Dewa Roman Experience – Roman Chester with kids
Your child can be old enough to join the Army, to travel to foreign lands… and yet they’ll still write home asking for more pants. Or so it seems, based on the affectionate letter from one Roman legionary to his mum at Dewa Roman Experience in Chester, bemoaning the weather and requesting more woollen underwear.
Once the site of the largest Roman fortress in Britain, with the largest military amphitheatre just outside the city itself, Chester is a perfect place to visit with kids who love history: wandering along the old city walls and spotting the black and white timbered houses which date back to the 13th century.
But to get a taste of Roman life, there’s nothing quite like stepping back 2,000 years in time on the very site where Romans would once have lived, fought, died and complained about the cold. Which exactly what we did at Dewa Roman Experience.
Stepping through the door of the small attraction, you’re transported into the hold of a Roman galley, to hear about the perils ahead as you voyage to this strange land on the edges of the known world, a drum beating constantly to keep the rowers in time.
And onwards through the next door to Deva Victrix itself. Built by one of the Roman legions in around the decade following 70AD, it soon became home to the 20th Legion, Valeria Victrix, who rebuilt the fortress over the next few centuries as they held the site for the emperor.
Different sections offer a snapshot of everyday life – the food the legionaries ate, for example, or the buildings within the fortress. But there are also quirky details to bring it more to life: the soldier desperate for more warm pants, the group punished by having barley instead of their bread ration, the mouse scampering along the edge of the communal baths where two men reclined and chatted in the water, much to my daughter’s faintly horrified amazement.
Her jaw dropped entirely when I revealed there were communal toilets too, where people would think nothing of a bit of a chat at the same time.
But if this is where most similar attractions stop, at Dewa Roman Experience, it’s just the first part. Persuaded to put down the wooden sword she’d been using to protect the legion’s treasure, we ventured through to the excavations themselves… past a storytelling area with a Medusa head and model bees.
No storytelling was taking place during our visit, but Minnie amused herself with the bees and reading the story folder, unperturbed by the mythical monster above.
And around the corner, the heart of the original fortress, uncovered by archaeologists in 1991. Each layer is labelled, with Saxon and Medieval remains stacked above the Roman foundations – itself 20% larger than Britain’s other Roman fortresses. Down a flight of stairs, bones and metal manacles sit neatly stacked in boxes.
Even more fun though is having a go yourself. Not on the original finds, of course, but in the museum’s fantastic hands-on section – paintbrushes are lined up next to gravel-filled trays, concealing mosaics, tiles and more. Or there’s a cut-away section of Roman road to investigate with a map above showing the extensive network across the country, and information on just why they were all so straight.
Past the section on Roman medicine, with a skeleton laid out and some distinctly unpleasant sounding remedies listed above, there’s a whole interactive room. After dressing up as a soldier, posing as a charioteer, discovering that chain mail is still as heavy as last time we tried, and brandishing a shield, we stumbled across the goal.
Picking different neck slates to reveal the fates of slaves thrown behind bars – could you have danced your way out of trouble in front of the emperor? – we both skipped the chance to inhale the scent of a Roman latrine, although I did risk a sniff of 6,000 pairs of smelly feet (and then scampered quickly to the lavender option).
And while older kids will enjoy a few mathematical brain teasers using Roman numerals, we were busy building our own Roman bridge and hypocaust, a type of early central heating. Turns out that for the former, all you need is a guide arch to stack the stones over… we built a couple, just to make sure we had the knack.
More fascinating to me was the collection of artefacts from Chester and across the Roman Empire, in the final room. As I marvelled at coins, jewellery and a surprising number of oil lamps, a mini treasure hunt of the display cases kept Minnie’s attention.
Perfect practice, as we emerged back onto the streets of Chester, for our plans for the afternoon. While Dewa Roman Experience has regular public patrols with a Roman soldier, they weren’t running the day we visited – you can also join other Roman walking tours of Chester, but we decided to see a little more of the city, including the old Roman walls, by following one of the Chester Treasure Trails.
This time, a spy mission, starting at the Town Hall and taking us past the 700-year-old Abbey gatehouse and along part of the walls encircling the city, where Romans would have patrolled (wishing, doubtless, for warmer underwear) and King Charles I stood to watch the outcome of a Civil War battle.
Some of the towers still stand, their own history featuring an Anglo Saxon Queen and goblins – according to legend – as well as the city’s own Bridge of Sighs above the canal.
Code cracked, we wandered past more of Chester’s black and white timbered houses to The Rows, the colonnaded galleries with buildings which date back to the 13th century. And one final Roman reminder, the numerals on the ornate Eastgate clock.
Not something the legionaries would have encountered, despite what I once innocently thought on a primary school visit to the city, but still as spectacular as ever. The Romans may be long gone, but it’s a perfect spot to walk in their footsteps.
Need to know: Dewa Roman Experience – Roman Chester with kids
Tickets cost £5.95 for adults, £4.25 for children, plus family tickets for £20. The Roman Soldier patrols cost an extra £4 per person and take one hour.
The attraction is open from 9m to 5pm on weekdays and Saturdays during peak months (February to November), 10-5pm on Sundays, with shorter opening hours during winter months. There may be restricted access if school groups are visiting, so if you’re planning a trip during term-time, it’s worth checking in advance.
You’re recommended to allow around an hour for a visit, although if you’re visiting with younger kids, set aside a bit longer for the hands-on activities. There are toilets but no cafe.
PIN FOR LATER: DEWA ROMAN EXPERIENCE
Disclosure: My visit to Dewa Roman Experience was courtesy of the attraction. All opinions and shonky hypocausts are my own. We paid for the Treasure Trail ourselves.LIKED THIS? FOLLOW ME ON YOUTUBE