The United Kingdom is not short of ancient monuments and ruins. Every year, international visitors flock to the most famous Roman ruins in England. Thousands see the well preserved Roman baths in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Bath or discover the hidden Roman basilica in the crypt of York Minster.
But, though famous, they are just the tip of the iceberg. The Romans were around for a long time and they left a lot more to see across a territory that, for almost 400 years, stretched from coast to coast and from the south and west of Britain up to the rather fluid Scottish border in the north. If they were soldiers and civil servants and administrators, they were also farmers and merchants and ordinary middle class Romanized Britons.
In fact, a lot of what we know about them - how they worked and played, what they wore and what they ate, we've learned from the sheer amount of stuff - buildings, baths, artwork and artifacts - that they left behind, These 10 often overlooked and underrated sites are among the dozens that you can visit.
The largest Roman villa in Britain, this lavish residence has fabulous mosaic floors. The palace, near Chichester, is set in restored, but original, Roman gardens. They are, in fact, the oldest gardens discovered anywhere in the UK. And Fishbourne has the largest collection of mosaics still in their original place in the UK. The mosaic of cupid on a dolphin even has the artist's signature. Thousands of items, including coins, pottery and jewelry found at the site are on display. There's also a temporary exhibition area for recent finds and a film that helps visitors imagine life at Fishbourne 2,000 years ago.
- Fishbourne Roman Palace, Roman Way, Fishbourne, West Sussex, PO19 3QR
- Telephone: +44(0)1243 785859
- Open: February 1 to April 30, every day, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; March 1 to October 31, every day 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; November 1 to December 16, 10am to 4pm. Saturday and Sunday openings from December 16. The holiday season openings vary from year to year so it's best to check the website.
- Admission: Adult, child, family, concessions and group ticket prices available.
Chedworth Roman Villa is a large, National Trust site centered on the private home of a wealthy Roman Briton in the Cotswolds. It's another site known for its well preserved mosaic floors and for the many artifacts discovered there.
The site, near Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, is enclosed by over a mile of Roman walls. Within the walls, there are bath houses, underfloor heating systems (yes the Romans had central heating) and a water shrine. There's also a recently renovated Victorian museum where you can examine many of the artifacts.
The National Trust are very good at making their sites come to life, so expect to be fascinated by what you see here. The mosaics are protected by an environmentally-controlled conservation shelter with walkways suspended just above the 1,600-year-old Roman floors.
- Chedworth Roman Villa, Yanworth, near Cheltenham, GL54 3LJ
- Telephone: +44(0)1242 890256
- Open: Every day from February half-term to the end of November. Seasonal hours so telephone or check the Chedworth Roman Villa website first.
- Admission: Adult, child, family and group ticket prices available. The site is free for members of the National Trust or holders of a National Trust Overseas Visitor's Pass.
Excavations and reconstructions give visitors an idea about life for a Roman Legion on the edge of empire. The fort guarded the mouth of the River Tyne, east of the eastern end of Hadrian's Wall in South Shields. It housed a garrison and was the supply base for 17 forts along the Roman wall. Excavations began in the late 19th century and the impressive entrance gate is a reconstruction, created in the 1980s from archaeological and documentary evidence. Several other reconstructions were later added to the site and there is also a museum of finds. Current excavations have been going on for more than 25 years.
Visitors can see archaeologists at work, watch occasional re-enactments and explore a collection that includes a full suit of ringmail and the finest collection of Roman objects made of jet in Britain. In TimeQuest, school groups of budding archaeologists can get their hands dirty in a hands-on dig experience.
- Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum, Baring Street, South Shields NE33 2BB
- Telephone: +44(0)191 277 1410
- Open: from April 1 to end of September; Visit the Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum website for opening hours.
- Admission: Free
Many visitors have heard of Hadrian's Wall, but not that many have actually walked along it. It's an oversight that deserves to be remedied.
Built in the first century, Hadrian's Wall stretched, uninterrupted for 80 miles, from the Cumbrian Coast on the west to Wallsend, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the Northeast. It was about 20 feet high and took three years to build. Except for a few years, when the Roman frontier stretched to the Antonine Wall across Scotland, Hadrian's wall was the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. From about AD 122, when it was built, to 410 when the Roman's left Britain, it was a patrolled border with forts and garrisons arranged along its entire length.
Over the years, stones from the wall were used in road building, farm fences and local houses before much of it was finally saved by a private landowner in the 1830s.
More recently, the National Trust acquired most of the land through which Hadrian's Wall runs. And there's a remarkable amount of it left - running over hills, through ditches and across streams.
Several interesting sites along the wall are maintained by English Heritage and open to visitors. Access to some of them involves crossing private land so opening hours can be seasonal or limited. Admission is charged at all of these sites. For the most up-to-date information of prices and opening hours, click on the links below:
- Birdoswald Roman Fort, site of the longest remaining continuous stretch of the wall
- Chesters Roman Fort and Museum, the best preserved Roman cavalry fort and military bath house in Britain
- Corbridge Roman Town, a supply base for Roman legions that became a bustling civilian town.
- Housesteads Roman Fort, the most complete Roman fort in Britain with a refurbished museum, new in 2012.
Descriptions of Hadrian's Wall suggest that it marks the Northern border of the Roman Empire. But actually, the Romans penetrated about 100 miles further north, well into Scotland above Glasgow.
Of course they built a wall because that's what the Roman's did along their hostile borders. The Antonine Wall in Scotland was built by the Roman Army under the Emperor Antoninus Pius sometime after AD142. It marks what was the northwest border of the Roman Empire.
About 37 miles long, it's a giant earthwork that crosses the narrowest part of Britain, from Bowness on the Firth of Forth to Old Kilpatrick on the Clyde. As the Roman Empire contracted, the wall was abandoned in favor of Hadrian's Wall.
In 2008, the Antonine Wall, looked after by Historic Scotland, was included in the Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site.
An exhibit of finds from the western end of the wall can be seen in a permanent gallery, The Antonine Wall: Rome's Final Frontier, at the Hunterian Museum of the University of Glasgow.
- University of Glasgow, The Hunterian, University Avenue, Glasgow G12 8QQ
- Telephone: +44(0)141 330 4221
- Open: April to October, Monday to Saturday 10a.m. to 5p.m., Sunday 2 p.m. to 5p.m. November through March closing at 4 p.m. Closed December 23 -26 and January 1.
- Admission: Free
- Visit the website for the Hunterian Museum to learn more.
Cirencester in the Cotswolds, was once the bustling Roman city of Corinium. In Britain's Roman era, the city had about the same population as it has today and, outside of London, was the country's second largest city. Southwest Britain was administered from here.
The area around Cirencester has long produced rich pickings for archaeologists and most of what they find ends up in Corinium Museum. The museum has one of the largest and most important collections of Romano-British finds in the UK. Most of the museum's treasures (which also include early Anglo Saxon finds) are well displayed and exhibited.
Corinium is family friendly and features a number of interactive and hands on exhibits for children. But the real show-stopper is The Seasons, a 2nd century mosaic floor relaid in a recreation of a Roman villa. Just, try not to be put off by the corny mannequins of a middle-class Roman couple relaxing on their wicker and upholstered furniture, arranged on the mosaic.
- Corinium Museum,Park Street,Cirencester,Gloucestershire GL7 2BX
- Telephone: +44(0)1285 655611
- Open: Year round - Monday to Saturday 10am to 4pm, Sunday 2pm to 4pm
- Admission: Adult, child, family, seniors, students and unemployed prices available. Visit the Corinium Museum website for prices and information on temporary exhibitions.
They've only recently started the excavations at Viroconium (Wroxeter), near Shrewsbury in Shropshire and already you can imagine a day at the gym and the spa Roman-style, a lively debate in the civic center or a stroll among the shops.
This English Heritage site has a very good museum of local finds, a reconstructed Roman villa you can take a walk through and excellent information scattered around the site. An impressive wall of what was an enormous basilica remains as well as the hypocaust - where air and water were heated for baths that ranged from tepid to hot and steamy. The columns of a forum and marketplace are partially excavated but much of the site is still to be uncovered. What has been revealed so far makes for several hours of pleasant exploration.
- Wroxeter Roman City, Wroxeter, near Shrewsbury, Shropshire SY5 6PH
- Telephone: +44 (0)1743 761330
- Open: The site is open year round but hours are seasonal so check the website before you go.
- Admission: Adult, child, family and concession tickets available
The UK public recently voted the Vindolanda Tablets Britain's greatest treasure. The tablets, wafer thin slices of wood which carry correspondence and messages written in ink, are the earliest known examples of handwriting ever found in the country. The letters are about beer bills, pleas for justice, disputes among soldiers, even requests for warm socks from home. They provide a remarkable glimpse of life at Vindolanda, a Roman garrison and town just south of Hadrian's Wall. Some of them are kept at the British Museum in London, but a group, preserved in special, hermetically sealed display cases can be seen at the museum there.
The enormous Vindolanda excavations at Chesterholm in northeast England,comprise one of the most important Roman archaeological sites in Europe. More than 500 metric tons of pottery alone have been excavated there.
Visitors can sometimes witness working archaeologists still excavating the site. Even better, those who are willing to devote two consecutive weeks to the task can volunteer to take part in excavations. In addition to Roman Vindolanda with its excavations, and archaeological museum, there is a nearby Roman Army Museum.
- Vindolanda Trust, Chesterholm Museum, Bardon Mill, Hexham, Northumberland NE47 7JN
- Telephone: +44(0)1434 344 277
- Open: Mid February to the March 31 from 10am to 5pm and to 6pm from April to the end of September.
- Admission: Adult, child, family, concessions and group ticket prices are available. A ticket for both Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum is very good value. Alternatively, separate tickets are available for each of the two attractions.
- Visit the Vindolanda website.
The Romans appear to be the first people to have searched the British landscape for gold and their Dolaucothi Mines in Wales are the only known Roman gold mines in the UK. There, they diverted a stream to wash away the lighter soils, leaving the heavier gold behind. The Welsh gold they found was sent to the Imperial Mint in Lyon to be struck into coins.
Dolaucothi was mined right into the 1930s. At this National Trust managed property just northwest of the Brecon Beacons National Park, you can explore the Roman mine, the Victorian mine and the 20th century works. Expect to get kitted up in miners gear to go underground for this one.
- Dolaucothi Mines, Pumsaint, Llanwrda, Wales SA19 8US
- Telephone: +44(0)1558 650177
- Open: The mines are open from late March to the end of October. The grounds and farmland are open year round. Check the Dolaucothi Gold Mines National Trust website for seasonal hours.
- Admission: Adult, child, family and group ticket prices available.
This settlement between Newport and Chepstow in southeast Wales was the capital and market town of the Silures, a defeated Roman British tribe. Its Roman name was Venta Silurum. Remains of buildings including dwellings, a forum and a basilica date from the time of Hadrian, around the 2nd century. The town was undefended until the 4th century when its 17-foot walls were built. Excavations in 2008 uncoverd a row of shops and a Roman villa.
The site, which is free to visit, is open every day from 10am to 4pm. To really make sense of this site, try to visit on Tuesdays or Thursdays when a facilitator is available to answer questions and give guided tours.
For more information about this site, telephone Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service on +44 (0)1443 336000.