Last week I released the first in my new series of children’s books entitled ‘Pete’s Time-travelling Underpants’. The first book, “Rule Britannia”, is set in Roman Britain in the first century AD. It’s a humorous story (you may have guessed so from the title) aimed at getting children interested in history and learning historical facts in an engaging way. I stopped the other day and asked myself why I wrote it and here is what I responded.
I love history
Anyone who knows me knows that saying ‘I love history’ is a ginormous understatement. I adore the stuff and have done ever since my visits to castles around the North West of England and North Wales in my plastic knights’ armour as a small child. Writing ‘Pete’s Time-travelling Underpants’ was therefore an indulgence of sorts. It allowed me to go back and explore one of my favourite periods of history - the Roman period. It was a great deal of fun as a result.
I never really stopped being a teacher
Many years ago I was a teacher and my favourite part of the job was sharing knowledge and seeing that moment when I really piqued a child’s interest. I still regularly go on to friends and family about interesting facts, theories and other things I find interesting with the hope that it stimulates their interest too (with mixed results). So, it seemed natural to me to write a children’s book that entertained while passing on lots of interesting and often gross facts about living in Roman Britain.
I was a fan of ‘Horrible Histories’ as a child
Many of you will be aware of the highly-successful children’s non-fiction series ‘Horrible Histories’, which has even become a television programme. I loved these books as a kid for two main reasons:
They were funny and disgusting.
They were packed full of facts about a particular period - ‘Vile Victorians’, ‘Terrible Tudors’, etc.
These books made distant peoples seem more human than other history books that focussed on the grandeur of Ancient Rome or the industrial might of the Victorians. In short, they made you realise that the people in these times were essentially the same as us, which made them all the more interesting. I hope with ‘Pete’s Time-Travelling Underpants’ to create a similar understanding in young readers.
It gave me a chance to try out humorous writing
My first book, “Holly Watson and the furry thieves”, was a children’s detective mystery story. Although I included some humour in it, this was not the over-riding tone of the book. I’d always enjoyed trying to write more humorous stuff in my spare time (though rarely sharing it) and also reading humorous children’s books. It seemed natural to try out something humorous and ‘Pete’s Time-travelling Underpants’ was the result.
From the response to the book so far, I realise it’s not only a good book for kids - adults are really enjoying it too. You can check it out now on Amazon in paperback and ebook.
I'm really excited to introduce you to the characters of my new book, the first in the 'Pete's Time-travelling Underpants' series. Titled 'Rule Britannia', it sees the hero, Pete Tollywash, transported back to Roman Britain by a dirty, old pair of underpants which his godmother gives him for his thirteenth birthday. The cast are a motley crew who range from the insane to the downright despicable. Fortunately, there are exceptions, including Julius, a friendly young slaveboy with an incredible secret. Through his hilarious and exciting adventures, Pete learns that Roman Britain was not all it was cracked up to be and, in fact, could be pretty disgusting - think Horrible Histories meets Quantum Leap. So, let's meet the cast.
21st century AD cast
13-year-old schoolboy and resident of Guildford, a large town outside London. Pete is pretty lazy and, when it comes to history, completely clueless. Fortunately (or should that be unfortunately?) for him he’s about to get a much-needed history lesson. He is convinced that his Auntie Cheryl is just being her usual insane self when she gives him underpants for his birthday. When he finds himself thrown into a disgusting, smelly prison in Roman Britain, he starts to think she may have been right about these ’time-travelling underpants’.
Though officially ‘out of her tree’, Pete’s godmother, Cheryl Snarlborough, is also a very respectable History teacher at a local secondary school. Her love of history stems from the fact that she too once time-travelled in the famous underpants. She has now passed the duty on to the next generation, but that doesn’t stop her interfering and getting Pete into lots of trouble.
Pete is hindered along the way by his loving family. His mother, Linda, hasn’t yet quite come to terms with having two teenage sons and his father, Harry, is just generally pretty baffled. The bane of Pete’s life is Jim, his older brother and the star of his school. Pete can’t quite compete with Jim academically (well it’s probably fairer to say he doesn’t even try). The only person who doesn’t cause Pete trouble is his big sister Susie, but that’s mainly because she’s away at university most of the time.
1st century AD cast
13-year-old slaveboy from East Anglia working for the same master as Pete. Julius is a bright young boy, but for some reason he takes a shine to Pete. So much so, that he lets Pete in on his secret. This propels both of them into an adventure that will put their friendship to the test and bring them up against the evil Noxius Maximus.
The chief slave. Snottius looks down on all the other slaves. He claims this is because he is a Gaul (sadly not the good kind, like Asterix) and they are Britons. In actual fact, it’s because he’s a rather unpleasant little toad. Suffice to say, he is not impressed when his master, Probus, comes home from the slave market with Pete in tow.
The local prefect, that is to say the head of the local government in East Anglia, Noxius lives up to his name. His favourite pastime is torturing the local Britons in his prison. Noxius is a thoroughly nasty piece of work who sells our hero into slavery. But can Pete and Julius stop his evil plans?
Superbus by name, Superbus by nature (‘superbus’, among other things, means ‘arrogant’ in Latin). The son of Pete's master, Probus, he is lovingly called ‘snot-for-brains’ by Julius and Pete quickly learns why. What Superbus lacks in intelligence, he more than makes up for in downright unpleasantness. Even so, he does provide plenty of amusement for Pete and Julius who find it just too hard not to play practical jokes on him.
You will be able to meet these characters and more in 'Pete's Time-travelling Underpants' - available on Amazon from 22nd June.
Imagine yourself in a windswept, freezing cold fortress, over a thousand miles from home and surrounded by hostile natives. No, you are not a young British soldier in the days of the Raj. You are a Croatian conscript in the Roman Army, garrisoning a fort on the Hardknott Pass in the Lake District, circa 140AD. Civilisation is a very hard march away over desolate country (it’s difficult enough getting up there in a car in the twenty-first century) and there are definitely no cosy tea rooms or picturesque steam cruises. So we have arrived in the North of Roman Britain, our last stop on my tour. Though you are as far north as you could be in the Roman Empire and almost as far from Rome as you are from our poor Croatian conscripts’ Mediterranean home, there is a surprising wealth of Roman remains in the North. Gone, though, are the fine villas we saw in Kent and Wiltshire. Instead, unsurprisingly, given the locals’ distaste for Roman rule and love of raiding, we find perhaps the most famous of all Roman military constructions - Hadrian’s Wall. We also find the fine city where my love of all things Roman began - Chester or Deva. But this is not all you will find in Northern Britannia.
Hadrian’s Wall, Cumbria, Northumberland and Tyne Wear
Built as a way of confirming and strengthening the northern boundary of the Roman Empire, Hadrian’s wall is an embodiment of the Emperor Hadrian’s desire to maintain what he had rather than expand the Empire. It is phenomenally well intact and remains of varying quality are visible for much of its 80 mile stretch. It is littered with forts, the most famous of which are almost certainly Housesteads and Vindolanda. However, there are also remains worth seeing at Chesters (which also has a great museum) in Northumberland, Birdoswald in Cumbria and Segedunum in Wallsend, Tyne and Wear.
Housesteads Roman Fort, Northumberland
Though Chester was the birthplace of my love of the Romans, Housesteads Roman Fort played a vital part in nurturing this love. There is still a picture of me somewhere in my parents’ house ‘excavating’ a stone in the fort at the age of 9 or so (please don’t tell Historic England). I still remember the latrines at Housesteads, which my 9-year-old imagination found it quite amusing and interesting to reconstruct. It had such an impact on me that latrines play a crucial part in my soon-to-be-released children’s time-travelling adventure set in Roman Britain. In fact, I understand English Heritage awarded Housesteads the much-coveted best Roman loos in Britain award. Latrines aside, it is the stunning setting of Housesteads that makes it a must-see on Hadrian’s Wall.
Vindolanda Roman Fort, Northumberland
Not far from Housesteads lies another fantastic Roman fort with a great Roman Army Museum. Though less impressively located than Housesteads, Vindolanda boasts a well-preserved bathhouse (it wasn’t all bleak discomfort far from home on Hadrian’s Wall) and thanks to the wetness of the surrounding land, its museum holds a number of impressive and rare finds, including the only Roman wooden toilet seat found to date (I promise the rest of the post will not be about toilets). The most incredible of these finds are the Vindolanda Tablets (the rest being at the British Museum). These are a fascinating record of the lives of soldiers on the Wall and those of their families and slaves. One of the tablets found included a birthday party invitation from Claudia Severa, the wife of the commander of a nearby camp, to Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the prefect of the cohort based at Vindolanda. For me it is a fascinating and touching appearance of two women in what is normally an almost exclusively male history.
We now head quite a way south to the important Roman city and port of Deva Victrix. Chester as we Britons now call it was such a vital pace as it began life as a base for waging war on the Brigantes of Roman Britain. It grew into a thriving city as the remains of a bathhouse, amphitheatre and parts of its wall (now incorporated as the foundations of the medieval city wall) now testify. Two museums I loved as a child were the Grosvenor Museum and the Dewa Roman Experience. The former is a treasure-trove of artefacts from Roman Chester including tombstones, coins, pottery and other day-to-day items. The Dewa Roman Experience is an interactive museum which recreates what life in the city would have been like. My abiding memories are of the men dressed as Roman legionaries, which was all a ten-year-old boy could ask for, and the gallery where you actually get to walk through the layers of Medieval, Saxon and Roman Chester.
York, North Yorkshire
The Roman city of Eboracum was another vitally important location in the Northern Roman Empire which rose to prominence because of its military importance but became a thriving civilian settlement as well. In fact, two Roman emperors died here - Septimius Severus in 211 AD and Constantius Chlorus (father of Constantine the Great) in 306 AD - and Septimius Severus took up residence here during his campaigns in Scotland. There are few visible remains left in York, but they include remains of the basilica in the undercroft of York Minster, parts of the Roman city wall incorporated in the medieval wall and the Roman bathhouse within the aptly named Roman Bath pub. As in Chester, many finds from the Roman city can be viewed in the main museum - the Yorkshire Museum.
Not really in the north, I appreciate, but I feel Leicester is worthy of a mention because of the surprisingly good, if limited, Roman remains the city has. Long before the locals were burying English kings under car parks, Leicester was another bustling Roman city (as the suffix ‘-cester’ a corruption of the Latin ‘castra’ or fort signifies). At the Jewry Wall Museum you will find the Jewry Wall itself, a substantial Roman wall that was once part of the Roman bathhouse and impressive Roman artefacts, including a mosaic of a Peacock. I was very pleasantly surprised by how good this museum is.
So, here I will leave you. I hope you have enjoyed reading my tour of Roman Britain as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Please do let me know your favourite Roman sites in Britain in the comments below and your thoughts on my selections.
My children’s book set in Roman Britain, ‘Rule Britannia’, book one of the ‘Pete’s Time-travelling Underpants’ series will be released shortly.
What must it have been like as a Roman soldier on the coast of Wales or the West Country? Staring out over the Atlantic Ocean towards what you probably thought were the ends of the world. Though it was almost certainly not number one on a list of Roman legionary's dream postings, archaeological finds in Western Britannia suggest life wasn't as bleak as we'd imagine.
As I continue my tour of Roman Britain (inspired by my upcoming children's time-travelling adventure ‘Pete’s time-travelling underpants’), we now travel to the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire (Wales, the West Country and West Midlands to you and me). It might surprise you to know that these far-flung Roman possessions still have a number of fantastically well-preserved sites to visit. From the splendour of Bath to the military might of Caerleon, the western edge of the Roman Empire is rich with its own great monuments. To be honest, I’ve been a little surprised myself as my research has turned up many wonderful sites I’d never even heard of. But I will begin with one of the most famous Roman sites in Britain.
Although extensively and tastefully redeveloped by the Georgians to become the ‘modern’ spa town we see today, Roman Bath is still very much visible. It was named Aquae Sulis after the local Celtic goddess Sulis, whom the Romans incorporated into their own worship as Sulis Minerva, in an attempt to win local ‘hearts and minds’. Walking into the Roman baths is very much one of those ‘going back in time’ moments. Entering the Great Bath is perhaps the moment that sticks with me most, as, although much of it has been reconstructed, you are struck by how much of the original bath is still there. What I also love about the baths is that these are a piece of important day-to-day life in the Roman age. As you go through the remains of the changing rooms and the different pools (from the sauna to the cold plunge pool), you are following in the footsteps of everyday Roman subjects as they enjoyed a fundamental part of Roman life.
We now cross the modern-day border into Wales, which, of course, would have meant nothing to a Roman traveller who would simply have been continuing their journey in the Roman province of Britannia. At Caerleon we find extensive remains of a Roman fort, baths and an amphitheatre. This really dispels the image of the poor, unfortunate Roman legionary packed off to Britain with none of the creature comforts of home. Isca Augusta, as the Romans knew it, named for the nearby River Usk, really was an important town in Roman Britain. The well-preserved amphitheatre and the barracks (supposedly the best preserved Roman barracks in Europe) are perhaps the highlights of a visit. There are also a Roman Baths Museum and a Roman Legion Museum and everything is free entry. Proving that Isca Augusta was not an isolated example of a well-developed Roman town in the far west, you can also visit the smaller remains of Venta Silurum nearby, which include those of a marketplace, town wall and temple.
A surprisingly well-preserved town which started life as a military base for the Roman invasion of what is now Wales. The Roman town of 'Viroconium' boasts the largest piece of free-standing Roman wall in Britain, a large bathhouse and even a reconstructed Roman townhouse. It also includes well-preserved public latrines where the men of Viroconium would have talked business while they did their business!
Littlecote Roman Villa, Wiltshire
Not a bad find to dig up in your back garden. The owner of nearby Littlecote House discovered Littlecote Roman Villa in his grounds in the eighteenth century. Not much remains of the villa, but what does remain is perhaps one of the finest mosaics in Roman Britain still in situ. The 'Orpheus Mosaic' is remarkable for its quality and its state of preservation. In amongst various animals and elaborate designs you will find the great figure of classical myth Orpheus, of course, but also the gods Bacchus and Apollo.
Cirencester or 'Corinium' was fortified by the Romans from very early on in their occupation of Britain. Though some remains are visible of the amphitheatre and walls, Cirencester’s significance is in its Corinium Museum. It is well-known for its collection of mosaics from sites around the Cirencester area. Highlights of the collection include a tombstone for a lady called Bodicacia - a name not seen before and believed to be derived from that of the rebel British Queen Boudicca - and jewellery including an exquisite bronze cockerel from a child’s grave.
I hope you have enjoyed this whistle-stop tour of western Roman Britain, but before we leave it behind, I’d like to make honourable mentions of a few sites. Lunt Roman Fort in Warwickshire is a large-scale reconstruction on the excavated remains of an original fort. It deserves particularly honourable mention as it was built in the aftermath of Boudicca's rebellion - the same period as that in which my book is set. The site will give you a good impression of what a Roman fort would probably have been like and is also the scene of fun-looking re-enactments.
And finally I will leave you on the far western shores of the Roman Empire, in Anglesey. I loved reading the Roman historian Tacitus’s tales of the Roman invasion of Anglesey (complete with terrifying British women brandishing flaming torches and awe-inspiring Druids chanting prayers) and I remember being flabbergasted that the Romans made it this far. Further evidence of the Romans' conquest of this island, which must have seemed a world away from Rome, can be found at Segontium Roman Fort, just outside Caernarfon and at Holyhead Roman fort, a stone’s throw from the ferry to Ireland.