Free rooms for the top brass and fake marble: Britain's first luxury hotel

A lavish complex which offered respite and all mod cons to wealthy, fifth-century travellers is unearthed in Colchester
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With its five-star accommodation, de luxe bath and spa facilities and elaborate restaurant, it could not have contrasted more with the filthy Dark Age dwellings of the local population, where pottage cooked in a cauldron was the order of the day.

Well-to-do Roman clients in the fifth century could expect pampering of the highest order when they checked into what was, in its prime one of the finest hotels in Britain. Sadly, the establishment in question went out of business around 1,600 years ago.

Archaeologists in Colchester, the country's oldest recorded town, have now unearthed what they believe may be the country's oldest recorded luxury hotel. The impressive complex, built over an area of 3,000 square metres, has been discovered complete with surviving stone furniture, just inside the old Roman city wall.

The Colchester Archaeological Trust, which has unearthed part of what appears to be a substantial complex of Roman buildings on the site, believes the complex may have been a deluxe business catering for Roman government officials and wealthy civilian travellers passing through ancient Essex. These days, visitors to Colchester's historic centre, known to the Romans as Camulodunum, have to make do with the three-star comforts of The George, a former coaching inn with colour televisons and trouser presses in all rooms.

The findings, reported in next month's BBC History magazine, show that the ancient hotel has been located immediately inside the old Roman city wall, within 300 metres of the West Gate and the road to London. It had a large detached bath house and internal plaster-covered walls, deliberately designed to look as if they were made of high-class marble imported from Greece and from imperial-owned quarries in Egypt.

The bath-house changing room has already been fully excavated - and has survived the centuries with its wooden water pipe system intact.

Colchester was one of Roman Britain's most important cities - and as such almost certainly had an official government-run hotel. The Roman imperial government's courier and military logistics service ran an empire-wide hotel chain. A high-class hotel, known as a mansio, was the equivalent of a modern three-or four-star establishment, while a more de luxe concern was similar to a modern five-star hotel and suitable for imperial visits.

Bryn Walters, the director of the Association for Roman Archaeology, yesterday hailed the site in Colchester as "a very significant discovery". He said, "Having a sumptuous mansio in Colchester would suggest that imperial government officials were visiting the city.

"It further suggests that Colchester retained political and commercial importance until a relatively late date in the Roman period."

At hotels such as this, government functionaries could stay for free and were issued with highly-prized" "diplomas", which ensured that they received all services gratis.

These type of establishments were a mixed blessing for towns such as Colchester. On the one hand, they attracted wealthy high-spending guests who helped boost the local economy. Butguests carrying full diplomas could also demand services free of charge not only from the hotel itself but from many other local service providers, including vets, cartwrights and vehicle and horse owners.

Before the Roman conquest, Colchester was the most important town in Britain. It had been the capital of the tribal kingdom of the Trinovantes and was ruled over by their king, Cunobelinos. It was here that many of the British tribal kings surrendered to the Roman emperor Claudius in AD43.

It was here too that the British headquarters of the official cult of emperor worship was established. Archaeological investigations in Colchester over the years have identified an imperial temple, two theatres, a Roman church, two monumental arches, and large number of houses and shops. Last year, a massive chariot-racing stadium was discovered.