Layers Of London

I have walked past the building site down at Walbrook, near Cannon Street Station in London once or twice of late, and am always amazed by the change in the way a place looks when you erase a large ugly building from the landscape. Bucklersbury House, which once stood here, was one such ugly building. I noted that the hoardings they have erected around what was little more than a deepening hole in the ground, were pasted with the Museum of London logo as well as a number of pictures of various artefacts that had evidently been uncovered on the other side of these high fences.

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But then there was the announcement of the scale of the discovery down there and I got all excited, like I’d won something. We all had in a way, those of us nerdy enough to find this stuff interesting.

Down there at Walbrook – now a street running a short part of the course of the old, lost river of the same name – there had been some 10,000 objects of Roman London discovered, including writing tablets, pewter, coins and cow skulls. Here in the wet mud of the old waterway are preserved the timber foundations of buildings, shoulder high fencing and a complex drainage system. It was being referred to as the ’Pompeii of the North’.

This same spot was made famous after the Second World War following the discovery of a buried Temple of Mithras which people queued round the block to see. Those remains were preserved but moved and will be returned as part of wider plans for the site which will ultimately result in much that has been found here being on display to the public.

But it will be a couple of years at the very least until these archeological treasures will be available for the rest of us to view. This set me to thinking about some of the other relics of London’s long history that exist beneath our feet and which, more importantly, can still be seen.

With a little effort and application, anyone can find the following, and it shouldn’t cost you much, if anything.

Let’s start small. There’s a church that sits just north of the Tower of London, All Hallows’ by the Tower. Pop inside and head toward the back end. Through a little door you should be able to follow the signs to the museum located in the crypt, down a narrow, winding staircase. At the bottom of this, before you come across the eclectic mix of old parish registers and centuries old pottery (not to mention the crows nest from Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, but of course) is a patch of uneven mosaic tiling behind a low plastic screen. The small typed sign in front proclaims this to be a patch of Roman Pavement.

It’s barely more than a couple of square metres of surface area and to the more demanding sightseer is not much of a sight to see, but its a ROMAN PAVEMENT! A couple of thousand years old! Wow.

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Head up into the City toward Leadenhall Market and once you’ve stopped looking up to admire the spectacular interior look down. This spot is where the Basilica once stood and a remaining portion of which can still, apparently, be seen in the basement of the hairdressers on the corner of the market as it opens onto Gracechurch Street. I understand that you can get to see this Roman relic in their basement if you ask nicely, though I’ve not got round to it yet so you’ll have to let me know.

For the most comprehensive and impressive piece of Londinium, get yourself across to the Guildhall, where, down a couple of flights of stairs, you may visit the remnants of the old Amphitheatre. Discovered when they were working to extend their art gallery, the space has been given over entirely to a permanent display of this amazing structure. It’s not well known this one, or certainly it is not well attended, so you will likely get to enjoy it without the need to elbow your way through a crowd. On top of that, entry is free.

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There are other significant chunks of the London that the Romans left behind – the old city wall.

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Reckoned to have been built in the late 2nd to early 3rd century and running for almost 3 miles around the old city, it was constructed from 85,000 tons of Kentish ragstone and sections of this are visible above ground around Tower Hill, the Museum of London and the Barbican Estate and others are incorporated into modern buildings and only visible from within them. Behind a door in an underground Car Park lurks a hidden section of this magnificent and substantial feature of ancient London. Can you find it?

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In simple terms, any developer working on a site in London pays for the archeology in order to safeguard any finds uncovered in the construction process. This has given rise to the presence of some odd little spots amid the modern city.

Down a short flight of steps in Magpie Alley off Fleet Street a 14th century crypt from the Whitefriars priory that once occupied the site can be viewed behind glass, within the basement of an office block.

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Across the road, the lower reaches of the sprawling, gloomy charm of the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub are said to consist of the old vaulted cellars of a Carmelite Monastery. This may have been part of the same priory as the crypt in Magpie Alley – though I couldn’t say so with any authority – but I do know that neither will cost you anything to see (though the drinks in the pub will of course).

Across town at Spitalfields Market is an equally curious portion of preserved ruins behind glass right outside 1 Bishops Square, though this one is not so hidden away as the Magpie Alley crypt. The Charnel House here, formerly part of the priory of St Mary Spital has been carefully excavated and can be viewed not just from below street level (there is a lift as well as stairs) but from above through a glass floor which allows a fascinating and unique view.

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The last two on my list involve booze, that favourite pastime of Londoners.

First, down a very steep flight of stairs in a marvellous Victorian pub The Viaduct Tavern, and behind a nondescript door in the pub cellar, lie the extremely spooky cells leftover from the infamous Newgate Prison, which once stood on the site now occupied by the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey. The cells are dark, cramped and creepy and the small iron racks on the walls do not look like the sort of place a man would want to spend any kind of time. Ask the bar staff nicely enough and they’ll happily take you down for a peek.

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Further to the west, deep in the bowels of the Ministry of Defence along Whitehall can be found Henry VIII’s wine cellar, the only surviving remnant of the old Whitehall Palace, which was at one time the largest palace in Europe.

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Originally built by Cardinal Wolsey, Henry helped himself to the well-stocked cellar when that particular character fell out of favour and had his estates taken from him. It is, as I said, beneath the Ministry of a Defence, so you don’t just stroll in off the street, but can apparently visit by appointment. Add it to the list.

No doubt there are other such spots that have eluded me. Such places are by their very nature hidden by the city and hard to find. But until the ’Pompeii of the North’ is open for all to see, we’re going to have to make do…