A Cumbrian farmhouse has become home to one of Hadrian's soldiers. Next year schools can stay with him at this newly developed study centre. Jessie Anderson explains
However lively the teaching methods, the Romans can still seem a pretty remote bunch to most young people. They can't begin to imagine what it was like to be a Roman soldier based on that chilly northern outpost of the Roman empire which is now Cumbria.
Next year, however, they will be able to find out exactly what it was like by actually living within the walls of a Roman fort.
"Looking out of your bedroom window in the morning and seeing the remains of Roman life from 2,000 years ago will be a brilliant experience," says Elaine Allen, development officer at Birdoswald Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall near Carlisle.
The 73-mile-long Roman wall was designated a World Heritage Site in 1987 and Birdoswald occupies a unique position within it, with all the components of the Roman frontier system brought together in its 61-hectare estate.
Cumbria County Council acquired Birdoswald Estate in 1984 and embarked on an archaeological excavation programme which is still going on. The day I visited, a small pit containing a number of Roman shoes had been uncovered. This is one of the exciting aspects of Birdoswald - you never know what will turn up next. Recent excavations of the barrack blocks uncovered a centurion's quarters, complete with underfloor heating.
A centre opened five years ago has enabled visitors to follow the progress of the archaeological excavations and also to learn something of the pre- and post-Roman history of the site. But a great deal more will soon be on offer thanks to the new Pounds 1.2 million multi-purpose study and residential centre, which will be opened in March next year and for which bookings are now being taken.
The centre has been made possible by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of Pounds 861,000, plus funding from Cumbria County Council, the European Rural Development Fund and the Rural Development Commission.
The Pounds 50,000 visitor centre will feature a reconstruction of Hadrian's Wall, manned by Roman soldiers. There will be sound and visual effects and young people will be able to see how the Romans lived. (They will doubtless be particularly interested in the Roman latrines.) The centre will take the story of Birdoswald from earliest times to its latest role.
The present farmhouse, built within the walls of the fort, dates from the late 16th century. It is this and the adjacent farm building which have been converted into the new residential study centre.
A derelict cow byre has become the education room, complete with teaching aids and workshop space. Here a variety of activities are on offer, including handling of Roman objects, mosaic-making, making your own Roman helmet and jewellery, or meeting "Jefficus" the Roman soldier and hearing what his life was like. This room will accommodate 35 to 40 pupils and can be used for centre staff-led activities or booked and used independently.
The adjoining big barn is now a conference room with the same capacity, and it is also available for independent hire. The restored arrow slits give a hint of the building's stormy past when border battles and river raids were a constant threat.
The farmhouse, which has been empty for some years, has been converted to accommodate up to 40 people, including primary and secondary pupils and special interest groups, with a minimum number of eight in a group. There is comfortable, homely bunk-bed accommodation, with bedrooms sleeping from four to eight, each with its own private bathroom, and with a handbasin in each room. There's also a drying room - very necessary in Cumbria at any time of year - equipped with a washing machine.
All the bedrooms overlook the excavations, as do the farmhouse kitchen and dining room. Full catering is offered, but other options are also available.
The disabled facilities, which are excellent throughout the centre, include a ground-floor bedroom for two to four people, with en suite bathroom. This is also ideal as accommodation for teachers accompanying school parties.
The course co-ordination service ensures that programmes can be put together to cater for a wide variety of interests, not only historical and archaeological. The estate's mixed woodland and river habitat offers a splendid resource for environmental studies and is increasingly being used in this way.
Guided tours suitable for different age and interest groups from key stage 1 to archaeological society members are offered, covering any or all aspects of Birdoswald's 2,000-year history, including looking at the development of the site as a leisure and tourism attraction. "We will adapt or create a tour to meet the needs of any individual group," says Elaine Allan.
A free information pack is available for teachers, who are also offered a free visit and tour.
The Hadrian's Wall Residential Study Centre, Birdoswald Roman Fort, Gilsland, Carlisle CA6 7DD Tel: 01697 747602