Walking the City of London

Month: January 2018

The Romans in London – Mithras, Walbrook and The Games

My two Roman London blogs this month are in celebration of the opening of the London Mithraeum in Bloomberg Space, Walbrook, which I enjoyed tremendously when I visited last week.

If you want to immerse yourself more completely in the Mithras Temple story, you might like to call in to the Museum of London beforehand and view the treasures there from the Walbrook excavation. I have put together a small selection.

There is this head of Mithras …

Head of Mithras, marble, late 2nd century

He is shown as a handsome youth, the head probaly part of a large sculpture forming a focal point at the apse end of the Temple.

Serapis, the Egyptian God of the Underworld, was also represented …

Head of Serapis, marble, late 2nd – early 3rd century

He carries a corn measure on his head symbolising the wealth and fertility of the earth.

And Minerva, the Roman Goddess of Wisdom …

Head of Minerva, marble, early 2nd century, possibly AD 130

Again, the head was probably originally part of a larger statue.

So now on to the Mithraeum itself at 12 Walbrook. Entry is free but you must book a time slot in advance using the website.

The first thing you see is this stunning tapestry by Isabel Nolan …

Another View from Nowhen, 2017

There are helpful guides ready, and very willing, to introduce you to the Mithraeum, explain the tapestry and an accompanying sculpture, and hand you an excellent printed guide. There is a well organised display of Roman artefacts which can be explored using your own mobile device, a tablet that they provide, or just by reading the labels. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a good enough photograph of these for the blog – please take my word for it that they are fascinating.

Then you are ready to descend through time, seven metres or so, from modern London to the very last days of the Romans in Britain, about AD 410.

Various levels of history are inscribed on the wall as you descend – there is also step-free access

At mezzanine level there is a further exhibition consisting of a reproduction of artefacts from the site including, of course, the head of Mithras, and a helpful commentary.

You then descend further to see the Temple itself. Initially it is dark and shrouded in mist but, as this gradually clears to the sound of evocative chants, you will see an accurate reconstruction of the ruin as it was on the last day of excavation in October 1954.

All the stone that you see and most of the bricks are from the original structure

The central icon of the cult is Mithras killing a bull

All I can say is ‘well done Bloomberg’.

The Walbrook stream played a very important part in the establishment of Roman London. Originating in what is now Finsbury Park, it carried fresh water in to the walled City and carried waste away to the River Thames. As the City developed it became imprisoned underground.

The stream lives on in the name of the street

The area has been difficult to access lately because of construction work, but is now a new open space and I took the opportunity to explore.

What a wonderful surprise! It looks like the Walbrook is flowing again above ground through the City…

Alongside Cannon Street

Parallel to Queen Victoria Street

Entitled Forgotten Streams, and cast in bronze, the Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias took as her inspiration the ancient Walbrook itself. It looks very authentic and quite beautiful.

And finally, to complete a Roman London experience, you might want to visit the Guildhall Art Gallery, in the lower level of which you will find Roman London’s Amphitheatre. An 80 metre wide curve of dark stone in Guildhall Yard marks out the area of the Amphitheatre, the site of the famous Roman ‘Games’ …

An outline of what existed about 8 metres below

The site of the Amphitheatre

Once inside you will see the remains of the original walls, the drainage system, and a rather impressive digital projection that fills in the gaps in the ruins.



The Romans in London … and two Roman ladies

In March 1999, builders working on the redevelopment of Spitalfields Market made a remarkable discovery – a beautifully carved stone sarcophagus, unopened, and obviously holding the remains of someone of exceptional wealth and status. When examined at the Museum of London, the lead coffin inside was found to contain the body of a young woman. Further analysis revealed that her head had rested on a pillow of bay leaves, that she had been embalmed with oils from the Arab world and the Mediterranean, and that she was wrapped in silk, interwoven with fine gold thread.  Isotopic analysis of her teeth revealed, not only that she came from Italy, but from Imperial Rome itself. What we do not know is who she was, and why she was so far from home when she died in about AD 350.

Here is a facial reconstruction by Caroline Wilkinson on view at the Museum of London …

The Museum Curator, Rebecca Redfern, describes her as ‘five foot three and delicately built, petite like a ballet dancer’

The sarcophagus is also on display along with the grave goods found with her

By the time this lady died, Rome’s connection with London stretched back centuries. Although Julius Caesar had landed troops twice, in 55 and 54 BC, a more thorough invasion took place under the personal leadership of the Emperor Claudius himself in AD 43.  At some time in the late AD 40s, two small hills on the north side of the Thames (now the site of St Paul’s Cathedral and Leadenhall Market) were selected as the site of a new town – a settlement called Londinium. It was a strategic site being the lowest bridgeable point on the Thames and having easy access to the sea. Fresh water also flowed in from the rivers Fleet and Walbrook and the settlement began to flourish.

Relationships with the indigenous tribes were volatile, however, and a savage rebellion broke out in AD 61 when Roman soldiers forced their way into the palace of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni. For resisting the confiscation of Iceni property, she was flogged and her two daughters raped. Supported by the neighbouring Trinovantes Tribe, Boudicca and her followers headed for the Roman town of Camulodunum (Colchester today) where they massacred all the inhabitants and set the place ablaze, routing the 9th Legion which had been sent too late to defend it. They then headed for Londinium which, considering it impossible to defend, had been abandoned to its fate by the Governor Paulinus. It too was burned to the ground and its population slaughtered.

Relentlessly pursued by Roman legions, Boudicca eventually killed herself by taking poison and an untrue legend grew up that she was buried under Platform 8 at King’s Cross station.

Maybe that’s why there is a Boadicea Street just north of the newly revitalised King’s Cross district. In fact, in 1830, when the name of the district was being reviewed, one of the discarded suggestions was ‘Boadicea’s Cross’. I don’t know if they spotted the double meaning.

I always thought that her raid had triggered the creation of the Roman London wall that one can see parts of today, but I was mistaken, and no one is entirely sure what prompted its construction much later, around AD 200. The wall enclosed some 330 acres and remained pretty much unchanged for 1700 years. It defined the outline of the City and gave names to places that we still use today.

I have been visiting some of the walls remaining sections …

In the gardens next to Tower Hill Underground station

I have chosen the above picture as the first illustration because it demonstrates how the original Roman wall was added to in medieval times in order to strengthen the City defences. The Roman section is at the bottom, about four metres high, and characterised by the lines of red bricks. It would originally have been about ten metres high and have had a deep ditch as an additional defence on the eastern side. It was three metres thick and built of Kentish ragstone.

There is a particularly nice section of wall in Coopers Row, tucked away behind the Grange City Hotel …

You can clearly see the medieval archers’ loopholes

Looking down, the Roman line of red bricks is again visible

A visit to the Museum of London is a must for anyone interested in the City’s history, and there are sites to look at and visit nearby. For example, turn left after you leave the museum and walk along the Highwalk. Look to your left and you will see what is left of buildings that once incorporated part of the Roman wall. Known as Bastion 14, this has been extensively studied by MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) who tell us that the medieval masonry structure lies on top of Roman foundations, whilst bricks were added, some part of late-medieval repairs. However most of the brickwork relates to later buildings as the City Wall fell out of use and the bastion became increasingly hidden as a consequence of the development of the area around it. By the 19th century, the structure was entirely incorporated into the surrounding buildings. The four-storey building that used to encase this structure was destroyed in World War II bombing.

Bastion 14 viewed from Bastion Highwalk

Would you like a really close encounter with a segment of Roman pavement? I had often casually walked past these pretty blue doors on Foster Lane without venturing in, but in fact they lead to a fascinating little courtyard in which are displayed some intriguing objects …

Entrance to St Vedast Fountain Courtyard and Cloister

And here you will find a piece of Roman pavement …

Due to the move of population from the City to the suburbs in the second half of the nineteenth century, St Matthew Friday became redundant and was demolished in 1886. The parish was joined to St Vedast-alias-Foster and the site sold for £22,005, the proceeds being used to build St. Thomas Finsbury Park. One hopes St Matthew was satisfied with this transaction – he is, after all, the patron saint of accountants.

In 1995, four years before the wealthy Roman lady was found, another skeleton was discovered when excavations were taking place before the construction of 30 St Mary Axe, now often referred to as the Gherkin. The remains were of a young girl aged between 13 and 17 years – her arms were crossed over her body and pottery close by indicated a burial date of between AD 350 and 400.

Having been removed to the Museum of London, she waited patiently until 2007 when the developers of the Gherkin proposed that she be reburied on the site. So, in April of that year, there was a service at St Botolph’s church in Aldgate followed by a procession through the streets before her body was respectfully interred near where it was found. The Lady Mayoress of the City of London was there to spread rose petals on the gravesite, marked with a marble slab decorated with a laurel wreath.

Copyright Foster & Partners


We don’t know her name, or whether she was an original Londoner, but she now rests again 1,600 years after her death in the place that she would have called Londinium.

Next week will also have a Roman theme as I will be reporting back on my visit to the new London Mithraeum in Walbrook.




City animals 4

I have found that there is something about City animals – after you first start looking for them you see them everywhere and they become a bit of an obsession (or they have for me!).  So here is this week’s collection – I hope you like them and find them interesting. First up are two dolphins in very contrasting environments.

More than 50,700 Commonwealth merchant seamen lost their lives in the two World Wars and the Mercantile Marine Memorial (on Tower Green, alongside Tower Hill Underground station) commemorates the almost 36,000 of them who have no known grave. The boy riding the dolphin, accompanied by fishes and seahorses, is one of seven sculptures representing the seven seas by Sir Charles Wheeler. The sculpture is surrounded by plaques showing the names of the dead arranged alphabetically under their ship’s name and the name of the Master or Skipper.

The Mercantile Marine Memorial – boy riding a dolphin

I will be writing a special blog on the subject of memorials later this year, and will include some more detailed photographs and commentary on the Mercantile Marine Memorial then.

This dolphin looks decidedly uncomfortable balanced on the facade of The Ship pub in Hart Street (built 1887) …

He needn’t look so worried – both he and the pub are Grade II listed

What about this splendid animal standing outside Spitalfields Market with Hawksmoor’s 1714 masterpiece, Christ Church, Spitalfields, in the background …

This goat would have got my vote

Wonderfully entitled I Goat, it was hand sculpted by Kenny Hunter and won the Spitalfields Sculpture Prize in 2010.

The artist commented …

Goats are associated with non-conformity and being independently-minded. That is also true of London, its people and never more so than in Spitalfields

Is it possible to look up and see these floppy-eared dogs and smiling boar’s heads without smiling yourself?

Corner of Eastcheap and Philpot Lane

The boars’ heads reference the Boar’s Head Inn, Eastcheap, which Shakespeare has Sir John Falstaff visit in Henry IV. Presumably the dogs were used for boar hunting, but they are obviously pals here.

I have always been curious about these ram’s heads on the corner of St Swithen’s Lane and Cannon Street …

I consulted a great source of City knowledge, The City’s Lanes and Alleys by Desmond Fitzpatrick. He writes that …

For well into the second half of the last century, the building was a branch of a bank dealing with services to the wool trade, a business connection pleasantly expressed … by the rams’ heads crowned with green-painted leaves, as if Bacchus and Pan had met!

Copies of this excellent book are available by sending a cheque to the author at Holly Tree Cottage, Angel Street, Petworth, West Sussex GU28 OBG. It costs £15 plus £2 postage. Great value – 350 pages packed with knowledge.

This honey bee is, appropriately, a keystone over the entrance to Honey Lane which connects Cheapside with Trump Street.

107 Cheapside – a busy bee buzzes up to some fruit and flowers

It is part of the old headquarters of The Sun Life Assurance Society whose Zodiac covered entrance I wrote about in my earlier blog Looking at the Stars. Although the connection to Honey Lane is obvious, it’s possible the insurance company also liked the reputation bees have for industriousness and providing for the future.

The name of the lane comes from the bee-keepers who used to live there and it also once led to All Hallows Honey Lane, a medieval church destroyed in the Great Fire. The area then became a small meat market which was itself replaced by City of London School in 1835. The area was significantly damaged by Second World War bombing and nothing now remains of the original buildings after post-war redevelopment. In fact, the lane itself has moved about 140 feet to the east.

The Black Eagle sign in Brick Lane reminds passers by of the Black Eagle Brewery. Founded in 1666, under the 18th century management of Sir Benjamin Truman it started its expansion to eventually become, as Truman, Hanbury and Buxton, one of the biggest brewers in the world. The brewery itself closed in 1989 and the site is now a small business hub and entertainment area.

And finally, as most City folk know, the old Whitbread Brewery on Chiswell Street is now a hotel and conference centre.

However, not many know that the old horse stables still exist in Garrett Street EC1, just off Golden Lane. The mighty shire horses could still be seen delivering ale throughout London well into the 1970s until Whitbread moved out of brewing and into budget hotels and coffee shops.

The Garrett Street Stables

It’s sad in a way to note that in 1699 there were almost 200 substantial brewers in London, and in 1952 there were still 25 operating in the capital. Now only Fuller’s of Chiswick are left as the capital’s last remaining major brewer.

Tales of the unexpected – in City churches

Last Saturday I headed off to St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, my intention being to take a photograph of the founder Rahere’s tomb for a future blog I am planning. I hadn’t been there for at least five years and was very happy to pay the entry fee and enjoy the church as virtually the only visitor. When I entered the south transept, however, what I saw literally stopped me in my tracks. Here is a picture …

A naked St Bartholomew holds out his flayed skin

Entitled Exquisite Pain, as well as his skin St Bartholomew also holds a scalpel in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. The second surprise, to me anyway, was that this work was by Damien Hirst, the modern artist known particularly for his spot paintings and the shark swimming in formaldehyde. St Bartholomew is the patron saint of Doctors and Surgeons and Hirst has said that this 2006 work ‘acts as a reminder that the strict demarcation between art, religion and science is a relatively recent development and that depictions of Saint Bartholomew were often used by medics to aid in anatomy studies’. He went on to say that the scissors were inspired by Tim Burton’s film ‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990) to imply that ‘his exposure and pain is seemingly self- inflicted. It’s kind of beautiful yet tragic’. The work is on long-term loan from the artist. Incidentally, just behind it in the photograph you will see the rare pre-Reformation font (1406) in which William Hogarth was baptised on 28 November 1697.

The quite extraordinary anatomical detail

I did eventually take a picture of Rahere’s tomb, here it is …

Rahere died in 1143 and his tomb dates from 1405

It still contains his remains and I shall write more about it in a future blog.

Under the oriel window there is a nice example of a rebus, in this case a representation of a person’s name using a picture. Here Prior Bolton’s name is neatly implied by a crossbow bolt piercing a tun (a type of cask). Bolton was Prior of St Bartholomew the Great between 1505 and 1532 and carried out repair and construction work across the church.

Prior Bolton’s rebus

St Bride’s Fleet Street was gutted in the Blitz but was very sympathetically restored and reopened in 1957. It is famous for its wedding cake steeple and journalistic connections going back to the origins of the printing press itself. Today, however, I am going to talk about my visit to the small museum in the Crypt which is open when the church is and free to enter (and in a way there is a continuing theme of anatomical studies).

Until well into the 18th century the only source of corpses for medical research was the public hangman and supply was never enough to satisfy demand. As a result, a market arose to satisfy the needs of medical students and doctors and this was filled by the activities of the so-called ‘resurrection men’ or ‘body snatchers’. Some churches built watchtowers for guards to protect the churchyard, but these were by no means always effective – earning between £8 and £14 a body, the snatchers had plenty of cash available for bribery purposes.

One answer was a coffin that would be extremely difficult to open and such an invention was patented by one Edward Bridgman of Goswell Road in 1818. It was made of iron with spring clips on the lid and the coffin below fulfils the patent …

Iron coffin on display in the Crypt

The coffins were expensive, price depending upon the size required and the corresponding weight. An advertisement from the time is on display …

Contemporary advertisement

As a nearby information panel points out, the idea was not popular with the clergy and in 1820 the churchwardens at St Andrew’s Holborn refused churchyard burial to an iron coffin. The body was taken out and buried, which led to a law suit. The judgment was that such coffins could not be refused but, since they took so much longer than wooden ones to disintegrate, much higher fees could be charged. This no doubt contributed to the relatively short time iron coffining was used.

St Dunstan-in-the-West is the custodian of a very famous character after whom Ludgate itself is said to be named – but he is tucked away around the corner in the churchyard and you have to seek him out. It is, of course, the great King Lud himself …

The pre-Roman English King Lud (in the centre) and his sons Androgeus and Theomantius

Probably dating from 1586 when the old Ludgate entrance to the City was rebuilt, the statues from the gate are remarkable, but very battered, survivors. Ludgate was demolished in 1760 and the statues were initially placed in the St Dunstan’s charnel house and then alongside the cemetery. Being pagan figures, the church didn’t care much for them and in 1839 they were sold to the Marquess of Hertford who incorporated them into a house in Regent’s Park. Viscount Rothermere brought them back to the church in 1935 along with the clock.

Dr Philip Ward-Jackson, the eminent public sculpture expert, commented in 2003

While the installation of the clock was accompanied by some celebration, Lud and his sons were afforded the kind of hospitality they had grown to expect from St Dunstan’s. They were placed in a sordid niche in the vestry porch where they have remained ever since, in an increasingly battered and uncared-for state.

And they are still there today.

I think he still looks remarkably dignified

He is recalled here above the doors of the ‘Leon’ restaurant – part of a 19th century building overlooking Ludgate Circus

I am working on a post about Roman London to celebrate the opening of the London Mithraeum. By way of a taster, if you stand under the archway at St Magnus-the-Martyr Church on Lower Thames Street you will see an actual pile from a Roman wharf. It has been found to date from around 75AD.

Label stating its provenance

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