A rainy day in England sent us running for the Welsh border. We crossed the dramatic Severn Bridge in sheets of rain, paid our toll, and suddenly rolled into sunshine. Yay for Wales! Our destination was the National Roman Legion Museum in Caerleon. The Second Legion Augusta was stationed here after fighting for years in Germany, and this permanent fortress was known as “Isca Augusta” (Isca for the river Usk). Entire families were posted here, and attempted to bring the lifestyle of Rome to this cold, northern outpost.
It was terribly muddy. I have no photos of the barracks, so check out this photo.
Once inside, I experienced one of those sinking sensations known to mothers world-wide — you know, when you promise something really cool to your kids, and then you drive an hour through a terrible rainstorm, get lost, have no cash to buy them doughnuts at the bakery next to the museum, you finally get inside the museum, and what you see in front of you is one room — this room, in fact — and the youngest starts to cry? Yes, one of those sinking feelings.
However, I do bribery very well, and we had a good cruise through the displays and found some good books in the bookshop — an enjoyed a trip to the toilet. No, really, the toilets were done up like a traditional Roman toilet, with a hole cut in a box (set over a proper toilet) and a basin for a sink. Thank god paper was provided, instead of a spongia.
We strolled over to the tourist information office, which a clever friend has trained me to search out, and asked for suggestions for lunch places. I thoroughly recommend The Lodge Coffee and Deli, right in the center of the village, for a great ploughman’s lunch with delicious local cheeses, excellent coffee and hot chocolate, and kid-pleasing ‘smarties muffins’ (basically cupcakes you can pretend are partly healthy because the name says ‘muffin’.)
Suitably renewed, we headed to the Baths. Our day was looking up.
But where the National Museum was, frankly, not day-trip worthy, the Baths saved the trip. Here see recreated a long outdoor swimming pool. There isn’t any water — it’s all done with lights and sound effects — but it looks very realistic. At the far end, the gift shop rests over the original location of a water shrine. I don’t want to think about that too closely.
The Fortress Baths museum shows only the small section in green, above. The rest of the bath complex is underneath the modern village. Up to 500 Legionnaires could have bathed here at a time — women and children in the morning, soldiers in the afternoon. Locals were not allowed — Romans only. I found that I had an overwhelming sympathy for the cold Romans, desperately trying to re-create the warmth and sun of Rome here on the outskirts of empire.
Informative panels on the wall describe life in the baths, in English and in Welsh.
Look, a roman drain! I don’t know why I think this is so cool. Probably because it is one of those daily-living details you never think about when the glory of Rome is splattered around in movies or dramatic books. But life is in these details. Drains. We all need ’em.
A small altar niche, possibly for Nemesis, goddess of fate and vengeance, thought to be lucky for performers. If the performers are, like, scarf-jugglers, I think that’s a little weird. If the performers are gladiators fighting to the death, that seems appropriate.
We spent a couple of hours in Caerleon. On a warm summer’s day, I’d think the day could have been longer, especially with a more extensive walk through the Barracks. On a coldish late autumn day, we left a bit early — on a sunny high note. We had enough time to swing by a border castle along the way home (can you believe I live somewhere where I can swing by a castle on the way home???) — but I’ll let that be a post for another day.