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The Ruin At The Hairdresser

February 10, 2022
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.

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. February 10, 2022

    Incredible. If I lived in London, I’d go to this salon.

  2. Victoria Cooper permalink
    February 10, 2022

    Fascinating – I had no idea.

  3. Victoria Cooper permalink
    February 10, 2022

    Amazing and fascinating – I had no idea.

  4. Susan Haddock permalink
    February 10, 2022

    Ever since I first happened upon “Spitalfields Life” and subscribed a few weeks ago, it has become an important part of my daily routine. Every day I look forward to seeing what wonderful window will open for me today. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and love of your home city with those of us who live in places with somewhat less character, history, and charm! (By the way I came upon Spitalfields Life through looking at videos on mudlarking; I think I was led to a post you had written on the subject.)

  5. H Williamson permalink
    February 11, 2022

    One of the many reasons I love London. What a fabulous city, and then there is another from ancient times….amazing.

  6. mlaiuppa permalink
    February 12, 2022

    I find the last slide the most interesting.

    Not just the glass door allowing access to the ruins but the stoop. The few steps leading down to the space. Not just utilitarian but also decorative. Obviously matching the interior. Did some past tenant or owner hope to capitalize on the ruins when the floor was put in? It predates that glass door and wall. Perhaps the space was originally open. Were there abandoned plans to expand into the ruins?

  7. Mark permalink
    February 13, 2022

    The ruins are in the basement of a lot of buildings in the city.

    The building built in AD/CE70 of 2 hectares, 3 storeys was the largest building north of the Vatican. it housed shops, market stalls, administrators, law courts, treasury and shines.

    It was destroyed in AD/CE300 by Rome as a punishment to London for supporting the rogue Emperor of the north Carausius.

    Great info and images in the Counting House pub in Cornhill.

  8. Marcia Howard permalink
    June 18, 2022

    Bizarre – and wonderful!

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