Tag Archives: Britain

Hadrian’s Wall: The Extraordinary Remains of Roman Life in Britain

Hadrian's Wall I’m on Hadrian’s Wall to defend Roman Britain from the barbarians in the north! Hadrian's Wall Actually, I’m at Housesteads Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, which was built, starting in 122 A.D., to protect northern Britain, which was part of the Roman Empire, from attacks by the Picts and other tribes living in what is now Scotland.  Along the wall, there were forts, garrisoned by both cavalry and infantry units, and surrounded by communities, every 5 miles. Turrets and milecastles, with smaller garrisons, guarded the areas of the wall in between the forts. Around 410 A.D., the Romans abandoned Britain, but archaeological evidence shows that native Britons continued to garrison the wall through the 5th century.  Over the next few centuries, the wall fell into disrepair, Hadrian's Walland many of the stones were taken away to build other structures. Today, visitors can hike almost the entire length of the wall, can explore the Hadrian's Wallexcavated remains of several Roman forts, and can see fascinating collections of artifacts that reveal how Romans, soldiers from all throughout the Empire, and local people lived together, socialized, traded, and intermarried in the forts and communities along the wall.


Housesteads Roman Fort is the most complete of all the forts along Hadrian’s Wall.  Construction began on the fort in 124 AD, only two years after the beginning of the Hadrian's Wallbuilding of Hadrian’s Wall.  The original name of the fort was Vercovicium, which means “place of the effective fighters”.  Today, visitors begin the self-guided tour in the excellent museum which gives a necessary and interesting overview of the layout of the fort, the various stages of construction, the use of the site over time, and the daily lives of the soldiers and families garrisoned there.  Next, venture out into the remains of the fort.  A wonderful guidebook, which I highly recommend purchasing, will explain the nature and purpose of each building.  There are also signs placed throughout the Roman ruins to help you understand what you’re seeing and see what the buildings once looked like.  Here are some of the remains that are interesting to explore:

  • the bakery where bread was produced for the soldiers and their families
  • the granaries (photo upper right) in which wheat was stored; be sure to read about the intriguing system that was used to keep the wheat dry and protected from vermin
  • the barracks (photo upper left) where the soldiers and their unit commanders lived; the soldiers were not native to Britain but rather came from provinces all across the Roman Empire including northern Africa, Germany, France, Belgium, Hadrian's Walland Italy; globalization isn’t only a modern concept!
  • the bathhouse in which soldiers could not only clean themselves but also socialize and relax
  • the hospital where soldiers were treated for sickness and injuries with medicine that was surprisingly advanced for the time
  • the principia, or headquarters, which served as a basilica in which justice was provided and orders were given, a shrine to the gods and to the Roman emperor, and a strongroom to hold valuables
  • the praetorium, or commanding officer’s house
  • the latrines, or restrooms, (photo to the right) which are the most well-preserved Roman latrines in Britain
  • the walls, ramparts, and gates
  • the civilian settlement where approximately 500 local people lived, worked, traded with, and intermarried with the Romans

Hadrian's WallWhen you’re finished touring the remains of the fort, I highly recommend taking a Hadrian's Walllong walk along Hadrian’s Wall.  Doing so will allow you to see the amazing feats of engineering it took to construct this defensive structure across the different terrains in northern England.  In addition, you’ll experience some breathtaking landscapes which I’m sure you’ll want to take photos of, like I did.  All alone, way out along the wall, you can contemplate what life was like here in the past when Romans and native Britons lived together, socialized, traded, shared ideas and customs, and even intermarried.  If I close my eyes now, I can still see the amazing landscapes along the wall.  It’s an experience that you’ll never forget.


Location of Houseteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall

Houseteads Roman Fort is located at Haydon Bridge outside the town of Hexham in the country of Northumbria, England.  For specific driving directions, click on the map below.   If you don’t have a car, from the beginning of April to the end of September, the Hadrian’s Wall Bus (AD122) can get you to any of the forts, Roman sites, and museums along the wall, including Housesteads.  This website provides detailed information about locations and timetables.


Haddon Hall: The Finest Example of a Medieval and Tudor Manor House in Britain

If you’re looking to see the best preserved example of an English medieval and Tudor home, head to the spectacular Haddon Hall.  Haddon has been a fortified manor house whose walls were first raised up in 1195, but most of the battlements and towers were built in the late 14th century to be fashionable rather than to keep out attackers.   Haddon was added onto in the early and late 1500’s, but the family deserted the home and left it uninhabited for over 200 years! In the 1920’s the 9th DuHaddon Hallke realized the historical and architectural importance of Haddon and began restoration work that continues today.  The Manners Family, who has owned Haddon Hall since 1584, continue to live there but welcome visitors, like you and me, to explore their dreamy medieval home.

We were there on a very rain and overcast day, so most of my photos didn’t come out as well as I would have liked.Haddon Hall  Walking through the Northwest Tower and into the courtyard of Haddon Hall, I got goose pimples because I felt like I had just stepped back in time.  Off of the flowering vine and ivy covered courtyard, there are many rooms to explore, but we began our self-guided tour in the great hall, which in medieval and Tudor times, was the main communal living space.  In those days, the only private bedroom, located above the main hall and usually called a solar, would have belonged to the lord and lady, so everyone else would have slept on the floor in the main hall or in the kitchens.  Today, Haddon’s great hall is called the Banqueting Hall. Picture a huge table and fireplace, mounted horns of hunted animals, furs on the floor, tapestries on the walls, and a minstrel’s gallery above. Another interesting room is the long gallery, which was built in Elizabethan times to allow the family to walk along its long length Haddon Hallin order to exercise when the weather was poor.  Long galleries were also used to play games and to hold balls. Haddon’s long gallery overlooks the gorgeous Elizabethan knot garden which would have been planted with herbs and flowers that have medicinal purposes. Today, Haddon’s other gardens are planted in the Renaissance style on a series of terraces that descend down to the River Wye. They’re an ideal place for a fairytale wedding!  Speaking of weddings, I imagine Haddon’s chapel has seen a fair share in is long history. Originally built in the 12th century and widened in the 1500’s, the chapel is dedicated to St. Nicholas and still Haddon Hallfunctions as the local church of one of the smallest parishes in England. The chapel’s walls contain rare examples of medieval frescoes depicting the lives of St. Nicholas, St. Christopher, and St. Anne and of three skeletons that were part of a lesson on vanity.   During the Protestant Reformation, almost all church frescoes like these were destroyed, but the ones in Haddon’s chapel were whitewashed over and then, later, carefully uncovered and restored in the early 20th century. Although the historian in me was intrigued by the chapel, my favorite part of Haddon Hall was its kitchens. Haddon Hall also has some of the best preserved, intact Tudor kitchen in all of England. Built in the 1300’s, the kitchen is actually a small complex of rooms including a main kitchen with a medieval water boiler and water trough system, great fireplace, and a 16th century carving table, a milk larder with 15th century cupboards that are considered the best preserved in the world, and a butchery with a 15th century trough for salting meat and 17th century game-hanging racks.  I love places like the Tudor kitchens at Haddon because they allow us to see into have a glimpse into the lives of people in the past and to see how they did everyday things like preserve foods, cook, and bake. History can’t get more real and down-to-earth than that!

Location of Haddon Hall

Haddon Hall is located in the village of Blakewell in the country of Derbyshire in England.  It’s approximately 1.5 hours outside of the city of Manchester.  For specific directions, click on the map below.   Haddon Hall is open seasonally, so be sure to check the hours on their website before going.

If you’ll also be visiting Chatsworth House and Estate, Haddon Hall makes a convenient side trip, as it’s only 20 minutes from Chatsworth.  We combined both into a lovely day out.  For more on Chatsworth, see my post “Chatsworth House: An Opulent Day Out in Derbyshire”.



London’s Lesser Known Sites: Time Machines, Rollin’ Royals, and Galloping Guards

London is full of world-class sights and historic palaces fit for a queen, but I’m going to show you several destinations in the British capital that most tourists miss. As an avid anglophile who’s been to London five times, take a trip with me to these four lesser known but equally smashing London attractions.


#1 A Time Machine to the Past

You’ve wandered into the home of Huguenot silk weavers, and as you peak around the corners and Dennis Severs House in Londonmeander up the creaky stairs, no matter where you turn, the family always seems to be just out of sight. Wigs and clothing have been tossed onto the back of chairs, and unfinished plates of food have been left on the elaborately set table in the midst of dinner.  With a blob of fresh ink on the paper, someone has stopped writing, mid sentence, a letter to a trusted confidant. In the candle-lit kitchen, a pipe, still emitting the faintest amount of smoke is left, as if the user is just about to return for another puff.

Visitors freely move through the Dennis Severs’ House in silence, allowing them to ponder the sights and smells of each room, piece together the mystery of what they’re witnessing, and wonder if they just stumbled out of a time machine. The house is set up as a “still life drama”, that feels more like you’ve stepped into an Dennis Severs House in London immersive theater experience than a museum. And that’s exactly how Severs wanted it to be. He devoted his entire life to restoring his 19th century home in a way that recreated scenes of Stuart, Georgian, and Victorian life, complete with period furnishings and lack of electricity, to vividly portray how a single, fictional family lived, from rags to riches, over the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

As a historian and history teacher, I’ve been to countless museums, and the Dennis Severs’ house is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and I don’t say that lightly.

Dennis Severs House in London

Be aware that due to the special nature of their museum experience, the Dennis Severs’ House is only open on certain days of the week at particular times, usually on Sunday afternoons, Mondays at lunch time, and on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings.  I highly recommend the Silent Night candlelit tour, held on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings.  Check their website for specific opening hours and to book your self-guided experience.

#2 The Other Changing of the Guard

Changing of the Guard at Horse Guards Parade in LondonWe’re all familiar with the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Soldiers in their scarlet tunics and bearskin hats marching in precision to the beat of military music, while gaggles of tourists watch, awestruck by all of the royal pageantry. But did you know there’s another changing of the guard in London, one that fewer tourists know about and attend? And this one involves horses!

Every day, no matter what the weather, members of the Queen’s Life Guard ride from their Hyde Park barracks to Horse Guards Parade to take over their Changing of the Guard at Horse Guards Parade in London duties as guards for the royal residences.   The ceremony, with all its pomp and circumstance, takes place daily at 11:00AM.   At this Changing of the Guard, unlike the one at Buckingham Palace, you won’t have a giant iron fence blocking your view, or be jumping up and down in the air in a vain attempt to see over the heads of hundreds of tourists standing in your way. Arrive around 10-15 minutes early, take your place at the ropes, and wait to watch the spectacle to unfold right in front of you.

If you miss the ceremony, you can still see two mounted members of the Queen’s Life Guard on duty from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM at the Whitehall entrance to Horse Guards Parade. At 4:00PM, the cavalry soldiers dismount and remain stationed there until 8:00PM. You’re welcome to take a selfie but don’t get too close!


#3 House Hunters Through Time

Geffrye Museum London Do you enjoying peering into the homes of others by watching shows like House Hunters on HGTV and other DIY channels? Then you’ll love the Geffrye Museum of the Home! This unique museum is dedicated to showing how home decor, style, and taste have evolved from the 16th century to the present. You’ll see a chronological sequence of recreated living rooms from Tudor times, through the Victorian Era, to the 1960’s Geffrye Museum London and today. And the museum is set in a restored 19th century almshouse with award-winning, picnic-worthy, period gardens. The Geffrye Museum (closed on Mondays, except for bank holidays) is a fascinating glimpse into the past and a tranquil oasis in a busy urban metropolis.

#4 Transportation Fit for a Queen

Royal Mews London During the summer months, tourists flock to Buckingham Palace to tour what is, perhaps, the most famous residence in the world. Even if you’re not in London during the summer, you can still catch a glimpse of royal life and see how the monarch travels in royal style. The Royal Mews, which house the Queen’s working stables and the royal collection of coaches and state automobiles, are located just adjacent to Buckingham Palace. Visitors can admire the Gold State Coach, ridden in by British monarchs at every coronation since 1821, horse-drawn carriages used in royal weddings, jubilees, state visits, and the State Opening of Parliament, and even classic automobiles which ferry around Queen Elizabeth II. The newest member of the fleet is the Diamond Jubilee State Coach, which was first used in 2014 for the Queen’s 80th Royal Mews London birthday and contains wood from Admiral Nelson’s flagship, H.M.S. Victory, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and other palaces and cathedrals Royal Mews London scattered throughout the country. Whether you’re there to see the state coaches or visit

with the magnificent horses, a trip to the Royal Mews makes you feel like a monarch, if only for a short time. You might even catch a glimpse of the daily messenger coach that has been bringing royal mail

between Buckingham Palace and St. James’ Palace since 1843!  Be aware that the Royal Mews are closed on Sundays.




The Dennis Severs’ House is located at 18 Folgate St. in the Spitalfields area of London. The closest Tube stop is Liverpool Street. Visit their website to book your tour.  Click on the map for directions.

The Changing of the Life Guard is held daily at Horse Guards Parade at 11:00AM. Horse Guards Parade is located on Whitehall, with the closest Tube station being Charing Cross, on Trafalgar Square. Click on the map for directions.  From Trafalgar Square, walk up Whitehall until you see the two mounted cavalry soldiers. Walk through the arch and into Horse Guards Parade.

The Geffrye Museum is located at 136 Kingsland Rd. in the Hoxton area of London. The easiest way to get there is to take the Overground (marked as orange on subway maps) to the Hoxton Station, which is located immediately behind the museum. Alternatively, you can take the Tube to Liverpool Street Station and then Bus 149 or 242 to the Museum (or walk for 20 minutes).  Click on the map for directions.

The Royal Mews is located on Buckingham Palace Road. Click on the map for directions. With Buckingham Palace in front of you, walk to the left of the palace, past the Queen’s Gallery, and up Buckingham Palace Rd. You’ll walk along the wall that separates the palace gardens from the city and eventually see the Royal Mews on your right.


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