After a hike along Hadrian’s Wall and a visit to Housesteads fort, we plumped for Vindolanda in the afternoon simply because it was close. Turns out it was a must-see, missing it off would have meant missing out big time. Set in a picturesque valley just one mile south of the wall, this is a once buried Roman fort, now partially excavated. Lots of ruins plus a bright, modern and fascinating museum it was Son’s highlight of the whole trip. It is perfect for children (and adults) who find it hard to picture a teeming Roman fort and bustling village when you are looking at piles of stones. Vindolanda solves that problem.
We arrived just after 2pm, perfect timing as one of their (2) daily tours had just started. We sneaked in at the back. Our guide walked us all around the fort and the ruins, explained the layout and “buildings” and gave stacks of history and fascinating anecdotes about life here in Roman times. Son hung on every word, the time flew past for all of us. We walked down the “main street”, saw the butcher’s shop, pub and soldiers’ quarters. We heard about the body of a child found underneath the barracks, presumably murdered as the Romans never buried their dead near the living.
Excavations were taking place – this is one of the few places in the UK where you can watch live excavations. They dig for 6 months, people pay to do it, certain they will find something special. It is so popular amongst budding archaeologists that slots sell out within 20 minutes of opening. If you fancy trying your hand at digging for Roman treasure, no time pressure. It will take a further 200 years for the whole site to be totally excavated.
We had refreshments in the gorgeous little tea room then set out to explore by ourselves. The setting is beautiful – a waterfall and stream run past the main museum buildings. They have replicas of a Roman house, shop and temple where you can go inside and “listen” to the occupants’ conversations. We found a replica of the wall as well where you can climb up to the look-out post.
The museum was wonderful, so much interesting “stuff” on display and a very eclectic collection. Apparently this is just the tip of the iceberg – they have warehouses full of items all found here. I loved the collection of leather shoes, hundreds of them but they only ever found one pair. Check out that cute baby shoe too.
They have displays of a more gruesome nature too if that is your thing. A skull that was once on a post at the entrance to the fort and the skeleton of the murdered child amongst other horrors.
They save the best for last – the Vindolanda writing tablets. Husband and I were shamed by Son, he proceeded to tell us more than we knew (and thought he did) about these. Relief indeed, a sign Minecraft has not entirely won in the battle for his brain. The tablets are basically very thin wooden postcards, sent between family and friends and the most famous discovery here. They are displayed in state of the art sealed cases and have been voted by experts as “Britain’s Top Treasure.” They include shopping lists, a birthday invitation and the soldiers complaining about the grim Northumbrian weather (nothing changed there then!). It was so amazing to see a few on display and to look at what is the oldest handwriting in Britain.
Closing time came around too soon – they had to virtually throw us out. Vindolanda is fascinating, I can’t believe we nearly didn’t go. So much to see you really do leave with an understanding of what life must have been like there back in Roman times. This place is unmissable.