The other day while walking through Lincoln’s Inn Fields I spotted a bust of Lenin and a VR Type B pillarbox – placed near enough in a rose bed – that weren’t there the week before. Turns out the park was a location for an expensive advert (“To be on your TV soon” I was told by a burly security guard who wasn’t giving anything away). P
From a post earlier this year but remixed in November 2017 for an outside writing project.
The Strand Lane Roman Bath, 5 Strand Lane, London WC2R 1AP
They say don’t ever meet your heroes as you’ll be disappointed and I think that applies to visiting some ancient monuments too. I’ve always had a love of all things Roman, an early memory is of visiting the Lunt Roman Fort in Coventry as a child and being mesmerised watching Roman soldiers in metal helmets marching on the parade ground, brandishing swords and looking menacing. Little did I know that they weren’t part of the Roman legion just Coventry council workers on overtime dressed up for the day (I kid you not!)
I now live in London with its own fair share of real Roman antiquities but have long been fascinated by the so called “Roman” bath in Strand Lane, a quirky attraction just off the beaten track that could easily be missed. It’s not far from the BBC’s old HQ Bush House and just behind the disused Aldwych tube station at the Fleet Street end of The Strand.
Roman? It’s probably not. It’s more than likely a cistern for a garden water feature of the original Somerset House nearby dating from the early 1600’s. In the 1770’s the cistern was reclaimed and advertised as a “cold bath” and it’s presumed in the 1830’s the owner thought if they gave it a Roman angle (“The old Roman spring bath”) more punters would use it and it’s stuck ever since. More on the bath’s history here and here.
Up until earlier this year it was easy to view, all you had to do was walk up Strand Lane to the building that has a National Trust sign outside (above) and if the gate was unlocked you could peer at the interior through a grill. On the numerous occasions I’ve been I’ve looked through the (if not dirty then steamed up) window seeing next to nothing but my own reflection, my imagination running wild, all the time dreaming that one day I would go inside and see the “antiquity” close up.
Since the London Bridge terrorist attack in June it’s a lot more difficult to see the bath as the passageway through Surrey Steps is now permanently locked and there’s a security guard at the bottom of Strand Lane letting only Kings College employees in. The only ways to see it now are on the annual Open House day (where architectually interesting buildings in the capital are open to the public) or arranging a visit by emailing David Creese at email@example.com giving at least a week’s notice which will let you gain access to the building (and it’s free of charge too!)
I made an appointment and on the day, after a security check at the bottom of Strand Lane showing my confirmation email I was met at the site by a Westminster Council gardener (what is it with council workers and Roman remains?) from the nearby Embankment Gardens who let me in but stood outside for the duration of my visit. If you intend to go do read up about the place first as you won’t be getting a tour of the guided variety.
The building certainly had an air of antiquity as first thing I noticed as I entered the dark interior was the pungent smell of damp then the feeling of intense cold. The council worker didn’t mention it but on the wall of the entrance hall (to the left) inside were a couple of switches; one for the lights in the hall and the other for the light over the actual bath itself. Below the switches was a table with a couple of barely readable photocopied sheets about the history of the bath. To the right was a bricked up tiled doorway to what once led to a second bath The Essex bath which is now buried beneath the rear basement of what once was The Norfolk Hotel now part of King’s College in Surrey Street (more info and pictures of The Essex bath here).At the end of the hall was a small dark room (above) with a couple of mis-matched wooden chairs, a Roman bath sign and a modern day fusebox giving it a look of an execution chamber. It’s a room you certainly wouldn’t want to spend the night in.
To the left was the area where the brick plunge bath was, the water looking as clear as a bell and very inviting (if a bit cold). It would have been great to join the likes of Charles Dickens and the fictitious David Copperfield who enjoyed a dip there but a metal bar stopped you from going any further to explore the bath or its surrounds. To the side of the bath was a not very Roman 1960’s style serving hatch (above).The biggest disappointment was the lack of anything there that even looked remotely Roman. It is said in the past the room was decorated in a Roman style complete with wall tiles and stone busts but sadly there’s nothing of the sort these days. Amongst the broken paving stones lying on the bare flooring I did see what I thought was a discarded statue of a Roman deity (below) but on second glance it was a piece of twisted up copper pipe. Even though I’d been obsessed with the bathhouse for years there wasn’t much there to hold my interest, the cold and damp didn’t help much either and in less than ten minutes I had seen enough.
I imagine the National Trust and Westminster Council (who co-own the bath) don’t make any revenue out of it and as it’s off the beaten track and the only ways to visit is on the annual Open House day or by email appointment there’s a good chance it may fade into obscurity like it has done in the past. Perhaps if it was redecorated in a period style or opened as a working plunge bath I’m sure that would attract fee paying visitors. Even if we disregard the “Is it Roman?” argument, given the popular belief that the original cistern was built in 1612 the site is still over 400 years old. That’s historical isn’t it? And how about making more of the Charles Dickens connection? Tourists of a literary bent would find that very interesting.
My lust for the bath has now been satisfied and I walked away from my brief visit a little deflated. Now if the council worker who came to meet me was dressed in Roman attire (sans helmet and sword!) just like the ones from my childhood memories of The Lunt Fort and there were statues, urns and broken pottery dotted about; things would have been oh so different. P #romanbath #strandlanebath
For an authentic slice of Roman London (Londinium) the capital has some fine examples on offer. Billingsgate Roman House and Baths (101 Lower Thames Street, London EC3 6DL. £8/6 for a 45 minute tour) is located under a 1970’s office block and contains the ruins of a villa complex complete with its own genuine Roman bath. The Temple of Mithras (12 Walbrook, London EC4N 8AA. Admission free but appointment preferred) recently reopened in its original location underneath the Bloomberg HQ building alongside an exhibition of Roman objects found at the site. Below The Guildhall Art Gallery (Gresham Street, London EC2V 5AE. Admission free) an amphitheatre once stood, today the remains are presented in a futuristic science-fiction style underground. All three locations are well worth visiting.The Museum of London (150 London Wall, London EC2Y 5HN. Admission free) has a great collection of Roman artefacts on offer also a free self-guided tour available to download called “Roads to Rome” (link here). The walk includes visiting several remains and sites that had importance in those times. Parts of Londinium still exist, they’re usually seven metres under your feet but if you look hard enough you will find them. P #Romanlondon #Londinium
The other Saturday at 10.30am myself and ten others found ourselves queueing at an unmarked door outside a drab office block at 101 Lower Thames Street. It was a lovely sunny morning not that it was going to make a lot of difference to us as for the next two and a half hours we would be spending it mostly underground.
We’d all signed up for From the private to the public: life in Londinium a tour of two important sites of Roman interest; The Billingsgate Roman House and Baths and The Roman Amphitheatre under the Guildhall (pic above and also featured a few years ago here). I won’t give too much of the game away but if you like Roman remains then these two sites (and the soon to be reopened Temple Of Mithras) are for you.
The Billingsgate Roman House and Baths were originally a small amount of stand-alone buildings that were developed over a couple of years into a villa complex with a private bathhouse and the remains on show include parts of the original flooring and the hypocaust (underfloor heating) system underneath. There’s even a part of the heating system where the pilae stacks (the pillars which the flooring stood on as part of the hypocaust) have been “bodged” by unscrupulous builders of the time; there were rogue builders around even then. The visit lasted about an hour the two guides who showed us around certainly knew their stuff and we all left the underground car park-like basement as pleased as punch.
The second part of the tour was picked up by another guide who funnily enough told us while walking the ten minutes or so up to the Guildhall that his mum queued up (with hundreds of others) to see the original Temple of Mithras excavation in 1954 (as mentioned in our post here). On the way there we popped into the excellent St Dunstan in the East church, bombed in the 1941 blitz and now a public garden which I reckon I’ll visit at a later date as it looked interesting. At the time we passed at 11.30ish there were a German scout troop sitting having elevenses, a jazz dancer being photographed by a random tourist and a couple of cycle couriers sitting on a bench enjoying one of those cannabis-infused cigarettes.
At the Guildhall we were taken to one of the stairwells in the gallery to see Londinium Romanum a painting of what Roman London would have looked like as imagined by the archaeological painter Alan Sorrell.
On the way to see it we passed a very large painting of the Queen sitting at a long table at a banquet and were told by our guide that this piece was to commemorate her jubilee back in 1977. I overheard a couple there who mentioned that the art critic Brian Sewell got into a bit of trouble at the time when he reviewed it and supposedly said “Ghastly! They’ve made the Queen look like a Pink Blancmange!” I cannot find anything about said painting and nothing about the Brian Sewell comments either but it did make me laugh!
Downstairs in the basement the Amphitheatre is displayed rather futuristically, in the words of W when he reviewed it a few years ago here “you get to a large room done out like a Tron backdrop” (Above: his pic from then). He was the only one there when he visited it and I imagine it was creepy to say the least but last weekend I wasn’t alone and having a guide talking you through everything helped too. I wouldn’t have known anything much apart from guessing what the remains were and I certainly would have missed the wooden drain (under the glass on the floor) going into the arena with the original planks still there preserved through the damp London clay.
At 1pm I walked back out into 2017 feeling a bit “roman-ruined out” at the time while my eyes got used to the daylight. Looking back it was a great morning, £12 well spent if you like that kind of thing. Here’s to Londinium! P #RomanLondon #Guildhall #Londinium
NEWS EXTRA: We were told last week that the Museum of London was planning to move in a few years time and the site of the Smithfield Meat Market might be the location.
Billingsgate Roman Villa & Bathhouse
101 Lower Thames St,
London EC3R 6DL
£8 for adult/£6 concessions
Book in advance only here
London’s Roman Amphitheatre
Underneath The Guildhall Art Gallery
off Gresham Street
London EC2V 5AE
Monday – Sat 10am – 5pm
Sunday 12pm – 4pm
On a late lunchtime stroll the other day I saw these two massive trees being busily wrapped up by construction crews in Lincoln’s Inn and wondered what was going on. Was it some crazy art project? Protection against a forthcoming nuclear war perhaps?
I had to ask the uniformed gateman on my way out, “Why the plastic netting?” as I pointed to the trees. He replied “Well, they’re in the process of redeveloping the area and the trees are sadly coming down next month” “and we don’t want any rare whatisname’s nesting in the trees and delaying the chainsaws, do we?” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. P
I found a great bargain in the Holborn Library 20p book sale this week, “London Free and Dirt Cheap” by Joe Fullman (Frommer’s.)
The copy I obtained was an edition from 2007 but I am sure you’ll be able to find an up-to-date version quite cheap (prices from £3 inc p+p on amazon!)
There’s some classic cheap London moments here and loads of stuff we didn’t know about, e.g. Best Free Hidden Gem: The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, lots of cheap eats ideas including somewhere with the great name of Porky’s Pantry (now sadly closed,) free oddities to visit like The London Stone, free music and concert ideas and free tickets to TV shows too.
Go out and get a copy and get ideas for having fun for (next to) nothing! P
Here’s our first ever guest post, and it’s from our good friend Matt E.
It’s a blazing Sunday afternoon, and I’ve just bought an armful of books (Penguin Little Black Classics, 80p a pop) at the nearest open bookshop (Waterstones, along from Charing Cross Station.) Now all I need is somewhere to read them.
But where? The parks are packed and, anyway, I fancy a drink. I doubt the pubs are full, but who wants to sit in a boiling boozer on a day like this? Then, as I wander through St James’s Park, I suddenly think of another green space, and of a restaurant that nestles within.
Arriving at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a minute’s walk from the hell of Holborn Tube, I wince at the crowds spread thickly over the grass. Surely, some of the overspill have stumbled across Fields Bar & Kitchen (Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, WC2A 3LJ) – an unassuming pizzeria that overlooks the park’s tennis courts. (It’s so unassuming, in fact, that until very recently I’d always thought it was an oddly opulent parkies’ hut.)
Stepping inside, I instead find glorious near-emptiness. Giddy with relief, I lavishly order a bottle of ice-cold house white (£20) and head outside to the part-covered terrace. There, at one of the distressed metal tables, I happily sit for the next few hours, reading Michel de Montaigne’s collection of short essays, How We Weep and Laugh at The Same Thing, while watching people play tennis to a standard that also makes me want to Weep and Laugh.
I eventually get up to leave, thinking I really should try the food the next time. Because there will most definitely be a next time, having already assigned Fields privileged ‘bolthole’ status – the kind of place you can count on when London’s burning and you’re in urgent need of shaded sanctuary. M
Saw this today – medieval dancing you say? Who are you to resist? W