I feel like I am on a quest, some noble voyage of discovery. I am off to “Walk the Wall”, my destination is a Pret coffee shop on Byward Street by the Tower of London. I am off to meet a fellow London history lover and volunteer-in-arms at the Museum of London. An inauspicious start, over coffee and maps we start a friendship that will see us pounding the streets of London in search of the scraps and last vestiges of the Roman London Wall. My obsession with Roman London is getting me into trouble again. But I have an excuse this time. In a few weeks we are both attempting a Museum Marathon, 26 Museums in one day, walking, thank goodness not running. I attempted a half marathon this year and the often heard mantra “Never again!” has passed my lips on many occasions since. I didn’t prepare properly for that challenge and certainly paid the price. So like a good girl I have arranged a day of prep before the real thing, a walk in London to mentally prepare for our big day.
After visiting London’s Roman Amphitheatre in the Guildhall a couple of weeks ago I have realised how hard it is to get my head round this Roman London that intrigues me. What better way to understand Roman London than to walk its boundary line, discovering where we can what remains of a once walled city. We may fail and the anticipated traps of fatigue, poor map reading skills and the temptation of the nearest pub may defeat us but I am determined we will give it our best shot.
I love London, but I only know its streets in isolation, spots where I have worked and spent time I know intimately. The South Bank, London Bridge, Borough High Street, the Strand and Fleet Street. I have trouble linking up these spots, I have blank spaces inbetween. London often defeats me, I get lost, forget which direction I am heading. It is part of why I love London so much. Heaving bustling streets, thronging with people, tourists and Londoners, then take a side street, two turns and it is quiet and still, the noise dissipates and you are lost in London. Discovering the Roman London Wall will benefit me two-fold, I am getting to know London and get a feeling for the Roman world, how hard can it be?
First of all I have to clarify when I say “Walking the Wall” we are not taking a lofty stroll along a constructed parapet, that would be far too straightforward and easy. Unfortunately no such structure exists. We are hunting for ghosts, we are going to have to rely heavily on imagination and really use our eyes to seek out the bits of Roman Wall that remain. They are like broken teeth breaking through the gums of London life, often repaired and filled with Medieval stone work or incorporated into 21st century buildings, throbbing in basements like some niggling bad tooth. I never knew a castle wall walk is also called an ‘allure’ this perfectly sums up my feelings as I am being drawn into this quest of discovery.
To be honest, I thought this was going to be easy. I looked at the map, looked at the route. No problem. Two minutes out from our coffee shop we found our first points of reference, the first tiled markers and a hulking great big stretch of wall. It is actually very easy to miss it, I am sure I have walked past here before and never seen it. That sounds bizarre when you realise how big it is but it sits in the shadow of the Tower of London and all eyes are drawn to that historical gem easily overlooking this poor mish mash of Roman and Medieval London. My volunteer friend and I rush up to touch it, we are very hands on with our history. We love the sensory connection of fingertips on a time portal. Who else has casually caressed the rough stone work over time. Actually when you stand at the bottom you realise how big and intimidating the wall would have been to outsiders. How secure the Roman felt inside, a sense of community and protective belonging.
In truth, it was a lot harder then I thought it was going to be because we were not only searching for Roman stones, but also the 21 numbered tiles that form the “London Wall Walk” put in place by the Museum of London in the 1980s. Sometimes we find a wall but no tile, sometimes a tile but no wall. It is a tricky business tracing the past.
True the maps we are using are pretty poor and our map reading skills are non-existent. We wander in circles exuberant from finding our first marker only to be lost in building sites trying to find our second. When we come across Cooper’s Row we pat each other on the back and ‘ooo’ and ‘ahhh’ our excitement, we are modern day explorers re-discovering what was lost. Another fabulous section of wall, squeezed in between office buildings and modern flats, such a melting pot of styles and usage.
We get slightly distracted and go on a little detour to the Minories, I am keep to see where a special Roman Eagle was dug up a few months ago, right on the boundary of the Wall. I get a little thrill of excitement and recognition to see the spot where she was uncovered.
We manage to spot a piece of wall through a glass ceiling into an office basement, it looks like a conference room, we spy a few chairs. Imagine having your board meetings surrounded by such a strange bedfellow. Sometimes the wall is protected but the panels are not, they have not fared so well.
I think one of my favourite sections is by St. Alphege, in the gardens. As we move off the busy street, the Church Bells begin to ring. We find the stretch of wall, another family are sharing our interest. This section originally formed the nothern wall of the Roman fort built 120 AD. Here Roman meets Medieval stone work and 15th century brickwork can also be seen, scaffolding gently props up the crumbling walls. Time and again we see this, London being rebuilt, changing. Some of the panels we seek are lost, removed from building sites, all that remain are large expanses of hoardings we can’t see behind or get to. We are often foiled by building sites, but that is London, ever changing and evolving. I like the way the panels have their own history and story to tell. Panel 8 and the wall it was attached to were destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1988. Sometimes the story of why they have disappeared is more interesting then the facts they originally intended to impart.
But even what once was modern loses it’s lustre. We end up in the Barbican a weird brick built soulless place, here I feel the Roman remains are at their most jarring. A strange reminder of past life and history amongst angular modern bricks and concrete.
We are cold and tired by now, we have done so well trying to track the Roman edge of London but as we near the end of our quest our energies wain. In the most sterile of places we have a most human touching encounter. A women with her family who had seen us earlier on in St. Alphege garden opens up a gate for us and saves us a long walk round. Because of her kindness we come across a panel we would have missed. At the start of the day as we wondered round maps in hand a guy on his phone up on a balcony shouts down to us “Are we lost?” “Can he help?” When we tell him we are on a quest to seek the Roman Wall he gives us a strange look, a little laugh and carries on his conversation. I love these encounters. London is so often cited as a cold and unfriendly place and yet the human interaction we have had today reminds me what makes London more than walls and stone is the people who inhabit it. Maybe I will never understand Roman London by looking at remains and what is left behind.
When we finish our day we are drawn into the real world, one of us is off speed dating the other to the cinema (I will let you guess which ones is which), I am actually a bit disappointed, I don’t feel I have a sense of Roman London. There is no clean cut wall, no clear boundary, London merges on and out, sometimes when we find a stretch of wall we are not even sure if we are on the inside looking out or the outside looking in. Near the Museum of London there is a stretch of wall with some more modern interpretation panels. It makes me laugh, the outlines make it seem so easy to follow, but the criss crossing streets, building sites, traffic lights and roaring traffic throw barriers at you with every turn.
Maybe I don’t need to ‘Walk the Wall’ to get a sense of Roman London. The patches that remain that you randomly, casually come across are enough to give you a reminder of what was the birth of London. The irony is that these sections of walls have remained not because they have been preciously cared for and saved. They often remain because they became part of something else, a new building, whether it be Medieval London or incorporated into the glossy shine of a modern office block. The Roman wall itself was often built from scavenged funerary structures. London is no static snapshot in time, it is a living, breathing, moving, growing thing. I can’t sense Roman London by trying to walk a wall that by in large no longer exists. But what I can do is look at the sections that remain, I can see them and touch them and reach for their history and stories. I can do this in situ, not in a museum or from the pages of a book or even from an interpretation panel. I can see them with my eyes, what is right in front of me, admittedly sometimes in courtyards, hidden in basements or underneath medieval layers, but still in their original places. For fifteen hundred years the physical growth of the city was limited by its defensive walls. This is no longer the case, London is untameable, unconstrained perhaps even unknowable.
But even modern London echoes the past. Everywhere I look on our day out, there are reminders, even when we can’t find the wall we can see its influence and echoes. I feel I failed today in some respects, I am not sure I have found Roman London but I have a better understanding of modern London and how it has built on the ages that have gone before. Even with modern building sites, there is no erasing that connection. I think I am still going to get lost once I take a few wrong turns aswell, but along with street names, I will be looking out for glimpses of past London, sometimes I may even stumble across a piece of Roman wall and I will smile to myself and remember today – my quest for Roman London.
The Museum Marathon will be on Saturday 7th December 2013, walking to 26 museums in one day. We are raising money for Guide Dogs and the Just Giving Donation page is here – https://www.justgiving.com/museummarathon
Any donations would be much appreciated. You can follow the event on Twitter using the hashtag #MuseumMarathon
Information on the Roman London Wall Walk from the Museum of London can be found here – http://archive.museumoflondon.org.uk/Londinium/Today/LondonWallWalk/