Thursday, July 24, 2008

Roman London: The Walk

I picked up a copy of historian Stephen Inwood's Historic London: An Explorer's Companion not long after arriving here and have used it sporadically for recommendations on historic pubs and other one-off things to do. The first section is a walk through Roman-era London, which I finally managed to pull off last weekend based on a combination of favorable weather and a desire to get out of the flat and do something.

The walk covers The City, the oldest parts of London that used to be encircled by the city's wall. Originally the Romans built London (Londinium) as a strategic center because the Thames is a natural harbor. It was essentially a supply point for their efforts further inland; it wasn't the capital of the province and was only important as a waypoint. But like many waypoints (say, Chicago) it eventually became important in its own right.

We started at the Tower of London, not a tower at all but the fortress where the King used to reside when he wasn't traipsing around somewhere else. We didn't pony up to go in – it's stupid expensive and we did it the last time we were here – but it's always interesting to see because it's one of the few examples of a completely intact medieval building in the city. Not completely completely intact as various changes have been made throughout the ages, but it's close.

The object of my interest is just north of the Tower, literally right outside the Tower Hill Tube station. There's a massive section of the old city wall there, although only the bottom three meters or so are Roman; the rest were added in the middle ages. It makes a good basis to start the walk. From there, we wound north, taking in various sections of wall. One is in the courtyard of a five-star hotel; another is in the basement of an office complex, visible through the windows.

This represents London the city in ways that nothing else could: ancient architecture, as old as the settlement itself, that has been completely subsumed by the new around it. Built around, knocked down when it wasn't needed anymore, and developed upon. That is London, and it's amazing to think of all the layers of history one on top of the other.

We headed north to the appropriately-named London Wall (a street), and jogged west, following bits of the wall as we went. We passed the not-so-PC streets Jewry Street and Saracen's Head Court (!) along the way, enjoying the City on a quiet Saturday afternoon.

Unlike many other European cities I've visited, London follows its American counterparts in that its business and financial areas close down on evenings and the weekends. In some parts of the City, you can walk several blocks without finding an open pub or coffee place, or without seeing another person. It can actually get a little creepy because the city just seems so empty, moreso when you compare it to areas like Camden where things are hopping all the time.

We ended our trip at the Guildhall, another fine example of surviving medieval architecture, although one that was rebuilt extensively after the Blitz and the Great Fire. Again, this is London: a city that has been razed both naturally and unnaturally throughout the ages. It's almost Biblical the way some disaster or another occasionally comes along to cleanse the city of some of its old floatsam, burying ancient buildings in piles of rubble. But at the same time it was this destruction that lead to the discovery of much of what is known about Roman London: the Blitz uncovered many of the sections of wall that were previously lost, and revealed other things like the postern gate outside of the Tower and the amphitheatre now housed in the Guildhall Gallery.

These are the times when I love London the most, when I feel the most connected to the city itself. Being here is like living in history, breathing the dust and pieces of so many people who walked here before and left their mark on the town. It's easy to lose sight of this because I go to work every day, but it's important to get out every once in a while and not take for granted that I live in one of the greatest cities on the planet.

Check out the Flickr photos.

1 comment:

Autolycus said...

Fascinating to see your insights. A Londoner born and bred, I can just about remember the excitement when the bomb-site repairers found the Temple of Mithras (also under an office block now, though some of the statuary is in the Museum of London, I think). And I think you can still see the foundations of a genuinely Shakespearean theatre under an office block near the Globe.

It all makes me think of London as an unusually heavily-encumbered sort of bag lady, encrusted in both junk and jewels.