Travel: Where history is hot stuff: Ancient Romans spring to life in Bath thanks to a museum programme that takes a hands-on approach to the subject. Frank Barrett reports

PERSUADING children that history is interesting - or at least as interesting as level three of Sonic the Hedgehog - can be a little difficult.

Museums have taken several strides forward from the dreary establishments that I frequented as a child - places that seemed to consist of a lot of glass cases containing various boring pieces of pottery. Curators were on hand, not to offer nuggets of fascinating historical facts, but to tell you to keep your hands off the glass cases and to stop running.

These places may since have become more user friendly, especially to children, but when faced with a subject as daunting as 'the Romans' even the swottiest pupil can wilt. To a child, ancient Romans can appear as remote as dinosaurs, and while dinosaurs have instant child appeal it may seem to them that the best the Romans can serve up by way of light entertainment are Latin gerunds.

With study of the Romans now forming a key part of the national curriculum for primary and secondary school pupils, teachers - and parents - are faced with the challenge of making this period of history more accessible.

One man's problem is another man's marketing opportunity, however, and the Roman Baths Museum in Bath has responded with a major marketing exercise.

This month the Bath Museums Service launched a new programme for schools with a fat dossier of pre-visit and on-site work sheets designed to stimulate children's interest and fire their imagination.

The Roman Baths have a supreme advantage over other museums in that the place exerts magic on all its visitors. From the cash desks at the entrance to the famous steaming waters 20 feet below ground is no more than a 10-minute walk, a short stroll from the 20th century to first-century Roman Britain. As you descend the museum's staircase, the past rushes up to meet you, and the sound of running water builds.

The spectacle of naturally hot water gushing from a hole in the ground is as miraculous to today's children as it was to the invading Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. It is easy to see why they saw the spring as a meeting place between their world and the dark mysterious forces of the underworld - and why children's imaginations are engaged as they might not be on drier archaeological sites.

One of the national curriculum's aims is to encourage children to form their own opinions of history through examination of original sources, rather than blindly accepting the verdicts of 'experts'.

'The aim is for pupils to use documentary and physical evidence to understand the past,' said Essex Havard, Bath's museums education officer. 'We let them handle pieces of Roman tile, oil lamps and strigils (used in the baths to remove oil, sweat, dirt and hair from the skin).'

When a child is given an object, instead of just being told what it is, he or she is asked questions that lead towards an understanding of its purpose. 'We make it clear their opinions count. Rather than spoonfeeding them information, the idea is to get them to question everything.'

The written material on display at the baths vividly illustrates life in Roman times. Most striking are the written curses deposited by Roman visitors in the sacred spring, appealing to the goddess for vengeance: 'Docimedis has lost two gloves. He asks that the person who stole them should lose his mind and his eyes in the temple where she appoints.'

'We ask children to write their own curses,' said Mr Essex. 'Sometimes this is not a very good idea . . . '

The tombstones show that the baths attracted visitors from all over the Roman Empire. A large headstone commemorates the death of a 29-year-old Belgic tribesman who had served the Roman army as a distinguished armourer, and who had become a Roman citizen.

A statue of a woman's head, presumed to have come from a tombstone, has a distinctive Afro hairstyle that can be dated to the reign of Flavian in the first century AD. 'Children are surprised to see that in Roman times women had their own trendy hairstyles. Look at the back of the head and you can see the hair is held in a bun with a pin,' said Mr Havard.

But while the extensive archaeological remains and artefacts - particularly the magnificent gilded bronze head of Minerva discovered by workmen digging a sewer beneath neighbouring Stall Street - are impressive, the main attraction is the Hot Spring and the Baths themselves.

Britain's only hot water spring has a simple explanation. The naturally heated water fell as rain on the Mendips 10,000 years ago. After percolating through the limestone to a depth of between 2,700- 4,300 metres, it heats to up to 96C before rising back to the surface and emerging in Bath through a geological fault. The water pours out at a rate of 250,000 gallons a day and at a constant 46C.

But the emergence of the water from the sacred spring is not quite as natural as it looks: its ancient flow can be regulated by a rather less ancient stopcock. 'I was guiding a party of children and telling them what a marvellous sight the steaming waters would be when we finally turned the corner. But when we turned the corner, there were no steaming waters - somebody had turned off the tap.'

Further information: The Roman Baths, Stall Street, Bath (0225 461111), open daily 9am to 6pm (during August 8pm-10pm also); admission pounds 4 (child under 16 pounds 2; under eight free). Educational inquiries to Essex Havard, Museums Education Officer, Bath Museums Service, 4 Circus, Bath BA1 2EW (0225 461111 x2757).

Other Roman attractions: Two nearby Roman sites worth visiting are the Corinium Museum (0285 655611) in Cirencester and Chedworth Roman Villa 0242 890256 a short drive from there. Just across the Severn Bridge in Wales are the amphitheatre and museum at Caerleo, also a well- preserved section of Roman wall at Caerwent. The star Roman attraction in Britain is Hadrian's Wall, which crosses the width of England from near Carlisle to Wallsend in Newcastle upon Tyne: along its route are several forts, museums and visitors centres. A Visitor's Guide to Hadrian's Wall is available from the Cumbria Tourist Board through the Carlisle Tourist Office (0228 512444). The National Trust (0670 74691) and English Heritage (091-261 1585) also produce a good range of leaflets and guides to the wall. Good children's books on the Roman period include Everyday Life in Roman Times (Watts Books) by Mike Corbishley and Craft Topics - Romans (Watts Books) by Nicola Baxter.

(Photograph omitted)

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