By Elizabeth Scott, Head of Guildhall Art Gallery and London’s Roman Amphitheatre
As we finally approach the summer and cross our fingers for some sunshine, it’s a good time to get out and about to explore our wonderful city. To help you on the way, I’d like to share my top three suggestions for historic tours which are both fun and educational.
1) The birth of London
Let’s start at the very beginning, well around AD 43 actually, when Londinium (Roman London) was founded. Like Rome and many other Italian cities, you can’t stick a spade in the ground in the City of London without finding Roman remains – okay, that may be an exaggeration but it’s partly true! However you don’t need to go underground to come into contact with over 2000 years of history.
The Roman city covered the area of the City of London and at its height, around AD 120, Londinium was home to about 45,000 people, making it the largest city in Britain at the time. From AD 200 the boundary and shape of the city was marked by a massive wall, it largely remained unchanged for 1700 years and remnants of it can still be seen today dotted around the City of London.
One of my favourites is the section of Roman wall at Tower Hill, located in the garden to the east of the Tower Hill underpass. This is one of the tallest surviving fragments of the wall, standing at 10 metres high, the Roman sections are still visible at its base.
You can also choose to go underground to see some Roman remains too. Up until the 1980s it was believed that Londinium didn’t have an amphitheatre as there were no remains to be found. This all changed, when in 1985, during the redevelopment of the Guildhall Art Gallery, archaeologists made an astonishing discovery that changed the face of Roman London. The remains showed that within 30 years of establishing the city the Romans had constructed a wooden amphitheatre which was later recreated in stone.
The discovery suggests that more than 7,000 spectators would have sat on tiered wooden benches in the open air to watch wild animal fights, gladiatorial combat and the execution of criminals. The City of London decided to integrate the remains into its proposals for a new Art Gallery and today visitors can walk amongst the surviving remains which include a stretch of the stone entrance tunnel, east gate, and arena walls.
The City of London has a self-guided walk on Roman London which can be downloaded here. London’s Roman Amphitheatre is located in the Guildhall Art Gallery. Admission is free.
2) Underground spectacles
London Underground is the oldest metro system in the world (it opened in 1863) and it is also one of the busiest. Furthermore, it has some of the best examples of design and architecture in the capital, and dare I say it, the world.
There are two underground lines in particular where a pilgrimage to explore the architecture is an afternoon well spent. In my opinion, the most fascinating parts are the stations on the Piccadilly line extension to the north and west of London, designed by architect, Charles Holden in the 1930s, and the stations on the Jubilee Line extension, designed by various architects in the 1990s.
The Piccadilly line stations (Manor House – Cockfosters) are considered to be some of Holden’s best work. Following a tour of Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, Holden adapted the architectural styles he had seen to create functional designs composed of simple forms: cylinders, curves and rectangles. Several of the stations won awards when they were first opened, and today they are still revered as wonderfully modern, simple, iconic designs.
The stations of the Jubilee Line Extension (Westminster – Stratford) are feats of engineering and innovative architecture. Designed by a number of leading architects, each station is unique but is also linked by a common design philosophy, notably in the colour palette of grey and silver and the use of metal and concrete. The stations are vast and their interiors stark in a truly beautiful way.
So grab your Oyster card and travel these lines, alight at each stop and take a look at the stations inside and out.
3) Great gardens and legal minds
Amongst the hustle and bustle of London sits the Inns of Court which offer visitors a slice of serenity and the opportunity to enter a time capsule of cobbled streets and picturesque buildings and gardens. There are four Inns of Court (Inner, Middle, Lincoln’s and Gray’s), which are self-contained grounds where barristers traditionally train and practice and where today judges and barristers still work, study and sometimes live.
The Inns are enchanted spaces and you would be forgiven for thinking you are not allowed to enter, however the public are free to roam around the grounds (although each Inn has rules on which buildings you can enter). The Inns date back to the 14th century. Lincoln’s Inn is the largest at 11 acres and is known for its large garden and library which date back to 1422. Middle Temple was the headquarters for the Knights Templar and is famous for its historic buildings and gas street lamps.
So why not step just off the beaten track and explore the tranquillity just around the corner. You can check each Inn’s website for details and opening times: Inner Temple, Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple, Gray’s Inn.
I hope you can find time to try at least one of these suggestions. Don’t forget to tell us how you get on by sharing pictures and comments on Apples & Pears’ social media channels.
Have a great summer!