Originally known as Verovicium, Housesteads is an iconic site on Hadrian's Wall, known for its distinctive playing-card shape, perched up on the wall, gloriously visible across the fields. If you want to blow away the cobwebs in the gorgeous English countryside and soak yourself in history at the same time, this is a wonderful day trip destination.
Hadrian's Wall was built from 122AD, marking a boundary to the Roman Empire, keeping citizens safe and controlling trade. It's punctuated by milecastles, turrets and forts, including Housesteads, purely military site.
The museum was recently refurbished. It may be small but it is excellent. A short film shown on a regular loop introduces you to the site and its position on the wall. The rest of the museum offers a story of the site and its discovery.
The finds are also remarkable. Blending native English and imported Roman cultural and religious traditions, all kinds of mixed pieces can be seen. A particularly lovely example is the personal, family icon of three hooded spirits, the genii cucullati.
There are leather insoles, unexpected organic material which has survived all these years and reminds us of aspects of Roman daily life we don't usually encounter. The Romans dressed in 'local' style with fur boots and trousers in order to cope with the climate, and from nearby Vindolanda we even have postcards written home asking for more socks to cope with the cold. Small details like these are brought to life as stories in the museum.
A particularly good case charts different bits of metal. All look unassuming, but it demonstrates how they form part of the life cycle of a fort, and how archaeologists come to interpret them. The museum teaches you about the process of studying the site, as well as about the site itself.
The site could be inaccessible to children, but English Heritage have done their best to make sure children will love it. In the museum there is a dressing up box which will help them get into the spirit of the place. They've created a character 'Felix', whose orange circle crops up all over the site to give children some fun facts.
The site itself consists of barracks, the commander's house, the headquarters, a series of gates, ovens set into the walls, granaries, a hospital and the remnants of a turret which preceded the fort. The granary floor has gone, leaving a splendid hypocaust for historians to marvel at and children to run through.
There's a visitors' centre on the B6318. It's small, but useful, with toilets, parking, café and a shop. All visitor centres along this part of the wall seem to offer hot drinks from small self-service machines too, which can be extremely useful on a cold day. The centre is a good 5-10 minute walk up and downhill from the car park, so you need to be feeling fit to make the trip, but it is well-worth it.
If you do arrive via the wall itself you can buy tickets in the museum. Both English Heritage and National Trust are represented here, as the site has support from both. You can park at the visitor's centre, for £4, which buys a ticket valid at the other national park car parks in the area.
The English Heritage website includes interactive maps, and links to other resources. It will help you to plan your visit in advance, and follow it up with lots more information and activity. The National Trust website is also helpful, with information about places to stay and things to do.
The easiest place to stay is the Once Brewed Youth Hostel, a YHA property beloved of school parties. It's excellent value and very well-run.
Opening times are dependent on the season. Check the English Heritage website for your particular dates.