Billingsgate Roman House and Baths review
This is the closest you're going to get to a time machine. Considering that the Romans lived here for 350 years and built us a forum, fort, basilica, baths, and even a little amphitheatre, I've always found it rather disappointing that there's so little of it left. If you want to see what remains of Roman London nowadays then you usually have to file down a flight of stairs where you'll be lucky to find a few bits of brick and maybe the shape of a drain. Roman London is under London. And if you want to see it then that's where you have to go.
The office block that this one is hiding under always seems deserted when you walk up to the front door. Then you have to stand in a little waiting pen until the rest of your time-slot group turns up (there's always somebody who turns up five minutes late). Then the guide crowds you around a Roman street map that has been blu-tacked to a filing cabinet and gives you a potted history of the city.
She'll explain that Billingsgate Bath House dates back to the year 200 AD when London was just 160 years old. The Tower of London didn't exist in those days, of course, and neither did the coffee shops and office blocks along Lower Thames Street, but that's where a rich old Roman decided to build himself three wings around a courtyard. Then he installed some underfloor heating, put in a bath, maybe a few mosaics... who knows... the archaeologists are just guessing for some of it because not all of it survives.
The guide will then lead you round and describe the layout of the building. You have to take her word for it in the east wing because it looks more like a bomb site after the Blitz, but the north wing is very well preserved with all the ruined rooms of the bath-house: there's a cold room (frigidarium), warm room (tepidarium) and a hot room (caldarium), plus a water cistern and piles of hypocaust tiles that held up the floor, and even some little tunnels which connected the underfloor heating to the furnace.
The archaeologists think that the house was completed sometime in the 3rd-century and carried on standing for another two hundred years after that. Once the Romans packed up and returned to Italy it fell into overgrown ruins and got swallowed up in the riverside rubbish. A Saxon lady then stumbled across it after the roof crashed down because she dropped her brooch amongst the debris.
It's hard to wrap your head just around how old it all is... just think about it for a minute. When Londinium was abandoned to a jungle of overgrown weeds and trees, it would be another six hundred years before William the Conqueror even started work on the Tower of London next-door. Then another six centuries passed before the Great Fire of London levelled everything up to St. Paul's. Wind time on another three hundred years and you'd have seen the Luftwaffe dropping bombs on it, and seventy years after that it's locked inside the basement of an office block. That's how much history has passed since a rich Roman was living in this house.
I’ve been here before…
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