Varis (St. Asaph)
Probable Fort and Probable Settlement
Parish of ST. ASAPH 238. Roman Road. There are traces, slight and not very convincing it is true, of the passage through this parish of the road which ran between the two Roman stations of Deva and Canovium. An ancient road has been traced at the back of the Bishop’s Palace, and a coin of Vespasian or Titus has been discovered on the supposed line of the road through the palace gardens. The course of the road in an easterly direction was probably towards Pentre Halkyn, and westwards towards Sarn Rug, crossing the Elwy a little south of the present bridge.” (R.C.A.H.M.W.M. – County of Flint, 1912, p.88)
The comments of Prof. Haverfield in 1912 are also worth quoting at length:
Certainly the only piece of modern road in this region seems to me to have a Roman look, runs westwards from the Clwyd near St. Asaph, past Glascoed and Sarnrug for about six miles. This is straight, and old: for half the distance it forms a parish boundary.” (Haverfield 1912 p.28)
The Antonine Itinerary is a list of Roman road stations produced during the second century AD, which covers Britain in fifteen routes or itinera. Iter XI of this document deals with a route along the North Wales coast, from Caernarfon on the Menai overlooking the island of Anglesey, eastwards through Gwynedd and Clwyd and across the English border to the legionary fortress at Chester.
Iter XI The route from Caernarfon to Chester – seventy-four (Roman) miles: Segontio¹ Conovio² twenty-four, Varis eighteen, Deva³ thirty-two.
Three of the stations mentioned in Iter XI have been positively identified with places in North Wales, however, the fourth station named Varis remains to be discovered.
If the numbers given in the Itinerary are measured against a modern map then the first listing quite accurately fits the distance along the known Roman road between the fort at Caerhun and the crossing at St Aseph, where the main east-west route from Chester to Caernarfon intersected another road running north-south from Prestatyn to Ruthin. The other side of the equation, the distance between the Varis station and the Fortress at Chester is somewhat problematical. The distance stated is thirty-two miles but the measured route from the crossroads at St Asaph along the suspected Roman coastal road via the lead/silver mines at Pentre is twenty-seven miles, five short of the Iter XI mileage. It seems likely that some Latin scribe in the distant past translated the numeral V into an X, so we have XXXII instead of XXVII; the number stated in the ancient source being incorrect.
To my knowledge, no significant Roman remains have ever been reported at St Aseph, but there is perhaps some confirmation in the actual Roman name recorded in the Itinerary. The name Varis may be a contraction of the Latin adverb Varicus or Varica meaning ‘straddling’, from the intransitive verb varico ‘to straddle’, possibly in reference to the settlement’s location astride the cross-roads. Pure speculation, but noteworthy.
References for Varis?
- Britannia xxxv (2004) p.248-252 – A Roman Fort at St Asaph and the Location of Varis;
- Britannia xxvii (1996) p.390;
- Britannia xxvi (1995) p.326;
- Britannia xxiv (1993) p.273;
- Britannia xxii (1991) p.222;
- Britannia xxi (1990) p.304;
- Britannia x (1979) p.269;
- An Inventory of The Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire II – County of Flint by RCAHMWM (London 1912);
- Military Aspects of Roman Wales by Prof. F. Haverfield (London 1910).