Sunday, 7 October 2012

Exploring prehistoric London

Massively off-topic and absolutely nothing to do with home education, but here by special request are a couple of self-guided walks which explore prehistoric London. They cover places that you will seldom find mentioned in tourist guides! If anybody is interested and wishes to email me, I can supply a few others.

The ritual landscape of Greenwich

We begin this walk from Greenwich High Road, which is a short walk from the Docklands railway station of Cutty Sark. We walk first up Croom's Hill, along the side of Greenwich Park. This is a very old road indeed. Croom in old Celtic meant crooked and the road does bend and twist as it ascends. The suggestion has been made that the Celtic name makes this the oldest road in Britain still in use. At the top of the hill, we veer right into Cade Road and then carry on along Shooters Hill, until we reach a small road on the right called Point Hill. On the left is Blackheath, a grassy common. Walking down Point Hill will reveal to our left a small area of grass, enclosed by railings, which is known locally as The Point. Until the nineteenth century, the Point was known as Maidenstone Hill. It is part of the chalk escarpment which runs from Shooters Hill towards London. Watling Street, the Roman Road from Canterbury to London ran along this ridge of high ground, before descending to Southwark. This is also the route of a Celtic track which ran from Canterbury to St Albans. The Point is a curious place. According to some of the more fanciful works on early London, a stone circle once stood here, but there is not a scrap of evidence for such a thing. The view of London across the nearby rooftops is spectacular. We are in effect standing on the edge of a cliff here; an unusual experience indeed in London!

Beneath the ground here is the series of caves known as Jack Cade's caverns or Blackheath caverns. These are almost certainly of prehistoric origin and were discovered accidentally in 1780. Photographs taken inside, when they were reopened briefly in 1938, indicate that they are a Dene Hole. These bell shaped caves are found throughout South east England and these caves are fairly typical examples. Dene Holes were dug in chalk in prehistoric times, chiefly in Kent. They were probably chalk mines; the chalk being used to improve the quality of agricultural land. Flint can also be obtained from chalk mines and it is perhaps the case that these caves provided both these very useful materials. These caves are unusual in that they contain both a well and also a carving on the wall of a horned god, possibly Cernnunos. A similar, but much smaller, carved chalk image of a goddess was found in Grime's Graves, a chalk mine in Norfolk. There has been extensive mining for chalk in this area, right up to modern times. A consequence of this is that the appearance of large holes in roads is not unknown. Because even so functional an activity as mining was seen in a religious context during the Bronze Age, it is by no means impossible that this site was used for worship as well as the extraction of minerals.

We retrace our steps now and enter Greenwich Park by the Croom's Hill Gate, which is on our right as we head back down Croom's Hill. The path ahead leads to grass, with a few trees scattered here and there. Unless one knew what to look for, it would be entirely possible to miss one of the most interesting pieces of London's ritual landscape which may still be seen more or less as it was created. On either side of the path are hillocks and bumps in the grass. Close examination reveals that these are round, like inverted saucers. In fact these are round barrows; burial mounds from the Bronze Age. Actually, they are even more interesting than that. These early Bronze Age barrows, which were dug in the chalk, were reused over a thousand years later by the Saxons. Greenwich is a Saxon settlement and they obviously recognised the barrows here as a burial ground. This is yet another example of continuity of use of a sacred place. The Saxons who first came to this country were not Christians.

At first glance, these barrows or tumuli do not look at all impressive. They are though only the last remaining examples of what was once a huge chain of these monuments stretching from Kent to London. Others are still scattered in odd locations within a few miles of these ones. A little west of Greenwich, near Woolwich Common, is the only surviving barrow of a group of seven. The others were razed during building work some years ago. It is to be found at the junction of Shrewsbury Lane and Brinklow Crescent. A mile away on Winn's Common lies another tumulus, almost invisible in the shaggy grass.

The barrows in Greenwich Park must have looked startling at one time. Because of the geology of this area, one does not need to dig deep before striking chalk. These mounds were perhaps shining white when first completed and would have been visible for miles around. We continue walking towards the building ahead, which is a planetarium. Skirting round this and carrying on in the same direction, we pass the bandstand on our right, before coming to a small area enclosed by iron railings. This is all that remains of the Romano-Celtic temple complex which once dominated the road to Londinium. All that now remains is a small block of mortar with brick tesserae embedded in it. At one time, it was thought that this might have been a Roman villa, but the discovery of coins and parts of a statue have shown it to have been a temple. The arm of a female figure holding a long, rod like object have been found here. The best guess is that this was a cult figure of Diana, goddess of the hunt. This shrine was the first building which one would encounter when arriving at Londinium from Canterbury or Dover. The road which runs alongside the park here, in the opposite direction from which we came, is called Maze Hill. There was once a turf maze here, traces of which may be seen when the grass is parched. If we walk back to the planetarium and turn right, the hills by the Royal Observatory will lead back to Greenwich High Road and the station.

From the source of the Walbrook to the Thames

We start this walk at Shoreditch High Street railway station. Leaving the station, we walk along Bethnal Green Road, taking the third turning on the left, Club Row, which takes us to the site of Friars' Mount, which is now the large, circular garden called Arnold Circus.

There is something of a mystery about this public garden. The Walbrook rises from several sources a little to the North of the City of London. In prehistoric times, this was all marshland and the name of the Moorgate district reflects this. One of the principle springs which merged to become the Walbrook, started near St Leonard's church in Shoreditch. In addition to the spring itself, there were two other notable features in this part of London. One was a sacred well; the so-called Holy Well. This well gave its name to the Augustinian priory which was founded nearby in what is now Holywell lane. The Holywell priory was built on the site of the original holy well, almost certainly a case of the Christian church appropriating a pre-existing sacred site. Near to the well was an artificial mound called simply The Mount. It later became known as Friars' Mount, by association with the monastery. The Mount was probably another example of a Tot Hill such as was raised on Thorney Island and it may or may not still exist.

In the late nineteenth century, this part of Shoreditch had become a slum know as the Old Nichol. It covered much of the area between Old Street and Brick Lane and had become so notorious as a rookery or slum district that eventually it was swept away in a huge development of houses and flats for the working classes. Much of this redevelopment centred upon the site of Friars' Mount and a public garden was planted where Friars' Mount once stood. This garden is still there; it is called Arnold Circus and it is where we now stand. It will be seen at once that the garden at Arnold Circus is in fact a large mound; it is about fifteen feet high. Alfred Watkins believed this to be the original prehistoric mound of Friars' Mount and incorporated it into one of his Ley Lines. There is however some doubt as to whether this is really the remains of Friars' Mount at all. During a dig in 2009, the Museum of London discovered that a good deal of this mound was composed of rubble from the demolition of the Old Nichol slum. The suspicion was that it had all been piled into a heap and then planted with trees and flowers. In short, far from being a pre-Roman mound, this was no more than a massive Victorian rubbish dump!

There is a question mark about this explanation though, which seems to leave open the possibility that part at least of the garden at Arnold Circus is genuinely ancient. If thousands of old bricks, pieces of old tile, and cartloads of builders' rubble were to be piled fifteen feet high and a layer of gravel spread over the heap, it would not really be a fertile environment for planting trees and bushes, nor for establishing flower beds. And yet, as may readily be seen by glancing around, this mound seems to be covered with tress and bushes. In the centre of the garden, where there is a tarmac surface and a bandstand, there may well be some nineteenth century hardcore, but the bulk of the mound is made up of earth.

It might be unwise to attach to much attention to the legends and lore of primary school children, but before undertaking their excavation, Museum of London staff asked local residents how much they knew about the raised garden. Children in nearby flats believed that an ancient king was buried beneath the mound with a hoard of treasure! Far fetched as it might be, one is tempted to wonder if this could be a genuine folk memory of a barrow grave. Still with the lore of schoolchildren, something like a taboo is attached to this mound. There is a school nearby and plenty of families, but one never sees children playing here. Some parents do not like the place and forbid their children to enter the garden.

Whatever its origins, there is something a little other worldly about the Arnold Circus garden. There is certainly nothing like it anywhere else in London and it is hard to avoid the suspicion that this might indeed be the remains of some sort of mound dating from before the Roman occupation. It is by no means inconceivable that the slums of Old Nichol were built over Friars' Mount, which was revealed once more during the demolition.

Leaving Arnold Circus by Calvert Avenue, we arrive at Shoreditch High Street and then turn left. The church on our right, just before we turn into the High Street, is St Leonard's. This is one of the churches whose bells feature in the nursery rhyme, Oranges and Lemons. We are now heading South along the route of Ermine Street, a major Roman Road which led from London to Lincoln. The fourth turning on the right is Holywell Lane, where the priory used to be. The Holy Well itself was also somewhere in this vicinity. There can be little doubt that this area once formed part of the ritual landscape to the North of the Thames. A prehistoric mound, a holy well, boggy land and a spring all suggest this. When we see that a Christian religious house has been built over the top of this spot and the very name of the holy well adopted by the church, this practically clinches the matter. Walking down towards the City of London, we come first to Shoreditch and the Bishopsgate. The Walbrook runs alongside to our right, flowing under Liverpool Street Station. The area around the station was a huge Roman graveyard which lay just North of Londinium and stretched as far as Spitalfields. In 1999, an elaborate Roman coffin was found there.

Shortly after passing Liverpool Street Station on the right, we come to Camomile Street on the left and Wormwood Street on the right, which leads on to London Wall. This was where Ermine Street left Londonium. There was a gate in the city wall at this point. We turn right at this point into Wormwood street and walk along until we rejoin the Walbrook as it flowed under the wall at Moorgate. It was near here that many skulls were recovered from the bed of the river in the nineteenth century. In addition to human skulls, many face pots have also been found in the valley of the Walbrook. Almost all the complete examples known come from this area. Turning left into Moorgate, we walk above the course of the river towards the Bank of England. When we reach Lothbury we turn left and find the church of St Margaret's Lothbury. The vaults of this church were built over the Walbrook. Crossing the road, we arrive at the Bank of England, We are now in the valley of the Walbrook and the river still flows beneath our feet. During building works at the Bank of England, the Walbrook was seen flowing beneath the basement. Across the road is Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London. This too sits immediately above the course of the Walbrook, another curious instance of important buildings in the capital being located above old rivers.

Leading East is Cornhill, which was one of the two hills upon which Roman London was founded. The basilica was on Cornhill, it is now buried beneath Leadenhall Market. In the opposite direction, Cheapside points the way to Ludgate Hill. On the bank of the Walbrook near here stood a temple dedicated to Mithras. Mithraism, which had its roots in Persia, was a religion popular with Roman soldiers. Curiously, it was very much concerned with the death of a horned animal, a bull, whose sacrificial blood brought salvation. We have encountered this motif of the horned animal so often, that it should not really come as a surprise that a cult in London had at its heart the death of a bull. When this temple was discovered during building work in 1954, it created a sensation. Crowds queued for hours in order to view the archaeological site. It was hoped to preserve the building in situ, but this proved impossible. It was moved a few hundred yards to Victoria Street, which runs South West from Mansion House. It is worth visiting; the only temple to be excavated in the city.

Walking a few yards down Victoria Street brings us to the temple of Mithras on the left. Although this is the only temple discovered in London, there is a suspicion that the lower valley of the Walbrook near here was a religious area, with the banks of the stream being perhaps lined with temples and shrines.

Returning to mansion House, we walk down Walbrook. This street runs parallel with the river, which is about a hundred yards to the right and heading in the same direction that we are. Half way along this street on the right hand side was where the temple of Mithras was originally found. When we reach Cannon Street, we pause for a moment. To the right, there is a perceptible dip in cannon Street, marking the place where the river crosses the street towards the Thames. It is very easy to see when looking up and down Cannon Street that this is a river valley. We turn left and walk up Cannon Street for a short distance. Set in the wall of an empty shop is an unremarkable piece of white stone This is the London Stone and it has a very long history. According to some legends, this is part of an altar to Diana from a temple built by the Trojan prince Brutus which supposedly stood on Ludgate Hill. A more probably theory is that it is a Roman milestone, from which distances to the city were measured. What is certain is that it has been a part of the London scene for at least a thousand years and possibly twice as long.

We retrace our steps and cross Walbrook, heading for the dip in the road which marks the course of the Walbrook. We cross Cannon Street and then walk into Cloak Lane. 'Cloak' is a corruption of the Latin Cloaca, meaning sewer, which gives us an idea of how the Walbrook was treated by the time that it had reached this far in its journey to the Thames. If we walk to the Thames embankment, it is possible actually to see the Walbrook discharging into the Thames about a hundred yards to the West of Cannon Street railways Station. It is only possible to see this at low tide. We can now walk back to Cannon Street tube and railway station.


  1. Always arguing here7 October 2012 at 05:01

    I'm going to have to buy your book now Simon. We live quite close to Greenwich, and I fully intend to take my son on an outing next week and use your guide to explore the history of the area. I had no idea there was so much, although of course, I knew Henry VIII had a place on the Thames river bank. It will be a great adventure! I'm really looking forward to it.

  2. I'm afraid I must disagree with you, Simon. Education resources are always on topic when discussing home education! A very interesting and useful post.

  3. Fascinating. I can see a trip to London ahead.

  4. Thank you very much for the great list and I appreciate your efforts to bring such a huge list for us. I really appreciate posts, which might be of very useful. I look forward to future updates. Once again thanks. Keep smiling. Bio Sanjaya | Les Privat | Hasil Prediksi