Saturday 22 August 2009

Isca Augusta

Family day out today, a trip across the border into darkest Wales and the Roman Fortress at Caerleon. Despite it only being a paltry 32 miles door to door, I hadn't appreciated what was on show in the town, indeed the nearest we'd ever got was driving along the M4 to Cardiff, seeing the sign for Roman Fort at Newport and thinking "must go there someday..." Well today was the day and it was well worth it!

First off we visited the National Roman Legion Museum in the town, a quite small museum, but well laid out with plenty to look at (and activities for the kids). It was free to enter and out the back was a Roman garden (much appreciated by SWMBO) with some re-enactors in residence (much appreciated by Saul as he had a chance to try on the Lorcia Segmenta and helmet). There was also a webcam which gave us the chance to wave at some family members holidaying in Dubai - well they had to find something to do during Ramadan!)

From the museum we went to the excavations of part of a huge baths, including a outdoor natatio and indoor cold frigidarium.

In the photo (to the left) you can see the raised square blocks which were part of the underground heating. By the natatio is a wonderful footprint of a hob-nailed sandal made by some Roman 1900 years ago!

We then visited the ampitheatre which is the most complete in Britain. The photo doesn't do it justice as it is quite large and in its day (built in AD90) it held a crowd of 6,000 in timber grandstand built on the surviving stone ramparts.

Part of the original fortress wall runs alongside the ampitheatre, indeed it was hard to gauge the size of Isca Augusta (so named because the 2nd Legion Augusta was staioned here) until you visited the barracks.

Three lines of barracks are visible and each barracks housed a century. This excavated area is just a small corner of the fortress and it is only when you compare that to the map that you realise the fortress covers the entire town, with the ampitheatre and parade ground (now a rugby pitch) outside. When looked at in this context it is really quite gobsmacking...

The photo shows the only properly excavated line of barracks (the other two are reconstructed on top of remains to protect them and the rest is below ground). The nearest squares are the rooms which house eight legionnaires, the ones adjacent are the rooms for their storage with the fortress rampart just visible behind (a wall was built atop this). SWMBO and I had debated how many would fit in a room and decided on four at a pinch in bunks. We were quite surprised when we checked the (excellent) guidebook and found it was double this (cosy!)

Overall we had a good time, and will definitely visit again (they do a "military spectacular" each July) and would recommend anyone visiting South Wales via the M4 to make the short detour and visit the site.

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