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.