Explore the extensive remains of one of the most important Roman military sites in Europe …
Welcome to Caerleon, or Isca, as the 5,000 soldiers of the Second Augustan Legion called it. Established in AD75, it was one of only three permanent Roman fortresses in the UK, and today it is the most accessible to visitors. A wander around this small town, on the banks of the River Usk offers an opportunity to explore the remains of the Roman Barracks, look down into the roman baths, and explore the National Roman Legion Museum, before stepping into the gladiatorial pit of the 6,000-seater amphitheatre.
The south-western edge of the town offers the best access to its Roman remains. Parking in Broadway enables you to explore the barracks and the amphitheatre. Caerleon’s barrack ruins are the only legionary barrack blocks visible in Europe. Originally built in wood, the later-built stone foundations of four separate blocks illustrate how each dormitory was split into pairs of smaller rooms. Each of these was home to four soldiers. The grassy earth bank identifies the site of the fortress’s main walls, offering a great perspective of the scale of the place. Look out along the inside of the earth embankment for stone circles in the ground. These are the remains of ovens, used for cooking rations. The rectangular remains further round are of the latrine, where instead of paper, legionaries would have used sticks with sponges soaked in vinegar!
Across the other side of Broadway lies the best-preserved example of a Roman amphitheatre in Britain. The town still uses it for public events today. Stand in the middle of the oval-shaped arena to get a real sense of the gladiatorial experience. Not only was the amphitheatre used for fights and challenges, it was also ideal for military training and weapon demonstrations. Whilst lions and leopards would not have been seen here, bears, wild boar and wolves from local forests may have been used in gladiatorial fights. The adjacent, visible fortress wall shows how the amphitheatre was built outside of the main fortress, which means the threat of attack when it was built around AD90 must have been low, because the structure would have given useful cover for potential attackers.
In town, there are two museums worth exploring. At the top of Broadway stands the National Roman Legion Museum (free entry), which is part of the National Museum of Wales. It houses some amazing exhibits, including the oldest recorded piece of writing in Wales, and the largest gemstone collection of the Roman empire, many of which were found in Caerleon during excavations. There’s even an example of a Roman Garden. During school holidays, children can try on replica armour.
One hundred yards farther along the High Street are the Roman Fortress Baths (Cadw). These were luxurious, with heated changing rooms, cold and warm baths, as well as an open-air swimming pool. This pool held 80,250 gallons of water, was 135 feet long, and had a larger surface area than the Roman Great Bath in Bath. Look out for the fragment of mosaic tiling, now hanging on a wall in the baths, which was uncovered in 1877 and hints at how the baths were a mixture of leisure centre and gentleman’s club!
Finish off your day at the Hanbury Arms, overlooking the River Usk, where Roman ships once docked. Today’s river is a little quieter.
How To Get There
Caerleon is on the B4326, near Junction 25 of the M4, north of Newport. Regular bus services connect Caerleon to Newport. The nearest railway station is Newport, served by London Paddington, Cardiff and Manchester.
Find Out More
National Roman Legion Museum
High Street, Caerleon, NP18 1AE
Tel: 029 2057 3550
Free entry, with over half a million objects on display.
The Hanbury Arms
Uskside, Caerleon, Newport, NP18 1AA
Tel: 01633 420361
Cask Marque accredited pub offering real ales alongside good food.
The Priory Hotel & Restaurant
High Street, Caerleon, Newport, NP18 1AG
Tel: 01633 421241
Originally a Cistercian monastery, then a nunnery, it’s now an atmospheric hotel with wood panelling dating back to 1622.
(c) Simon Whaley