Lower Thames Street isn’t exactly a promising-looking place when it comes to searching for relics of Roman-era London. The wide, busy road cuts through the City, and the buildings that line it are mostly modern, concrete and uninspiring. Yet underneath one of these buildings something wonderful has been preserved: the ruins of a Roman bath house.
London’s Square Mile is notoriously short of green space. A crowded maze of winding streets for many centuries, the City of London was originally bound by the ancient Roman walls and as the city expanded open spaces became further and further away for those living in the dirty and overcrowded centre of town. Although the Royal Parks of London have a longer history, it was the Victorians who first advocated a wider movement for open spaces in Britain’s industrialising towns and cities. Much of the reasoning behind the parks movement came from the belief that the widespread disease in urban areas came from dirty air – or ‘miasma’ – and parks were seen as a way to improve the health of those who could not afford gardens or country retreats of their own.
It’s quite easy to get lost in the maze of highwalks in London’s Barbican Estate, and to some it may be disorientating to discover a medieval church in the middle of the Barbican’s brutalist sprawl. St Giles without Cripplegate is a rare survivor of the Great Fire – even if it didn’t fare too well during the Blitz – and its name is one of the last remaining references to this ancient corner of the Square Mile.
Like many of the sites and objects detailed in this blog, it’s quite possible to walk past the London Stone and never realise that it is there. It’s easy to miss the grate pictured below, which is situated at street level on the front of a nondescript modern building on Cannon Street in the City of London.
The London Stone has a long and singularly odd history, with its origins shrouded in legends, fairytales and hearsay. Similar to the superstition surrounding the ravens of the Tower of London, a saying goes that “So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so will London flourish.” However, like the ravens, it is likely that this romantic myth dates from the Victorian period, although both superstitions still persist today.
Originally a stretch of open land to the north of the City of London, Bunhill Fields got its name from its use as a burial ground during the Saxon period and a macabre event that took place in the mid-sixteenth century. Cartloads of bones from the charnel house at St Paul’s Cathedral were transported out of the city and dumped in such large quantities that they formed a hill of bones, with a thin layer of soil covering the mound. This “Bone Hill” was large enough to accomodate three windmills on top, which were presumably installed to make the most of the elevated ground.
The City of London is home to many curious little green spaces, gardens that today are often teeming with office workers enjoying their lunch on a sunny day. The little garden pictured below is just one of them, a small space nestled between office blocks and the busy thoroughfare of London Wall. In the introduction to his 1901 book The Churches and Chapels of Old London, J G White notes that “the sites of old churches are very plainly indicated in most instances by little green spots, formerly church-yards, now changed into pleasant gardens and resting places.” The subject of today’s post is the “green spot” on the site of the church of St Olave, Silver Street.
Many of the City’s churches were closed and demolished as the area’s population began to decrease in the 19th Century, and more were destroyed in the Blitz and never rebuilt. St Olave’s was situated in a part of the Square Mile that was particularly heavily hit by aerial bombardment during the Second World War – it lies just south of London Wall and the Barbican complex, an area devastated by the Luftwaffe. Silver Street, where William Shakespeare once lived, is no longer on London’s maps, utterly wiped out by the devastation of the Blitz.