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The Roman Ruin At The Hairdresser

January 9, 2016
by the gentle author

Nicholson & Griffin, Hairdresser & Barber

The reasons why people go the hairdresser are various and complex – but this week Jane Sidell, Inspector of Ancient Monuments, and I visited a salon in the City of London for a purpose quite beyond the usual.

There is a hairdresser in Gracechurch St at the entrance to Leadenhall Market that is like no other. It appears unremarkable until you step through the tiny salon with room only for one customer and descend the staircase to find yourself in an enormous basement lined with mirrors and chairs, where busy hairdressers tend their clients’ coiffure.

At the far corner of this chamber, there is a discreet glass door which leads to another space entirely. Upon first sight, there is undefined darkness on the other side of the door, as if it opened upon the infinite universe of space and time. At the centre, sits an ancient structure of stone and brick. You are standing at ground level of Roman London and purpose of the visit is to inspect this fragmentary ruin of the basilica and forum built here in the first century and uncovered in 1881.

Once the largest building in Europe north of the Alps, the structure originally extended as far west as Cornhill, as far north as Leadenhall St, as far east as Lime St and as far south as Lombard St. The basilica was the location of judicial and financial administration while the forum served as a public meeting place and market. With astonishing continuity, two millennia later, the Roman ruins lie beneath Leadenhall Market and the surrounding offices of today’s legal and financial industries.

In the dark vault beneath the salon, you confront a neatly-constructed piece of wall consisting of fifteen courses of locally-made square clay bricks sitting upon a footing of shaped sandstone. Clay bricks were commonly included to mark string courses, such as you may find in the Roman City wall but this usage as an architectural feature is unusual, suggesting it is a piece of design rather than mere utility.

Once upon a time, countless people walked from the forum into the basilica and noticed this layer of bricks at the base of the wall which eventually became so familiar as to be invisible. They did not expect anyone in future to gaze in awe at this fragment from the deep recess of the past, any more than we might imagine a random section of the city of our own time being scrutinised by those yet to come, when we have long departed and London has been erased.

Yet there will have been hairdressers in the Roman forum and this essential human requirement is unlikely ever to be redundant, which left me wondering if, in this instance, the continuum of history resides in the human activity in the salon as much as in the ruin beneath it.

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15 Responses leave one →
  1. January 9, 2016

    What a wonderful place! It reminds me of the many stones and columns of the Roman forum which can be seen in the cellars of the houses near the Cathedral in Lincoln, as well as other visible remains, such as the Eastgate and Newport Arch. We were able to view them when I started studying there, many moons ago. Valerie

  2. Lara permalink
    January 9, 2016

    Wow, I never knew that was there !! So a true Diagon Alley after

  3. Brenda permalink
    January 9, 2016

    Dear Gentle Author

    Thank you so much for your interesting article and photographs which are amazing. I look forward to reading your emails and every time there is something of interest there. Thank you again.

    Kind regards


  4. Rosemary Hoffman permalink
    January 9, 2016

    Fantastic always interesting to see Roman ruins that are so old

  5. January 9, 2016

    How wonderful that by the 1880s these remains of London’s history were being preserved rather than just swept away, as in the major developments in the old City of the 1840s and 50s.

  6. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    January 9, 2016

    How amazing would love to see it!

  7. January 9, 2016

    Dear G.A.,

    That’s the most compelling email tagline I’ve read in ages. Made me laugh, and of course, read the story. You are a magnet for extraordinary finds.

  8. Leana Pooley permalink
    January 9, 2016

    Like going out of the back of the wardrobe into Narnia.

  9. January 9, 2016

    Wonderful! It reminds me of the remains of the headquarters basilica which can be seen in the York Minster Undercroft. I recall a lovely fresco.

  10. Peter Holford permalink
    January 9, 2016

    Very similar to the Roman Bath at York – go into the pub which is called ‘Roman Bath’ and go downstairs to see the remains. The remains were not originally protected, they merely got buried under tons of detritus. Also in York, the Danish remains of Jorvik are below street level.

  11. pauline taylor permalink
    January 9, 2016

    Come to Colchester, Britain’s First City, and underneath the Norman castle you will find the foundations of the temple of Claudius. Our city is full of fascinating Roman remains and history including the only Roman Circus in this country and the burnt layer caused during the destruction of the city by Boudicca. Much much more too, well worth a visit!!

  12. Greg Tingey permalink
    January 10, 2016

    Of course, “Leadenhall Market” is now a n other tourist trap ( Like the sadly-decayed Borough Market) but … when the NW corner of that block was rebuilt, about 15 years back ( Corner of Gracechurch?Leadenhall Streets) they found the remains of a Roman meat-market.
    1900 years later, what was it? A meat market.
    How’s that for continuity?

  13. Toni Bracher permalink
    January 10, 2016

    Thank you, so interesting and great that it is preserved. It must be a very nice experience to go to that hairdressing establishment.

  14. January 19, 2016

    Now THAT’S the most interesting juxtaposition of time and purpose I’ve ever seen! It feels a bit like that great room in which all the Chinese soldiers are marching, marching forevermore.

    Did you step in for the photos? I cannot imagine what that ancient air must feel like, with its float of history and dust and the overlay of Aqua-Net. Just think of the folks sitting with a copy of People or Harper’s, swinging a leisurely pedi-foot just yards from such mystery.

    But I do understand that the be-togaed ones liked a bit of pampering and pomade, themselves, so there’s that.


  15. October 24, 2016

    Hello again, I have a cousin who will find this information presented through this blog to be very important. She will not believe how much information is here in the writing…

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