Paid collaboration with National Roman Legion Museum and National Museum Wales
I’ve mentioned previously on Cardiff Mummy Says how fascinated all three of my children are with the Romans. They’re lucky to have been to Rome itself, where they saw the ancient Colosseum, one of the most famous historical landmarks in the world, as well as the incredibly-well preserved remains of the ancient fishing town of Ostia Antica.
But you don’t have to journey to Italy to see evidence of the Romans. Almost 2,000 years ago they had a huge presence here in South Wales, as their empire spread across Europe.
The Roman city of Isca, now Caerleon
Caerleon, around a 35-minute drive from Cardiff, was the western-most point of the Roman Empire in Britain. Known then as Isca (after the River Usk), the fortress built at Caerleon in AD75 was hugely important. One of only three permanent legionary fortresses in Britain, it guarded the region for around 200 years. What we are left with today are some of the best-preserved Roman remains in the UK, making for a cheap and interesting family day out.
With my middle child learning about the Romans at school, and National Roman Legion Museum in Caerleon having reopened last week after being closed for a year for essential roof repairs, the start of the half term holiday seemed a good opportunity for us to revisit the historical town.
We’re family blogger ambassadors for National Museum Wales, which operates National Roman Legion Museum – but as the Roman fortress and baths, amphitheatre and barracks are all within easy walking distance, it makes sense to visit all four sites. You can get around them all in two to three hours and all but one (the Baths) are free to visit.
National Roman Legion Museum
We started our day at the National Roman Legion Museum, a place we have visited a few times previously, but which we all find just as interesting on each occasion. Now my children are getting older, the oldest two in particular (aged 9 and 8) are spending more time reading the information boards about the ancient artefacts, as well as telling us all the facts they have learned at school and also from watching Horrible Histories.
There’s also plenty for younger children, including life-size replicas of Roman soldiers and an excavated tile mosaic.
Among the museum’s collection are the oldest recorded piece of writing in Wales, which was found in a well on the museum site, as well as one of the largest gemstone collections found anywhere in the Roman Empire, discovered beneath the fortress baths remains, lost by bathers between AD 80 and AD 230.
Artefacts my children find particularly fascinating are the displays of ancient coins, the remains of tombstones – and the Roman coffin, which was found by accident in 1995 when a JCB digging foundations for the expansion of University of Newport in Caerleon accidentally unearthed this fascinating find. You can even see the hole where the digger struck into it, and peer inside to see the skeletal remains of a man from the 2nd/early 3rd century. He was buried with a small glass perfume ointment bottle and a shale cup.
The next room in the museum is a brilliant hands-on learning zone where children can dress up in Roman-style fancy dress, play with Roman Playmobil (my children requested lots of this for Christmas a few years ago after first discovering it here). There’s also a wooden latrine where children have to pretend to do one of the worst Roman-time jobs of finding the mice among the toilet’s contents, in this case, plastic balls, thankfully.
Beyond this is a reconstruction of what a Roman barrack would have looked like – eight beds in a small box room, plus a kitchen area, and plenty of Roman armour and helmets for visitors to try on.
It’s worth visiting when the Roman soldier character actor is present, telling fascinating tales of what life would have been like. Full details are posted on the museum’s website.
During school holidays, the museum often has family-friendly events taking place, such as Roman-themed crafts, treasure hunts, and other Roman characters, such as doctors and cooks, talking about what life would have been like.
National Roman Legion Museum, High St, Caerleon, Newport NP18 1AE.
Open Monday to Saturday, 10am-5pm and Sundays 12pm-3pm. Entry to the museum is free. Visit the website here.
Roman Baths and Fortress
Our next stop was the Roman Baths and Fortress. Cadw recently introduced a small charge to visit, but we have invested in annual Cadw family members, which meant we got in for free.
Every time I visit the baths, both here and the ones in the city of Bath, it strikes me just how advanced Romans were compared to the ancient Britons living at around the same time. The hot and cold pools, heated changing rooms, and sheer scale of the baths is pretty impressive.
This week, the baths were running a Halloween trail, so there were random spiders, skeletons and bats everywhere, but previously when we’ve visited, we’ve been impressed with the projection over the main pool area which makes it look as though people are swimming.
Dotted around the edge of the different pools are a Roman helmet to try on, and other replica Roman objects you can pick up and handle, such as Gladiator sandals and grooming equipment.
My children’s favourite artefact here is the sponge attached to a stick which was used as a bottom cleaner after using the toilet! These seems to be one of the key facts they remember from studying the Romans at school.
Roman Baths and Fortress, High St, Caerleon, Newport NP18 1AE.
Opening daily 10am – 5pm daily, except Sundays during winter season (November to March) 10am-4pm.
Adults £4.20, children 5-17 £2.50, under 5s free, family (2+3) £12.20, or free for Cadw members.
Visit the website here.
Our next stop was the Amphitheatre, which is a five-minute walk from the Baths. It’s not quite on the scale of the Colosseum, but it’s the most complete remains in Britain. Uncovered in 1926, it was thought that up to 6,00 spectators would have watched the gladiatorial battles that took place here.
A lot of the stone structure is covered in grass, but you still get a sense of the sheer size, where the entrances were, and what it must have been like looking down as the gladiators fought for their lives against exotic wild animals
Caerleon Amphitheatre, Broadway, Caerleon, Newport NP18 1AY
Free to visit. Open 10am-5pm daily. See the website here.
The Roman Barracks
Sadly we ran out of time to visit the remains of the Roman Barracks today, but having been at least twice before, we find them very impressive. Even more so knowing they are the only remains of a Roman Legionary barracks on view anywhere in Europe.
This was where the Roman Legionary soldiers lived and trained – it would have been home to a ‘century’ of 80 men. The remains show quite a detailed floor plan of where the different rooms would have been – and with eight per room, they are quite small spaces. If you’ve seen the reconstructed barrack room at the museum, this puts everything into context.
Roman Barracks, Cold Bath Road, Caerleon, Newport NP18 1NF
Parking for all sites is available either next to the amphitheatre on Broadway, Museum Street (limited parking) or the car park next to the Roman Baths (70p per hour).
Have you visited the Roman sites at Caerleon? Do let me know in the comments below, on the Cardiff Mummy Says Facebook page or you can tweet me on @cardiffmummy. See more of our adventures on the Cardiff Mummy Says Instagram gallery and Stories.