Today, the village of Wroxeter in Shropshire consists of a few houses, a church and a hotel; there is no shop. However, two thousand years ago, this sleepy place was a bustling Roman metropolis – ‘Viroconium’, the fourth-largest Roman city in Britain.
There are a few reminders of Wroxeter’s distinguished past still visible today. A casual visitor can spend a pleasant morning at the site, wandering among the remains of the baths complex and the Forum colonnade, inspecting the replica Roman townhouse and pottering around the small museum. An enterprising local has even established a ‘Roman’ vineyard, a short distance away, should refreshment be required. Having passed a pleasant interlude there, the discerning tourist can then proceed along well-trodden paths towards Shrewsbury and the Welsh Hills, or to Ironbridge - birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.
Wroxeter nestles under an impressive hill (mountain? No-one is quite sure) – the ‘Wrekin’, which looms over Shropshire’s Northern plain; it also boasts the ‘Old Work’, the highest chunk of free-standing Roman masonry in Britain. While it cannot compete with larger establishments - such as Edinburgh Castle or the Louvre - in terms of location or treasures, nonetheless, for me, Wroxeter Roman City is the best museum in the world because it represents home.
I grew up nearby and, when I was six, my mother got a job at Wroxeter. In summer, the site closed at seven, so, while she finished work, I would roam around the remains, playing hide and seek, or chase, in the remoter corners, with my two sisters, or sitting with my homework spread over the Forum. We were under strict instructions not to climb on walls, but I do remember perching on the columns in the ‘hypocaust’ (the remains of the under-floor central heating system) and chatting, and rampaging over and through the latrine-trench (sorry, Mum). Sometimes, we would just lie on our backs on the sloping sides of the plunge-pool and look up at the sky.
Occasionally, if all the visitors had left, we were allowed into the museum, where I became fascinated by the ‘caltrops’ – nasty looking barbs, which were designed to lame horses; the remains of a Roman sandal and an ancient glass bowl, which shimmered with rainbow-lights. All these things had been touched by people who lived on the same spot as me, hundreds of years previously. My childish mind found this near-impossible to grasp.
The shop was another source of wonder. It sold cardboard soldiers, which children could cut out, colour in, and set up. I saved up my pocket-money and bought a legionary, then instantly regretted my choice when my sister got the standard-bearer, with his bear-skin cape.
I came to associate the museum with fascinating people, too. There were the archaeologists who dug there in the summer, and the famous visitors described by my mother, in breathless tones. For me, however, the unsung hero of Wroxeter was her co-custodian, ‘Mr Carter’, who composed Tolkien-esque stories about dragons and princesses. He was a natural performer, who recited his tales to us with all the verve of Richard Burton delivering ‘Under Milk Wood’. I still have a vivid picture of his friendly three-headed giant, Tom-Dickon-Harry, in my mind. He makes me smile.
When I turned twelve, my father died and everything changed. My mother stopped working at the museum and later moved away; I doubt that I know anyone in Wroxeter now. Nostalgia is both a blessing and a curse and I am aware that the Roman City of my memories is probably as unreal as the ‘Uricon’ of Housman’s ‘Shropshire Lad’. However, that is the beauty of museums. They provide a canvas, on which everyone can sketch their own version of the past. My Wroxeter is populated not just by the ghosts of homesick legionaries and standard-bearers, pining for their sunnier homelands amid the Shropshire frosts, but by the shades of three small girls, playing happily among the ruins, at home.
Location: Wroxeter Roman City, Wroxeter, near Shrewsbury, Shropshire, SY5 6PH (sat nav postcode: SY5 6PJ)
Admission: free for English Heritage members. For non-members: £7.90 (adult), £4.70 (child), family and concession tickets available. Pricing is for online bookings, on the door pricing may be higher.
Opening hours: Mon-Sun, 10am – 5pm (last admission, 4:30pm)
Covid-19 specific information: at time of writing (August 2021), the site was open, although face coverings are advised. More safety advice and FAQs are available here.
The author would like to extend a special thanks to Dr Roger White, Hon Research Fellow, University of Birmingham for all his help with this article and photos.
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Anne Hardy has just finished her BA in Classics at Birkbeck, University of London, and is about to start her Masters. However, archaeology is still her first love and she still knows where her trowel is.