You might think, given how built up London is – and has been for many centuries now, that there is not much original archaeology to see in the city, that all the best archaeology is to be seen in a museum. True, the Museum of London is a must for anyone interested in the archaeology of London, but there are the remains of the London Wall. A 2.8 kilometre or 1.75 mile walk follows what remains of the wall built by the Romans and maintained and rebuilt during Medieval times, that starts at the Tower of London and leads you to the Museum of London. And besides seeing London’s Roman Wall, this is also a great way to see some significant places of the City of London’s history.
I do not know much about the history of London, certainly very little about the Roman period, so on a recent trip there for a conference I decided to take a day out and explore the Roman history of London. The British Museum has a very impressive Roman collection, but this is not restricted to London, or even the United Kingdom. The Museum of London’s galleries do, however, focus on the history of London, and their Roman displays are very interesting. I was there during school holidays, and it seems as though children of all ages were enjoying them as much as any of the adults I saw.The London Wall Walk was designed to start at the Tower of London and lead you to the Museum of London; and this is how I did it. But, for someone who knows little about Roman London, Londinium as it was called then, I recommed the reverse. I would start at the Museum of London, then explore the quite substantial remains of the wall around the museum, and then head towards the Tower of London.
The Museum of London
In AD 43 the Roman Emperor Claudius invaded Britain, and by 50 AD the port town of Londinium was established at that point on the River Thames that was narrow enough for a bridge, but still deep enough for ocean going craft. By the end of the 4th century AD Roman Britain was already in decline and London’s public building were already in a state of disrepair. In 410 AD the Roman Emperor Honorius declared that the Britons would have to look after themselves – Roman occupation of Britain effectively came to an end.
Londinium’s history during these four centuries make up a substantial part of the Museum of London’s displays, and are a great place to start with the Romans in London.
The Roman section has been placed within the museum in such a way so that it incorporates a viewing window out on to that portion of the the city wall that runs alongside the museum. Much of what you see of this remnant of the wall is not Roman in date, it is thought to have been built during the 17th and 19th centuries, like many of the remnants we see today, it does have Roman masonry at its core and is built on the foundations of the Roman wall. This part of the City Wall has the remains of one of the many circular bastions that were dotted along the length of the city wall.
Noble Street and The Roman Fort
Across the road from the Museum of London, which is called London Wall Road, is Noble Street – which has the remains of the Roman Fort. This fort was built in about 110 AD and housed about a thousand Roman soldiers. The fort then formed the boundary of the wall when construction began about 90 years later. There are a series of black information panels that show the map of the wall and how it changed through the following centuries – all the while pointing to features on the walls in front of view.
The Roman wall influenced the shape of London for the next 1600 years. Throughout these Medieval times the wall was maintained, with even additions added to it. The wall retained its defensive function. In 1666 it was the wall that stopped the Great Fire of London spreading further than it did. From around this time on, sections of the wall were demolished, and in some places it was replaced with brick, or it was incorporated into new buildings and warehouses.
It was the bombing raids of 1940 that not only destroyed this area of London, but also revealed the foundations of the Roman Wall. For about 20 years the area lay undeveloped, and during this time archaeologists were able to identify the foundations of the Roman Fort. In 1956 a new road was constructed, London Wall Road. And all new buildings were then designed to preserve and enhance London’s history.
Following the city wall from the Museum of London to the Tower of London you pass by various points of interest, including the site of London’s Roman amphitheatre in the Medieval Guildhall Yard. I thought the two sections of the wall near the Tower Hill tube station were amongst the more impressive. On the path from the station to the Tower of London is a small garden in which a statue of the Roman Emperor Trajan. Behind the statue is one of the biggest sections of the wall still standing.
The Tower Hill section stands to a height of 35 feet (10.6 metres) – the Roman wall survives the level of the sentry walkway at 14 feet or 4.4 metres, with the rest being Medieval in date. Clearly visible in the wall behind Trajan are the layers of flat red tiles that were added by Romans to give the wall extra strength and stability. The Roman wall would have stood to a height of about 20 feet or 6.3 metres.
Just around the corner from the Tower Hill tube station, on Coopers Row, is The Grange City Hotel. Go through the courtyard to see the City Wall behind the hotel. Again it is a combination of both Roman and Medieval construction. What intrigued me about this section of the wall was the artful way in which very recent buildings have been built around the wall – even a walkway from one street into the hotel courtyard makes use of an old entrance in the wall.
Guide to Walking the London Wall
The path was marked out with 21 blue and white tiled information panels, allowing people to move from one location to the next. Sadly, not all of these survive today. Some have disappeared as a consequence of the ongoing construction in the city. One became a victim of more recent history of London. Tile number 8, which marked the site of Bishopsgate, was destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1993.
Map of the Roman & Medieval Wall
The map indicates the 21 locations, from from Tower Hill (marked in red on the tile map above, or with a yellow marker on the Google map) to the Museum of London (indicated in green on the tile map above, or with a blue marker on the Google map) and continues the line of the wall from the museum to the other end where New Bridge Street meets the Thames. Interesting and related diversions are marked in yellow. Without these diversions, walking the wall from Tower Hill to Blackfriars Underground Station takes is about two miles and can take anything from one to two hours. And, most of the surviving remnants of the wall on this route are wheelchair accessible.
The walk as devised by the Museum of London starts in the underpass that leads from Tower Hill tube station to the Tower of London. So this is the tube station to head to for to start your self guided tour of the London Roman Wall. As this is also the tube station for the Tower of London, one of London’s more popular tourist attractions this can be a very busy station.
The first, introductory information panel is in the underpass. Click on the photographs of the information tiles, and read the text supplied for each point of interest.
One – Medieval Postern
The Medieval postern is thought to have been built in the 13th century. It is the only gate tower on the city wall.
From the Tower Hill section of the wall head in the direction of the Trinity Square gardens and turn right into Cooper’s Row in front of the tube station. Carry on up Cooper’s Row to the garage entrance to the Grange City hotel; the London Wall can be seen at the end of the courtyard from the street.
Three – Cooper’s Row City Wall
Four – Emperor House
A section of the City Wall can be seen in the basement of Emperor House. This section of the wall was excavated in 1979 and 1980, what was unearthed is a 10 metre long and 3 metre high portion of the wall along with the defensive ditch and the base of a Roman tower.
Five – Algate City Gate
Point of interest 5 marks the location of Aldgate The information panel is on a low brick wall that surrounds the playground of Sir John Cass’s Foundation Primary School.
It was at this point that the Roman road from Camulodunum (present day Colchester) entered Londinium. When the wall was built, it is thought that a stone gate with twin entrances and flanked by guard towers spanned the road. This Roman gate appears to have survived, perhaps having being altered for defensive purposes in the 4th century, until the start of the 12th century when it was rebuilt, and called Alegate or Algate. The medieval gate had a single entrance flanked by two large semi-circular towers. It was in the rooms over the gate that Geoffrey Chaucer lived from 1374 while he was a customs official for the port of London. In 1609 Aldgate was completely rebuilt only to be demolished in 1761 to improve the flow of traffic into the City.
From the school walk into the traffic circle and go down into the subway, where panel six is located.
Six – Wall
A section of the wall was uncovered during the excavation of the subway in the mid 1970s. Sometimes the subway is closed to the public, in which case the panel is inaccessible.
From the subway head up Duke’s Place, which becomes Bevis Marks – information panel 7 can be found on the south side of the road next to the entrance to the London Synagogue.
Seven – Wall
Although all traces of the Wall in this area have now disappeared, many of the streets indicate its location. Bevis Marks road follows the path of road that would have been just on the inside of the wall, while the parallel Houndsditch Road marks the location of the ditch outside the city walls. In the late 16th century the historian John Stow recorded various attempts to prevent the City ditch becoming a rubbish dump, including dead dogs, hence Houndsditch. The ditch was finally covered over in the 17th century and the area used for gardens.
Continue up Bevis Marks, the road becomes Camomile Street and intersects with Bishopsgate, after which it becomes Wormwood Street.
Eight – Wall
The intersection of Camomile/Wormwood and Bishopsgate is the site of Bishopsgate – taken down at the same time as many of the others in 1760 – 1761 as they impeded the flow of traffic. It was from Bishopsgate that the Roman road Ermine Street left the city for York. There were cemeteries beyond the gateway. Information panel 8 was on a wall that was destroyed by the bomb planted in Bishopsgate in 1993. Today, bishop’s mitres have been placed on the buildings on either side of Bishopsgate road to mark the ancient gateway.
Eighteen – Westgate of the Roman Fort
The Panel and Roman remains are in an underground car park beneath London Wall Road. Access to the site is possible by arrangement with the Museum of London.
Nineteen & Twenty – Roman Fort and Wall
Along the west side of Noble street is a long stretch of the Medieval Wall, with Roman foundations beneath Panels 19 and 20 have disappeared and been replaced by another series of information panels that show the development of the wall after its re-discovery following the bombing of London during World War II.
Starting at the top, where Noble Street meets London Road, we see the map of the wall as it was revealed after the bombing of London in the 1940s.
At the end of Noble Street, turn right onto Gresham Street, and then first right onto Aldersgate Street heading up to the Museum of London. Panel 21 is on the wall of a new building about halfway up.
Twenty-One – Aldersgate, City Gate
The threat of Saxon raids in the 4th century AD caused the Romans to strengthen the City Wall. It appears that this involved the closing of the west gate (point 18) and a new, much more substantial gate being constructed here. This gate allowed for twin roadways that were flanked by semi-circular projecting towers built of solid masonry. Aldersgate was an important gate well into the Medieval until it was damaged by the Great Fire of 1666. Although it was rebuilt, it was demolished along with the other gates including Bishopsgate and Aldgate in 1761 for traffic purposes.
Archaeology Travel Tip
If walking the full length of London’s City Wall Walk is not possible – if it is raining or you do not have the time – then I recommend the section adjacent to the London Museum, and if you are taking in the Tower of London, see the sections around the Tower Hill tube station. The section at the tubestation is in a park – so a good stop to give young children a bit of time out if its needed. And the hotel has a good coffee shop …
- Londinium: a descriptive map & guide to Roman London on Amazon.co.uk. Published by the Ordnance Survey, which shows Roman features including the wall overlaid on a modern city map
- Walking London Wall by Ed Harris on Amazon.com (available on Amazon.co.uk)
- Londinium: London in the Roman Empire by John Morris on Amazon.co.uk
- Roman London (The archaeology of London) by Dominic Perring on Amazon.com (available on Amazon.co.uk)
- The Port of Roman London by Gustav Milne on Amazon.com (available on Amazon.co.uk)