You’ve visited the colosseum in Rome, now it’s time to discover Roman Caerleon in south Wales! The Roman baths and museum in Caerleon may be on a smaller scale, but are no less interesting and conveniently just “Over the bridge to Wales” from where I live in Bristol.
With the Roman Baths and Museum set in a picturesque town by the River Usk, full of cute Georgian houses and charming places to eat, Caerleon makes a great day out that can be combined with walking or other activities in nearby Newport.
It was fascinating to discover that the Caerleon Roman Fortress was one of only three permanent legionary centres in Britain, with up to 30,000 Roman soldiers stationed there in the 1st century BC.
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Visit the Caerleon Roman Baths
One of the top things to do in Caerleon and the first stop for most visitors, is the Roman Baths that are housed in an inconspicuous building opening up inside to reveal the remains of the Roman outdoor swimming pool and bath house. You do have to exercise your imagination a bit as you look down at the ancient stone foundations, but they’ve done a pretty good job at bringing to life the enormous natatio or open air swimming pool, the basilica (indoor sports hall) and the remains of the frigidarium (cold baths).
The whole complex would have been much like a modern day leisure centre, with a tepidarium (warm room) and caldarium (hot room), where the soldiers stationed at the fortress could relax with their friends, get a massage and even buy a fast food snack. Women and children could use the baths in the morning while the soldiers would use it in the afternoon – they used the same baths at different times since bathing was done naked, so mixed bathing was frowned upon.
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Walking around and looking at the various interpretation boards it was clear how serious the Romans were about cleanliness. I enjoyed looking at replicas of everyday Roman objects, like the leather sandals, some with metal studs on the bottom (could this be a new fashion?) or the metal grooming sets, with items like tweezers, ear wax cleaner, toothpick and nail file.
The bathing routine was to rub yourself with perfumed oil, sweat it out in the hot caldarium, scrape off all the oil and dirt from your body, then finish with the warm room and cold bath or swim. It must have been a real treat for the average Roman soldier posted to chilly Wales, missing the Mediterranean climate and looking forward to warming up in the hot baths.
Moving on to the remains of the bath’s main building, you can look down and see the stacked pillars under the floor that allow heat to circulate. The foundations also reveal the drains where a hoard of 88 engraved gem stones were found, dropped or lost by their owners and now on display in the Caerleon Roman Museum. Fragments of stone carving on display show how the baths would have been decorated with pillars and friezes with ornate mosaic tiled floors.
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Fun Roman Bath facts:
- The Romans enjoyed meat patties a bit like a hamburger, but instead of ketchup they used a sauce called liquamen made from salty fish guts and peppers, a bit like our anchovy paste.
- A metal tool called a strigil was used to scrape off oil and dirt after your sauna and was an essential item of Roman grooming.
- The Roman soldiers loved to exercise through wrestling and weight lifting in the indoor hall and running or javelin throwing outside.
More info: Caerleon Roman Fortress and Baths Website | Address: High St, Caerleon, Newport NP18 1AE | Instagram @cadwcymruwales | Twitter @cadwwales | Facebook @CadwWales | Open daily 10am – 5pm | Adult £4.50 Family £12.20 | Pay and Display Car Park
Next visit the Caerleon Roman Museum
Just down the road from the baths, the National Roman Legion Museum explores what life was like in this far-flung outpost of the Roman Empire. The museum displays many of the archaeological finds from the Roman Baths and the Caerleon Roman Fortress around the town, tracing the history of the Roman occupation of Wales.
Despite strong resistance from the Welsh tribes and the harsh landscape, by AD 55 a fortress had been established in the Usk Valley and by AD 75 the garrison at Isca or modern day Caerleon was holding up to 30,000 soldiers.
At the Caerleon Roman Museum entrance you’ll meet the commanding figure of a Centurion at the Caerleon fortress wearing his chain mail shirt, leg guards and crested helmet, with a vine stick as a symbol of his authority. The museum displays the everyday items of daily life, the glass and terracotta containers, the metal brooches, hairpins and gemstones lost in the baths and the stone carvings from the buildings. The Roman gravestones and stone coffin of a soldier give us an insight into death and the skull found inside has been used to create likeness of what the soldier buried inside would have looked like.
The museum is a favourite destination of families and school trips, with a play room and reconstruction of what the soldier’s barrack room, with a chance to dress up and try out the helmets and shields.
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Behind the museum is a tranquil garden that’s inspired by the fruit, flowers and medicinal plants that the Romans favoured, a bit like a medieval herb garden. Roman gardens were used as an extension of the home, filled with flowers and statues with an open air dining area under a gazebo.
The Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon
A short walk from the Caerleon high street is the Roman Amphitheatre which was closed when we visited due to the heavy rain that had left it waterlogged. However when open it’s worth adding on to your visit, to see where the Romans were entertained by displays of gladiators in combat or exotic wild animals.
The amphitheatre was built around AD 70 and could seat up to 6000 spectators, making it the equivalent of a multiplex cinema or sports stadium, to keep the soldiers happy in their time off. Also nearby are the remains at foundation level of the Roman barracks with a block of rooms that housed a century of 80 men.
Wander around Caerleon – cute Georgian houses and shops
After our visit to the Roman Baths and Museum I took the chance to wander around Caerleon, which is a charming small town with narrow streets and pretty Georgian houses. There are a number of pubs and places to eat and some small shops like the charming gift and home decoration shop I popped into right beside the Priory Inn.
We also stopped for coffee and cake at The Village Bakery, tucked down the side street (31 Backhall Street) near the Roman Museum, which has recently been remodelled and serves lovely cakes – mine was a chocolate brownie with caramel and white chocolate topping, but the meringues and eclairs also looked very tempting.
Lunch at The Priory Hotel in Caerleon
While I visited Roman Caerleon in the afternoon, the morning was spent on a walk along the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal from Fourteen Locks with lunch at The Priory Hotel in Caerleon. This boutique hotel was formerly a 12th century Cistercian Priory and it’s an excellent place to have lunch in Caerleon or stay while exploring the area.
The front of the hotel looks positively medieval and the arched stone windows, oak panelling and stained glass partitions ooze with character and history. The hotel has a large bar and restaurant that features local and seasonal produce and is a popular place for lunch or afternoon tea, even if you are not staying here.
A striking feature of the restaurant is the chilled counter full of delicious looking fresh meat and fish, from which you can make a menu selection. Wales is known for its superb lamb and beef and the local produce here really looked delicious.
The order is taken at the counter from the menu shown on the blackboards, with a good value lunchtime special menu from which we chose with 2 courses only £13. I chose the crispy lamb with chilli jam, tasty pieces of lamb belly coated in crispy breadcrumbs, followed by two generous trout fillets fried in butter with new potatoes.
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We loved the ambiance of the Priory Hotel Caerleon, with friendly service, stylish interiors and reasonable prices. In summer tables are set out on the terrace overlooking the lawns at the back, which would be a lovely place to have drinks or lunch when the weather is fine. Although we didn’t stay here, it would be a stylish choice to base yourself for visiting the area, with 27 boutique style bedrooms from £85.
More info: The Priory Hotel Website |Check prices and book for The Priory Hotel in Caerleon | Address:High Street, Caerleon, Newport, Wales NP18 1AG | Instagram @the_priory_caerleon | Twitter @PrioryCaerleon | Facebook @ThePrioryCaerleon | Check out more Hotels in Caerleon
Hotels near Newport: The Parkway Hotel and Spa
As I was planning some more walking on the Newport Wetlands the following day, I stayed at the Parkway Hotel and Spa Newport, a lovely 4 stay hotel at Cwmbran near Newport that’s well located for exploring the area.
The low rise, modern hotel offers a large car park at the front and drops away at the back overlooking open lawns and woodland, where there’s an intriguing Shepherd’s Hut as one of the accommodation options. The four star hotel is a popular choice for locals who love using the spa facilities, business guests from nearby offices and leisure visitors looking for an extremely comfortable base to tour the area.
The Parkway Hotel and Spa is undergoing a gradual uplift and refurbishment and I was lucky to be staying in one of the gorgeous Penthouse Suites called Manobier which has been redecorated in the new scheme. I loved the restful, muted colours that seemed to reflect the peaceful Welsh countryside and the elegant, contemporary furnishings.
My extremely spacious double bedroom with walk in closet was matched by an equally large sitting room with sofa, easy chairs and TV. I loved the thoughtful touches like the complimentary sherry decanter and some miniature paperback books in case you wanted to cosy up with a good book.
My bathroom was huge and certainly had the Wow! factor, with a free-standing roll top bath, twin sinks and walk in shower with stylish, contemporary fittings. After the morning’s walk it was a treat to sink into that bath in a cloud of delicious smelling White Company bubble bath.
Downstairs was an indoor swimming pool and spa with sauna and steam rooms which I could see from the reception area – I didn’t have time to try it out but it looked very inviting.
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Dinner and breakfast were in the Ravello’s restaurant, which is light and attractive with floral displays and crisp white tablecloths. The restaurant has been awarded 2 AA rosettes and in the evening it features and excellent 3 course carvery menu for £26 with a choice of starters and deserts, while the main course was a carvery choice of beef, turkey or pork and a wide selection of roasties and other veg.
The menus features the fantastic Welsh produce, especially the local local lamb and beef and my starter was a panna cotta with broccoli and candied walnuts using the local Perl Las soft cheese. There’s a large, comfortable bar lounge with a real fire for guests and the Saturday night I was there featured live music from a pianist and singer.
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I found the staff here were exceptionally warm, friendly and welcoming which is very typical of the cheerful welcome I found everywhere in South Wales. The Parkway Hotel and Spa is a great choice as a comfortable and convenient hotel if you are visiting the Newport area with easy road access to walking trails and the other attractions at Caerleon, Tredegar House and Newport Centre.
More info: Parkway Hotel and Spa website | Check prices and book for Parkway Hotel and Spa Newport | Address:Cwmbran Drive, Cwmbran, Newport, Torfaen, NP443UW |Instagram @parkwayhotelspa | Twitter @ParkwayHotelSpa | Facebook @parkwayhotelspa | More Hotels in Newport
More things to do near Newport
Walking on the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal and River Usk
The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal in South Wales was once a hub of industry, with two major branches built to transport the rich minerals of iron ore and coal from the South Wales Valleys to Newport, where they could be shipped around the world. We spent the morning walking the the Crumlin arm of the canal closer to Newport which connects with the River Usk, ending our walk at Roman Caerleon.
The Fourteen Locks Visitor Centre has a large car park and café, making it an ideal point from which to explore the section of canal that runs down to Newport. The centre is named for the fourteen locks known as the Cefyn flight, and two of the locks have been restored with events, walks and education days running throughout the year.
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More info: Fourteen Locks Visitor Centre Website | Address:Cwm Lane, Rogerstone, Newport NP10 9GN | Open Daily 10am – 4pm|Instagram @fourteenlockscanalcentre| Twitter @FourteenLocks | Facebook @fourteenlockscanalcentre | Parking £1 for 4 hours, £3 for 5 hours, £5 for all day
Visit Tredegar House with the National Trust
Run by the National Trust, Tredegar House was for 500 years the seat of the Morgan family, who grew wealthy through their farming land and as mine owners. The spacious 17th century reception rooms downstairs are designed to impress with gilt and family portraits, while upstairs the bedrooms are from the 1930s when the eccentric owner Evan Morgan held parties and entertained the fashionable set at Tredegar House.
An interesting exhibition that spanned several of the rooms told the story of the Newport Rising in 1839 when 10,000 Chartists marched on Newport to demand political change and a greater political say for the working man.
The Chartist leader John Frost wrote scathing public letters to Tredegar’s owner Sir Charles Morgan in the 1820s, blaming him for disregard of his tenant’s welfare and his extravagance at a time when the working classes were starting to demand a greater share of political power so that they could achieve better working conditions.
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Below stairs you can see the servant’s quarters that are laid out in Victorian style when an army of house maids, butlers and cooks would keep the large house running. The gardens and grounds are open free to the public and there were lots of interesting events happening in the barns and the orangery as part of the St David’s Day celebrations when we visited, including some owls meeting the public from the Ebbw Vale Owl Sanctuary.
RSPB Wetlands Centre
The RSPB Wetland Centre near Newport is the place to start exploring the Newport Wetlands that stretch along the coast. It’s open daily with an excellent café that has a prime view of the ponds with birds flying and feeding, with knowledgeable staff and volunteers who can tell you all about the wildlife in the wetlands.
From the centre, walk out through the reedbeds or take one of the different nature trails and circular walks through the wetlands area. If you walk on to the sea wall, you’ll find the East Usk lighthouse that flashes to warn shipping entering the River Usk. From here you can walk along the sea wall itself that stops the wetlands from flooding and creates a controlled environment for wildlife. Look out also for the regular walks and other events run by the Gwent Wildlife Trust, guided by local experts in the birds and wildlife.
More info: RSPB Wetlands Centre Website | Address: Nash Rd, Newport NP18 2BZ | Open Daily 9am – 5pm | Cafe open 10am – 4pm | Instagram: @rspb_love_nature | Twitter: @Natures_Voice | Facebook @RSPBLoveNature | Gwent Wildlife Trust
Visitor information for visiting Caerleon, Newport and South Wales
How to get to Roman Caerleon
Driving: If you are driving from “Over the bridge” such as London, Bristol, Gloucestershire or other parts of the South West, you’ll probably approach on the M4 motorway and leave at Junction 25 (Eastbound) or Junction 26 (Eastbound) then take the B4596 to Caerleon.
International: If flying into Wales from international or regional airports, the closest airport is Cardiff Airport. We recommend Skyscanner to plan flight routes and find the best prices.
This article was sponsored* by Over the Bridge to Wales who provided the hotel stay and experiences mentioned.
* More info on my policies page
This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com
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