960s and ’70s.

Although it remained hidden for centuries, the ancient place of worship may be responsible for Harlow’s modern name. Saxon invaders dubbed the town ‘Hearg-Hlaw’, which translates as ‘Temple Hill’. The fascinating discovery gives Harlow the distinction of being both one of the oldest and newest settlements in the country.

Roman history  in Harlow

Harlow Museum

Located just an eight-minute drive from our Park Inn by Radisson Harlow, the Harlow Museum is based in the suitably historic Mark Hall stables. Spread over four galleries, it tells the story not only of the Romans who once lived here, but also of the Tudors, Stuarts and, eventually, Victorians who later left their mark on this corner of Essex. Among the artefacts on display you’ll find all the temple’s Roman remains, including astonishingly well-preserved pottery.

The story of the site isn’t over yet; in early 2015 the museum was awarded a grant by Essex Heritage Trust. The funds will enable the digitisation of 1980s excavation notes, relating to largely unknown funerary rituals at the site between the Bronze Age and early Mediaeval era.

The Time Machine

Last but not least, you can ease your path back to the present day with a stop at Harlow’s Time Machine. Sadly, it won’t actually transport you to a land of super-straight roads, tunics and Centurions, but it does offer an immersive trip back to 20th century Harlow, from its 1940s master plan to the people who defined its character in the frugal ’50s, swinging ’60s and psychedelic ’70s.