Caerleon, in southern Wales, seems like a typical Welsh town with welcoming pubs, restaurants and riverside walks. But it was once most of the important Roman fortresses in Britain. It is also (reputedly) linked with the legendary King Arthur.
Why Visit Caerleon?
Caerleon – known to the Romans as Isca Silurum or Isca Augusta – was the home of the 2nd Augusta Legion from 74 CE until the end of the 3rd century. It was one of three permanent legionary fortresses in Britain (the others were Chester and York). Today’s visitors can walk in the steps of the Romans, exploring the baths, the barracks and the amphitheatre.
Caerleon’s later claim to fame is that it was identified by the medieval chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth as the place where King Arthur fought an important battle and held his court. But, even without the history, this is a pleasant small town to visit, to enjoy the surrounding countryside, and relax in a traditional pub.
The Lost Roman City Of Caerleon
The Roman remains are certainly the main attraction for many visitors. You may see Caerleon described as “the lost Roman city”: this is because until a few years ago it was thought that what you see now was the extent of the city. We now know that the site was originally much larger, but most of it remains underground.
The town is small and compact, and you can easily explore all of the Roman remains in a day. The Roman fortress of Caerleon is administered by CADW, but the only site with an entrance charge is the Baths (free to CADW and English Heritage members).
Although not as large or impressive as those in the city of Bath, Caerleon’s Roman baths are well displayed and worth a visit. The actual bathing area has been recreated, and you can watch holographic swimmers moving through the water. Around the edge are information boards showing how the baths were a sort of leisure centre for Roman soldiers and their families, a place to exercise, relax and socialise.
You’ll see the remains of the underfloor heating area, and several artefacts that were recovered during excavation, including a large fragment of mosaic flooring. The site is family friendly, with interactive exhibits.
A short walk away are the Roman barracks. The legion had around 5,500 soldiers and there were 60 blocks of barracks, each housing up to 100 men. The foundations of four of the blocks are now visible, along with parts of the service buildings and a latrine.
These are said to be the only Roman legionary barracks now visible in Europe. (The barracks at Arbeia in South Shields are a reconstruction, and would have been used mainly by auxiliary soldiers rather than legionaries.)
Another claim: the amphitheatre is stated to be the most complete Roman amphitheatre in Britain. Built around 90 CE, it was used for both military training and public entertainment. It could accommodate 6,000 spectators who would watch gladiator contests, wild animals, and – of course – condemned prisoners fighting to the death.
Only the earthworks now survive: according to Geoffrey of Monmouth the ruins were actually those of King Arthur’s Round Table!
Beside the amphitheatre is a short section of the Roman walls: you can walk along the top of the wall and then follow a path back to the town centre.
Roman Legion Museum
The small but interesting Roman Legion Museum is located in the centre of Isca Silurum, on what would have been the main road leading to the amphitheatre. It has lots of detail about the town and its place in Roman Britain, as well as a large collection of artefacts including tombstones and a mosaic floor.
Outside the museum is a replica Roman garden, incorporating ornamental features, medicinal plants and even an outdoor dining area.
What Else To See And Do In Caerleon?
It has to be said that there isn’t much of King Arthur to be seen in Caerleon. However there is a distinctly Arthurian feel to the quirky Ffwrwm, a small craft centre, shopping arcade and restaurant crammed full with sculptures and artworks. You’ll also spot lots of sculptures dotted around the town, a legacy of the Arts Festival that takes place here each summer.
A walk around Caerleon will take you past several historic houses and pubs. Adjoining the Hanbury Arms is the only remaining tower of the medieval castle. The castle mound itself is now hidden in the grounds of Mynde House, which is itself surrounded by a turreted wall. This wall however is not medieval, but 19th century, apparently built to protect the owner from the possibility of attack by Chartist rioters.
How To Visit Caerleon
- Caerleon is a few km north of Newport in south Wales.
- The best place to park is outside the Roman Baths. Note that the car park is owned by the Olde Bull Inn, and you will need to purchase a parking ticket.
- You can see all of the sights by following a Heritage Trail around the town.
- There are several places in stay in Caerleon. I stayed at The Priory Hotel, which has a convenient central location and a large car park.
- You might like to combine your visit with a trip to Caerwent Roman Town, just 16 km away.
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