In November 2017 one of London’s most famous Roman sites reopened to the public after spending several years hidden away in storage. The Mithraeum, a subterranean temple dedicated to the god Mithras, has had an eventful afterlife since its celebrated rediscovery in 1954. Moved from its original site to make way for a new office development, it was reconstructed at a new location nearby before the great wheel of redevelopment turned again and offered the chance for the Mithraeum to be reinstated at its original location on the banks of the now-underground river Walbrook. The Mithraeum offers modern Londoners a glimpse into one of the Roman period’s more unusual elements: the secretive cult of Mithras, and the work to restore its ruins to the banks of the Walbrook also gave archaeologists an incredible opportunity to discover more about Roman-era Londinium.
The heart of London is full of strange old places with unusual names and odd stories, but there is one place that for a very long time was not a true part of London at all. Ely Place, just to the north of Holborn Circus, was until relatively recently considered to be a part of Cambridgeshire. For centuries, it was an enclave – an area of land physically located in the City of London but not under its jurisdiction. Instead, it was privately owned by the Bishops of Ely, and even today the street has its own gatehouse and beadles.
30 St Mary Axe – better known by its nickname “The Gherkin” – is one of the most distinctive skyscrapers in London. It stands on the site of the old Baltic Exchange, which was badly damaged by a Provisional IRA bomb in 1992 and subsequently demolished. It was during excavations taking place prior to the construction of the Gherkin that, in 1995, the skeleton of a Roman Londoner who had lain undisturbed for 1,600 years was discovered.
It’s a little known fact that more of the City of London’s churches were demolished during peacetime than were destroyed during the Blitz. As London expanded, the population of the Square Mile declined. Fifty one of the eighty-seven churches consumed by the Great Fire of 1666 had been rebuilt, but as the City’s population dwindled during the 19th and 20th Centuries, congregations fell and many churches became surplus to requirements.
However, as you make your way along the Chertsey Road in Twickenham, towards the famous rugby stadium, an unexpected sight looms into view: a baroque Christopher Wren church tower. This is one of the lost City churches, All Hallows Lombard Street, reborn as a suburban parish church.
Over a doorway on one of the City of London’s many Wren churches is something really quite special. A large but intricate carving depicts the Last Day – the figure of Christ presides over the dead, who are rising up from their coffins in preparation for the final judgement.
I recently bought a copy of Mrs Basil Holmes’ 1896 book The London Burial Grounds. Isabella Holmes was a remarkable woman who took it upon herself to explore what had happened to the many burial grounds in inner London that had been closed in the 1850s. Her book records her findings, something which you can imagine will be a really useful resource for me when researching London’s old and forgotten burial grounds. However, what I wasn’t expecting was that the book itself would tell more stories than simply the ones contained within its pages.
I remember the first time I saw Christ Church Greyfriars – I was on my way to a job interview near the Old Bailey, and as I was walking up Newgate Street from the tube station by St Paul’s I saw the ruins of a church. Intrigued, I went over to the ruin to read the sign explaining what the site was. I’ve always been fascinated by ruins – not just the reasons why a building became a ruin, but also why the ruin itself was preserved. When one considers how valuable every square foot of space is in the City of London, it’s quite something to come across a ruin that’s stood there for over seventy years.