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Caerleon, a tiny village just outside of Newport, has meandering single lane one way streets, and one big tourist draw - the Roman Legion Museum. Part of the National Museum of Wales, it has a number of different sites in the village and entry is free.
Inside the Museum itself are numerous artefacts found in and around the village as Caerleon is built on the site of the Roman Fortress of Isca. The Museum is quite small, but holds a lot - areas inside are devoted to coins, jewellery, weapons, building and there is even a stone coffin complete with partial skeleton and some old Roman gravestones. There are three cases where models of soldiers are dressed up, and a lovely mosaic on the floor.
In the Capricorn Centre, which joins onto the Museum, there are several role play areas which are popular with the children. There is the barracks room where children can dress in Roman armour and feel the weight of real chainmail (this latter is not for wearing for obvious reasons), and the school room accessed through the gardens, where there are games and abacus' to try out. This area is primarily for schools during the week but is open to the public at weekends.
Just down the road a bit is the Roman bath. Naturally they don't want people trampling all over the 2000 year old ruins so these can be viewed via a wooden walk way, they are quite impressive and you can clearly see the heating systems and how each part of the bath worked.
A short five minute walk from here you will find the Amphitheatre (as seen in the picture above) once used for training soldiers and this you can walk around. Then across the road from here is The Barracks, where they have excavated three of the barracks building that were inside the fortress. It's quite amazing to see the tiny rooms that once held eight soldiers.
If you love history then this is a good place to visit as it has so much all squished into such a tiny area. My only grumble is that its not very well signposted. Trying to find some of the places was a bit of an adventure. We managed it in the end though.
Caerleon is probably one of the lesser known but hugely important Roman site in Wales. For me I had never even heard of Caerleon until we went away with friends for a short break nearby but was more familiar with Chester, London and Hadrian's wall.
Now whilst on our short break we had a map of the surrounding area out and where looking for somewhere to go for a day out and spotted that there where Roman remains at a place called Caerleon. Now we where actually staying in the Wye Valley and yes was a bit of a trek over to Caerleon
Caerleon is in South Wales with the nearest town located to the west being Newport. Caerleon is located between junction 24 and 25 of the M4 and is situated right next to the River Usk, however, for our trip we chose a scenic route rather than the motorway, I was not driving on this occasion so did not pay that much attention to the route but most certainly was not via any main road.
Even though Caerleon was significant during the Roman period its history does not start there and prior to the arrival of the Romans there was a Fort just to the north west of the village for about 300 years and there are some stories that this fort was the stronghold of Beli, King of Britain at the time.
When the Romans arrived in Caerleon it was occupied by a fierce tribe called the Silures and many battles where fought in the area with the Romans which contributed to the large number of Roman fortresses in the area, in fact, there where more Roman fortresses here than in any other part of Britain. Now it is not clear who actually won, the Silures or the Romans but they both occupied the area over the next 400 years. After the Roman departure the old hill forts where re-occupied and it is said locally that King Arthur lead battle against the Saxon take-over from here and that Caerleon was the site of Camelot.
The Roman buildings where abandoned and left to decay and had long been forgotten about until earlier this century when the village started to expand and Roman stone was excavated or you could say recycled from the surrounding area. You can see when walking around the village the amount of Roman stone used. Also at this time there started an on-going race between villagers and developers as to who could buy the land first, the villages wanted to preserve what was there before the developers could destroy it all by building over it.
During the period of Roman occupation the town was actually called ISCA, the name comes from the River Usk and means roughly next to the Usk.
On our approach to Caerleon we where quite excited as the town, according to our map stated that there where remains of an Amphitheatre, a Roman Fortress and there was also a Museum there.
We approached using the B4236 and from this direction you have to cross the River Usk to get to the centre of the town. Parking was relatively easy as there is a car park off the main road through the village which is actually outside one of the museum sites in Caerleon, to one we picked was for a museum which was purely dedicated to the old Roman bathhouse that used to be there, more about this later.
We went to the entrance to the bath house and discovered that we could just wander around the village as we pleased but we chose to buy a guide which included as map to the village and all the historical information you could ever need. We did not enter the bath house at this point but decided to make the most of the fact that it was not raining and headed off map in hand to what we have decided would be our 1st point of call, the Amphitheatre.
As with most historical sites there quite often is not a lot to see, but Caerleon boasts the fact that is one of the very few site where this is much to be seen and I must say that we where pleasantly surprised. Walking through the village, you can't really get lost here as everything leads off the main road, and a turn to the left we found ourselves walking down a road which was where the 'attractions' where. To our left we could see the Roman wall that used to surround the area and on the right was a signpost to the Roman Fortress and we had passed the museum on the corner of the junction where we turned left. Continuing on past the Roman Fortress we came to the entrance to what I would describe as a field which contained the Amphitheatre and boy where we surprised. This was not just a field with a few foundations remaining at ground level at all and in front of us we could see what must have been virtually the full stone base of the amphitheatre rising up to 8 to 10 feet from the ground. The base structure is split into sections and you can imagine that the gaps between these structures or segments of foundation would have been the entrance for the spectators or the Roman soldiers. We proceeded through one of these gaps.
Only once you are inside the remains of the structure can you get a true impression of what this must have looked like when it was built and in use back in Roman times and I can say that I was extremely impressed with what was left. You can climb up onto the top of the foundations via the remaining steps in places, though you can climb onto of most of them without any steps, where there are steps these are the original steps and not additions just for the tourists to use.
Standing in the middle of what was obviously the arena you can see on either side of you facing each other to indented areas within the foundations and these, of course, required further investigation. Armed with our historical guide in hand off we headed, adults only I must stress as by this point the 4 children we had with use where off playing 'gladiators' in the middle of the area and taking it in turns to be gladiators and then lions, imagination was running wild at this point. The alcoves we discovered where on one side where there would have been a statue to offer tribute to and the other side of the arena where the 2nd indent was would have been where the leaders of the garrison based here would have sat along with any guests they had.
To give you an impression of the size of the amphitheatre we where told that this arena would have seated around 6000 people when full.
The first excavations on the amphitheatre where carried out in 1909 but this was really the locals digging trenches into the structure to quarry stone for building purposes, however, in 1926 the thanks to outside sponsorship the whole structure was excavated and today we see their amazing find.
Finally after many games of gladiators and a complete tour of the amphitheatre including clambering up onto the remains to see what the view would have been like for a spectator, we dragged ourselves away to move on to the remains of the Roman fortress which we had passed earlier, this was only 5 minutes walk away and there is not a huge amount of walking involved to get around the whole village.
The Roman Fortress
Now according to the guide book and the locals Caerleon boasts the only Roman Barrarks on public display in Europe and we where eager to get a look at what all the fuss was about. Approaching the Barracks from the site of the Amphitheatre you are greeted by a huge embankment which is what was left of the original defences of the fortress. Prior to climbing the embankment the ground dips by a couple of feet to what could only be described as a trench, not only does it look fantastic but also you can easily see what types of defences where used to defend this important fortress.
Once we reached the top of the embankment there is then a short downward slope to get to the actual site of the barracks. I am sure there must be a better way of getting to the fortress but we did not stop to look given our enthusiasm and anticipation, we where greeted by a complete view of the remains of the barracks. Now normally after watching many episodes of time team and the excavations of numerous roman sites by them I expected to see a lot of holes in the ground and maybe a few bricks or stones, how wrong was I. The remains of the barracks are complete up to, in places, 2 bricks high with complete foundations to the point where you can easily identify doorways and dividing walls between the rooms.
Now in our guidebook there was a really useful map of how this was laid out and what each building was for and we diligently followed the map. First stop was what used to be the kitchens. Here you can still see scorch marks in some places in what where the ovens that the food for the legion based here was cooked in and they where huge.
Next stop where the toilets - no there is not really much to see here, no holes in the ground but just the brick remains of the buildings.
Off to the remains of the barracks now. The remains of the barracks are laid out in blocks and I suppose I could describe them in a modern day equivalent would be row upon row of terraced houses with no gardens etc. Each block housed a century of men - a Roman century consisted of 80 men and just so you know the scale of these remains there where at its height 5500 men garrisoned here. There rooms vary in size but the larger rooms housed the centurions, privilege with rank here with the smaller rooms - no more than I would say 6' x 6' housed eight legionnaire men who used to work a shift system for sleeping and their duties.
The National Roman Legion Museum
We have walked past here earlier in the day and after the amphitheatre and then the barracks we where ready to go indoors for a bit.
The museum is located in the heart of the town and entry is free the same as most other National museums these days. What makes this museum special, well the only artefacts on display in the museum have all been found either in the village or in the surrounding area and they are stunning, armour, jewellery and pots to name but a few.
What does the museum offer for children, well here you will be pleasantly surprised, there is plenty for children to do at the weekends or school holidays and the activites range from mosaic making - we opted for this, to actually dressing up as a Roman Legionnaire complete with armour. The mosaic making was organised into sessions so there was no confusion and the children where shown how to plan their design and also to remember to make there design as if viewing it in a mirror as they would then be mounted, with the use of tile adhesive, onto a plain kitchen tile. My son decided that he would have LFC on his as he is a big Liverpool fan and my daughter though she would be more original and created her own design of what she imagined part of a Roman mosaic floor would look like. There where plenty of ready square pieces of tile in a great variety of colours and no one was disappointed by not being able to find what they needed. The tiles where mounted and then grouted and left to set for later collection in the day at your convenience.
The Bath House
Again this is fully enclosed as a museum totally dedicated to the bath house and this is also located in the centre of the town next to a pub.
I was expecting again to see a hole in the ground, a few tiles and the rough shape of a public Roman Bath house and again was stunned at what greeted my eyes. The bath itself is virtually intact complete with the steps down into the bath, the majority of the hyper course which is how the Romans heated their water and a huge portion of the mosaic floor mounted onto the wall, the mosaic had formed part of the floor of the bath house.
To walk around the bath you are on an elevated walkway with no blocked view at any point and to say that the whole thing is spectacular would be and understatement.
This is most certainly worth a visit if you in the local area as it is a very enjoyable and extremely informative day out with the only entrance price to pay being for the Bath House. There are quite a few pubs and inns in the village where food is served but as we took our own picnic I cannot comment on what they are like but the all looked extremely inviting. Also there are parts of the Roman wall that you can walk on top of but we ran out of time and the light was fading so we gave this a miss. All the remains in the village are of amazing quality and I was surprised at the amount there was to see. I live not too far from Chester and although the walls at Chester are impressive there really is not that much else that is as well preserved as the ruins at Caerleon.
Caerleon is a small town, in fact little bigger than a village, inland from Newport in South Wales. Proposed as one of the possible sites of Camelot and the Court of King Arthur, in fact its history goes back even further. Set beside the River Usk, its history dates back at least two thousand years to the times of the Roman occupation and subjucation of Wales. It is the site of one of the many Roman Fortresses with which Rome controlled and ruled the local populace. The Romans named the place Isca. Our frequent visits are related to the dominant feature of the town, the Caerleon Campus of the University of Wales, College Newport, where our daughter is taking a degree in Photographic Art. She chose this campus from many because of its delightful location, friendly atmosphere, good accommodation and because it is recognised as THE place to study photography. The campus is at the top end of the town, away from the river. To reach it you have to travel round the one-way system that controls traffic through the narrow streets. The layout of the town still reflects the plan of the original roman fortress. The main streets lie along those of the fortress before it. Remains of the original walls can still be seen and sections of them are open to be walked. Indeed, it is to the credit of the local authority that they have done their best to enable open access to most of the major excavations. All are kept in immaculate condition and it is a pleasure to walk around the town and investigate them. I can recommend a visit to the amphitheatre. It is in a field just outside of the fortress walls and has been fully excavated to expose those structures that remain. You can get a great feel for how this would have looked two thousand years ago, with various bloody contests being fought out before an audience of the around six thousand legionnaires that formed the normal compliment of the fortress. Around 200
metres away can be found the remains of the barracks. Although only the foundations remain, from these you can see the sort of conditions in which the roman soldiers lived, the size of their accommodation and as compared with that of the officers. These remains are the best examples of roman soldiers' living quarters in the whole of Europe. All of the sites have numerous plaques describing the life and times of these "invaders", and describe as best as is known what the sites would have looked like at the time. For a better idea, reconstructions and displays of various aspects of roman life can be found at the Roman Legionary Museum nearby. This is free and is certainly worth a visit. It is open at 10.am although on Sundays it doesn't open until 2pm. Not free (£2) but also worth a visit is the remains of the Roman Baths. This excavation of part of what was originally an enormous site is protected within a building next to Ye Old Bull Inn in the centre of the town. From walkways above, you can see what remains of various rooms and pools. Audio/video presentations tell you about the life and experiences of those who used these facilities. There is also a crafts centre with various shops and a café. Unfortunately it seems to open at the whim of the owners and wasn't open on the Sunday when we were there. However, our daughter has been there and recommends it as a place worth a visit. The town is not short of accommodation, good pubs or restaurants. I can recommend The Priory. We had Sunday Lunch there and it was most enjoyable and good value around £12.50. There was almost more than I could eat. The Priory also do accommodation. It is a very attractive place and we shall seriously consider booking in there next time we stay. We also had a drink in Ye Old Bull Inn whilst we waited out a torrential rain storm. A very attractive pub, a bit of a rabbit warren, with alcoves and rece
sses in all directions. They have the usual gambling machines and music throughout so if you're looking for a quite drink this probably isn't the place for you. They serve food and the cask ale on the handpump is the classic Bass, very well conditioned but a tad too cold for my liking. I had to leave it a quarter of an hour to warm up! If you are passing through the area, do give Caerleon a visit. It's probably better in summer than winter as many of the attractions are outdoors. There are also many other places of interest in the immediate area that would justify a longer visit.