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In Search Of Roman London

October 24, 2023
by the gentle author

Click here to book for my last Spitalfields tour of the year


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 a 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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3 Responses leave one →
  1. Marnie Sweet permalink
    October 24, 2023

    It is surprising how much of Roman Londinium has survived.

    Many of the segments of the original Time Team digs reveal
    astonishing finds just under the surface of car parks and corn
    fields alike. The archeologists—including the wounded vet
    Nightingale participants—are as excited as kids upon uncovering
    tesserae, pieces of posh Samian ware, or bits of jewelry. The
    commitment of volunteer diggers whether adults or school children
    is heartening. Visitors will always have new sites to discover
    throughout the UK given the hard work of archeologists and their
    scientist allies.

    Many thanks to Dr Mick Aston, Phil Harding, Stewart Ainsworth,
    Carenza, Helen, Raksha, Matt, Jackie, Robin the Archivist, Victor the brilliant
    Illustrator, and the many others who participated in that ground-breaking
    series. May their tribe increase!

  2. Mary J permalink
    October 25, 2023

    Intriguing views of an ancient past — even more so to a resident of the Pacific N’west (USA) where recorded history goes back just 300 years or so. Fine material for thought while doing farm chores !

  3. Steve Sz permalink
    October 29, 2023

    Shortly after taking gentle author’s mind-expanding tour of Spitalfields last April, I walked past the Roman wall and postern gate at Tower Hill, not knowing what it was, and being distracted by tumult of the London Marathon, which blocked several streets. I do, however, remember glancing at the wall and thinking, “That is a very, very old wall”. Now I know how old it is, and will re-visit on my next trip. Thanks for these gratifying images.

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