Romans and Ruins: A Day in the Wye Valley

It was a rare sunny day in Wales when we headed out from Cardiff for a day tour of Caerleon, Tintern Abbey, Raglan Castle and the Wye Valley.  I could tell the sunny day in Wales was a unusual because every Welsh person we spoke to from the waitress to the hotel clerk to the tour guide remarked on it with excitement. Plus, the minibus we toured in had no air conditioning and few windows.

First stop, Caerleon or “Fortress of the Legion”. It was the headquarters for Legio II Augusta from about 75 to 300 CE, and the Romans called the site Isca after the River Usk. The current town sits atop the old Roman town, with parts of it including the Roman Baths excavated for research and viewing.

“I oil myself, I take my exercise, I have my bath.”
(Pliny, Epistles IX 36,4)

The baths would have been open to one cohort (about 500 men) at a time. It’s thought that soldiers bathed separately from the women and children. Typically, they would exercise, bathe and then relax socially. For exercise, they could swim in the outdoor pool (natatio), play ball games or wrestle in the indoor sports hall (basilica).

After exercising, they would wash in the frigidarium and go through to the tepidarium, or warm room, where they would rub themselves with scented olive oil. Beyond that, the steam in the sauna-like calderium would make them sweat. After sweating, they used a strigil to scrape off the sweat and dirt and end their bathing with a dip in the plunge pool in the frigidarium.

Afterwards, it was time to meet friends, get a hair cut, and maybe have something to eat or play games and gamble. There wasn’t a strict routine, though, you bathed as you wished.

Just outside the walls of the fortress was the amphitheatre. Not dissimilar to stadiums of today, the stone and earth walls would have been topped with wooden stands where up to 6,000 soldiers would have watched gladiators fight to their death. Well, the death part is a little bit different but I imaging the yelling and cheering would have been similar to today’s sporting matches.

Death in the arena was particularly popular in the western Roman Empire. British warfare even inspired a new type of gladiator, the essedarius, who began his fights on a chariot. Games were a religious event, a  means of executing criminals and a hugely popular sport. The goddess Nemesis oversaw combat, ensuring that divine justice was done, and the amphitheatre contains a shrine to Nemesis where the gladiators would pray before combat began. Watching the games was supposed to be good for the spectators!


Jumping forward 800 years, our next stop was Tintern Abbey. The Abbey was founded in 1131. The monks for Tintern came from a daughter house of Cîteaux, L’Aumône Abbey, in the diocese of Chartres in France.

The Cistercian monks (or White Monks because they did not dye the cloth for their robes) who lived at Tintern followed the Rule of St. Benedict. The Carta Caritatis (Charter of Love) laid out their basic principles, of obedience, poverty, chastity, silence, prayer, and work. With this austere way of life, the Cistercians were one of the most successful orders in the 12th and 13th centuries. The lands of the Abbey were divided into agricultural units or granges, on which local people worked and provided services such as smithies to the Abbey.

Tintern has a cruciform plan with an aisled nave with two chapels in each transept. The abbey is built of Old Red Sandstone and measures 69.5 meters (228 feet) from east to west, while the transept is 45.7 meters (150 feet) in length.

In the reign of King Henry VIII, his Dissolution of the Monasteries ended monastic life in England, Wales and Ireland. On 3 September 1536 Abbot Wyche surrendered Tintern Abbey and all its estates to the King’s visitors and ended a way of life that had lasted 400 years. Valuables from the Abbey were sent to the royal Treasury and Abbot Wyche was pensioned off. Lead from the roof was sold and the decay of the buildings began.

I have to say, I know the Abbey would have had a proper roof and floor, but on a sunny day I kind of liked the blue sky above and the green grass below.  There was also a gorgeous oak tree in the yard, planted in 1911 to mark the coronation of George V. And, on the day we were there, you could get your picture taken with a bird of prey. I declined since there was a lot of flapping around and those sharp beaks seemed a bit too close to the subject’s eye for my comfort.


Last stop of the day was Raglan Castle. Not much to say, here (or maybe I was just warm and tired and thirsty at this point). A pretty standard  medieval castle located in the county of Monmouthshire. The modern castle dates from between the 15th and early 17th centuries, when the successive ruling families of the Herberts and the Somersets created a luxurious, fortified castle, complete with a large hexagonal keep, known as the Great Tower or the Yellow Tower of Gwent.

For those who are knitters, you will be familiar with raglan sleeves, which drop down off the shoulder.  According to our guide, raglan means “land which drops off sharply”, which the land around the castle did do. And, apparently, so do the sleeves. There was also a reenactment society group (think SCA in North America) setting up for a week stay around the Castle. They quite ignored us.

The thing I liked most about Raglan was the beautiful views of the Monmouthshire countryside from the windows.  The dark castle walls framed a picture of blue sky, yellow fields and green trees. I wish I had better photography skills to more accurately depict the light and colours.


Altogether, a lovely day spent in and around the Wye Valley and learning about Welsh culture, history, poetry and music from our tour guide.  Or, I should say, learning about Cymru, which is the Welsh word for Wales and means “land of the people” (Wales is a Roman word meaning “foreigner”).

I also learned that it is from the Welsh that we get the tradition of singing national anthems before sporting events. A tradition started in 1904 when the New Zealand rugby team played Wales in Cardiff and the Welsh people needed a response to the All Blacks rather intimidating haka. A timely bit of knowledge as the Olympic games were also being staged this summer.

Which kind of brings us right back in a circle to the amphitheatre and the crowds cheering for blood sport and their favourite gladiators. After all, it’s good for you, right?!





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