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In Search Of Roman London

October 9, 2014
by the gentle author

Roman London is still under construction

From Spitalfields, you have only to walk down Bishopsgate to find yourself in Londinium, since the line of Bishopsgate St follows that of Ermine St which was the major Roman road north from London Bridge. Tombs once lined the path as it approached the City, just as they did along the Appian Way in Rome.

The essential plan of the City of London was laid out by the Romans when they built their wall around Londinium at the end of the second century, after Boudica and her tribes burnt the settlement. Eighty years earlier, the Romans had constructed a fort where the Barbican stands today and, in their defensive plan, they extended its walls south to the Thames and in an easterly arc that met the river where the Tower of London stands now.

A fine eighteenth century statue of the Emperor Trajan touts to the tourists at Tower Hill, drawing their attention to the impressive stretch of wall that survives there, striped by the characteristic Roman feature of courses of red clay tiles, inserted between layers of shaped Kentish Ragstone  to ensure that the wall would be consistently level.

Just fifty yards from here at Cooper’s Row, round the back of the Grange City Hotel, is an equally spectacular stretch of wall that is off the tourist trail. Here you can see the marks of former staircases and medieval windows cut through to create a rugged monument of significant height.

Yet, in the mile between here and the Barbican, very little has survived from the centuries in which stone from the wall was pillaged for other buildings. It is possible to seek access to some corporate premises with lone fragments marooned in the basement, but instead I decided to walk over to All Hallows by the Tower which has a little museum of great charisma in its crypt. Here is part of the tessellated floor of a Roman dwelling of the second century and Captain Lowther’s splendid model of Roman London from 1928.

At the Barbican, a stretch of wall that was once part of the Roman fort is visible, punctuated by a string of monumental bastions which are currently under restoration. Walking up from St Paul’s, you come across the wall in Noble St first, still encrusted with the bricks of the buildings within which it was once embedded. Then you arrive at London Wall, an avenue of gleaming towers lining a windy boulevard of fast-moving traffic, which takes it name from the ancient edifice.

I was lucky enough to be permitted access to a secret concrete bunker, beneath the road surface yet above the level of the underground car park. Here was one of the gateways of Roman London and I saw where the wooden gate posts had worn grooves into the stone that supported them. At last, I could enter Roman London. In that underground room, I walked across the few metres of gravel chips that now cover the ground level of the former roadway between the gate posts, where the chariots passed through. Long ago, I should have been trampled by the traffic if I had stood there, just as I should be mown down if I stood in London Wall today. We switched out the light and locked the door on Roman London to emerge into the daylight again.

In the gardens of the Barbican, the presence of foliage and grass permits the bastions of the City wall to assert themselves, standing apart from the contemporary built environment that surrounds them. From here, I turned west to visit the cloister of St Vedast in Foster Lane, which has an intriguing panel of a tessellated floor mounted in a frame, and St Bride’s in Fleet St, where deep in the crypt, you can lean over a wall to see the floor of the Roman dwelling that once stood there, reflected in a mirror. The reality of these items stirs the imagination just as their fragmentary nature challenges it to envisage such a remote world.

By now, it was late afternoon. I was weary and the sunshine had faded, and it was time to make tracks quickly back to Spitalfields as the sky clouded over – yet I was inspired by my brief Roman holiday in London.

Eighteenth century bronze statue of Trajan at Tower Hill

Model of Roman London in the crypt of All Hallows by the Tower. Made by Captain Lowther in 1928, it shows London Bridge AD 400 - Spitalfields appears as a settlement of Britons beyond the wall.

Roman City Wall at Tower Hill

At Tower Hill

At Cooper’s Row

Lines of red clay tiles were inserted between the blocks of stone to keep the wall level

Tessellated floor in the crypt of All Hallows by the Tower

Timber from a Roman wharf preserved in the porch of St Magnus the Martyr

In the cloister of St Vedast Alias Foster

In the crypt of St Bride’s, Fleet St

Foundation of a Roman Guard Tower in Noble St

Outside 1 London Wall

Part of the entrance gate to Roman London in the underground chamber

Model of the north west entrance to Roman London

A fragment of wall in the underground chamber

Bastion at London Wall

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17 Responses leave one →
  1. October 9, 2014

    I read (I think in Londinium) that the reddish mortar in the first buildings of the Tower of London is due to the Normans mixing in the plentiful broken Roman roof tiles which were lying around the place – London having been largely abandoned during Anglo Saxon rule and presumably pretty ruinous.

  2. Susan permalink
    October 9, 2014

    Many years ago, I walked the entire circuit of London’s Roman wall, finding my way with a huge, cumbersome map. Was your underground chamber the one below the postal parking lot? I persuaded someone from their security department to take me down so I wouldn’t miss that hidden bit. But your description about standing in the gateway where chariots once raced made it all the more vivid for me.

    After I left London, I headed north to work as a volunteer on an archaeological dig at a Roman Fort in South Shields near Newcastle. I remember unearthing pieces of pottery, boot nails winkle shells and one shard of green window glass that glinted clear as the day it was made for about a minute until the surface oxidized to a pearly iridescence. But for a moment I could peer through glass that no one had looked through for nearly 2000 years.

  3. October 9, 2014

    Many thanks G.A. for your evocative article and splendid photographs about the surviving remnants of Roman “Londinium”. We shall certainly try to follow your tracks (as far as possible) on our next visit from Roman “Genava” [sic]. Your daily writings, and especially the illustrations, are a contant delight. Best wishes. M.K.

  4. October 9, 2014

    Lovely photos of hidden places that stir the imagination.

    Another treasure is the section of Roman Amphitheater that can be viewed beneath the Guildhall Art Museum. I love how the outline of the amphitheater arena has been placed in the pavement above ground.

    A guide there told us of a professor during the Blitz who would run about just-bombed buildings with a wheelbarrow looking for newly uncovered Roman artifacts to recover. Much of the exposed wall remnants owe their discovery to the destruction of the War.

  5. SBW permalink
    October 9, 2014

    Thrilling historical journey; thank you, I shall keep this to take my family on this tour on our next holiday. Very fascinating and evocative. sbw

  6. Rick permalink
    October 9, 2014

    I’m so pleased you’ve gathered these together.

    For me, these fragments heretofore have been just that. Shattered fragments.

    But not now. Thank you.

  7. October 9, 2014

    You may like to know that we are planning to reissue Charles Roach Smith’s ‘Illustrations of Roman London’ (1859), which is full of line drawings, in the Cambridge Library Collection. Hopefully it’ll be out before the end of the year.

  8. October 9, 2014

    The contradiction of the Roman Bastion to those modern new Buildings is really awesome!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  9. Jill permalink
    October 9, 2014

    Reading this with still sleepy eyes this morning I was processing monochrome images until the soft terracota red came into focus on the sixth photo. Did you plan that ‘reveal’? Very evocative.

  10. Pauline Taylor permalink
    October 9, 2014

    Thank you GA, I have found all of that very interesting, but now here is an invitation to come to Colchester if Roman history interests you.

    This is our Roman History. In AD49 a civilian settlement, Colonia Claudia, named after the Emperor Claudius, was established at Camulodunum, the Roman Fortress. There was a theatre and a senate house, and the grandest building of all, the Temple of Claudius, built after the death of the Emperor in AD54. Claudius was regarded as a god, and Colchester Castle now stands on the foundations of his Temple.

    Then, in AD60, Roman Colchester was virtually destroyed by Queen Boadicea of the Iceni. Everything was burnt to the ground and evidence of this is still found whenever any excavations take place. The Romans who survived took refuge in the Temple of Claudius but this was also burnt after two days and those inside slaughtered.

    After this the defensive wall was built and two thirds of this can still be seen today. The largest of the five known Roman Theatres in Britain was built with seating for up to 5000 people. There was also an impressive Roman-Celtic complex at Gosbecks, just outside the town centre, and near here the finest bronze figure from Roman Britain was found, this was the Colchester Mercury.

    In all Colchester had a theatre, at least 8 temples, a public water supply, and fine houses with decorated mosaic floors and under floor heating. Glass and metal were manufactured and there were over 40 pottery kilns.

    In 2004 the only Roman Circus in Britain was discovered here and we have the foundations of the earliest known Christian Church in Britain. All of this heritage can be seen and explored and fascinating artefacts can be found in our Castle Museum. Expect to be very impressed by our wonderful heritage in Britain’s First City!!

  11. October 10, 2014

    Wow! That’s all so amazing. Fabulous photos (as usual) and great historical writing. What a blog!

  12. Peter Holford permalink
    October 10, 2014

    And there are remains still being found and others to be found. I think we will see a lot more in the coming years as redevelopment requires deep foundations which will destroy the archaeology. In London all archaeology is rescue archaeology!

    I’m involved with a dig of a Roman fort in the South Pennines – more leisured and measured with no threat from urban destruction.

  13. October 10, 2014

    Hi

    If you’d come by a week or two ago I could have taken you up on to the top of Coopers Row via a cherrypicker, as we just finished a second round of conservation maintenance works to the site including some cleaning, lime mortar repairs and chalk consolidation tests…

    Perhaps next year!

    Jonathan Kemp

  14. October 10, 2014

    What a wonderful view of unknown London. Unknown to me, of course, although I’ve seen the Roman fragments at the Tower. I also loved the comment of the reader above about looking through glass that no one else had done for 2000 years.

  15. October 11, 2014

    I took my degree at John Cass College in Jewry Street in the 1960s and seem to recall a section of the roman wall in their basement. I don’t know if they have moved since but the wall should still be there!
    Philip Mernick

  16. October 11, 2014

    Thank you for such an interesting and useful article. And the comments provide further interesting information!

  17. ian silverton permalink
    January 6, 2015

    Anybody remember the finding of The Temple of MITHRAS in moorgate,back in 1955,would be interested to know,please email me iansilverton@aol.com thanks.

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