Previously Posted: A gated community

For those new to CabbieBlog or readers who are slightly forgetful, on Saturdays I’m republishing posts, many going back over a decade. Some will still be very relevant while others have become dated over time. Just think of this post as your weekend paper supplement.

A gated community (09.03.2010)

“What has the Romans done for us?” asked Michael Palin in the film The Life of Brian.

Well, for us Londoners the Romans have given us Londinium one of the earliest of their settlements on the banks of the Thames and no doubt gave us a Latin version of Estuary English [Estuario Latino]. The Romans also gave us a rather fine wall with four gates and a fort to protect Londinium which nestled within, and which was surprisingly small at about 330 acres.

They built their city on the north bank of the Thames and judged they wouldn’t need a defence along the river’s edge, as who would want to come from Sarf London, so the wall was more of a two mile curve than an enclosure.

It was probably Queen Boudica who made up their minds to build a defensive wall after she razed Londinium to the ground in AD60, after they assaulted her daughters and stole their land, anyway after much discussion, much like councils of today, they had the wall completed by about AD140.

Starting from where the Tower of London now stands it ran north from the river and as they feared Essex Man more than any other at least 20 bastions were added at a distance of about 60 yards apart along this section.

The first gate is Aldgate (“Old Gate”), as its name implies was one of the earliest to be built, leading as it did to the Roman road to East Anglia, via Colchester and beyond to the feared Essex Man.

The wall heads off in a north-westerly direction and the deep ditch which protected its outer flank had a rather novel use along this stretch and became known as Hounds ditch from the number of dead dogs left there to rot. Now only the street of Houndsditch marks this rather quaint custom.

At the end of the ditch of dead dogs was Bishop Gate, built by the Bishop of London. This saintly prelate used to exact a toll of one piece of wood from all the carts loaded with timber coming into the City by way of his gate, God knows what he did with all that lumber.

The wall was about 6-9ft wide and about 18ft high, with probably a catwalk along the top. It is obvious from the different bondings used in the various sections which remain that a number of building gangs were used in the erection of the wall. As London had no quarries of its own, the materials used had to be brought in from outside “squared-off” Kentish ragstone formed the inner and outer faces of the wall while concrete and rubble filled in the centre. Every few feet in height one, two or three rows of Roman tiles were used as a bond before proceeding with the next 3 or 4 feet.

A small section of the wall between these two gates can be found at the end of London Wall showing the upper part of the Roman wall, with the medieval walling on top capped by Tudor brickwork.

We now encounter a dog leg at Cripplegate which led into the fort which stood on the site before the wall was built and which necessitated the need to build around it. Although it was called a gate, it only went into the fort about this time.

We now head off in a western direction, but somewhere there was an underground passage. For the name cripplegate is derived from crepel, an Anglo-Saxon word for den or underground passage. Once the City gates were closed for the night, after the curfew bells had been rung, it was impossible to get into the City through any of the gateways. So after a night out on the tiles you could stagger into the City after proving your identity through this tunnel, just don’t bump your head if you have had a few.

We have now reached the most famous of all gates; Newgate which has become synonymous with the prison that started in the rooms over the entrance at a later date. This was the entry from the important Roman road that ran to Silchester and Bath. Incidentally the last public hanging took place here in May 1868, after that Londoner’s had to entertain themselves.

The wall now leads south towards the river and half way along its length is Ludgate. In old English ludgeat means “postern” or “back doorway”, so presumably this was the City’s back door.

The Roman did not, as a rule, bury their dead within the precincts of a city, but almost invariably by the side of a road. So beyond this last section of wall on the City’s western flank was a cemetery about where Fleet Street heads away from the Square Mile.

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