Great days out in ‘Roman Britain’: Part 1 – London and the South East

The Romans: the reason I love history

I’m not going to lie. I love history. Absolutely adore the stuff. This will be no surprise to friends and family whom I've regularly bored over the years. It all started among the Roman ruins of Chester as a child. I just found it all fascinated me (much to the annoyance of my brothers who wanted to go home and play football or Nintendo) and I was hooked from that point on.
 
Though my love of history has led me to explore many different periods, thanks to those early days in Chester, the Romans still hold a special place for me. So, it’s probably no surprise that my next book (a kids' time-travel adventure) is set in Roman Britain. To celebrate this, I thought I’d share with you my suggestions for the top days out in ‘Roman Britain’ to inspire you and any little budding historians you may know.
 
I was going to write one blog post about this, but realised I just wouldn’t do it justice. I’m going to start this week in the South East of England (as the Romans themselves did) and then cover the other parts of Roman Britain (i.e. broadly speaking modern England and, although often tenuously held, Wales) in subsequent posts.

All roads lead to the British Museum 

What have the Romans ever done for us? A visit to the British Museum will more than answer that question for you (hint: it wasn't just the aqueducts and sanitation). This is THE place to start your exploration of Roman Britain. There is so much else to see here, of course, such as the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, the astonishing Assyrian gallery (I love the colossal winged lion statues with human heads) and Anglo-Saxon treasure like the Sutton Hoo hoard. Oh, did I mention it's free too?
 
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The Ribchester helmet - Image credit: British Museum
But we are talking about Roman Britain, so, to start your tour, go to the Weston Gallery. You'll find artefacts from all over Roman Britain like mosaics from Kent, silver treasure hoards from East Anglia and Roman armour and helmets from Lancashire. I particularly love the incredibly ornate cavalry helmet (pictured) which was found by a clogmaker's son in the eighteenth-century in Ribchester, Lancashire. It's hard to think of anything like this surviving, let alone in the North West of England. I find it so captivating as it makes you think of the wearer, who must have been an elite soldier. Was he an Italian who had been sent to the cold, barbarian lands of Northern Britain? What did he think of it all? Probably not much going by the complaints of soldiers found in the Vindolanda tablets found at Hadrian's Wall.

Hidden Londinium

It may surprise you, but there is still plenty of other Roman stuff to see in what was once Londinium. The Museum of London (which is great for kids by the way) has to be the next stop. Their Roman London gallery is chock-full of brilliant stuff which surprised even me, a battle-hardened veteran of Roman sites across Italy, France, Germany and Spain. There are statues, mosaics, reconstructions and you can even see a stretch of Londinium’s Roman wall! The star attraction, though, is probably the recently found Roman eagle sculpture - an extremely rare find. The museum also has a great app for kids called ‘Streetmuseum Londinium’ which is free to download (particularly great if you’re not based in the South East). It includes a virtual archaeological dig game where you can (re)unearth Roman artefacts found around London. If you have kids and a tablet or smartphone, I’d recommend you download it - it’s really good.
 
Roman Wall, London - Image credit: PastLondon
Like the Roman wall at the Museum of London, Roman sites pop up where you least expect them. Perhaps the weirdest of these is the temple of Mithras. It is located in amongst modern office blocks in the middle of the City and is incredibly easy to miss (took me a while to find it myself). Unfortunately, you can’t see it today as it is currently in storage due to building works in the area, but you’ll soon be able to see it again just a stone’s throw from Cannon Street station. For now, you can still see finds from the excavation of the temple at the Museum of London. Another odd little bit of Roman Britain hiding in the middle of the City is the remains of the amphitheatre which lie beneath the medieval Guildhall. It’s an odd experience to descend beneath the city to these eery ruins. I will just mention one more of the odd, little Roman sites that just pop up around London (though it is by no means the last): a Roman villa in the leafy South London suburbs. Crofton Roman Villa in Orpington (which would, of course, have been in the middle of countryside in Roman times) is a great, kid-friendly culmination to a tour of Roman Londinium. Not as extensive as the villas I mention below, but still worth a visit, especially for its proximity to central London.

Beyond Londinium 

The Romans are known for their villas and the South East has some notable ones. Favourites of mine are Lullingstone in Kent, which even has a Christian chapel, Fishbourne Palace near Chichester, with its outstanding mosaics and Bignor Roman Villa in West Sussex. I love Bignor in particular due to its stunning location in the middle of the South Downs. Standing amongst the ruins and looking up at the multi-coloured slopes around you on a summer’s day is a real privilege.
 
Dolphin Mosaic, Fishbourne Roman Palace
 It wasn’t all luxury in Roman Britain, though. In fact, it mostly wasn’t luxury, and for a reminder of the terrifying brute force which built the Roman Empire, you only need to go to Richborough, near Sandwich in Kent. Though obviously now a collection of ruins, it isn’t hard to imagine how impressive Richborough Fort would have been to the local Celtic tribes. You could even say this is where Roman Britain began and ended as it started life as a bridgehead for the Roman invasion of Britain and finished as a heavily fortified defence against the Saxons who would soon replace the Romans as the occupying force. Standing in amongst the ruins beside the Kentish marshes seems a good place to leave our exploration of Roman Britain for this week. Next week I will head west to the West Country, South Wales and West Midlands.
Richborough Roman Fort - Image credit: English Heritage
 
So, what do you think? Have I missed any of your favourite Roman sites in London and the South East? Let me know in the comments below.
 
My new children's time-travelling adventure set in Roman Britain, 'Rule Britannia’, book one of the ‘Pete’s time-travelling underpants’ series, will be out in mid-June.

 

 

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