A History of London – free talk recording

Last week I did a Zoom talk for 40 or so people as a fundraiser for Prostate Cancer UK.

Called “a history of London in eight (and a bit) structures” it looks at bridges, churches, walls and other constructions, tracing the history of the city from the Romans through to the 21st century. On the way there are stories about the monarchy, the Reformation, the rise of parliamentary democracy and the growth of London as one of the great centres of trade. There are invasions, conquests, eccentrics, geniuses and some of the world’s most recognisable buildings.

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Londinium: a new place to see the capital’s Roman wall

vine street london roman wall

Typical, you wait ages for a post about Roman London, then three come along at once. After the Mithraeum and the Billingsgate bath house, here’s a bit about the wall that the Romans built around their city.

Right by Tower Hill station there is an extant section of the Roman wall, a few dozen metres of the colossal building project that encompassed the whole of the city of Londinium on the north bank of the Thames.

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Londinium: the Billingsgate Roman Bath House

billingsgate roman bth house - caldarium hypocaust

Dig a hole in the City of London and a few metres down you will hit Londinium, the original city, because before the Romans there seems to have been no major settlement.

For nearly 400 years from around 45CE this was a major Roman centre, and although it declined from the late 2nd century onwards (and was destroyed at least twice, the first time in 60CE by Boudicca, and then by a huge fire around 125) it boasted temples, a forum (the biggest north of the Alps), a governor’s palace, nearly 4km of wall, an amphitheatre that could 6,000 spectators and, because the Romans loved bathing, a number of bath houses.

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The Mithraeum: The City of London’s Roman Temple


Under the Bloomberg European headquarters building in the City is the ‘London Mithraeum’, a glimpse into an obscure part of Roman London.

Obscure not just because many of the rituals of the cult/religion of Mithras are unknown to us – these rituals were communicated from initiates to novices by speech and example rather than being written – but also because Mithraic temples were underground, dark spaces emulating caves, where the mysteries of the cult were revealed.

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The crypt museum in All Hallows by the Tower

Fight your way through the crowds surrounding the Tower of London and you might just make it through to one of London’s oldest churches.

All Hallows by the Tower seems to be able to trace its foundation back to 675CE, when Erkenwald, the bishop of London, created it as a chapel of the Abbey of Barking, whose abbess was his sister Ethelburga. (This is why the church is sometimes known as ‘All Hallows Barking’.)

It has, as one might imagine, a rich history. Pepys climbed its tower to see the destruction wrought by the Great Fire; the sixth president of the USA, John Quincey Adams, was married here; the church saw the baptism of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. All Hallows is the guild chapel of the international Christian organisation ‘Toc H’, founded by a previous vicar of the church Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton.

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Cleary Gardens – one of the City’s ‘Pocket Parks’

With so much noise and traffic in the City it’s sometimes nice to take a bit of time out. And that’s what places like Cleary Gardens attempt to provide – a little spot of tranquility among the roar and bustle of the Square Mile.

There are over 200 open spaces within the City, managed by the City Gardens Team, and the Corporation also owns huge areas of open space outside central London – Epping Forest for example, Hampstead Heath, Ashtead, Kenley and Coulsdon commons. The City of London principally funds these spaces through its ‘City Cash’ funds, with other revenue coming from donations, sponsorship and visitors.

And they’re not just for people of course. The City’s open spaces are planted to encourage bio-diversity, insects and birds. Blue tits and sparrows nest in the buddleia of Cleary Gardens, with greenfinches, robins and blackbirds being other frequent visitors.

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