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The Roman Ruin At The Hairdresser

July 24, 2020
by the gentle author

Nicholson & Griffin, Hairdresser & Barber

The reasons why people go the hairdresser are various and complex – but 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.

You may also like to read about

At Billingsgate Roman Bathhouse

In Search Of Roman London

The Spitalfields Roman Woman

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Herry Lawford permalink
    July 24, 2020

    Fascinating and awe-inspiring! I wish I’d known about ths when I worked in the City.

  2. Richard Smith permalink
    July 24, 2020

    Simply amazing. Thank you GA.

  3. Diane DOBLE LEEMANS permalink
    July 24, 2020

    Your skilful and drawing in description is so intriguing that it must be the opening of an historical novel. I love reading Gentle Author as much as I love the work of Hilary Mantel. Your legacy of cameos is a rich deposit that I, all your followers and posterity are/will be extremely grateful. Thank you.

  4. July 24, 2020

    Incredible, wonderful! “Awesone”, a word I don’t particularly like, but it describes what I felt on reading your article.

  5. July 24, 2020

    For years my husband went to a local barber, until that gent eventually retired. I encouraged John to go to the local salon where I get my hair cut — but the big lumbering guy just didn’t think he was “the salon type”. Oh, right. Eventually he succumbed and now he gets a great haircut —- AND all the human knowledge one would ever need. He now knows what women have known for years: one trip to the salon will reveal insights about — you name it — folk wisdom and cures, deep cosmic mind pops, doubled-over humor, political skippy on local and national matters, and reminders that “life is good”.
    So glad to know the Roman artifact is still in place, appropriately cheek-by-jowl with the salon!
    Stay safe, all.

  6. July 25, 2020

    Amazing how old they are. So Interesting.???????

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