Exploring the Roman history of Caerleon, Newport

I sometimes think that the places we enjoy most are those that are completely unexpected and unplanned. That’s exactly how I felt when we stopped off in the town of Caerleon, South Wales.

Caerleon was home to a Roman legionary fortress and settlement, Isca Augusta, one of just three permanent fortresses in Britain. It’s a fantastic place to visit if your children are studying the Romans as in addition to a Roman Legion museum there’s an amphitheatre, baths and barracks to explore. Amazingly they’re all free to visit!

National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon

We started with a visit to the Roman Legion museum. This small museum is located inside what remains of the fortress and contains many items found in the area around Caerleon. The various displays are dedicated to different aspects of Roman life and death, including how they ate, lived and worked.

National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon
National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon

My favourite exhibit was that of the gemstones found in the drains of the Roman baths. Most originally belonged in rings; it’s thought they were lost by legionary soldiers whilst bathing.

The kids were impressed with a Bath stone coffin (with skeleton) whilst I was quite taken with a section of mosaic flooring.

Inside National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon
Inside National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon

For younger children there’s a chance to dress up as a Roman soldier and see what life would have been like inside a barracks room. The museum has a small but well stocked shop, both my kids found something to spend their money on.

Outside there’s a Roman garden but we visited at the wrong time of year to appreciate it.

The Roman Baths

The Roman baths, just down the road from the museum, were used by the soldiers for relaxation and socialising. They originally consisted of cold, warm and hot pools, heated changing rooms and an outdoor pool (now covered, see the photo below).

We followed the raised boardwalk around the edge of the baths and were treated to projected images and sound which make it seem like the pool contains water and Roman swimmers. It’s cleverly done and is similar to the visual effects we enjoyed at another CADW location, Blaenavon ironworks.

Caerleon Roman baths
Caerleon Roman baths

Look carefully when you walk around the large pool and you’ll be able to see the imprint of a dog’s paw in one of the clay tiles. It’s amazing to think it’s almost 2000 years old.

Caerleon amphitheatre

The amphitheatre was built around AD90 and could seat up to 6000 spectators. Although it is the best preserved amphitheatre in Britain you’ll still need to use your imagination; my favourite kind of attraction. Official excavations first started over 100 years ago with the removal of 30,000 tons of soil from the site. Informal excavations had taken place beforehand as evidenced by the use of ‘Roman’ stone in some local buildings!

Exploring the amphitheatre at Caerleon
Exploring the amphitheatre at Caerleon

The amphitheatre is covered in grass and we were free to wander at will. Back in the Roman times it would have had an upper seating tier made from wood and a sandy arena floor. The soldiers used it for parades, training and deadly gladiator battles. It’s rather hard to envisage this nowadays but it must have been an incredible spectacle.

Roman barracks

Close by you can find the remains of the Roman barracks, home to the 5,500 soldiers. There are a couple of interpretation boards around the site which explain what the foundation walls and marks on the ground are. It’s possible to make out the soldiers quarters and some large circular ovens but it would be great to see some further interpretation of the site.

We were really impressed with Caerleon. If you’re driving through South Wales on the M4 make an effort to stop off; it’s only a few minutes drive from Newport junction and it’s definitely worth it.

More info

  • The National Roman Legion Museum is free to enter and open daily (although only 2-5pm on Sunday). The museum runs lots of family events throughout the year, current ones include archery, mosaic making and the chance to meet a Roman soldier.
  • The Roman fortress and baths  and amphitheatre are also free to enter. Both are open daily except for a short period over Christmas.

Family walks near Abergavenny

Abergavenny_walks

We stayed near Abergavenny in the Brecon Beacons late last year and spent several days exploring the local hills. There are three focal points for walkers heading out of town; Sugar Loaf, Blorenge and Skirrid Fawr. All make excellent half day (or longer) walks and are generally suitable for families used to walking.

I’ve added links at the bottom to the walking routes we followed.

Sugar Loaf mountain

You’d never normally think of Wales as a wine producing country so it was rather surprising when we drove past Sugar Loaf vineyard on our way to the start of this walk. Just a pity it was closed, I’d love to know how they manage to grow grapes in the Welsh climate.

Starting out on Sugar Loaf
Starting out on Sugar Loaf

Our plan for the day was to walk up the west ridge of Sugar Loaf; a slightly less trodden option on this popular hill. The first mile or so was an easy walk along a broad track fringed with bracken. A short steep downhill section followed which is always a little disconcerting when you’re trying to reach a summit. We crossed a stream and then our route took us uphill again.

Into the mist
Into the mist

At this point we walked into some typically Welsh weather. I’m sure the views on a fine day are fantastic but what can I say? We saw mist, bracken and sheep. At the summit we clambered over some rocks to the trig point. Of course we still took the obligatory ‘top of the mountain’ photo but we could have been on just about any hill.

Lunch - in the Sugar Loaf car park
Lunch – in the Sugar Loaf car park

I’d originally hoped to eat lunch near the summit but the weather wasn’t conducive to a picnic. Instead we hot footed it back down the hill and found a convenient spot in the car park. We ate our sandwiches in relative comfort and enjoyed the view!

Blorenge

Blorenge is within the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape World Heritage area; you can still see the remains of a tramway which linked a a quarry on the mountain with the ironworks down in Blaenavon.

This was an easy walk because we cheated and parked in the Keeper’s Pond car park near the summit. If you’re looking for a more challenging walk you can take the steep path up from Abergavenny but this is only for fit families with older children.

Towards the summit of Blorenge
Towards the summit of Blorenge

From the car park, we headed towards the radio masts and another car park. Here there’s a memorial to Foxhunter, a horse that won gold at the 1952 Olympics, but we somehow managed to miss it. Fortunately we found the path to the summit. It’s a very gentle walk, with minimal ascent, although the ground was pretty boggy either side of the path. The summit view consisted of (you’ve guessed it) mist, but this lifted as we walked down and around the hill.

Heading off of Blorenge summit
Heading off of Blorenge summit

Below the mist we were treated to some glorious views over Abergavenny and Skirrid (the hill on the right in the photo below).  We headed downhill slightly and then followed a circular route around the escarpment which eventually led us back to Keeper’s Pond. This second part of the walk, after we’d escaped the mist and radio masts, was so much more scenic and definitely worth extending the walk for.

View from Blorenge
View from Blorenge

Skirrid Fawr

The standalone hill of Skirrid Fawr (Ysgyryd Fawr) is on land owned by the National Trust. There are many myths and legends attached to it; evidently a landslide on the north of the mountain occurred when it was struck by lightning at exactly the same time that Christ was crucified.

The walk up Skirrid Fawr
The walk up Skirrid Fawr

This was my favourite hill walk of the week. We took the main track up through the woods and then skirted around the hillside on a rather muddy track until we reached the northern end of the hill. This was followed by a rather steep, albeit relatively short, climb up the hill using footholds in the path.

Scarlet waxcaps, Skirrid Fawr
Scarlet waxcaps, Skirrid Fawr

On the way up we passed some amazing fungi. I’ve subsequently found out that the picture above is of a scarlet waxcap. Despite its bright red colour it’s not poisonous but I’d still never consider eating it!

On the summit of Skirrid Fawr
On the summit of Skirrid Fawr

We arrived almost directly on the summit and were treated to fabulous views of Sugar Loaf and Blorenge. No mist, the strong wind had blown it all away.

The route back to the car park was along a broad grassy ridge which descended back down to the woodland. This was obviously the popular track as we passed several families and dog walkers coming up this route. If you don’t mind the short steep climb I’d personally recommend the hill using the route we took.

More info:

  • We followed the AA Sweet Walking on Sugar Loaf walk.  The route is 4.5 miles with 1,150 ft of ascent. We own the AA book of walks, but you can also download the route here.
  • We also followed the AA Bird’s-eye view of Abergavenny walk whilst on Blorenge. The walk is 3 miles long with an ascent of 530ft. We walked it in reverse; details of the original walk here.
  • Our walk to the summit of Skirrid Fawr was 4 miles long and took a couple of hours. We followed the route suggested on the National Trust website. Navigation was straightforward; be aware there’s a short but steep ascent up a grassy hill which was pretty muddy and slippy. Those with younger children might like to take the more gradual route and go up and down the main path.

These walks were suitable for our family; please do ensure you are appropriately equipped and prepared before heading out onto the hills.

Our 2015 family day out plans

Last week I reviewed our favourite (and least favourite places) of 2014. This week it’s time to look forward and plan some family days out and weekends away for 2015. I’ve chosen places within a 3 hour journey of our home and as the kids are older I’ve added in some mini adventures such as a two day cycle ride and a mountain walk. Anything to get them away from sitting in front of the Xbox.

1. Cardiff

I’m ashamed to say I’ve never visited the Welsh capital. From Cardiff Castle and Bute Park to Techniquest and the Doctor Who exhibition, I think the hardest decision will be what not to see. Definitely worth a couple of days of our time.

2. South West coastal path walk, Devon or Dorset

I’ve started planning a two day walk along the south west coastal path, either from Brixham or Charmouth. The final route will depend on the train and bus timetables and availability of accommodation but both options look good. It’s quite a leisurely walk so there will also be time to fossil hunt in Charmouth or enjoy the seaside. Fingers crossed for good weather.

3. Imperial War Museum and Churchill War Rooms, London

This is somewhere we’ve been waiting for the kids to be old enough to visit. Our eldest has studied World War II at school (and went on an evacuee experience) and we’ve previously visited Anne Frank House so they have some background knowledge. I’m sure it will be a sobering, but important, visit.

4. Climb Pen-y-Fan, Brecon Beacons

The kids have been up a few hills but despite visiting the Brecon Beacons in 2014 we never went up Pen-y-Fan. It’s a lovely mountain to climb, and the closest to us (albeit >100 miles away) so I definitely want to make the effort this year.

5. Historic Dockyard Chatham, Kent

Whenever we head out for the day we inevitably head south, north or west. For some reason we hardly ever go east so this year I’ve purposely picked a couple of places in Kent. First on the list is the historic dockyard at Chatham. It’s a maritime museum that contains three warships, a lifeboat collection and a Cold War submarine set in 80 acres of dockyard.

6. Wild camp on Dartmoor, Devon

Some of you may have read my earlier post about family microadventures. I think it’s time for us to up the game this year and head out on a slightly more adventurous night out. Wild camping is allowed in many parts of Dartmoor so I’m tempted by a bivvy on the moors. I think my eldest will require some persuasion though as she has visions of us being trampled by Dartmoor ponies in the middle of the night. I haven’t told her about the Hound of the Baskervilles yet.

7. Whitstable, Kent

Whitstable sounds like the kind of seaside town we’d enjoy.  After a wander around the town and fishing harbour we’d walk along Tankerton Slopes before heading back for coffee and cake in one of the tea shops.

8. Red Squirrel Cycle Trail, Isle of Wight

We had a particularly memorable VW campervan holiday on the Isle of Wight a few years back. The weather and campsites were perfect so I’m always a little hesitant about going back just in case we spoil our memories. However, whilst looking for a family cycling route I came across the Red Squirrel cycle trail on the island. It’s mostly traffic free and easy cycling with an overnight stop in Shanklin. There’s even the chance of spotting red squirrels along the way.

9. Overnight camp at Northmoor Lock, Oxfordshire

This small campsite beside the River Thames is one of the closest to us and is perfect for a quick overnight getaway. It’s back to basics camping with compost toilets, fire pits and no cars on site. Sounds great!

10. A theme park

Whilst I’m more than happy with the wild outdoors the kids enjoy theme parks, as did I at their age. Not sure where to go yet but Alton Towers, Thorpe Park or Chessington are likely contenders. So readers, how about you? What plans do you have for 2015? Do drop me a comment and let me know. In the meantime I guess I’d better get saving!

2014 review: our best and worst days out

I love to look back on the year, particularly in the depths of winter when it’s great to remember that sometimes it is sunny and warm.  I’ve chosen our top 10 days (and evenings) of 2014, and because things aren’t always perfect I’ve chosen a few that didn’t work out quite so well too.

The top 10

Narrowing this list down to 10 items was incredibly hard, as I could easily have chosen lots more. In no particular order, here are our family favourites:

1. Watching the balloon ascent at Bristol Balloon Festival

Take off at Bristol balloon festival
Take off at Bristol balloon festival

I’ve wanted to visit the balloon fiesta for several years but we’ve either been busy or the weather hasn’t played ball. This year we finally got to see the balloons go up. It was an amazingly colourful spectacle and I took rather a lot of photos as you can see in my blog post.

2. Bill Spectre Ghost tour, Oxford

For my daughter’s 12th birthday we braved the Bill Spectre ghost tour in Oxford. I won’t give anything away but it has a justifiably high Trip Advisor rating. My favourite memory is of the kids and Bill Spectre (in costume) pretending to be ghost horses and clip-clopping down a deserted road. An American student cycled past them and towards us, muttering ‘that’s the wierdest thing I’ve ever seen’. Although I think my kids preferred having their arms chopped off.

3. Moth trapping, Neptune Wood, Oxfordshire

Easily our best wildlife experience was the morning spent checking moth traps at a local nature reserve. I just didn’t realise there were so many varieties of moth or that they came in colours other than brown!

From top left (clockwise): swallowtail moth, large emerald, clouded border, common emerald
From top left (clockwise): swallowtail moth, large emerald, clouded border, common emerald

We saw in excess of 150 species of moth, found in traps that had been set the previous evening. You can read more here.

4. Velorail du Velay, Dunières

I’d never heard of Velorail before our holiday to France. As you can see from the photo you pedal along an old railway track, before turning the cart round and freewheeling the whole way back to the station. It’s the best fun you can have on an old railway track.

Vélorail du Velay, Dunières
Vélorail du Velay, Dunières

There are several Velorail attractions in France, you can read about the one we visited at Dunières. I wish someone would start one up in the UK as I’m sure it would do very well.

5. School productions

My daughter left primary school this year. There’s always an end of school show as part of the leaving festivities and this time it was the Lion King. We loved watching the children perform, although it was tinged with sadness as many of them were moving onto different schools.

Year 6 Lion King performance
Year 6 Lion King performance

Our son is still in primary school and for his Christmas play this year they chose the Sound of Music. My son was one of the children; it was lovely to see him up on stage confidently singing and acting as he’s never normally keen to sing in public.

6. Lydford Gorge, Devon

My favourite walk of the year. We visited verdant Lydford Gorge after rain when the ferns and mosses were dripping wet, it was incredibly atmospheric.

Lydford Gorge
Lydford Gorge

A stone path runs alongside the River Lyd to the gushing Devil’s Cauldron, a swirling mass of water. In parts there are handrails, as the path is cut into the side of the rocks and the river runs right next to it. This makes for an exciting short walk although probably not suited to young children.

7. Rock pooling at Kennack Sands, Cornwall

Whilst on holiday we spent a morning on a National Trust rock pool hunt at Coverack beach. I love mooching around in rock pools but it was a bonus to have someone on hand to identify finds. I’m proud to say that we can now all recognise velvet swimming crabs! The Lizard is an excellent area for a family holiday, my post has lots of suggestions about things to do on the Lizard.

8. Puy-en-Velay, France

Puy-en-Velay is a gem of a French town. Situated in a caldera, the main tourist sights all sit atop volcanic plugs. So you’ll have great views but lots and lots of steps to walk up. Funnily enough it was my (sport mad) son that complained the most about all the steps. You can read more about our day trip here.

View from Rocher Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe
View from Rocher Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe

My daughter enjoyed the Saturday market the most, primarily for the large chocolate covered pastry she got to eat!

9. Pooh Stick world championships, Oxfordshire

Receiving my Pooh sticks runners up certificate
Receiving my Pooh sticks runners up certificate

I never thought I’d take part in a world Championship, but I’m now an elite Pooh sticks athlete. We spent a fun few hours throwing sticks into the River Thames, rushing to the other side of the bridge to see which one travelled the fastest. Amazingly my sticks just kept on winning, eventually taking me all the way to the final. I didn’t win but I was still rather pleased to be a runner up. If you fancy taking part in 2015 read more about it here.

10. Beauty & the beast panto, Oxford

Our family agreed that this year’s panto was one of the best we’ve ever seen. Lots of toe tapping songs, slapstick humour and an excellent dame; read our review here.

And at the bottom…

Of course some of our days out don’t always go to plan. Here are the ones that didn’t work out so well.

1. Flooded yurt in East Devon

Our yurt - before the rain!
Our yurt – before the rain!

We were the first visitors of the season. The yurt was lovingly decorated with typical glamping accessories; fluffy rugs, cushions and bunting. Arriving home from a wet day out we discovered the rain had come in between the base and the yurt and soaked everything we’d left on the floor, including the white fluffy rug. Aargh!

2. Chateau de Lavoûte-Polignac, Lavoûte-sur-Loire

This might have appealed more if I was a lover of family portraiture (particularly when described in great detail in French), without children and at least semi-interested in the history of the Polignac family.

No chance of escape!
No chance of escape!

3. White Castle, near Abergavenny

White Castle looked great from the front entrance. But that’s as far as we got as the gate was firmly shut. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the opening days on the website as it’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays!

4. Missing the royal pageant at the Tall Ships Festival, Greenwich

We had a great time watching the tall ships sail down the River Thames. Yet I’m still intrigued as to how we managed to miss the royal barge, Gloriana, leading a flotilla of rowing boats along the river. I thought we were in the right place at the right time but obviously not.

5. Matisse exhibition, Tate museum

I loved this but the kids didn’t. It’s boring (they said). Are we finished yet? Our visit inspired my post about whether children should visit art galleries.