Ian Weightman

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Roman around Britain's Heritage Cities

With the British Museum in London about to unveil its major exhibition for 2013, one side-effect of Life and Death Pompeii and Herculaneum is likely to be a revival of interest in Roman history, heritage and attractions across the whole of the UK.

Opening on March 28th, and running to September 29th, it will help to set the scene for a Roman holiday in the UK.

And the spotlight will fall not only on London, but also six of the most famous Roman cities in England - Bath, Carlisle, Chester, Durham, Lincoln, and York.  Add to those six cities Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon, and you’re looking at Britain’s Heritage Cities – which already work together to promote themselves via a shared, one-stop website.

Is there a more famous Roman city in Britain than Bath, where the Baths they created will this year welcome two new costumed characters - Marcus Aufidius Maximus and his freedman and former slave Marcus Aufidius Lemnus, who will be explaining everything there is to know about the military and the role of slaves and freedmen in Roman society?  Tunnel Tours, Torchlight Tours By Night and a collection of Roman artefacts complete the full experience in these historic baths.

In the far north of England the Roman town of Luguvalium - better known today as Carlisle - began as an auxiliary fort and military supply base, in AD 72.  Its location makes it the perfect city to use as a base for exploring Hadrian’s Wall and Birdoswald Roman Fort and Visitor Centre.  Tullie House in the city itself, meanwhile, has a new and interactive “Roman Frontier Gallery” and in 2013 will be the venue for a display of Roman Cavalry helmets on loan from both a private UK collector and the Musée d’Art, Mougins, France.

Lincoln began life as Lindum Colonia, a walled Roman town situated on the hill top where the castle and cathedral now sit.  The Romans were attracted here because of the waterways - with the river Witham offering a good route to sea.  The Roman's built the Foss Dyke canal, linking the River Witham to the River Trent; and the point where the river and canal meet is the Brayford Pool - still a popular venue in modern-day Lincoln. New for 2013 will be a new Roman Walking Tour.

In 71AD the legendary 9th Legion was ordered to march north from its Lincoln stronghold and subdue hostile northern tribes, which were threatening the Roman advance.  A fortress was established at Eboracum - ‘the place of yew trees' - and this developed into a sophisticated centre of government and commerce as well as a military headquarters.   Today, it is better known as York!

To this day, York's essential ‘bone structure' is still Roman.  The two key streets in the ancient city, the Via Praetoria and Via Principalis, later became known as Stonegate and Petergate, but they still run along the same routes as they did two millennia ago.  Other reminders of the imperial age are the Roman column in Deangate, the remnants of a bath-house in the Roman Baths Public House in St Samson's Square, and perhaps most impressive of all the Multangular Tower, dating from 1st century Eboracum and part of the legionary fortress.

Roman Durham is best explored in Binchester, a one-acre site that contains the excavated remains of part of a large Roman fort, built around AD80 and continuing in use for about 350 years.  Today only the excavated buildings and the earthwork remains of the northern ramparts survive above ground.  However, visitors can still explore the 1,700-year-old under-floor heating of the bath house and search for “The Beast of Binchester”.  Nearby Lanchester Roman Walk takes in a number of Roman sites including Ebchester (Vindomora).  Ebchester would have been the last fort on the route before Hadrian’s Wall.  Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, meanwhile, has some of the finds from the archaeological excavations from the Piercebridge Roman Fort site.

Two thousand years ago, Chester was the Fortress of Deva, and the City Walls - the most complete circuit in the UK - date from the Roman occupation.  Several stores and properties in the city centre contain Roman remains.  Visitors can still see the Roman Strong Room and hypocaust (an early form of central heating system), for example, and can stand in the largest Amphitheatre uncovered in Britain - where 7,000 spectators enjoyed gladiatorial combat.

The Grosvenor Museum has just refurbished two galleries for 2013: “Stories of the Stones”, containing the largest collection of Roman tombstones found on one site in Britain; and “Roman Life Gallery”, with a new interpretation exploring the life of the Roman soldiers and civilians in Chester.

Oxfordshire’s Roman connections include the North Leigh Roman Villa, maintained by English Heritage.  While its other claim to fame is the snails, brought over by the Romans, and still found in West Oxfordshire countryside, and enjoyed in local restaurants!

For further details visit www.heritagecities.com.

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