As I stood at the top of the black marble stairs going down, I felt a prickle at the back of my neck... ‘At almost every ancient site in the world,’ said Solomon Daisy over his shoulder, ‘when you go down, you go back in time.’ (The Time Travel Diaries, p 15)
I was inspired to write those words (and an entire book) by stairs at the London Mithraeum, a relatively new museum that brilliantly showcases Roman London using archaeology and artefacts in a creative way. Black marble stairs lead you from street level down to a mysterious temple, recording the ground level with every few steps. As you descend you go back in time: past the Blitz of 1941, the Great Fire of 1666, the coronation of William the Conqueror in 1066 and the Roman exodus from Britannia in AD 410.
That’s when it first occurred to me that if you were to put a portable time portal on the modern street level, set the dial for Roman London and step through, you would fall at least 5 metres and probably break both legs. It’s not that London is sinking, but rather that the street level rises with each successive generation, so that the older parts of London are gradually being swallowed. That’s why you must go underground to find not only the Mithraeum, but London’s amphitheatre, various bathhouses and other random ruins. This includes the twenty-odd surviving fragments of London’s city wall; all are at a lower level than the surrounding ground, one section is even located in a fume-filled underground car park.
Much nicer than a fume-filled underground carpark is one of London’s newest museums, City Wall at Vine Street. As at the Mithraeum, the stairs you descend become a kind of time machine taking you from the 21st century to Roman level.
Whereas the black marble stairs at London’s Mithraeum plunge you down into a suitably murky underground temple that Romans called a ‘cave’, the installation here is the opposite. It is light, bright and spacious. I first went in May of 2023, and again in July. After the seething summer crowds at the Tower of London and the British Museum it was a joy to have this airy, echoing space all to myself.
London was founded by the Romans circa 47 AD at the crossroads of a land route and the river Thames. Used as a military and supply base it immediately attracted entrepreneurs from across the channel. Therefore, most of Londinium’s early population were ambitious immigrants, just like today. When Boudicca led some of the local British tribes to burn Londinium to the ground, it rose from the ashes within a year. There was another less well-documented disaster around 120 AD but it wasn’t until the year 200 that a massive stone and brick wall was built to replace an earlier wooden palisade. The wall has a fascinating history of nearly two millennia. Now a slice of that history is revealed in this bite-sized museum.
The beautifully preserved chunk of Roman wall is teamed with a couple of glass-fronted cases of choice artefacts. The developers, Urbanest, hired the talented design firm Metaphor to work with archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) who had excavated the site. Metaphor call themselves ‘storytellers’. One of their early proposals shows a mural listing some of the people who would have lived in the shadow of this wall: Legionary, Centurion, Gravedigger, Beggar, Gunmaker, Tea Merchant, Hawker, Silk Weaver, Tanner, Ankle Beater, Match Girl, Nipper, Gold Beater, Glassblower, Lamplighter. I love this idea because history is all about people and their stories.
As you reach the bottom of the stairs you are confronted by a massive chunk of wall (pictured at top), brightly lit to show off its original structure as well as later additions.
This is the inner, western-facing wall. It’s an excellent example of Roman building: several courses of squared Kentish ragstone sandwiched by narrow layers of red ceramic tiles to level the wall and make it stronger. (Whenever you see those narrow courses of red brick like the burgers in a Big Mac, you can be sure your wall is Roman, not medieval.) Originally set on a base of orange sandstone, there are later additions beneath the wall, all designed to keep it standing: black-painted brick columns built in 1905, concrete blocks added in the late 1970s, red jacks and horizontal steel props inserted during the construction of the current building around 2021. This part of the wall is itself a kind of Time Machine. I can imagine the sweaty soldiers and slaves grunting as they bring rubble to fill the core; the legionary pacing up and down atop the finished wall, keeping watch; the centurion in his horizontal crested helmet and twisty olive-wood staff, barking orders.
The glass case shows us bits of amphorae, heating flues and food preparation bowls. I imagine burly sailors bringing the amphorae full of olive oil and wine from ship to city gate; a fish-sauce merchant from North Africa pressing his bare hands to the plaster wall warmed by a hypocaust on a winter day; the Germanic wife of a retired soldier grinding spelt for bread.
Somewhere between 350-375 AD bastions were added to the Roman wall in an attempt to keep out Saxon raiders. Go around the outside of the wall to see the only surviving remnant of one of these bastions. These towers didn’t discourage Saxons who settled west of the wall in what was first called Lundenwic and would later be known as Westminster.
For the only time since London was founded, the space within the wall was abandoned. For nearly four hundred years the only things living here were snails, birds, small wild mammals, a few shepherds, and a smattering of monks who used the seclusion to pray (and to build the first St Paul’s Cathedral around 604 AD). Amusingly, the case displays snails on a wall for this period. I imagine a hooded monk from St Paul’s watching a snail in the ruins of a Roman courtyard and praising God for all creatures great and small.
In the 800s Viking raids became a constant threat, so in 886 AD King Alfred repaired the crumbling Roman wall and moved Londoners back inside. The trench outside the walls was widened. This was for protection, but people still used it to dump rubbish, beloved of archaeologists. Hundreds of churches were built within the walls and the Poor Clare nuns built an Abbey over the Roman graveyard outside the city wall. New mass graves were needed after the Black Death in 1348. I can see a gravedigger in a grubby tunic with calloused hands and a well-worn spade.
In the 1500s the ditch outside the wall was filled in to become gardens and pasturage for animals. With the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII the Abbey and its land was sold. From the mid-1500s people began to build workshops and houses here. Luckily the Great Fire of 1666 does not quite reach this part of London. Meanwhile the wall was being gradually swallowed by the rising ground level.
Thanks to objects in the cases from the 17th and 18th century, I imagine sweaty workers casting copper alloy bells in pits lined with horncore, the inside part of animal horns. I visualise a glassblower in a leather apron, dropping dark-green toffee-like strings and blobs of glass on the floor. I see a goldsmith skimming dross from the top of a crucible; he is squinting because the window panes don’t let in much light.
Two Georgian residents are singled out in their own double display. Francis Joyce and James Reynolds both lived in Georgian townhouses near this section of the wall. Both houses had back gardens with cesspits that yielded fascinating clues to their lives. Although cesspits were intended for the contents of chamberpots, (which ‘night soil men’ would regularly collect), both pits contained broken porcelain, glass bottles and the bones of animals that had been butchered. Thanks to other documentation we know that Joyce was a boxmaker (an undertaker) who lived with his wife, their children, his mother-in-law and possibly a bird in a cage. They may have kept a pet bunny as the bones of a complete angora rabbit (with no butchering marks) were found in their pit. Reynolds was a gunmaker. He left less rubbish, but enough to conjure an image of him smoking a white clay pipe, while his wife used a fine boxwood comb to untangle her long hair. Or maybe she was the smoker and he was the owner of the comb.
With the coming of the railways and building of Fenchurch Street Station this part of London begins receiving even more imported goods from the docks. In 1863, the massive Metropolitan Bonded Warehouse opens on this site. Here wine and spirits arrived by train to be recorded, taxed, bottled and sent out to merchants and shopkeepers. Tea and cork were shipped here, too. The remaining stub of the Roman wall above ground was used as part of the structure but plastered over, so nobody knew they were walking past an ancient landmark. I can see a Victorian Clerk dipping a quill pen into a stoneware inkpot and sipping tea. Messenger boys play marbles between running errands. A Matchgirl on the street outside examines her reflection in a precious fragment of mirror she has just found.
I imagine a Christmas party in the Interwar period with men and women dressed like characters from P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster. They are drinking wine, sipping cocktails and later quaffing cure-alls from smaller bottles to ease their hangovers.
Now it is 1944. I hear the rattling drone of a V-1 ‘Doodlebug’ missile suddenly going quiet, just before the massive explosion that rocked the warehouse and destroyed most of it. But it was rebuilt, again incorporating the surviving part of the ancient wall.
In the late 1970s I visited London as a student. I still remember seeing smart city businessmen in bowler hats walking on the same pavement as girls in mini-skirts and hippies. I imagine them now, stopping to watch the demolition of the old Metropolitan Bonded Warehouse just around the time of my visit. (A tiny blue bead in one of the final cases might have been dropped by a hippie.) By now the wall had been completely swallowed by the rising street level so those 1970s businessmen and hippies had nothing to see. However builders found this bit of wall in the basement of the warehouse, and in 1979 they stopped construction long enough to let archaeologists excavate.
Because the wall was now under preservation order, the two buildings that rose on the site kept it in their basements and adopted suitable names: Roman Wall House and Emperor House. Between 1980 and 2010 the wall could only be viewed upon request. Then, for a few years between 2011 to 2018, it appeared behind glass as a feature of a nightclub with the suitably Roman name of Club II AD. This ancient wall vibrated to the sound of House music and the sight of clubbers dancing under strobe lights. From Roman soldier to Raver in 1800 years!
Roman Wall House, Emperor House and Club II AD were all demolished in 2018 to make way for a new 11-storey building for Urbanest, a company which offers luxury student accommodation at more than half a dozen London sites. I don’t have to use my imagination to see wealthy and ambitious students from the UK and abroad; they’re coming and going in the lobby next door.
The designers have thought of many other clever aspects for this mini-museum. A compass in the floor shows the direction of the river, the fort and the cemetery. A short, animated filmstrip on a loop tells you what went on here over the years and documents the succession of warehouses that incorporated the wall. (Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mm4X7pzIi5I) Charming graphics illustrate how to use a commode (a chair with a chamberpot in it) and a Georgian townhouse cesspit. A two-storey tall mural by artist Olivia Whitworth presents stylized versions of famous treasures of London history, with – appropriately – the oldest at the bottom and most recent on top.
Unlike the hero of my Time Travel Diaries book, I didn’t have to be decontaminated and debriefed after my visit to the past. When I came up the stairs through the exit, I found a delightful little coffee shop called Senzo. Tables on a mezzanine allow you to sip a fairtrade cappuccino and gaze down on the Roman wall and its artefacts, pondering what you have just seen.
As I was finishing my coffee and making notes on my second visit, Senzo’s affable co-founder came down to chat. Born in Denmark to Asian parents, A.J. is typical of today’s Londoners who have come from all over the world – like me – to achieve their ambitions. He clearly loves his job. He is friends with lots of the students who live upstairs, and he actively encourages tourists to stop and sit and take in the world. ‘For me, it’s not about the coffee,’ A.J. told me. ‘It’s about the people.’
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
P.S. When you leave the building look out for Stop 4 on the London Wall Walk. It is one of a dozen remaining tile plaques that will take you on a pleasant treasure hunt around the City to see the other surviving remnants of London’s Roman wall.
City Wall at Vine Street is closed on Bank Holidays but open every other day from 9am to 6pm. Entry is free but they ask you to book a time slot. https://citywallvinestreet.org The mini-museum is just a few minutes’ walk from Fenchurch Street rail station, Tower Hill or Aldgate tubes.
* * *
Award-winning author Caroline Lawrence writes history-mystery stories for kids. Her passion for plotting combined with historical accuracy means her books are beloved of children and teachers alike. She has written dozens of stories set in the ancient world, most notably the Roman Mysteries. Caroline says, ‘I want to know everything about the past: all the sounds, smells, sights and tastes. And especially the exciting and surprising things. I write historical novels because nobody has invented a Time Machine.’