How History Becomes Buried

How History Becomes Buried

Years ago, when I visited London, I peeked into the Guildhall briefly, for a specific purpose. I wanted to see this:

The Roman amphitheatre in the basement of London's Guildhall.
Roman amphitheatre in London’s Guildhall

Yes, London’s Guildhall has a Roman amphitheatre in its basement. You know, as you do, when your city has been settled since before Roman times. Archaeologists had presumed there was an amphitheatre somewhere in the city, and searched for years, finally finding it in 1988. Today, for price of the admission to the Guildhall’s art gallery, you can also have a look at the amphitheatre.

In London, the amphitheatre is in the basement. In Bath, the Roman baths are located below street level. If you’ve visited these or other European cities, you’ve probably noticed this as a theme – the old stuff has been buried, and you access it by going down a level or two. I’ve always vaguely wondered how this happens, because even over the course of centuries, that seems like an awful lot of sediment to have covered them over naturally!

Recently, I had a chance to spend two long layovers in London before and after a business trip, and in a place where I least expected it, I learned the explanation. I had been meaning to visit Benjamin Franklin’s house in London for some time, but on most days of the week, the house offers something called the “Historical Experience.” Now, that might be a perfectly wonderful thing to do, but many previous experiences in England have taught me to eye anything named “Experience” with a great degree of wariness. So since I was in town this time on a Monday, when the more straightforward-sounding architectural tours are offered (and it was Memorial Day back in the US, so I felt like perhaps I should do something relatively American) I decided everything had aligned for me to see the house.

Benjamin Franklin's House
Benjamin Franklin’s House

It’s a fairly commonplace London town house of the era, of a size I think might have been appropriate for the Gardiner family, in a neighborhood better than Cheapside, but certainly not so exclusive as Mayfair. And there, in the basement kitchen, our tour guide explained that the house was near enough to the Thames that when the Georgian row houses were built, the builder chose to raise the street level, so that it would no longer flood. So we were, in truth, standing on what should have been ground level, but it faced a street built atop a brick vault. The house still owns its share of storage within that vault, extending halfway below the street.

The kitchen, on what was originally the ground floor
The kitchen, on what was originally ground level
A peek at the storage, beneath the street
A peek at the storage area, beneath the street

So this, then, is how the past becomes buried in the basement – not accidentally, through years of sediment and neglect, but intentionally and deliberately. Once I understood this, I began to see evidence of it in more places, like churches older than the rest of their neighborhoods, that had found themselves below street level.

St Bartholomew the Great church, now well below street level
St Bartholomew the Great church, now well below street level

In our modern era, you dig down to build anything large – the foundations for a skyscraper, the parking garage even for a modest building in any city, the basement for many suburban houses. So it’s strange to think of the Georgians opting, quite simply, to raise the street rather than dig down. It must have made for some complexity when a new higher street was built, and needed to connect to the old lower ones! This was the world of Austen and her characters, though, rising up, street by street.

The footnote to this street, at least, is that some of the houses were destroyed by bombs in World War II. Fortunately, they weren’t rebuilt until after grade listing, and were thus required to be rebuilt as they were, leaving Craven Street a quiet, cohesive street full of Georgian row houses, much the same as it would have been in Austen’s time (and very different from what it was before then, in its lower incarnation). If you’re ever in London on a Monday, I recommend dropping by for a tour.

Rebuilt, as they were
Rebuilt, as they were

If you’re interested in spending more time in London townhouses during the Regency, much of A Constant Love is set in town. It’s the first book in my Constant Love series, which continues Pride and Prejudice.

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And for more from my little England sojourn, you can head to my blog for a series of videos I took on board HMS Victory, in Portsmouth.

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18 Responses to How History Becomes Buried

  1. Sophie, Thank you for a great post. I have been intrigued with my research into underground London, so much so that many of my Mister Darcy stories take place as Darcy attempts to protect the “catacomb” structures beneath the City. I was particularly taken with the fact that Churchill’s war rooms lay deep below the streets of London. It is fascinating how many layers/centuries one can go down. They must do everything they can to protect the history that is beneath the City streets.

    • Thank you, Barbara! I agree — there are so many interesting things hidden below the city! Have you see the series Secrets of London? They did an episode on some of the underground structures. And I really enjoyed the book “Underground London,” by Stephen Smith. I’ve been in the war rooms and Brunel’s tunnel, and on my next trip I’m going to do one of the London Underground ones. I love that sense that all of these pieces of history are just down there beneath people’s feet. Let me know if you want photos of any of them for your research, although I’m not sure if photography will be allowed on the upcoming tour. I hope so!

  2. Welcome to our little party Sophie. I loved your post and look forward to more of your observations. I get to travel vicariously through the pictures and posts of authors like yourself, Joana Starnes and the others. Thank you so much for pointing out those little things that make a difference. In the older movie Persuasion they have a scene in Bath where two men are standing on a lower level as the main couple walks away from them. During a carriage ride, in the older movie of Northanger Abbey, they mention driving on lower streets. I assume that is part of what you are talking about. At the time I had no idea why it was that way. Now I know. Thanks for enlightening us. JWG

    • Thank you for your comment, J. W.! In Bath I think it may be a combination of what I’ve described and also the natural geography of Bath, since there are a lot of hills that must have influenced the street plan. I suspect maybe they’ve “evened it out” a bit through the street raising that I described, but I don’t know for sure.

  3. I love the history you find and impart! I showed the HMS Victory videos to my husband and he appreciated seeing the inside of the ship he built as a model. I’m just going to have to figure out how to send the pictures to you! I’m not particularly tech savvy! Email is the only way I know how to attach photos and I am not on Facebook. As you know, I love both your both your books!

  4. I first heard of this phenomenon of the archaeological ruins of historic civilizations being literally buried beneath standing cities when I went through a museum exhibit of the prehistoric Etruscan people of Italy. This aspect was so fascinating, partly because I couldn’t figure out how it happened. It seemed counter intuitive to our modern way of city building. It’s sort of ironic that while the Romans built over the Etruscan structures, the English did the same to the Roman structures. Fascinating post. Of course, you had me at “History”. Welcome to Austen Authors.

    • Thank you, Diana! Yes, I think we’re somehow more respectful of the current ground level, today. One of my other favorite “buried” places is Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh, although that’s partly a result of the unique geology of that city. Gave me chills, because it feels almost as though it has been buried intact. And yes, I heart history!

  5. Welcome to Austen Authors, Sophie!! Now our family is complete. 🙂 We are thrilled to have you with us, and based on this fascinating post and what little I know of your traveling adventures, our readers are in for some cool photos and tidbits of information!

    This is very interesting. I never gave the matter of building levels much thought, and when I did assumed it was like many old places where new generations simply found it easier to build on top of the old rather than demolish it and cart the rubble away! And now I have something else to add onto my someday-I’ll-make-it-to-England list, which means I now need a solid month to get to them all! Thanks (she says with mixed appreciation and sarcasm – LOL!)

    • Thank you, Sharon! I am so excited to be here.

      As for the someday-I’ll-make-it-to-England list, the trouble with those is they only grow, even when you do make it to England!

  6. I hadn’t heard of this so thanks Sophie. It’s amazing how many things finally turn up after hundreds of years. I really must check my garden – who knows I may find something amazing??? Obviously I will be sure to let you know if I do but don’t hold your breath!! ? I enjoyed this and look forward to further posts.

  7. Thanks for this fascinating post, Sophie, it was such a great read!
    Welcome to Austen Authors and all the best. Looking forward to reading more about your Regency world.

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