Billingsgate Roman House & Baths review
I don't normally get up early on a Sunday morning... I didn't even know that Sunday morning existed. But they are opening up an interesting little place today so I thought I'd go and check it out.
[Note: It's unlikely to be open whilst you're reading this -- because it's literally just a couple of dates every year. If you want to go then you need to keep an eye on the events page at the Museum of London: museumoflondon.org.uk/london-wall/whats ... gy-events/.]
I have always found it a bit of a shame that we didn't take more care of our Roman remains. I blame Boudicca and Adolf Hitler. If they hadn't come along and burnt it all down then we could still have our wall, the forum, basilica and amphitheatre. But all we've got left are bits and pieces of the wall, a few disappointing blocks from the amphitheatre (in the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery) and whatever they've managed to salvage for the Museum of London. There's supposed to be a Temple to Mithras down Queen Victoria Street, but I have never actually seen it myself. It's been boarded up behind wooden walls for the last few years, whilst they construct another modern office block behind. So that will probably end up in a city basement too. The closest you can get to ancient Italy these days is a skip full of battered old boxes round the back of Pizza Express. I suppose there's 'Little Venice' as well -- that sounds quite Italian. But that's about as Italian as a pair of chopsticks.
One hour later... well that was interesting. I've been inside and seen it now. It was housed inside a very boring office block, maybe the blandest building in the city. When you go inside you have to sign your name in the book and then they give you a quick little talk about how it was discovered, and then you all troop down the concrete stairs in anticipation. Before that happened though, I experienced a nice little moment of Britishness, which wasted away ten minutes of my life. This probably wouldn't happen anywhere else in the world... Just before the talk ended one guy went and stood by the doorway, and started reading his leaflet. And then we all filed in behind him, thinking that he was starting a queue. Ten minutes later someone finally plucked up the courage to ask him if he was going down to have a look, and of course he wasn't, so we were all queuing up for nothing. What a load of sheep!
The remains are a good ten-feet below street level, which shows you how much rubbish has piled up in two thousand years. It feels like the cupboard door to Narnia when you're walking down the stairs -- a portal to the ancient world. What treasures will you find down there? What will you see? Will there be gladiators? Roman statues and mosaics? Maybe a few pastel scenes painted on the wall?
Er... no. What you find when you enter the gloomy chamber is a pile of broken bricks and stones, with a load of wooden planks for pathways, and metal poles and scaffolding strung up around the sides. On the back wall are a load of cardboard boxes stacked up on the shelves, presumably filled with bits of busted debris. It's basically like a building site, with a few bright lights on the ceiling. In fact, if I stumbled across this place on a walk around London then I'd just assume that it was an abandoned building project. To my untrained eye it doesn't even look old. There are no mosaics or anything like that. Apparently there is a furnace, a hypocaust, hot room, warm room and cold room on show. But the walls are very low-level and the rooms are hard to pick out from your solitary vantage point. It's amazing that the archaeologists can even work out what they're looking at.
The most interesting thing for me was a little Saxon brooch that they found amongst the collapsed roof tiles. Apparently a 5th-century bloke was rooting around the remains of this 1st-century bathhouse, and dropped his little bit of bling. So he was exactly like us: having a nose around the already ancient remains, to see what he could see. I wonder if he got up early on Sunday morning too.
I know it's free to get in, but come on guys! If they tidied it up a bit then they could have a nice little museum piece here, and charge a few quid to see it. But if you're not a history buff then it's basically just a quick half-hour and back home on the bus.
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