London's Best Walking Tours: Roman London

By Londonist Last edited 28 months ago

Last Updated 15 March 2022

London's Best Walking Tours: Roman London

A series on some of London's best walking tours. This time, we speak to Hazel Beale, Claudia Colia, Guy Fairbank, Kim Lovell, Ian McDowell, Muhsin Mustafa and Judy Stephenson — who do City Guides' Roman London tours.

You're never too young to learn about ancient history. © Niki Gorick

Describe your Roman London walk!

Hazel: We show you the layout of the streets of London and how to follow the line taken by the Roman wall 2000 years ago. We visit the site of Roman baths in what is now Cleary Gardens. We make our way to the Mithras temple, where there’s a display of Roman objects found by Museum of London archaeologists. We venture to Guildhall Art Gallery to visit the remains of the Roman amphitheatre. Finally we make our way to the Museum of London — on the way we peer over the wall in Noble Street at a fragment of Roman turret built into the Roman fort.

The Romans introduced as to 'adult' entertainment, like gladiatorial fights. This was a reconstruction at Guildhall in 2017. © Guildhall

What did the Romans ever do for us?

Ian: One of the things the Romans brought with them was a talent for 'adult' entertainment. Gladiatorial contests, held in London's very own amphitheatre, involved shocking levels of violence. Other forms of entertainment took place behind closed doors. The Roman Bathhouse on Lower Thames Street (available as a separate visit from the Roman Walk) could well have been one of London's first "houses of ill repute", where weary marchers from farflung places like Colchester would have been provided with a range of "comforts".

Claudia: Tacitus tells us that Londinium was full of 'negotiatores': basically it was full of bankers and businessmen. So the Romans brought business and merchandise, shaping Londinium as the city we know today.

The site of today's Guildhall was once the heart of Londinium. © Niki Gorick

The most surprising thing people learn on the tour?

Claudia: Londinium is only seven metres below street level and there is a striking continuity with the present City, with significant public buildings and streets still within the older alignment.

Hazel: Visitors often ask what is the difference between London's Metropolitan Police and the City of London Police. One difference is the helmets they wear: City of London police wear a crested helmet shaped in the Roman style, a reminder of the Roman legacy that still lingers on in our metropolis after 2,000 years.

Chunks of Roman wall are dotted around the City. © Niki Gorick

What do you get asked the most (and what's the answer)?

Judy: "Were the Romans from Rome?" The Roman army was made up of soldiers from across the Roman Empire. Most of the Romans invading Britain were from Gaul, but also from Italy and Spain — even North Africa and the Middle East. So London’s been a multicultural city for 2000 years.

The remains of the Roman amphitheatre are a highlight of the tour. © Niki Gorick

What's the most impressive surviving Roman bit of London?

Hazel: The most impressive piece of Roman London, for me, is the chunk of Roman wall surviving in the underground car park near the Barbican. Most of it was demolished for road widening and building the car park, but a splendid section remains. I sometimes add this on as an extra after the end of the 'official' walk, and it is invariably this bit that visitors like best, because, as they say, they would never have known it existed before.

Muhsin: The Roman amphitheatre. Most people have no idea that London still has an amphitheatre below an art gallery — both are two of London’s little known gems.

The Temple of Mithras — another subterranean Roman gem. © MOLA

If you had to choose one stop, what is it?

Judy: The piece of wall near the church of St Anne & St Agnes: it shows so clearly the lack of reverence with which these remains were incorporated into 18th century buildings; you have the square fort as opposed to the round medieval one in Barber Surgeons' garden, which we also see on the walk.

The Bloomberg shows off a wealth of Roman finds. © Guy Fairbank

Who are the heroes and heroines of Roman London?

Ian: You had to be a bit of a hero, or heroine, to live in Roman London. While the rich lived it up, the nasty Roman niff that archeologists found preserved in a rubbish tip under the Bloomberg building is the smell many Romans would have lived with all their lives. And if you stepped out of line, or followed the wrong religion, you could have ended up being eaten by wild animals. In public.

On the other hand, tablets unearthed at Bloomberg reveal London offered great opportunities to borrow money, and trade, so with hard work and a head for business you might have ended up at the top of society rather than the bottom.

London before the skyscrapers. © Guy Fairbank

Your favourite thing about doing these walks?

Guy: Seeing the surprised looks on the faces of the clients when you show them a part of ancient London they never knew existed. We just love taking people around the City of London!

Book a Roman London tour on the City Guides website. They also do daily tours, covering such themes as the Great Fire of London, City churches, Fleet Street, and London's bloody past.