In a basement underneath Merrill Lynch’s London office can be found an exceptionally well-preserved section of the Roman Wall, and a Medieval Bastion, and they’re both free to visit.
This is part of an occasional series where I visit museums that are open to the public, but only if you have contacted them first and arranged a time to visit.
Museums by Appointment
We all know about the Roman Wall that surrounded the old City and how fragments of it survive in plain view, especially around the aptly named London Wall and towards the Tower of London. What’s less well known is that other chunks exist in car parks or basements under offices, some are occasionally opened to the public, others rarely seen.
One is fully open to the public most days of the week, yet barely a handful of people visit each month, because few know it exists. At least until now, they didn’t.
The site is on the eastern end of the old Roman Wall, and is right next to New Gate — built in the wall for the road linking the City with the farming villages around what is today Oxford Street. As such it’s an important location.
When the site was cleared in the 1900s for the construction of the GPO building, and it was then that the remains of the Wall and the Bastion were discovered.
There’s been a Roman Wall here since, well, the time of the Romans, but this section was probably a late addition to the fortifications around London.
After the Romans left, London was abandoned for a couple of centuries until it was reoccupied in the time of the Saxons and the Roman Wall repaired. So formidable was it that even William the Conqueror was wary of attacking so well protected a city. Which is why he negotiated rather than attacked.
As London prospered, the land next to this particular patch was handed to Greyfriary Priory, who dominated the area, until Henry VIII’s suppression, and the land was later taken over by Christ’s Hospital who occupied it until the 19th century.
When the site was being cleared for the GPO office building, excavations uncovered the Roman Wall, and two archaeologists, Philip Norman and Francis Reader were able to persuade Parliament to allow them to excavate the site. It has to be sadly, remembered that at the time, there wasn’t any real statutory protection for ancient sites like this, and much was often simply dug up and dumped in landfills elsewhere.
In a couple of thousand years time, there is going to be much head-scratching by archaeologists as to why there so much Roman remains all mixed up in large plots of land in Kent. The legacy of 19th and early 20th-century thinking in London.
Back to the 1900s, as the GPO building was going up, the academics fought to have this section of Roman Wall preserved, and they won. But, it was locked away in a concrete box under the GPO building and essentially lost for the next century.
As we approached the second Millennium, the site was once again facing change, as the GPO building was being demolished to make way for a modern “groundscraper” for an American bank.
Prior to the construction of the new Merrill Lynch Financial Centre, excavations were undertaken by MOLA to see what else might have been left down there, and they uncovered a number of artefacts, and also overturned some thinking from previous researches.
What is down here is a length of the Roman Wall, and what was thought at the time of the original discovery, to be a Roman Bastion – that is a tower next to the wall to increase the fortifications. Having a Bastion next to a gatehouse is not uncommon, as the gate is the weakest point in any fortification and additional protections were needed.
The only problem is, the bastion isn’t Roman — it’s Medieval.
That isn’t a huge surprise, as much of what we see of the Roman Wall is medieval repairs, but still, the revelation overturned a century of thinking about this part of the wall.
The reason for the later addition of the bastion is unknown, but the best theory at the moment is that it was added because the Roman Wall was built on soft ground and was leaning over precariously. That lean can be clearly seen in how the bastion deals with the toppling-over roman era stonework.
The location of the wall is itself curious, as it runs through soft land that’s not ideal for building such a large heavy stone wall on. While the wall certainly follows the firmer ground where it can, there could be a pre-existing reason for it to come to this particular location.
On this main road out of London stood a stone gatehouse of some description. Possibly a triumphal arch type of structure to mark the boundary of the town or act as a landmark to welcome visitors.
Whatever its purpose, it was incorporated into the Roman Wall as the local gatehouse in the wall.
Therefore, this throws up one of the oddities about this part of London is the name, Newgate. The gate is old, much older than the wall, and possibly even older than the other gates in London, yet this oldest of old gates is called Newgate.
The naming is medieval and probably stems from the time when either King Henry I or King Stephen created a much larger gatehouse on the same site. Maybe the old Roman gatehouse had been blocked up, and the building works simply unblocked it — but whatever it was that happened, here was a New Gate.
Not an old one, at least as far as Medieval Londoners were concerned.
Over the subsequent centuries as London built and rebuilt, burnt down and rebuilt, bombed and rebuilt, the Roman wall sunk into the rising ground and was slowly lost.
Including this section which is now deep under the modern street level.
While uncovered in the 19th century, it’s taken until the 20th to make it accessible to the public.
As part of the agreement for the new bank to build its office block, they agreed to construct a “museum” for the roman wall and bastion and make it available to the public.
And what a wonderful job they’ve done. The old ceiling has been removed and people working in this part of the building can now walk past and look down over a glass wall into the basement space below.
For us lesser folk, we get down into the basement itself.
After arranging a visit beforehand, and then on arrival having my ID checked by security, it’s a short through the building to go back outside, and then through a locked anonymous door.
A couple of flights down a utilities style staircase, signing in and there’s a number of display boards on the walls to explain the history. The enthusiastic security guard was himself interested in the wall, and wrote an A4 primer about its history.
But of course, you want to get through the next door, and here the security guard is happy to leave you alone to have your own personal experience of this nearly 2,000-year-old length of ancient architecture.
Rather wonderfully, in my opinion, they’ve lined the walls with a perforated metal lining, which with the high-end walkway around one side creates a remarkable contrast to the ancient wall within the space.
It’s a decorative style that won’t appeal to everyone, but I liked it, and it’s so much better than the bland concrete walls that used to surround the space. It elevates the Roman Wall from mere lumps of stone into a full destination in its own right.
Here you can see the stones brought up by barge from Maidstone, and the layers of red clay tiles that broke up the layers in Roman walls. A hollow niche is mysterious, the 19th-century concrete reinforcements oddly appropriate.
I spent maybe 15 minutes in the room, being rather giddy with excitement at having this space all to myself to marvel at this rare survivor of our ancient past.
Then it was over, with a wistful sigh, a return to the streets and the noise, hustle and bustle of modern London.
To arrange a visit, which is free of charge, make a visit to the Merrill Lynch Financial Centre (King Edward Street EC1A 1HQ) and their reception desk, where they’ll direct you to security to be given the details of how to arrange a time to have a look. In my case, a simple email exchange sorted it all out.
In general, visits are possible, by appointment, Mon-Fri during working hours and Saturday mornings.
They also cater for groups, sometimes its local office workers, other times tourists doing all the things to see in London, often there’s just one person on their own.
It’s a small piece of Roman London, but oh what a delight it is to be able to get up close and personal with it.
A lot of the background for this article, and the two maps came from MOLA’s publication, “Within these walls: Roman and medieval defences north of Newgate at the Merrill Lynch Financial Centre, City of London”, available here and here.