The Shard Stands Out in the Nighttime London Landscape

From Londinium To The Shard – And Everything In Between


“Micky, I need help quickly! Can you think of an ancient or at least medieval place that I can take a small group of tourists to visit near the Shard? I have thirty minutes before they finish taking pictures. Need quick ideas. Kisses, Sis.”

Before we continue, let me say I hate being called Micky, and one of the two people who can come away with it is Sis – a.k.a my older sister Helen. This single SMS is why I decided to create The London Traveler – or rather, the catalyst. When I received it, I was at the Tower Hill Gardens, drawing the remnants of the Roman London wall. If drawing is a frustrating hobby (I have never been quite able to master it), ancient history is a lifelong passion. Sitting a few yards away from the fortifications, built more than eighteen centuries ago by my favourite ancient civilisation, was a huge thrill. I’ve never been able to understand why the London Wall is so greatly underrated, and my only explanation is that many Londoners and visitors to the city are not even aware of its existence. 

London Eye

Apart from being my protective older sister, Helen is a busy travel guide. But if I can talk for hours about Roman Britain, Vindolanda, the Saxon invasion and the coming of the Vikings, she is an expert on the most modern and glitzy landmarks in London (like the world-famous London Eye, for example). I was not surprised at all that she had taken her group to the Shard – after all, who could resist the chance to take a shot of the London skyline from birdseye view? I didn’t have to think twice before I sent her a message back, tipping her to take her tourists (it turned out they were Japanese) to the Tower Hill Garden and the London Wall. After all, the two landmarks are barely a mile away from each other, and if you choose to take the walk, you will have to cross one of the two most iconic bridges over the Thames – either Tower or London Bridge. 

With our brief message exchange done, I could go back to my drawing. But my inspiration had slipped away, and instead, I was in a contemplative mood. I couldn’t think of a better dichotomy to describe London than the Roman wall near The Tower and the Shard across the river. Eighteen centuries and at least four civilisations separated them, yet they were just a bridge apart. In between and around them, history has woven one of the most astounding urban chronicles in the world. 

Roman Londinium

London, or Londinium, was founded by the Romans in the mid-1st century AD – whether at the time of the Claudian invasion or shortly after, it is beside the point. The Romans, with their keen eye for strategic locations and trade, immediately recognised the advantages of the site – easy riverine access to the Channel and the Continent beyond, dominating the fords of the Thames and the main transport link on the central south-north axis of the island. Soon, Londinium was a thriving commercial entrepot and asserted its natural position as the capital of Roman Britain. It is no surprise, then, that the local military governors decided to erect massive ramparts protecting the burgeoning city on the Thames, probably in the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD (by this time, Londinium had a population of at least 50,000 people). It must have been the same logic that accounted for the building of the much more famous Hadrian Wall – the Roman realisation that the local tribes would not be easily subdued and civilised the way Caesar forced the Gallic tribes into submission. From the late 2nd century AD to the end of the Roman presence in Britain in the mid-5th century, their strategy was fundamentally defensive. 

Fragment of the London Wall at Tower Hill Garden.

Having said all that, one would expect London to retain a bit more of its Roman heritage. Instead, the city is almost entirely modern, with a few wrinkles of medieval churches and the Tower of London. Unlike many European cities outside Italy, London has not retained even one building in its original form from its Roman period. Compare that to the magnificent amphitheatres in Nimes and Arles (France), Cartagena and Merida (Spain), the Roman theatre in Plovdiv, Bulgaria or the stunning Palace of Diocletian in Split, Croatia. The best we can come up with is the St Pancras Old Church in Camden and St Bride’s Church at Fleet Street. However, both stand at the site of probable worshipping sites of the Roman period and do not represent the original buildings. If we compare them to other European cities, the magnificent Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was consecrated in 532 AD and, to this day, remains a symbol of the unsurpassed architectural mastery of the late Roman empire. The St. Sophia Church in Sofia, Bulgaria, was also built during the reign of Justinian the Great (mid-6th century) and has remained the tallest building in the city since the early 20th century. 

Why London Lacks Ancient Architectural Heritage?

Even if we push the boundary to the Medieval Age, London cannot boast of too many landmarks. The legendary White Tower of London and Westminster Hall were built in the early Norman period (1066 and 1097, respectively), but the latter was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1834. Which, of course, leads us to the logical question – why hasn’t London retained more of its ancient and medieval architectural heritage? 

The London fire of 1666 destroyed the medieval heart of the city.

I have already mentioned the word that holds the answer – fire. Although London has never been conquered by a foreign enemy since 1066 (we can hardly count the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as a foreign invasion), apocalyptic fires have plagued the city and its historical landmarks throughout the centuries. None more so than the Great Fire of 1666, immortalised by Sir Samuel Pepys. The 4-day calamity obliterated the medieval city of London, taking down fabled buildings like St Paul’s Cathedral, the Guildhall, almost a hundred parish churches, numerous private houses and public buildings. Medieval London perished in the flames, only to give Sir Christopher Wren a tabula rasa for his creative genius. The city we know today was, to a large extent, planned and built by Wren.

I was thinking about all this and more when I heard the clicking sound of cameras approaching me from the south. “You are daydreaming about your Romans again, aren’t you?” Helen asked, pointing her group to the Tower. No, I wasn’t. In fact, I was planning a blog about all things London, even the Shard.