Caesar, your bath’s ready (remix)

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 dcreese@westminster.gov.uk 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

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Roaming around roman remains

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 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! #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
FREE
Monday – Sat 10am – 5pm
Sunday 12pm – 4pm

Better late than never

Yesterday I visited a couple of roman sites (more to come later) as part of a guided tour and it turned out the tour was part of the “Londinium: The City’s Roman Story” festival that’s been going since late July. Summer was a bit of a blur here so I can excuse myself for missing a couple of months of it but there’s still a fortnight left to take advantage of the events. More on the festival here.

If you want to take a walk around Roman London for free do download the Roads to Rome leaflet from CoLAT (The City of London Archaeological Trust) here. Do the tour on a lunchtime, bring the kids too or even take the dog for a walk back in time. Talking of said pet below is a paw print from a Roman one on a clay tile on show at the excellent Billingsgate Roman House and Baths (which is well worth a visit).

And while we’re there, here’s a feline one and next to that (to quote the guide) “Something larger…”

 Roman London, you have to love it! #RomanLondon P

The Mithras touch

The Lost City of London
Paternoster Square
London EC4M 7DX

Until 29th October 2017
Admission Free – 24 Hrs a day.

On Tuesday I took an pre-work trip to the The Lost City Of London exhibition at Paternoster Square. It’s an excellent collection of rarely seen photographs taken from archaeology digs unearthed when London was being redeveloped after the blitz.

There’s a good few roman sites on show here including some that are now buried under office blocks, filled in or not accessible to the general public. There were remains I’d never heard of before like a part of a roman wall preserved in the London Wall car park, roman bathhouses at Cheapside, Huggin Hill and Billingsgate and a roman forum and basilica at Gracechurch Street. There was also a good section about the famous discovery of that time The Temple of Mithras that had people queueing in the streets for hours just to see it!

It wasn’t just the usual Time Team photographic fare that interested me but a couple of images of an era gone by. The first was of archaeologist Audrey Williams holding the head of Mithras while a Brendan Behan look-a-like with a cigarette cheekily hanging out of his mouth assists and the second a view of five ladies trying to get a sneaky look at the dig at The Temple of Mithras through a hole in the corrugated iron fence “ere Ethel, have a butchers at this”.

So if you fancy all things roman and want to spend an interesting fifteen minutes pop down to Paternoster Square one lunchtime with a sarnie and treat yourself! More on events happening in a roman style in London here. #RomanLondon P

But Geoffrey Fletcher did

A bargain was bagged last week for the princely sum of £2.94 (including p+p off Amazon), it was a book by Geoffrey Fletcher which inspired the film “The London Nobody Knows” as featured in the last post. It’s a nice old book with illustrations by Fletcher (who was a graphic artist as well as a writer) and a preface written in 1989 where he mentions the changes in London since the original publication of 1962.

The book features lots of places that have long disappeared, language from a time gone by (some that now wouldn’t be politically correct) and some just plain daft: “Weird youths…stare listlessly into radio and jazz shops, youths with white-eyeleted shoes accompanied by their fun-molls. Each couple has horribly pointed shoes that make me think of elves; they twitch epileptically to the sound of jazz”. God knows what he’d say if he was still about today about London’s youth (and also the 50-odd year old punks wandering around New Cross with “Discharge” painted on the back of their “levver” jackets) but we love this book and it comes highly recommended!

If they were ever going to do a contemporary rewrite of the book and were looking for someone to do the illustrations we here at Liylh reckon they should be done by the artist Marc Gooderham (his “Elder Street, Spitalfields” above and Hawksmoor’s “Christchurch” below) as he uses decaying London as a major inspiration (examples of his London paintings here). As it says on his website about his work “Capturing the singular beauty to be found in those neglected buildings that have fallen into disrepair as the living city continues to evolve around them”. Fletcher would have liked that! By coincidence “The London Nobody Knows” was and is used by Marc as his bible and in his own words: “for drawing and sketching, looking for lost architectural delights… the book was a great discovery”. Have a look at more of Marc’s work here.

And finally while researching this post I found two episodes of a Radio 4 programme from 2011 where Dan Cruickshank revisits Geoffrey Fletcher’s old haunts in the first episode here and in the second he visits his own quirky favourites here. One of them is the abandoned St Mary’s Underground Station in Whitechapel which is featured on this short BBC film here. The London nobody knows indeed! P

Where sweet Caroline met Happy Jack

It’s not every day you get to ask a couple of machine gun-toting policemen for directions but last Monday lunchtime I did. I was lost outside the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Green Park and trying to find my way to an address that once housed an organisation that changed the face of UK radio forever.

In the days of old there were no pop music radio stations in the UK until Radio Caroline changed all that in 1964 (more on the station here). I’ve long been fascinated by the offshore pirates of the 60’s and have just finished Ray Clark’s “Radio Caroline: the true story of the boat that rocked” so the other afternoon I decided to take a trip to 6 Chesterfield Gardens W1 (once known as “Caroline House”) where the station had their London HQ from 1964 to 1967.

It’s funny what impressions an address gives as I was expecting the location to be a nice square surrounding a leafy park but alas it wasn’t; it was a nondescript gloomy looking dead-end filled with expensive cars and builders busily filling skips. Looking at the building today it looks a lot cleaner compared to the images of it back in the sixties and is now a bright and airy office complex which now houses a collection of finance related firms.

Back then the building contained the Caroline organisation (that had offices over all four floors and a recording studio down in the basement) and other music related companies they rented floor space out to. These included the actor Terrence Stamp, Robert Stigwood (who managed The Bee Gees, Lord Sutch and Cream) and Track records (ran by Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp who also managed The Who) and it was here Roger and the boys filmed their Happy Jack video. In the promo film directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg in 1966 you can see the grand staircase and one of the high-ceilinged rooms with classy chandeliers.

If you want to see more of what the place was like in its heyday there’s a wonderful short film from 1965 about Radio Caroline here and the first two minutes features the interior and exterior of Caroline House. As the narrator in the film says says “(It’s) a big building for a big organisation”. It sure was! P

The Crypton Factor

the-crypton-factor_2I took a stroll down Fleet Street yesterday lunchtime to pick up some heavy duty builder’s bags from Robert Dyas (don’t ask).

Influenced by Secret London: An unusual Guide – Rachel Howard/Bill Nash (Jonglez) I reckoned as I had some time left I’d visit one of the attractions in the book. I thought I knew that area well, but obviously I didn’t as when I walked down Bouverie Street it all looked completely alien to me.

Walking past The Polish Cultural Institute which I never knew even existed, I took a left down Magpie Alley which has a series of tiles (aka The Magpie Murals) on the wall telling the story of the good old days of “The Print.” Interesting stuff if you love stories about Caxton, hot metal, web offset printing and the like which I do.

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But it didn’t stop there, I kept on going until I hit the back entrance of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP on the left (just before the alley morphs into Ashentree Court) and went through the small iron gate just to the side of the building and down some steps and treated myself to a butchers of the crypt of the old White Friars priory which once stood near there.

It’s well worth it, as it’s light years away from Clinton Cards, Pret a Manger and the hustle and bustle of Fleet Street once you’re at the bottom of those stairs.  P

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