Horrible Histories’ guide to the UK
As Incredible Invaders, a stage show based on the Horrible Histories stories, tours the UK, the show’s writer and director Neal Foster picks 10 historical attractions whose tales could turn the strongest stomach
Roman snacks in the Cotswolds
When the Romans travelled they may not have had iPads or DVDs, but they still brought their own entertainment. Gladiators performed in amphitheatres which the Romans built around Britain and a great example survives in Cirencester. A great second-century example survives in Cirencester that could hold 8,000 people. The Romans didn’t just enjoy watching people slaughtering each other – they also liked to watch bear-baiting and animals fight. One of their favourite games was to put different animals into the arena to create a uniquely horrible version of survival of the fittest. Nearby is the Corinium Museum where the Food for Thought exhibition (until 5 July), and Roman food festival (30-31 May) explore food in Roman Britain. If you fancy a Roman snack, how about putrefied fish guts to flavour your lunch? Take a mackerel, slice it open, remove the guts and put them in a jar. Add the gills, intestines and blood, then season with salt and herbs and leave in the sun for about three months until the rotten fish guts have liquefied. But if you can’t hold it down, there’s an exhibit of food remains from a Roman sewer.
• Amphitheatre: free, english-heritage.org.uk; Corinium Museum (price includes entry to exhibitions), adult £4.95, child £2.45, coriniummuseum.org
Where centurions wipe their bottoms
The Romans left their mark up and down the country and across it too, with their extraordinary wall built by emperor Hadrian. Perhaps we’re lucky his name wasn’t Wally, as Hadrian’s Wall is still with us today, stretching 80 miles across northern England. There are many forts and settlements you can visit along the wall but why not try the toilets at Vindolanda fort and museum at Bardon Mill? Here, they’ve just discovered a perfectly preserved 1,000-year-old toilet seat, the only one in the world and will take up to two years to conserve. There are two sets of Roman latrines, an eight-seater and a 12-seater, sadly cordoned off so you can’t actually sit on them; just imagine 12 Romans, each holding a sponge on a stick – for wiping their bottoms.
• Entrance to Vindolanda fort and museum and the Roman Army Museum: Adult £10.50, child £6 (under-5s free), £32 per family (2 adults, 2 children), vindolanda.com
Gangrene in the Bath
One of the best preserved Roman sites in the country is in Bath and in case you’re wondering what Roman site could possibly be in Bath, I can put you out of your misery and reveal: it’s a bath. Not just any bath, but the Great Bath and the remains of the Temple to the goddess Sulis Minerva. There are excellent audio guides, particularly the commentary for children, but don’t be tempted to take a dip. Even in Roman times the water wasn’t replaced very often and became contaminated with the oil people rubbed over themselves, the dead skin they used to scrape off their bodies and even bits of excrement from those hard-to-reach places. Imagine what fun the bacteria had with all that contamination in the lovely warm water. In fact, the Romans warned each other not to enter the water with a fresh wound in case they got gangrene, so maybe you should stick to a shower.
• Adult £14, child £9, family (2 adults and up to 4 children) £40, romanbaths.co.uk
The headless slaves of Suffolk
After the Romans left Britain, the Britons had the bright idea of asking the Saxons from Germany to come and help them defend the country from Picts and Gaels, but it didn’t quite go to plan when the Saxons took over. They brought with them their tradition of burying their leaders in a boat. The most famous example is the one found at Sutton Hoo, one of the most spectacular discoveries in British archaeology.
You can visit the ancient burial ground of Sutton Hoo and discover the story of the ship burial at the National Trust site in neighbouring Woodbridge. There’s a full-size reconstruction of the burial chamber and replicas of the original finds from one of the mounds.
A new exhibition running until November called Ghost Ship of Sutton Hoo tells the tale of the Mound One ship, from the details of its construction, its voyages at sea, its burial, its journeys in the next world and the amazing rediscovery in 1939. Saxon slaves would probably have tried to avoid the funeral, as they were often buried alive with their masters and a big stone was put on top of them to stop them getting out. The Saxons also had a clever way of stopping people coming back to haunt them: they would chop off their head so they couldn’t find their way around.
• Adult £7.90, child £3.95, family (2 adults, 2 children) £19.50, nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo
Hard-to-swallow headache cure in Cornwall
During Saxon rule, Britain was made up of smaller kingdoms, such as Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall), which would have been governed by its own monarch. Tintagel Castle in Cornwall is believed to have been a Dumnonian stronghold and, such is the magical atmosphere of the place, there is even believed to be a link with the legendary King Arthur, but this, unfortunately, is just a legend – there was nothing written about him at the time.
Visitors can explore the spectacularly rocky coast, the remains of the dark age houses and the medieval castle. There are family events to enjoy, including a Knights of Tintagel storytelling session. The Saxons never conquered Cornwall, but if you get a headache while you’re there, why not try the Saxon cure? Grab a young swallow chick, rip out the stones inside its stomach, put them in a bag and place it on your head. If you feel like being sick after dissecting the swallow chick, you’ll have to sort that out yourself.
• Adult £6.30, child £3.80, family (2 adults, 3 children) £16.40, english-heritage.org.uk
Edinburgh’s elephant toenails
The Angles are thought to have taken control as far north as Edinburgh, although with no structures to investigate, evidence for this has been taken from rubbish tips. It was around this time that Castle Rock, on which Edinburgh Castle was built, was mentioned in a dark ages Welsh poem. Since then, it has become a stronghold for great Scottish powers. It’s also where a beer-drinking Sri Lankan elephant lived in the 1830s as a mascot for the 78th Highlander regiment, and its toenails can still be seen in the National War Museum within the castle. It certainly fared better than the horses belonging to an ally of England’s Edward III, Guy, Comte de Namur who, in 1335, took refuge in the castle only to find its defences had been destroyed. So he killed all his horses to use them as cover. There’s a huge amount to see in the castle grounds, including a fabulous 19th-century prison and a big medieval cannon called Mons Meg.
• Adult £16.50, child £9.90, edinburghcastle.gov.uk
Vicious Vikings’ lung-busting efforts in York
The Saxons had the chance to enjoy Britain for themselves until the arrival of our next invaders in AD793 – the Vikings. After a series of raids, the Vikings began to conquer large parts of the country and, if it weren’t for Alfred the Great, they might have taken over completely. Instead, they agreed to settle in what became the Danelaw, choosing York as their capital. The Jorvik Viking Centre is a fantastic place to get a feel for the Danes, built on the excavation of the Viking village of Jorvik. There are reconstructions of Viking-age streets, with audio and video displays bringing the Danes to life.
The Vikings had a lovely way of dealing with their enemies. The Northumbrian King Aelle suffered a particularly gruesome fate when he was tied to a tree, his rib cage cracked open, his lungs pulled out and spread like wings behind him. This was what the Vikings neatly described as the blood eagle. Aelle had made the mistake of killing the Viking chief Ragnor Hairy Britches, who wouldn’t tell Aelle his name. It was Ragnor’s sons who exacted their revenge on Aelle – maybe because, like their father, they had silly names: Ivor the Boneless and Halfden the Wide Embracer.
• Adult £10.25, child £7.25, family of 4 £30.95, jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk
Harold’s horrendous day
The big daddy of all the invaders is, of course, William the Conqueror (the clue’s in the name). In October 1066 he landed his fleet at Hastings, where you can recapture the spirit of the battle at the Hastings Museum and Battle Abbey. Stand on the slope and envisage William’s men trying to batter their way through the wall of shields created by the Saxon defenders. You can even see the spot where, they say, King Harold died when the Normans hit the bullseye – almost certainly not where he was standing but it’s where they put the stone plaque at least. There are several walks you can take around the battlefield, all with an excellent audio guide – and there’s one created especially for children.
• Adult £8.30, child £5, family (2 adults, 3 children) £21.60, english-heritage.org.uk
The dreaded dungeons and forgotten prisoners of Warwick
William personally oversaw the design of 30 castles around the country, including the spectacular Warwick Castle. A mound was built for the wooden castle that is still there today, and the castle layout is still very much as William designed it. In later years they added a horrifying dungeon which is still accessible if you brave the narrow steps down to a cold room below. Here you can see the Oubliette – meaning forgotten place – where the earls of Warwick would throw French prisoners for whom no one would pay a ransom. Most were never to be seen again. You can also see the platform from which the Earls would watch people being tortured. Warwick Castle has now also added a Dungeon Experience, so you can get the full treatment.
• From £22.05 (adult), £18.45 (child), £67.04 (family), warwick-castle.com
A Chepstow choker
William meant business and immediately set off to conquer Wales. The building of Chepstow Castle (which was used for the filming of the Doctor Who 50th anniversary episode) started a year after the invasion and it’s the oldest surviving stone castle in Britain. On 29 May, you can hear stories based on historical characters, legends and myths from across Wales being told in the castle. They might tell how people at the time were tried by ordeal. You had to hold a red-hot iron bar and walk nine paces: if the wound healed, you were innocent, but if it didn’t, you’d be hanged. People could try their luck with ordeal by cake but, if they choked, they’d still end up on the end of a rope. History doesn’t have to be horrible – but it’s much more fun when it is!
• Adult £4.50, child £3.40, family £13.50, cadw.gov.wales
Horrible Histories’ Incredible Invaders is on tour with Groovy Greeks until July 2016. See birminghamstage.com for details. Barmy Britain – Part Three runs from 25 July-2 September at the Garrick Theatre, London
Last edited: 16/05/2015