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