The City Wall at Vine Street

London has many amazing museums and art galleries and many of them can be visited free of charge. Most of these are longstanding public institutions. Internationally famous, they are, literally, “national treasures.” 

A new type of on-site museum

However, a number of new (small) museums have come into existence recently, due to private development of office blocks and other buildings, which has included giving over basement space to showcase Roman evidence unearthed during excavation.

One of the attractions of these museums is that they include sites and artifacts in the actual spot where they were located: a section of the Roman city wall, remains of the Roman amphitheatre, a Mithraeum – a temple of the god Mithras (this one relocated a short distance from the actual find spot). This means that one can visit the actual places which formed part of the Roman city and which still exist beneath the busy streets and offices of the modern city.

Artifact display
PHOTOGRAPH BY Martyn Whittock

While online pre-booking is usually required, these museums are free of charge, well presented, and ideal for the busy visitor who has only got a short time available. Visiting the largest and most famous museums and art galleries, one needs to set aside a minimum of half a day to really get the most out of them. Not so these new mini-museums. They can be explored in an hour.

The context

These new on-site museums showcase aspects of the Roman city of Londinium. A major trading and administrative centre in newly conquered territory, this settlement was founded soon after the initial conquest started in AD43. Located on the lowest bridging point of the river Thames (a wider, shallower, and more braided river in the Roman period) it soon developed into the principal city of the new Roman territory.

It was reestablished after the destruction caused by the Boudican revolt of AD60/61 and continued to be the administrative centre of the Roman provinces of Britannia until the end of formal Roman rule, in the early 5th century. The northern – more militarized zone – was dependent on the northern city of Eboracum (modern York), but Londinium was the preeminent city overall, both in terms of being the seat of administration and the largest trading centre.

The Roman settlement lay under what is called “The City of London.” This is the historic core of the modern city and still its financial centre. “The City of London” is located to the east of the West End, and of Westminster, two areas which attract much modern tourist attention. However, “The City” also contains key historic sites, such as St Paul’s Cathedral and The Tower of London.

Around the year AD200 a new stone wall was constructed around the Roman city. This was both a defensive measure and a prestige project. In the last phase of Roman rule, protruding defensive towers were added, to provide enfilading fire against an enemy who gained access to the foot of the wall.

The settlement of Londinium fell into decay in the centuries after the end of Roman rule and the focus of activity shifted westward to a settlement referred to in Old English (Anglo-Saxon) as Lundenwic (meaning “the trading settlement of London”). This was along the line of The Strand (the old river shoreline) and just to the east of the modern Trafalgar Square. It is commemorated in the modern name Aldwych (literally “old trading settlement”). In the face of Viking raids in the 9th century, the focus of settlement shifted back within the decayed Roman walls of the older settlement to the east. These were refurbished and this became known as Lundenburh (meaning “the defended settlement of London”). It was this which developed into the medieval city and is today officially termed “The City of London,” with its own police force.

“The City Wall at Vine Street”

The on-site museum of “The City Wall at Vine Street” showcases a section of the Roman city wall of Londinium, built c. AD200. It is located in the basement of a modern building and is free to enter. The particular section of wall in question was first discovered in 1905. It had survived, as later buildings grew up round it, and had become a party-wall between these later buildings and warehouses. In 1905 it was reinforced – as it became part of the basement of a new warehouse – and this reinforcing was added to when later construction work occurred in the 21st century.

Support for the wall
PHOTOGRAPH BY Martyn Whittock

As with all Roman remains in the city, it is located at modern basement level because over the centuries the “ground level” of the city rose, as buildings were pulled down and new ones constructed on top of earlier levels.

What I like about this museum (apart from no entry charge) is that it is possible to visit the Roman wall in situ, and to explore how it survived and was then rediscovered in modern times. On the outer side of the wall (also displayed), the foundations of a tower are revealed. Added later, these towers added to the defensive nature of the wall (which had probably started as more of a statement of civic status). The museum contains a small exhibition of finds from the site, giving an idea of life in the Roman period and later. It also has a small café, where drinks and snacks can be purchased. A short film puts the site in context.

City Wall front and tower base
PHOTOGRAPH BY Martyn Whittock

As the museum can easily be explored in less than an hour, it is a great resource for busy visitors to the city, who have other things on their to-do list.

A bonus is that a “Roman Wall Trail” (displayed on an interpretation board on Vine Street, and at other locations nearby) allows one to explore other sections of the wall that have survived nearby. The two sections between Jewry Street/Vine Street and the Tower of London are very striking, as they exist between later buildings and show how the city has grown up around these ancient sites. Their survival is remarkable. These sections of Roman/medieval wall are in open-air locations and also have interpretation boards with maps showing the location of the other surviving sections of wall.

City Wall north of the Tower of London
PHOTOGRAPH BY Martyn Whittock
City Wall south of America Square
PHOTOGRAPH BY Martyn Whittock

NOTE: the surviving open-air sections of the City Wall are largely preserved to their medieval height. This means that the lower parts of these sections are Roman in date; the higher parts are medieval extensions.

More information

Address of “The City Wall at Vine Street”: 12 Jewry Street, London, EC3N 2HT


Opening Times:

9am–6pm Monday to Sunday. Closed Bank Holidays.

Online (prior) timed-booking is required.

Nearest Underground Stations: Aldgate, Tower Hill.

Nearby historic attractions:

Other surviving sections of Roman and medieval city wall.

Roman amphitheatre.

London Mithraeum.

The Tower of London.

Other, similar, on-site free Roman museums in The City:

(1) London Mithraeum, Bloomberg SPACE

(2) London’s Roman Amphitheatre, Guildhall Art Gallery

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Martyn Whittock

Martyn Whittock has written fifty-six books on a number of historical themes. He has been a consultant for the BBC, English Heritage, and the National Trust in the UK, and has written for several historical journals. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he writes for several print and online news platforms, and has been interviewed on TV and radio news programmes exploring the impact of history on current events in the UK, the USA, and globally.