Hertfordshire’s top 10 ancient sites
PUBLISHED: 13:12 16 July 2016 | UPDATED: 14:23 20 July 2016
It’s the national Festival of Archaeology in July, so we’ve put together our top 10 ancient sites to visit in Herts plus the county’s festival events for hands-on archaeological family fun
The county has a host of archaeological treasures. Some, like the outstanding Roman remains at Verulamium, are world-renowned and have been extensively studied, but others are almost unknown outside academic circles, making them even more rewarding for those who have a thirst for archaeological adventure. Inspired by the Council for British Archaeology’s Festival of Archaeology, here are 10 you must see.
The site of the Roman town of St Albans – Verulamium – is probably the best known archaeological site in Hertfordshire and has been extensively documented and studied, giving a fascinating insight into the period.
Head for the fabulous Verulamium museum on St Michael’s Street and you will find a treasure house stacked with Roman finds discovered from excavations of what was the third largest town in Roman Britain.
The museum has recreated Roman rooms, hands-on discovery areas, a fine collection of gold Roman coins, a video about the excavations and decorative Roman mosaics.
As well as the museum you can see still impressive stretches of walls that once enclosed the town, an impressive mosaic complete with under-floor hypocaust heating system and, in a rural setting off Bluehouse Hill, one of the best-preserved examples of a Roman amphitheatre in Britain.
For admission details, visit stalbansmuseums.org.uk
2. Berkhamsted Castle
One of the county’s most evocative archaeological sites is the remains of a motte-and-bailey castle at Berkhamsted dating from the 11th century. On the edge of the town and surrounded by the rolling Chiltern Hills, the castle, which was a key early Norman structure controlling the northern approach to London, can be misty and mysterious on a winter’s day but the perfect spot for a picnic come summer.
Here walked Thomas Becket, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, and the Black Prince – food for thought as you munch your lunch.
The castle is near the town’s railway station. Visit english-heritage.org.uk for more.
3. Welwyn Roman Baths
Hidden in the unlikely location of a specially-constructed vault under the A1(M) at Welwyn are the well-preserved remains of a Roman bath house which would have served a large and opulent villa. It was once heated by an under-floor hypocaust system, and visitors can still see the walls of the cold, warm and hot rooms where the Romans would have enjoyed their version of relaxing bliss.
For details and opening times visit welhat.gov.uk/romanbaths
4. St Albans Abbey
The oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain, the magnificent St Albans Cathedral still attracts pilgrims from far and wide.
Benedictine monks founded the abbey in the eighth century on the hillside burial site of Britain’s first saint, Alban, a courageous Romano-Briton who lived in the nearby city of Verulamium and who – so the story goes – was beheaded for sheltering a fugitive Christian priest from the Roman authorities.
See stalbanscathedral.org for opening times and events.
5. Devil’s Dyke
To the east of the village of Wheathampstead lie the remains of a defensive ditch around a very ancient settlement, once home to the most powerful Iron Age tribe in Britain, the Catuvellauni. It is thought be the site of Julius Caesar’s defeat of the tribe’s proud leader, the British warrior Cassivellaunus, in 54BC. You can imagine the battling Celts taking on the might of Caesar’s military machine as you clamber up the incline...
6. Royston Cave
Discovered in 1742 after workmen lifted a hefty millstone and found a deep shaft beneath with steps leading downward, Royston Cave is something of an enigma. The cave walls are covered with mysterious religious carvings whose meanings have never been fully explained but which are thought to date from medieval times.
The site is a minute’s walk from Royston Town Hall car park. Entry is by guided tour only, details of admission are at roystoncave.co.uk
7. Hertford Castle
The impressive gatehouse of Hertford Castle, next to the River Lea in the county town, is a reminder that there was once an important fortress here at the heart of medieval England.
For more than 300 years, the castle provided opulent lodgings to English kings and queens. Notable visitors included John of Gaunt, Henry V and Henry VIII.
The gatehouse is now a venue for weddings and corporate hire but its grounds are a public park open to all, with regular community events.
8. Ware Priory
A friary was set up by Franciscan monks in 1338 on this spot in Ware in medieval times.
The building has remained an important one in the town since that time, with 14th-century wattle-and-daub, 17th-century stonework and Victorian murals all preserved, showing how it has developed over the centuries. It has been a friary, a house and a convalescent hospital and now serves as both the offices of Ware Town Council and as a venue for weddings, conferences, events and banqueting. Its seven-acre grounds are open to the public.
See waretowncouncil.gov.uk for more.
9. Wilbury Hill Fort
Wilbury Hill Fort on the edge of Letchworth is an impressive ring of defences that date from the Bronze Age. The remains consist of a single ditch and an earth rampart surrounding two enclosures with far-reaching views across north Hertfordshire and beyond – showing why it was such a strategically-important site.
There is parking next door to the Gardener’s Arms pub (a modern-day site for pilgrims of The World’s End film starring Simon Pegg), near the junction with Icknield Way and Wilbury Hills Road.
10. Therfield Heath Barrow Cemetery
This is an impressive array of burial mounds, the oldest of which could date from 4,000 BC.
To find them, head west out of Royston for about 1¼ miles and then turn south along Therfield Road for about 225 yards. The barrows can be seen on the skyline on the east side of the road – a 6,000-year-old spectacle of power and ownership of the land.
Herts Festival of Archaeology events July 23 Stone Age day, Royston and District Museum. Handle real prehistoric finds, do cave painting and make stone-age style pottery, jewellery and arrowheads. Build a mini Stonehenge or prehistoric shelter, plus activity trail.
July 24 Archaeology family fun day, Welwyn Roman Baths. Children can become archaeologists, excavate a skeleton, create a roman pot and meet real archaeologists.
Aug 5 Archaeological detectives at Hertford Museum. Workshop for ages seven-11. Discover how archaeology works by taking part in a mock archaeological dig.
Various dates Amazing archaeology at Hertford Museum. Craft activities based on the museum’s collections.
Full details and booking at archaeologyfestival.org.uk