Statue of Roman Emperor Trajan and remains of the London Wall
Statue of Roman Emperor Trajan and remains of the London Wall

"Roman Britain and Where to Find it" by Denise Allen

"Denise and Mike met on an Andante Travels tour to Pompeii and the Bay of Naples. Mike had been looking for this book in vain, so we decided to write it." 

So begins the acknowledgements page of our brand-new book, ‘Roman Britain and Where to Find It’, a guide to all the visible and accessible remains of the province of Britannia, including sites and major museum collections. I did indeed meet Mike Bryan and his wife Heather on a Pompeii tour about 4 years ago, and the plan was hatched. Mike had loved Roman history since he was a boy, and had then had a successful career in publishing, realising the lack of a modern popular and accessible guidebook. His idea was to give sites star ratings, using Simon Jenkin’s ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches’ as a broad model. I was just about to leave the Andante office, having spent nearly 20 years designing, setting up and leading tours, and one of my favourite tasks had always been writing field notes for the tours I led. It seemed a good way to spend a large chunk of the time I was going to have at last.

We set about revisiting every site between us, to review them in their current state and make the star ratings fair. These are based on how much Roman material is on view, as well as the quality of the remains. Tintagel, therefore, which is undoubtedly a spectacular site, gets a 1* rating, reflecting the two inscribed Roman stones and other bits and pieces here.

Starting slowly at first until we had a publishing deal, we divvied them out between us, with frequent chats and occasional meetings to make sure we were in accord. This took three years, fitting around seasonal closures and other commitments, and was amazingly good fun – each persuading friends, family and anyone who was willing to come on long journeys to seek out chunks of Roman walls, villas and bath-houses both gorgeously and idiosyncratically displayed, museums with famous and obscure treasures and inscribed stones in country churches. It was as much an eye-opener about the state of modern Britain as Roman, and a reminder that every site owes its visibility to the enthusiasm of individuals who cared enough to make a fuss and raise the funds. These include wealthy 19th century landowners, energetic and devoted archaeologists, and indefatigable amateurs who have ensured that these important parts of our past have remained accessible to everyone.

Many of the sites have already featured in Andante’s Study Days: Colchester and Verulamium, Caerleon and the cluster of forts and military features along the Hadrian’s Wall frontier, The Mithraeum, amphitheatre and other parts of Londinium, as well as the villas at Fishbourne and Bignor. Back in the day, we put on tours of Roman Scotland, featuring the Antonine Wall, and of the Saxon Shore Forts along the east and south English coasts. However, there are many more tales of the unexpected – I loved hunting down the three inscribed stones in south Cornwall, two in country churches, the third in a garden.

Not only do they make you wonder why people living here were expressing devotion to far distant late Roman Emperors, but rare medieval wall-paintings, works by the St Ives artistic community and John Wesley’s preaching place are nearby bonuses. Mike was blown away by Whitley Castle (Epiacum) in Cumbria, a 5* site in the making, with some of the best-preserved and elaborate earthwork defences anywhere in Europe. In Wales, a walk along Sarn Helen Roman road to the standing stone of Maen Madoc, with a Roman inscription was a highlight, along with the fort at Brecon Gaer, site of early excavations by the Wheelers. 

The new Antonine Wall Gallery at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow is fabulous, the new National Museum of Wales Gallery at St Fagans less so from the archaeological point of view. It makes a great day out to learn about Welsh national identity, but only a few Roman artefacts have made it out of storage.

Other unforgettable moments include entering the Welwyn bath-house though a hobbit hole under a motorway, where it is preserved in a vault; walking to the remote chapel of St Peters on the Wall, built within the Saxon Shore Fort at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex; and visiting, for the first time, the gigantic Bartlow Hills burial mounds, near Cambridge. Mike even hunted down a bit of Roman wall squashed between bookshelves in a bookshop in Horncastle, Lincs.

The book is printed and ready to go, and the launch was originally set to have been in May, but it has now been delayed to October. One thing we never foresaw in a million years was that it would be upstaged by a viral pandemic, bringing about the closure of all museums, English Heritage and National Trust sites, and a total lock-down while we all fight for survival. I guess the sites have been there for nearly 2,000 years and can wait a bit longer for visitors, and we have to believe that we will all be out there looking for them again soon.

Whatever happens, we loved the journey, and are profoundly grateful to all the archaeologists, including a number of Andante guide lecturers, who read and occasionally corrected sections on sites for which they are the real experts – Tony Wilmott, John Shepherd, David Rudling, Bill Manning and others, and thanks to Ben Kane and Lindsey Davis for the foreword and endorsements. It can be pre-ordered through Amberley Books to be ready for post-apocalyptic visiting!

Join Dr Denise Allen on tour this October, discovering Falco's Britannia

If you'd like to experience an ancient-world adventure in the expert company of Dr Denise Allen, you'll be interested to know that she will be leading our upcoming Falco's Britannia – Exploring Roman Britain tour in October, which is also joined by historical novelist Lindsey Davis. Highlights of the tour include a visit to two superb Roman villas on the Isle of Wight, a chance to gain an interesting insight into everyday life in Roman London, time to explore Roman Bath, and time at the Roman palace at Fishbourne. Secure your place for a special low deposit, or pay in full at the time of booking to save £250pp. 

Click here to view the full itinerary or to book online.

Previous story Next story

"Roman Britain and Where to Find it" by Denise Allen was published on 25 March 2020