Having amused myself many times in Paris by hunting up the pieces of the old wall that Philippe Auguste built before he departed to the Holy Land on one of his Crusades, I set out one day to see how much remains of the wall the Romans built round London.
I discovered some bits of it, but I discovered a great many other things in the process. There is very little left of the city that the old Romans called Augusta and the older Britons Llyn-Din-that some say means “the Lake Fort “and some “The Hill by the Pool.” In the Guildhall and London museums there are statues and vases and ornaments and mosaic pavements belonging to those times, but in the city streets there are hardly any traces today of the Roman occupation. Watling Street, a piece of Roman road that still bears an AngloSaxon name, runs citywards from the back of St. Paul’s, but that may better be reached from Cheapside. Most of the Roman wall that remains is now below ground level. The best places to see what is visible are in St. Olave’s, Hart Street; at Trinity Place, Tower Hill; at Barber’s bonded warehouses in Cooper’s Row; and at The Roman Wall House at No. 1 Crutched Friars, a new building whose plans were altered by the Sadlers’ Company so as to preserve a good specimen of the old wall in one of the basement rooms.
I began my search for Roman remains in Strand Lane, which lies next door to the Strand station on the Holborn tube, and can be reached either by bus along the Strand or by District train to the Temple, whence you go uphill up Arundel Street and, turning to your left along the Strand, find it after two or three minutes’ walk. Half-way down the little winding passage that once led to the waterside there is on the left a dingy sign, “The Old Roman Bath.”
The English reputation for liking cold baths must have been a legacy from the Romans. Time was when the venerable cold spring bath was used daily. David Copperfield had many a cold plunge in it when he was living in Peter the Great’s house at the lower end of Buckingham Street. But now it is only open from ii to 12 on Saturday mornings to the very occasional visitor who turns aside to look at this 2,000-year-old relic of the London of the past.
As in the Frigidarium of the Cluny Museum in Paris, it seems as if one steps back into the world as Julius Caesar knew it, across the threshold into the little vaulted chamber where the waters from the spring, once famed for miraculous cures, flow through the marble walls of the identical bath used by our Roman conquerors. The Romans contented themselves with a brick lining that still exists under the marble slabs, but the latter have an interest of their own, for they came from the famous bath built in the Earl of Essex’s house near by, which Queen Bess herself is said to have been the first to use. The spring comes from the old Holy Well, that gave its name to Holywell Street, on the North side of the Strand, a street destroyed to make room for Kingsway and Aldwych.
There is’ a Roman bath of a different kind underneath the Coal Exchange in Lower Thames Street, but on your way to this from the Temple station (or bus 13 from the Strand), get out at Cannon Street, where in a sort of cage against the wall of St. Swithin’s Church, directly opposite the station, is the very oldest relic in the whole of the city of London,-London Stone, the stone that the Romans set up to mark the centre of the city; the starting point from whence they marked the miles along their branching highways. As long as history has been written in this land, there has been mention of London Stone. Do you remember how, in Henry VL, Shakespeare makes Jack Cade proclaim himself King of the City, striking his staff against the block? Once it was a big pillar and set on the other side of the way, but famous stones are seldom allowed to rest in peace, and time, the weather, and clumsy mediaeval cart-wheels have chipped and worn it to its present size.
Now take the train again, or another 13 bus, and go on to the Monument, where King William IV. stands on the very spot where Falstaff and Prince Hal made merry at the “Boar’s Head,”Eastcheap. Going down by the beautiful column which Sir Christopher Wren built to commemorate the Great Fire, hard by where it started in Pudding Lane, turn to your left in Lower Thames Street opposite the church of St. Magnus, and walk along this unattractive causeway till you come to the Coal Exchange with its Corinthian porch. You will find the porter through a door up the side-street of St. Mary-at-Hill. Do not go on Monday, Wednesday or Friday afternoons, for those are marketdays or whatever the correct term is on Coal Exchanges), and, as that most agreeable porter explained to me: “We found it didn’t do, Ma’am; for when the genelmen on the Exchange see me taking a lady or gentleman or it might be a party down below into the cellar, they naturally says to me ` What for? ‘ And when I say ` Roman bath,’ they say ` Roman bath, Jones! Did you say Roman bath? You don’t mean to say there’s a Roman bath below and me here forty years and never know it! ‘ And down they goes with all their friends, all equally surprised, and business gets neglected. That’s how it is, Ma’am.”
Business in the coal trade has been too much neglected for anyone to wish to hinder it further, so go on a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday afternoon. It is quite worth the exertion, for this hot-air or sweating chamber, with its fireblackened bricks, forming part of an elaborate system of baths, is even more interesting than the Roman bath in the Strand.
The Coal Exchange, with its curious rotunda floor of inlaid wood, was only built in the middle of the nineteenth century, but it has two more unexpected links with the past. I am indebted to Messrs. Thornbury and Walford for pointing out that the black oak used in the woodwork is part of a tree, four or five centuries old, that was discovered in the River Tyne, and the blade of a dagger in the shield of the City arms is made of wood from a mulberry tree that Peter the Great planted when he worked as a shipwright in Deptford Harbour.
Turning up St. Mary’s-at-Hill into Great Tower Street, I found, nearly opposite All Hallows, Barking, a prosperous merchant’s house still standing practically untouched, as it was built a year or two after the Great Fire. At No. 34, an ordinary-looking archway leads into a courtyard fronting a perfect example of the home of a wealthy citizen of Charles IL’s time. A flight of steps leads up to the doorway, from which you catch a glimpse of panelled walls and noble staircase. The counting-house is on the right, and upstairs are the living rooms where the merchant lived with his wife and family and servants, in the fashion of those times. They entertained, too, after the day’s work was done, for amongst the private papers still treasured here is one complaining of the excessive noise of carriages and coaches turning in the cobbled courtyard at night.
It is worth while pushing open the door of the fifteenth-century perpendicular church of All Hallows, Barking, just opposite, to see the Norman pillars and the fine brasses. The best one is in front of the litany desk, and in the corner to the right is a brass to the memory of William Thynne and his wife.
This is not the Thynne who has such a gruesome monument in Westminster Abbey, but a more worthy sixteenth-century ancestor, who was “chefe clerk of the Kechyn of Henry VIII.,”and who published the first edition of the entire works of Chaucer. Both of them are descendants of that John of the Inn whose soubriquet became the name of the Bath family. All Hallows gets its surname from the Abbess of Barking, the head of the seventh-century Benedictine convent of Barking. She was a powerful lady,-one of the four abbesses who was a baroness ex officio, and she held the lands of the king by a baronage, furnishing her share of men-at-arms. Only an old gateway of the Chapel of the Holy Rood, eight miles out of London by the Fenchurch Street railway, is left of the nunnery, but All Hallows, which was connected with it, survived the Great Fire and is still intact.
Turning your back on the old church, and walking up Seething Lane, where Pepys went to live in 1660 and kept his diary for nine years, you come to St. Olave’s Church on the corner of Hart Street, where his pretty young wife was buried. Church manners have vastly changed since Pepys’ day. When a bomb from an avion fell just outside the Verdun Cathedral one Sunday morning, two months before the big attack, no one turned his head except one little acolyte, who couldn’t resist a surreptitious grin at his comrade in the front pew. But listen to Pepys:
6 June, 1666. To our own church, it being the common Fastday, and it was just before sermon; but Lord! how a11 the people in the church stared upon me to see me whisper (the news of the victory over the Dutch at sea) to Sir John Minnes and my Lady Pen. Anon I saw people stirring and whispering below, and by and by comes up the sexton from my Lady Ford to tell me the news, which I had brought, being now sent into the church by Sir W. Batten in writing, and passed from pew to pew.
The church of St. Olave’s has a proud history. There are records of the parish in Henry I’s day, and in 1283 of a church dedicated to St. Olaf, an exiled Norwegian. The present building dates from about 1450. It is one of the eight existing churches that escaped the Great Fire.
The mid-Victorian Vandals who filled up the marble crypt, and removed the old galleries and square pews, with their candlesticks, have mercifully left the fine roof intact, and St. Olave’s possesses a number of quaint Elizabethan treasures. On the door there is one of the few remaining sanctuary knockers used by a fugitive from justice if he wanted to claim sanctuary protection: on four of the six bells in the church peal is engraved “Anthony Bartlet made mee 1662.”The crown on the weather vane is supposed to commemorate the visit of Queen Elizabeth in 1554 when she gave silken bell-ropes as a thank-offering for her release from the Tower, and on the front of the organ gallery are the wrought-iron hat-stands with which the clergy of those days emphasised their protest against men wearing their hats in church.
The beautifully wrought iron sword-stands are used to this day when the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs attend an official service at St. Olave’s. The old church has been intimately connected with the navy since the days when the Admiralty lodged in Mark Lane and Crutched Friars, and it is still the parish church of the Master and Brethren of Trinity House, who come humbly on foot, via Catherine Court and Seething Lane, to the annual special service on Trinity Sunday, H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, as Master, making his pilgrimage like the rest.
But for the ordinary visitor who has no part in these ceremonial happenings the great interest of St. Olave’s lies in the memories connected with its greatest parishioner, Samuel Pepys, Esq., Secretary to the Admiralty.
The fame of his Diary has rather obscured Pepys’ well-merited reputation as an admirable and faithful public servant at a time when these qualities were rare. He was living at the Navy Office in Seething Lane in 1666, and it is thanks to his sagacity in ordering all the workmen from the Royal Dockyards to blow up the intervening houses that St. Olave’s, Hart Street, Allhallows Staining, and Allhallows Barking were saved from the Great Fire.
Pepys and his pretty wife are both buried in their parish church of St. Olave’s. Mrs. Pepys died when she was only twenty-nine, and though he had teased the jealousy of “my wife, poor wretch,”Pepys ordered her bust to be carved, not in the usual profile, but with the lovely head turned so that he could see it from where he sat in his gallery pew on the other side of the church.
There are other interesting things to be seen at St. Olave’s : the doorway to the old churchyard that Dickens-lovers will recognise from his description in the Uncommercial Traveller, the carved pulpit and quaint vestry and several fine old monuments, and, as I mentioned before, part of the old Roman wall.
If you have no passion for discovering bits of ancient walls, there are other more beautiful things near the bottom of Seething Lane. One of them is very new, so new that when I saw it all the scaffolding had not been removed from the buildings at its base-I mean the great tower of the Port of London Authority. I hear that Sir Joseph E. Broodbank has just written a fascinating History of the Port of London, that will waken everyone who has three guineas to spare to the interest of London’s immense docks and the organisation that has power over seventy miles of the Thames. The beautiful tower of the new buildings, with its fine groups of statuary, is worth a special pilgrimage to see. It is not very far from Trinity House, that unique institution that, as Mr. Cunningham says, has for its object “the increase and encouragement of navigation, the regulation of lighthouses and sea marks, and the general management of matters not immediately connected with the Admiralty.”
The Guild of Trinity House was founded in 1529 by Sir Thomas Spert, Henry VIII’s Controller of the Navy and commander of the magnificent four-master, the Harry Grace de Dieu, which took the King to Calais on his way to the Field of the Cloth of Gold. You can see exactly what it looked like in the picture of Henry VIII’s embarkation at Dover that hangs in Hampton Court Palace.
One of the delusions I have had when hastening through the streets of London filled with excitement at the thought of seeing some ancient place associated with more colourful days than our own, was caused by Mr. Wagner’s enticing account of the Crooked Billet in his fascinating book on old London inns.
Alas, the Crooked Billet, at the eastern extremity of Tower Hill, has nothing left of its former magnificence. The panelled walls and carved chimney-pieces have been ruthlessly taken away,-some say to that bourne overseas whither pass so many treasures of the Old World it affects to despise. There is nothing left but the sordid dirty rooms of slum tenements, with here and there the remains of a fine ceiling and a few wall cupboards. The old building that was once a royal palace, and since the days of Henry VIII. has been a lordly inn, has fallen into the state of drab degradation that is the forerunner of the pick and shovel of the demolisseur. Only the rich facade remains to remind the passer-by of its vanished glories!