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Hidden Londinium

The bid has now been submitted to the customer, and I’ve had a badly-needed breathing space before we get on contract and the fun and games really start. So I took advantage of the lull in activity to visit my parents for a long weekend. On Monday my father and I spent a day on a guided walk around the remains of Roman London. That may not be everybody’s idea of some father-daughter quality time, but we both enjoyed ourselves.

The walk was organised by my favourite holiday company, Andante Travels. They run very good holidays with a strong archaeological  theme, led by practising archaeologists, and Christopher and I really used to enjoy them. Andante have been unable to run much of their traditional programme of archaeological trips to North Africa / Middle East for the past two years, because of the Arab Spring / unrest in Tunisia / Morocco / Algeria / Libya / Egypt / Syria / etc. So they needed to find something else to keep both the holiday-makers and their small army of academic experts engaged until it’s viable to return to some currently dodgy parts of the world. They hit on “Study Days”, one day in-depth introductions to specific topics, based all over the UK, using leading experts to explain topics to small groups of non-expert but interested guests. And they have the significant advantages that, being only a single day in duration, they’re easier to fit into a busy diary than a full week’s holiday, and they’re dramatically cheaper.

My father and I went on the Study Day on Roman London, co-hosted by the former curator (and indeed original creator) of the Roman gallery at the Museum of London, and a now-retired academic who started out as the research assistant to the Prof who originally excavated much of what has been found of Roman city of Londinium. So between them they knew a huge amount about the subject and indeed had participated in most of the significant recent archaeological “rescue digs” which happen each time part of the City of London is redeveloped.

We met our guide lecturers at 10am just outside the Museum of London in the Barbican, and spent the rest of the morning being taken around the Roman gallery, and having all the main exhibits explained to us, with interesting details about how they were found and what the significance was. The lecturers were both at pains to point out that they were retired now, and most definitely not responsible for the current state of the the gallery. What they were both so animated about was the museum’s contribution to the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, whereby school children had been invited to “interpret” the Roman displays by adding modern objects to the historical items in the display case. So a display about Roman legionaries was augmented by a policeman’s helmet; a fascinating recreation of a Roman kitchen had a microwave oven in the corner; and a mock-up of a Roman living room included not only a historically-accurate wooden table and oil-lamp, but also a table and electric lamp that looked suspiciously like they came from Ikea! The ex-curator almost had an out-of-body experience when she saw that – the unspoken term “over my dead body” was hovering clearly in the air! The eight of us on the Study Day were all well able to excise such supernumerary additions from our interpretations of the exhibits, but I did wonder what the gaggle of 20+ six-year olds who were there on a school trip at the same time as us made of it all. I suspect that there are some very confused school children convinced that the Romans used microwaves to heat up convenience food!  One of the displays I found interesting was of some very well preserved leather women’s underpants, which looked very like today’s bikini bottoms. One of them was pierced with lots of little holes, and would originally have been lined with a contrasting coloured fabric. I was just pleased that nobody had added a pair of M&S frilly knickers to the display case!

After a group lunch in a restaurant adjacent to the museum, we spent the afternoon walking across the City of London, looking at the physical in-situ remains of Roman Londinium. There are a surprising number of them, though they are mostly hidden away, poorly advertised, or not generally open to the public. It’s not like Rome, where the Colosseum still stands to nearly its full height, and there are temples standing all over the historic centre. But if you know where to look, and have a guide with a key to some normally-locked doors, there are some really interesting gems. My father took some pictures of them. He’s given me permission to use them, subject to the caveat that they’re only snaps, and the lighting was too poor to get really sharp photos of the ruins in the various basements, but they give a good impression of what we saw.

The Roman fort underneath a multi-storey car-park

Behind a locked door in the basement underneath a multi-storey car-park near the Barbican, was part of the original Roman military fort of Londinium. The West Gate of the fort was clearly visible, next to what looked like a child’s paddling pool to catch the drips from the leak in the ceiling!  You can see from the snap how dingy the room is. Someone has made a bit of an effort to put an explanation panel up, but it can’t get very many visitors as it is only open to the public for a  few days per year (unless you happen to negotiate special access, as Andante did)

The amphitheatre underneath the Guildhall

Another view of the amphitheatre in the basement of the Guildhall art gallery

Next we went to the Guildhall, the “power centre” of the City of London Corporation. There is a modern Art Gallery attached to the Guildhall, and in the basement of the gallery are the remains of the Roman amphitheatre. Admittedly, it’s nowhere near as impressive as the Colosseum in Rome, but the City of London Corporation has made a good effort to display it effectively so that you can get an impression of what it would once have looked like. The glass panels in the floor cover the original wooden drains from the 2nd century AD, which have been beautifully preserved in the boggy London subsoil.  One of our tour leaders had been involved in the dig, and it was explained that all of the archaeologists had been very confused when they found what was clearly a curving wall. It was our lecturer who originally had the idea that it could be the long-lost amphitheatre. I think the City of London Corporation must have given a big sigh when it was confirmed that was indeed what it was, as it meant that it had to be preserved and displayed in situ. They had wanted to use the basement area for some much-need storage. So what they ended up doing was underpinning the Roman remains on a raft of concrete, then digging below them for another two storeys to provide themselves with two floors-worth of basement space. It cost them another £1M on top of the original budget for the art gallery.

A Roman town-house and bath-suite underneath an office block

Then we walked further through the City of London to a totally anonymous and rather ugly office block in Billingsgate. We were let in through a locked door and descended down to the basement, which was very rough and ready, with breize-blocks, bare brick-work and concrete columns. Some very dodgy-looking scaffolding stretched out to provide a viewing platform over one wing of a Roman town-house, with underfloor hypocaust heating (foreground), towards a small private bath-suite, with an unheated cold room (background left, made of bricks with a big diagonal crack running through it), and a heated hot room and warm room (background right, the furnace for the hot room is just to the left of the big concrete pillar which is holding up the office block). The house was originally on the river-front (though it is now several streets back from the current position of the Thames) and may have been a guest house or inn with private baths for people arriving in Londinium by boat. This site is only open to the public for a very few days each year, and really is in a pretty poor state – the basement smells damp, even I had to mind my head as the beams were so low (and I’m pretty short), and the scaffolding really does few favours to the archaeology. But it was a really lovely bath-house, and it’s such a shame that it’s not more accessible.

Who would have thought that there were such treasures hidden under the city of London?! I thought I knew a lot about Roman Britain, but it was all new to me, and it was an absolutely fascinating day to learn about it from two real experts.

{ 3 } Comments

  1. pauld | 21 September 2012 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    yeh, the museum of london and Barbican arent the most attractive of places, well not in my book. Walked past in many times on way to QMC, but never had time to go in.

    Good luck with contract, we want more money into pension fund, more profit and lots more dividends for shareholders 🙂

  2. Angela | 22 September 2012 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    Glad your day out was so good.

  3. Veronica | 24 September 2012 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Somewhat late, I know, but we have been without internet for a number of days, so just catching up on posts, with reference to your concert going. I have to agree with Chris on the subject of the Allegri; it is by far at its best sung by counter-tenors and trebles rather than contraltos and sopranos. As far as the African Sanctus is concerned, I am not generally a great fan of modern music, with some notable exceptions, but I sang it some years ago when MFC gave a performance of it, and found it great fun, if somewhat challenging. The frogs were particularly entertaining.