An Ancient London Street Returns

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An Ancient London Street Returns
The view from Watling Street.

Two echoes of Roman London have returned to the City.

The opening of Bloomberg's gargantuan new headquarters on Queen Victoria Street has reinstated a lost Roman road. Meanwhile, the long-buried River Walbrook is suggested by a series of sculpted fountains.

Watling Street returns. Sort of

For the best part of 2,000 years, the Roman road of Watling Street took a diagonal through the Square Mile. It's shown on the 1915 map above in yellow, along with its continuation of Budge Row. The orange outline shows the approximate footprint of the new Bloomberg campus. Yup, it really is that big.

The Watling Street route was obliterated in the 1950s with the building of Bucklersbury House — a modernist office block that dominated this part of the City and paid little heed to the ancient street plan.

Its replacement reinstates the historic alignment as a pedestrian walkway, known as Bloomberg Arcade, which cuts the development in two. It’s more of a corporate chasm than a passageway, and recalls some of the spaces at Broadgate.

Few people were using this new route mid-morning, nor when we returned at evening rush hour, but that’ll change with time.

The route is set to become 'an independent restaurant hub', populated with small chains like Bleecker Burger, Caravan, Vinoteca and Homeslice. Those four were open on day one, with at least five more restaurants to come. Caravan already had a healthy queue for coffee as we passed by, just after the morning rush hour.

Rise of the River Walbrook. Sort of

London was probably founded on this spot two millennia ago. The Romans built their city on the hills of Ludgate and Cornhill, which are separated by the valley of the River Walbrook. That river still flows under the site as part of the sewer system. Indeed, we got to see its ancient course during the excavations.

It would be inadvisable to expose a functioning sewer. Instead, the developers have done the next best thing and installed a fake river — a trio of sculptural fountains by Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias.

These are actually rather good. Each is lined with painted bronze tendrils and plant matter. The suggestion is not only of a river, but also of wellsprings and roots — a fitting theme for this earliest part of London. They look particularly good at night.

The wider building

The Norman Foster-designed Bloomberg London is a colossal affair that looks like it could withstand a nuclear blast. It's not dainty, or pretty, or particularly welcoming on a cold drizzly day. That said, there's no denying that this vast groundscraper is architecturally distinctive. With its sandstone walls and bronze fins, it's a very different proposition to the endless glass walls found elsewhere in the City. Imagine a Jawa sandcrawler converted into professional serviced office space.

An old air vent has been maintained.

That Star Wars reference can do double duty. Foster's previous plans for the site were so ungainly, they earned the nickname of 'Darth Vader's Helmet'. Whatever you think of the new building, you will no doubt be thankful that the force was not strong with its predecessor scheme.

We didn't get to see the interiors, or the building's impeccable green credentials, but the Evening Standard has a largely positive article covering that territory. The FT, meanwhile, points out that this building is designed to 'blend in to its surroundings'. This is certainly true: like the neighbouring streets it doesn't contain a single litter bin.

More to come

The building of Bucklersbury House in the 1950s famously exposed an old Roman religious building known as the Temple of Mithras. The temple was crudely disassembled, then rebuilt on a site along Queen Victoria Street. As part of the new development, it has been returned to its original home and will open to the public in November 2017 as the London Mithraeum.

The project also includes a new entrance to Bank station, linking directly to the Waterloo and City line. This is due to open in December 2017.

Several additional restaurants will open in the coming months, including Ahi Poke, Koya, A.Wong, Brigadiers and EKTE.

Last Updated 25 October 2017