A Roman day out in London

Aside from the educational value, there are two great benefits to a Roman day out in London. Firstly the attractions are mostly indoors, secondly they’re free. This makes it a perfect option for a rainy half term visit. But where to go to discover Londinium?

The Roman settlement of Londinium roughly covered the City of London. It grew rapidly in the 1st Century to overtake Colchester as the largest city in the country. Despite the appearance of modern day London there are still many Roman ruins beneath the city. We spent a day visiting some of London’s more accessible Roman attractions.

Temple of Mithras

Entrance to Roman Temple of Mithras at Bloomberg HQ, London
Entrance to Roman Temple of Mithras at Bloomberg HQ, London

Even though it’s more than 1800 years old the Temple of Mithras is a relatively new addition to the London tourist circuit. It’s surreally located under part of the Bloomberg European HQ building.

The temple was initially unearthed in the 1950s following excavation works on a bombsite. Thousands of people flocked to see it during its excavation and the temple was subsequently reconstructed for all to see. However, it was criticised for not being an accurate representation; this has been rectified since Bloomberg acquired the site on which it stands.

Temple of Mithras
Temple of Mithras

The current day temple is a faithful reconstruction of the ruin, using original stone and brick. Some parts, such as mortars, are new but have been recreated as if they were 3rd Century Roman.

The first floor displays Roman artefacts found during the excavation including sandals, pottery and coins. Visitors then descend to a mezzanine where you can learn more about the cult of Mithras. A further set of stairs takes you down to the temple.

London Mithraeum
London Mithraeum

The temple would have been at ground level during the Roman era. It’s now seven metres below the pavement! As you enter there’s lighting and sound effects to enhance your visit. The show is around 10 minutes long; visitors are then free to spend time at the end wandering around the temple. It’s not particularly large but is interesting and well worth a visit.

Entrance is free. We turned up on spec and were allowed in immediately but if you want to guarantee entry book online in advance.

Museum of London

The Museum of London is a fantastic place to learn more about the development of the city and its people. I prefer to dip into specific rooms or exhibitions rather than attempt to see it all in one go; the Roman galleries are perfect for this.

Dining room in Roman times, Museum of London
Dining room in Roman times, Museum of London

The museum has recently refreshed its display of items that were unearthed at the Temple of Mithras excavations. This makes it an ideal stop after you’ve seen the actual temple. In addition to the Temple artefacts there are exhibits dedicated to many different aspects of Roman society, including trade, burials and games.

From the museum take a peak out the window at your next destination…

London Wall

Roman wall from Museum of London
Roman wall from Museum of London

The Romans built the London Wall as a defensive structure around the landward side of the city sometime between 190 and 225 AD. Parts of it have survived in modern day London albeit with medieval enhancements. One of the easiest sections to spot is right outside the Museum of London, conveniently visible from the Roman galleries inside.

Another well known and easily accessible section is at Tower Hill. An alternative untouristy option is the underground car park next to the Museum of London. Funnily enough we were the only people wandering around the car park looking for a wall.

London Wall, near Museum of London
London Wall, near Museum of London

Roman amphitheatre, Guildhall Art Gallery

On to our last Roman attraction of the day. This time, a Roman amphitheatre underneath the Guildhall Art Gallery.

If you visit, first check out the curved line of black stone in the Guildhall yard. This marks the outline of the arena which lies several metres beneath you.

London guildhall
London guildhall

The amphitheatre was discovered in 1988 by archaeologists who were taking part in a dig in preparation for the new art gallery. The remnants were subsequently integrated into the exhibition and have been on public display since 2002.

To reach the ruins you’ll need to walk though part of the art gallery. The juxtaposition of the ornate Guildhall and pre-Raphaelite art with public executions and gladiatorial combat is an intriguing mix!

Amphitheatre underneath Guildhall Art Gallery, London
Amphitheatre underneath Guildhall Art Gallery, London

Once underground, the partial remains include a stretch of entrance tunnel, the east gate and stone walls. Display boards outline the history and use of the amphitheatre.

It’s artfully lit, albeit a little heavy on the green graphics for my taste. I like my attractions more, well, Roman. The most surprising thing however was the lack of visitors. A well kept secret!

Amphitheatre underneath London Guildhall
Amphitheatre underneath London Guildhall

The amphitheatre was a fitting final to our Roman day out. I highly recommend spending a day uncovering history that’s literally beneath your feet.

If you’re looking for other themed days out in London check out my Great Fire of London walk or my post about exploring Second World War London.

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A walk to and around Highgate Cemetery, London

Highgate Cemetery, one of my UK bucket list items, might appear a strange destination for a family day out but we loved it. We spent an afternoon visiting the cemetery after a morning walk across Hampstead Heath.

Hampstead Heath

We had a couple of hours spare before our cemetery tour so I’d planned a walking route from Hampstead Heath underground station to Highgate Cemetery.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Hampstead Heath. My prior knowledge mostly came from lurid tabloid headlines about the after dark activities of gay men on the western heath. The daytime reality was a tranquil dog walking and running area, albeit one that was in need of a good dose of rain.

Hampstead Heath boating pond
Hampstead Heath boating pond

Our route took us up to the viewpoint on Parliament Hill. From here the Shard, Gherkin, St Paul’s Cathedral and BT Tower are all easy to see. Some of the other buildings shown on the orientation map were harder; I couldn’t see the London Eye however much I looked.

View from Primrose Hill, London
View from Parliament Hill, London

Highgate is also famous for its outdoor bathing ponds. These were much busier than I expected on a gloomy weekday. I’m not a water lover so couldn’t imagine wanting to swim in them, surrounded by ducks and pond debris. However plenty of swimmers looked like they were enjoying it, particularly the divers jumping off the board in the men’s bathing pond.

Before heading to the cemetery we popped into the Village Deli in Highgate village for a takeaway lunch. Despite the expensive sounding name, and location, our picnic lunch was incredible value and very tasty, highly recommended. There’s a square opposite to sit and eat your lunch in.

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate was one of seven new private London cemeteries, constructed in the Victorian era, to accommodate the increasing number of burials. Prior to this, burials were in local churchyards but these were literally overflowing due to the doubling of London’s population.

West Highgate cemetery, London
West Highgate cemetery, London

Many of London’s wealthiest were laid to rest in Highgate. However, the cemetery fell into decline after the second World War. Decaying and vandalised it was taken over in 1975 by a charity, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, who work to restore and preserve the area.

We visited West Highgate on a guided tour before crossing Swain’s Lane to look around the East Cemetery independently.

West Highgate Cemetery

Forget your local graveyard. Imagine instead a jumbled area of crowded gravestones and gothic and Egyptian influenced monuments, some covered with ‘Dangerous’ tape. Nature is in charge; tree roots climb over gravestones, ivy and bramble tendrils encircle the monuments. This is West Highgate cemetery. Some visitors call it romantic, others creepy; I guess I’m somewhere in between.

Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue, West Highgate cemtetery
Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue, West Highgate cemtetery

We started our tour in the open space in front of The Colonnade; big enough, our guide explained, so that the horse drawn carriages delivering coffins could turn around.  From here we followed the path up through the graveyard to the Egyptian Avenue, flanked by columns and obelisks.

There are sixteen family vaults on either side of the avenue; each with room for twelve coffins. The vaults are also home to a large spider, the rare orb weaver. Discovered during a bat survey the London Wildlife Trust estimates the vaults could contain a hundred of these adult cave spiders. I’m not sure whether the bodies or the spiders unsettle me more!

Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery
Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery

The Egyptian Avenue leads out into the Circle of Lebabon; a huge 300 year old cedar tree surrounded by a circle of tombs. The Victorians certainly knew how to celebrate their interred relations, very different to today’s attitude to death.

Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery
Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery

Our eyes slowly accustomed to the dark inside our next stop, the above ground Terrace Catacombs. It takes a moment longer to realise that every recess on either side of the passageway houses a coffin. Room for 825 people in total! We heard how coffins were once prone to exploding due to a build up of gases inside them. The ingenious solution was to drill a small hole into the coffin, insert a pipe and burn the gases off.

Catacombs, West Highgate cemetery
Catacombs, West Highgate cemetery

Outside the catacombs stands the mausoleum of Julius Beer. This was built for his daughter Ada who died she was just eight years old. Although we couldn’t go inside our guide showed us photographs of its rich interior. The mausoleum cost £5000 to build in 1878; in today’s money that’s around £3 million!

Most residents of West Highgate cemetery may not be household names today but many were famous in their day. I loved hearing the stories of some of these. Our guide recounted the life of Tom Sayers, a bare knuckle fighter whose stone dog adorns his grave. And that of Jim Selby, a carriage driver who raced from London to Brighton and back in less than eight hours.

Tom Sayers grave, West Highgate cemetery
Tom Sayers grave, West Highgate cemetery

The grave of George Wombwell reflects his livelihood, a travelling menagerist. His tomb lies under a statue of his lion, Nero. George famously advertised a dead elephant as one of his exhibits in order to attract more visitors than a competitor, who only had a live elephant. Different times indeed.

One of the more recent graves is for Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian defector who was poisoned by polonium radiation. His grave is buried 12 foot deep and lined with lead to protect from visitors from accidental radioactive exposure.

Alexander Litvinenko gravestone, West Highgate cemetery, London
Alexander Litvinenko gravestone, West Highgate cemetery, London

Our guide also explained the symbolism used by the Victorians. I’ve never given it any thought before but urns, clasped hands and broken pillars all have specific meanings. For example, a broken column indicates a life cut off in its prime. I’d always assumed it was due to vandalism!

Nature taking over, Highgate cemetery
Nature taking over, Highgate cemetery

We finished our tour with a visit to the dissenters graveyard. This is an area of two acres set aside for non-Anglicans; not as extensive as the fifteen acres for Anglicans.

I’d hoped we might see some of the wildlife that Highgate is famous for. There were plenty of butterflies and a cheeky robin but no fox cubs lounging on gravestones that I’ve seen in some photographs. Fortunately we didn’t see the vampires or ghosts that Highgate is also known for!

West Highgate cemetery, London
West Highgate cemetery, London

East Highgate cemetery

East Highgate Cemetery is a tidier, more manicured resting place on the opposite side of Swain’s Lane. There’s less woodland and the graves are arranged in a more formal layout.

The entry booth provides maps with the graves of more notable residents marked; there are plenty of familiar names. There are all walks of life here; from historians, architects, zoologists and cabaret stars to political activists. Even the mastermind of the Great Train Robbery.

Gravestones in East Highgate cemetery
Gravestones in East Highgate cemetery

Over in West Highgate most of the gravestones we saw were of traditional design. Whereas in East Highgate Patrick Caulfield’s gravestone has the word DEAD cut out of the granite, and Malcolm McLaren has another statement headstone. Douglas Adams has a simple grey headstone but fans have adorned it with a pot full of pencils.

However the most famous grave belongs to that of Karl Marx, the German philosopher. Although originally buried in another part of the cemetery he was moved in the 1950s after the Communist Party funded a new memorial.

We didn’t stay long in East Highgate as we had a train to catch. Fortunately we left early as I took the roundabout route back to the underground station. Yes, we went the wrong way!

If you’re looking for other unusual things to do in and about London please pop over to my 10 quirky things to do in an hour in London post.

More info

  • You’ll need to book in weekday tours advance in the West Cemetery on the Highgate Cemetery website. Alternatively turn up early on a weekend and go on the next available tour. You can visit the East Cemetery without a tour, an entrance fee is payable.

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15 things to do with the family in Ghent, Belgium

After the success of our short break to Lille a while back I was keen to explore other destinations  accessible via Eurostar. Ghent fitted the bill perfectly; a Belgian city just a couple of hours from London.

What did we do in Ghent?

We travelled as a family of  four; two adults and two teenagers. With this in mind you’ll appreciate our sightseeing and food choices were attuned to pleasing the whole family. Or attempting to at least!

View from Kraanlei across the Leie, Ghent
View from Kraanlei across the Leie, Ghent

So, how did we spend our time?

1. Climb the Belfry

I always make a beeline for the highest viewpoint in any new city. In Ghent it’s the 91 metre belfry, the highest one in Belguim.

View from Ghent belfry
View from Ghent belfry

A lift can take you part of the way up but we climbed the steps (to offset the waffles later). At the top there’s a 360 degree viewing platform with excellent views over the town centre, churches and cathedral. You’ll also discover how much building work is happening in the city.

View from the Belfry, Ghent
View from the Belfry, Ghent

Aside from the views check out the Roeland Bell (which was chimed to warn of approaching enemies) and listen to the carillon which plays every 15 minutes.

2. Wander the streets around Graslei and Korenlei

In the Middle Ages this area was a busy port and the centre of the Flanders grain trade. Nowadays it’s tourism central but for good reason; cobbled streets, historical buildings and, in the summer at least, pavement cafes. It’s a good place to take a boat tour or simply wander.

Korenlei
Korenlei

After dark it’s a completely different view with the illuminated buildings reflected in the water. Visit it as part of the Ghent light tour (see below).

3. Visit Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts)

This medieval fortress has seen many changes of use in its lifetime. From the seat of the Council of Flanders to a prison to cotton mills; at one point it was even going to be demolished and the land sold for development. Fortunately saved by locals it was restored extensively and is now one of Ghent’s main attractions.

Gravensteen - Castle of the Counts
Gravensteen – Castle of the Counts

Don’t expect lavish decorations inside the castle. For me the appeal was very much around the physical architecture, the towers, turrets and staircases. Although, thanks to those restorations, it was rather weird to walk up a heated staircase; the last thing you expect in a castle.

One room that is decorated, in a macabre way, houses the torture equipment. A reminder of the castle’s gruesome history. I found this fascinating but you might want to avoid it if you have younger children.

4. Ghent by light

We missed the Ghent Light Festival by a few days. Held every three years this would have been a spectacular sight but sadly it didn’t correspond with half term.

Ghent belfry at night
Ghent belfry at night

Even though we’d missed the festival Ghent illuminates many of its key buildings and monuments after dark, making an evening stroll obligatory. We followed the route on the Ghent light plan which took us to parts of the city we hadn’t seen in daylight. I highly recommend the walk but wrap up warm in winter.

5. Eat frites with mayo

A Belgian classic. We got ours from De Frietketel, a student hangout famous for its fries and burgers. Oh my word, the portion size! We ordered two small portions with mayo between the four of us and couldn’t even finish one portion.

It’s not haute cuisine but is tasty and cheap. Veggies and vegans can have their fill of junk food too; there are loads of options for non meat eaters. Indeed Ghent is known as the veggie capital of Europe.

6. Discover the city history at Stadsmuseum Gent (STAM)

I really enjoyed STAM, a museum covering the history of Ghent. I’d suggest visiting as early as possible during your visit to get an overview of the city. I’ve chosen my highlights below.

City map, STAM, Ghent
City map, STAM, Ghent

The first room houses a huge map of Ghent printed on the floor. Once you’ve donned protective shoe covers visitors can walk across it. It gives a sense of scale and geography of the city, particularly outside of the main tourist area.

The museum also includes a room dedicated to the Ghent Altarpiece (evidently one of Europe’s premier art works) which is in St Bavo’s Cathedral. I discovered it’s the most frequently stolen artwork of all time; one of the panels is still missing from the 1934 theft. It was really interesting to read about the police investigation and conspiracy theories, even if, ahem, we didn’t visit the actual painting whilst in Ghent.

Lego building, STAM, Ghent
Lego building, STAM, Ghent

The family dived into the huge pile of white Lego bricks left out for visitors to enjoy. Experts can attempt to recreate Ghent’s towers. Mere mortals can build small block houses.

7. Enjoy some warmth at the Botanic garden

If, like me, you prefer warm weather then head for the greenhouses at the University botanical gardens. It’s a little way out of the city centre but you can combine it with a walk through Citadelpark.

Botanic garden, Ghent
Botanic garden, Ghent

The outside garden didn’t contain a huge amount of interest in February but there was plenty to see inside the tropical and sub-tropical greenhouses – and they were warm!

8. Eat waffles

Another Belgian speciality. I realised halfway through my chocolate and cream covered concoction that I’d never eaten waffles in Belguim. It bore no resemblance to any waffle I’ve ever eaten before. It was sweet, light and slightly chewy, delicious!

Waffles cost a couple of euros from most street vendors, more if you cover them in melted Nutella. Ignore the calories, you’re on holiday.

9. Saviour the view from St Michael’s Bridge

The three towers, Ghent
The three towers, Ghent

This is the quintessential Ghent view, described as the Manhattan of the Middle Ages. Or, in non-tourist talk, it’s the opportunity to see three towers in a row; those of the Belfry, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and Saint Nicholas’ Church. I think it’s the one picture all tourists attempt to take even if it does mean getting mown down by a bus whilst you’re standing in the road.

10. Wander the streets around Patershol

This trendy neighbourhood is a small area of cobbled streets and restored houses. A place to wander aimlessly.

Cobbled streets of Ghent
Cobbled streets of Ghent

We visited during the afternoon when it was very quiet. Lovely to look at but almost deserted. I assume the restaurants liven things up in the evenings.

11. See the vineyard at St Peter’s Abbey

We stopped here on our walk back from the botanical garden as I wanted to see another city centre garden.

Vineyard at St Peter’s Abbey, Ghent
Vineyard at St Peter’s Abbey, Ghent

This garden is unique as it contains a vineyard. In the middle of a city. Although only planted in the 1980s there are references to earlier vineyards onsite from the 9th Century. The monks must have loved their wine. I wonder what it tasted like?

12. Graffiti street, off Hoogpoort

This is a pedestrianised alleyway full of graffiti which gives you a break from the medieval-ness of Ghent. It is as its name says; full of tags rather than street art. The teens liked it.

Graffiti street, Ghent
Graffiti street, Ghent

13. Ride a tram

Ghent tram
Ghent tram

The centre of Ghent is easily walkable so there’s no great need to use the trams. However my son was desperate to ride one so we took a tram to the railway station on our final day. It would have been cheaper to use a taxi but nowhere near as novel.

14. Little noses (cuberdons)

Cuberdons, Ghent noses
Cuberdons, Ghent noses

These cone shaped sweets (like noses) are a Ghent speciality. You can buy them for around 3-5 euros from street vendors. Fruit flavoured, with a hard shell and soft filling, they were an acquired taste but my son insisted he liked them.

15. Visit the cathedrals and churches

I’m not religious but do appreciate the history and architecture of churches, particularly ones as huge and ornate as those in Ghent. That said, with teens in tow visiting the cathedrals and churches was never going to be top of the sightseeing list.

St Peter’s church, Ghent
St Peter’s church, Ghent

Despite this we visited St Bavo’s Cathedral, where we spotted a whale skeleton but missed out the Ghent Altarpiece.

We also popped into St Peter’s church (next to the Abbey) and admired several others from outside.

Ghent – the verdict

We loved Ghent and I’d highly recommend it as a short break destination. We easily filled two full days with sightseeing. Another day, or even two, would have been ideal so we could see more museums and perhaps take a boat tour.

View from St Michael’s Bridge, Ghent
View from St Michael’s Bridge, Ghent

Ghent isn’t as overtly pretty as Bruges but I preferred it. There are far fewer tourists (in February at least) but lots of students which gives it a different feel.

More info:

  • We travelled by Eurostar to Brussels. From Brussels we took a train to Gent-Sint-Pieters Station. The train takes about 30 minutes; we’d already bought a Eurostar ticket which was valid to any Belgium station so there was no need to purchase a separate ticket.
  • We stayed in a studio apartment which you can see on the Stay at Ghent website. The second floor duplex studio was perfect for us but had a mezzanine and is reached via a steep staircase so not suitable for those with mobility difficulties or young children.
  • Belguim has two official languages; Flemish and French. Whilst I can get by in French Ghent is in the Flemish speaking area. It pains me to say but you’re better off speaking English.

Top tips for visiting Edinburgh Festival Fringe with your family

Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which takes place each August, is an incredible collection of over 30,000 performances ranging from comedy to music to theatre. There’s bound to be something to suit your tastes, however weird and wacky they are. Yet with so much on offer, knowing how to tackle the Fringe can be a little daunting for first timers. Our family has just returned so I’ve put together some top tips for enjoying your Fringe trip.

1. Don’t make this your first trip to Edinburgh. If you’ve never been before visit outside of festival season and get the tourist sights out of the way.

2. Book accommodation early as you’ll be competing with Fringe performers, festival goers and tourists. We found it cheaper to stay in an Airbnb house outside of Edinburgh and travel in via train each day. You’ll need at least a couple of days to experience the Fringe; ideally longer!

3. The Fringe programme is released in early June and it’s worth obtaining in advance of your visit.  It’s free from the Fringe website but postage and packing is extra. The programme is split into different types of performance and includes information on age suitability, timings etc. Alternatively you can download the brochure from the Edinburgh Fringe website or just pick up a copy when you’re in Edinburgh.

4. Book specific shows that you don’t want to miss in advance but wait until you arrive for the rest. The streets are full of performers andpeople handing out show flyers and you’ll regret not  having the flexibility to see some of these if you book everything beforehand. If you’re visiting halfway through the Fringe you can take advantage of the show reviews. The List publishes links to all reviews and categorises the shows with stars according to the reviews; definitely worth checking out before buying several tickets.

Edinburgh Fringe show flyers
Edinburgh Fringe show flyers

5. Check age restrictions on both shows and venues. Evening shows will generally be more risqué but that also applies to some of the daytime shows. We found there were plenty of family shows for young children but it was tricky finding the right shows for our older children. We ended up watching a couple of 14+ events; these included swearing but probably nothing more than they’re exposed to at school.

6. Even if you’re primarily visiting for the comedy it’s good to choose a variety of shows otherwise it might get a little repetitive. Aside from comedy we saw a musical about two serial killers, a slapstick Dutch group who played over 100 instruments and an improvised musical based on The Hobbit.

7. Our first port of call each day was the half price Virgin hut. The hut sells half price tickets for shows on the same day. After 5.30pm you can also book for shows up until 2pm following day. There’s a huge variety of shows available (although obviously not the well known names) but you need to know what you want to see before you get to the cashier. The Edinburgh Fringe app lists the half price shows which is useful for planning but you still need to buy the tickets in person.

Half price hut, Edinburgh Fringe
Half price hut, Edinburgh Fringe

8. Leave 30 minute travel time between shows as a minimum. There’s a map on the back page of the festival guide which lists the venues; some people advocate seeing all the shows in one place to save on travel time. Although many venues are relatively close together it takes longer than you expect to walk between them as the city is so busy. Most shows last for one hour but check timings as some are longer (indeed, some are much longer!). We saw three shows each day; you could see more if you’re staying in the city but remember to factor in time to eat, drink and use the loo too.

9. Shows are unreserved seating so get to the venue early if you want to sit at the front. If you’re booked for an evening show be aware some venues have security screening in place.

10. The Free Fringe, as it is aptly named, offers hundreds of free shows and can be a good way to see something more experimental. Although if you’ve enjoyed the show the performers expect a contribution in the hat afterwards. And remember that it’s not just the Fringe. There’s also the Military Tattoo, the Book Festival, the Art Festival and the International Festival. Did I mention Edinburgh is a tad busy in August?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this round up of tips. Our family really enjoyed visiting the Fringe shows, and it’s another experience to tick off my UK bucket list. Have you been to the Edinburgh Fringe?