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Walking London Wall: the spectacular in the everyday

Garry Gillard

I am a tourist - one who, in Prato & Trivero's terms, 'exists within an area that has already been surveyed and prepared for him … by advertising and the travel agent', and who 'clings to the security of the cliché' (Prato & Trivero 1985: 25).  Or, as Sadie Plant puts it, citing Guy Debord,

Travel, made easier by technological development and the imposition of the global market, is translated into tourism, 'the chance to go and see what has been made banal', and the peculiar characteristics of places are lost in the dissemination of commodity equivalence (Plant 1992: 28; quoting Guy Debord, 1983: 168).

I speak of touring the postmodern: of (to rewrite Debord) the spectacular amid the everyday.  I shall also be drawing (or redrawing) to some extent on Michel de Certeau's meditation on 'Walking in the city' (1984).  I'll also refer to Dean MacCannell's notion of the tourist as sight-seer and as theorist (1989), and I'll also have Foucault's docile citizen in the back of my mind throughout, even if I don't often refer to him specifically (1979).

Part of my principal intention is to remember Michel de Certeau's meditation on 'Walking in the city' in relation to my own experience of engaging in the practice of being a tourist on a particular site: London Wall.  I am referring to a notional wall, which refers in turn to a historical artefact - a functional device which was used to control the flow of people in and out of Londinium and later the City of London.  The actual wall was originally built by the Romans and was maintained as a functional barrier until well into the medieval period.  Most of this actual wall (or, should I say, these walls?) no longer exists, but a virtual wall continues to exist, among other things through an activity known as the London Wall Walk.

I had an ostensibly serious aim in beginning this tour, but a secondary intention was to walk aimlessly, to engage in the fundamental touristic experience, to encounter the unforeseen, to stroll, to be a flâneur.  So I engaged in the search for the Roman wall, bits of which I did find ... but with some difficulty.

I decided to be my own archeologist and to proceed from the known to the unknown.  I knew from a map there was a street still called London Wall, and seeing that much of this street lay between Moorgate Underground and the Museum of London, I got off at that station and proceeded, as usual, to try to figure out which way was north and which south.  Having done that, and found the eponymous street, I proceeded west.  I was not to know until much later that this part of the street called London Wall does not in fact follow the line of the wall for long ... nor that no part of it is visible from the street.

More or less by chance, however, I did find a bit of it, quite a large bit in fact, in something called 'St Alphage Churchyard' but the name was almost all that was left of this long-departed church, and what was there was actually tolerated as an awkward bit of ruin now built into one corner of a multi-storied carpark.  But it was just what I was after; and there even was an information panel on a stand in front of it!  Or, as MacCannell would call it, an 'on-sight marker'.  His triadic structure was complete: the sight, the marker and the tourist.

There I was, behaving in the manner of a tourist, alternately observing the sight and the on-sight marker - and also providing an object for the gaze of some lunching office-workers to observe as I gazed intently at this bit of old wall that they perhaps saw every day and no doubt ignored.

The information panel included a schematic map, showing only the preceding and following section of what turned out to be the well-documented and so-called 'Wall Walk'.  I attempted to commit the relevant bit to memory, and set off north-west, arriving eventually in St Giles's churchyard, from which I had a marvellous view of some wall, the bottom section of which was the northern side of the Roman fort. 

But I hadn't got to the Museum yet and hadn't bought The London Wall Walk guide, so it took me a while to figure out that I had to go back the way I had come before I could continue west.  To head west from the Church across a modern 'lake' you have to be a student or teacher at the London School for Girls!  No tourists allowed!

This part of London contains what might arguably be the most intense clashes possible between ancient and modern, public and private, human and machine.  The 'natural' route to take, south from St Giles, to observe the wall more closely, is via a bridge crossing the modern lake which is in the position of the mediaeval ditch: but this requires going through a locked gate and past a sign indicating that the area is for residents only.  So some lucky, presumably wealthy Londoners have their own private bit of London wall in their collective backyard.

At this point, near the Museum, London Wall street is obviously not intended for human beings, well, not those on foot anyway.  This must have been one of the sections of the City that was extensively destroyed during the Second World War, as this part of the street is broad and straight, and not designed for pedestrians.  In fact I discovered that walkers are catered for by 'highwalks', which conduct them along at first-floor level: walkers, that is, who know where they are going, which is presumably from one modern building to another.  But I was looking for archeological sites, which are not usually found above street level, so I was torn between the danger and difficulty of negotiating the motor traffic and going along up above it all - perhaps nowhere in particular.

A number of constraints were operating on me in carrying out this investigation, and, might therefore operate, by extension, on many other such tourists/theorists.

Firstly, there is my 'archeological' desire to find out about the original (Roman) wall.  This I take to be a rather different version of what MacCannell refers to as a 'dialectic of authenticity' (1989: 117).  Whereas his version is a reference to that paradox in tourism, that the tourist seeks the offbeat and eccentric as opposed to the explicitly 'touristic', here I am thinking of that nostalgia for the authentic original which may be concealed under later accretions, or may no longer exist at all, having been replaced by an ersatz simulacrum.  In the case of the London Wall it did not at first occur to me that what I would find, although antique and certainly authentic, was not the original wall, but rather (mostly) the medieval structure on top of the earlier Roman remains.  The hypothesis here then is that for something to be authentic it must also be original.  This is obviously open to discussion and may be contentious in some contexts.

Related to that is the practical problem of finding those sections of the Roman wall that remain.  Obviously real archeologists have already found and marked all such remains, but that does not mean there is no problem for the tourist.  It's not necessarily a simple matter, even given maps and sight markers, to decide what has actually been completely destroyed, and which parts of what remain are of what age.  And it's not even a simple matter to view what does remain.  In some cases the remains are underground, or locked up, or on private property and inaccessible to the tourist.

Thirdly there is the problem of just getting around.  While there were probably streets or lanes running along the wall two thousand years ago, we are talking about getting around not just a modern city, but The City, the City of London, one of the world's principal financial centres, a city which has had to develop under the most extreme pressures, not only financial but also those of the War in which large tracts of the City were laid waste by the effects of bombing.  So streets have been realigned, broadened, and so on.  The most striking example, the street called London Wall, actually follows the line of the wall for only about one third of its whole length, and none of the remains are visible from that street.  Not only that: the street is not designed for pedestrian traffic and it is almost dangerous simply to walk along the side of parts of it.  Pedestrians are catered for, but I only realised this after a fair bit of risking life and limb down among the vehicular traffic.

Other street designs do cater for pedestrians but also control them.  At a typical busy corner, at the street called Moorgate for example, there are strong metal fences which prevent walkers from attempting to cross the street at any point they choose, and which channel them into the pedestrian crossings guarded by request buttons, traffic lights and walk/don't walk signs.  It is not only war that has created detours: there have also been modern improvements created by developers in the form of artificial lakes and the pedestrian 'highwalks'.  Such developments tend to overwrite the earlier lines of demarcation, which therefore emerge as palimpsests: earlier texts appearing through and despite the later superimpositions.

Eventually, I got to the Museum of London, and, after doing the Museum, bought the The London Wall Walk (Chapman et al. 1985).  This is a booklet, c. 20cm by only 10cm, in which each double-page opening shows what is also on each of the twenty-one information panels at the twenty-one sites.  I mention the size to suggest that the double-page opening which showed the schematic map of the Walk as a whole was rather inadequate for the task, so that, as it turned out, one had to depend on the maps on the panels in the streets, which, as it also turned out, did not in every case exist!

I also obtained in the Museum shop a copy of a foldout map called Londinium: A Descriptive Map and Guide to Roman London, (Director-General of the Ordnance Survey 1983), but as I was keen to get on with the Walk I gave only a cursory glance at what seemed to be a very large and cumbersome Map: it is in fact 100cm x 90cm, nearly a metre square.  This was unfortunate, as it has now turned out to be an exhaustive guide, complete with both ancient and modern details, including, crucially, the actual path that the modern pedestrian is to follow to participate in the Walk: something that is definitely not (in enough detail) in The London Wall Walk booklet.  And more than anything else that is what I bought the booklet for: the map.  I thought I could make my own discoveries when I got to sites - if I could just find them!  But I was to be conned.

The guidebook and the map together I'm suggesting represent my fifth constraint: the necessity of having a guide of some kind, combined with the difficulty of obtaining and reading them.  The small convenient one appeared to be in itself a sufficient guide to the whole site, but actually needed the supplementation of the large and inconvenient one in order to be really adequate.

At least I could discover from the booklet that I had only missed the last three of the sites with information panels, so I decided to go forward to complete the last bit of the Walk, and then return to trace it in reverse order, including perhaps bits I had already seen, at sites #13-#17, back to where the Walk 'begins', near the Tower of London. 

'Site' #18 was my next disappointment as there was no sight [sic] at all.  The panel is on a wall at a parking-station, and informs the eager archeologist that the remains of the west gate of the fort are actually underneath the roadway of London Wall street and that they can be viewed only on the '1st Tuesday of month from 10.30 to 12.00 and 3rd Friday from 14.30 to 16.00'.  It was a Thursday when I was there.

The next site, panels #19 and #20, however, briefly restored my faith.  In Noble St there is a long section of nineteenth-century wall with excavations which show the Roman wall as the base, and the foundations of a small square internal turret which would have given access to the sentry walk: all clearly exposed to the avid modern eye.

But then it was back to the confidence trick of the tourist guide: panel #21 did no more than bear witness to the fact that the city gate known as Aldersgate had stood there, but 'was finally demolished in 1761 to improve traffic access.'  However, hope springs eternal, and I set off backwards along the Walk, without the detailed pedestrian guide to where I should walk, stumbling parblindly from panel to panel (although I had such a guide in fact in my pocket on the large foldout Londinum Map).  And it's a significant walk in terms of effort, especially when it includes negotiating London traffic, both vehicular and foot.

Having happened upon the Walk at #12, I set off in search of panel #11, which indicated the site of the city gate called Moorgate at the corner of the modern street of the same name.  This site is so lost that even its conjectural shape is not indicated on the large-scale Map.

Then another long walk to panel #10, at All Hallows Church.  The wall one sees here is the medieval one: the Roman wall is four metres below the present ground level.  The information panel informs the reader that 'the shape of the vestry on the northern side of the church was determined by the semi-circular foundations of Roman tower'.  But the Church is locked and presents only its stony southern side to the frustrated archeologist.

I did not find panel #9.  The guidebook told me that the 'line of the City Wall is preserved by the back walls of the shops fronting on to Wormwood St.'  Walking along Wormwood St, I looked at the fronts of the shops: without knowledge of the detailed walking map (still safely in my pocket) I did not realise that I was supposed to go one block to the north.

I do not remember if I found panel #8, supposed to be on a street corner.  And I no longer cared about panel #7 ('on wall of 10-16 Bevis Marks') - the panel is not where the wall used to be anyway.  Nor did I try very hard to find panel #6 ('on subway wall', the guidebook says - it sounds like the graffiti in Paul Simon's song Sound of Silence).  Here again the Roman wall is metres below the tourist's feet and was only discovered when there were excavations for the Tube station here.

Nor did I find the panel at the road junction where Aldgate used to be.  Exactly like Aldersgate it was 'pulled down in 1761 to improve traffic access' - in the same year.  Maybe it was a conspiracy.  Maybe it still is.  Maybe it's the same gate they're talking about.  Was I going in the right direction?  I was hot and tired, although the weather was cold.  Would this give me something to tell the grandchildren about?  Is that why I persevered?

Because I did persevere.  And then things began to look up: I got to talk to a human being!  My guidebook told me that I should see something (it was about time!) at panel #4 'outside entrance and at rear of building' of Emperor House.  So I boldly went where I'll bet few tourists have gone before - through to the back of the building, past a security guard at the entrance to a car-park, almost hoping I would be stopped and asked for ID, so that I could play the tourist card, and beg to see the unique sight.  But I wasn't stopped.  And in a lane at the rear I found that I could look vertically downwards through a window and there, sure enough, below me was the base of a bit of wall - or a bit of tower actually - with some very ordinary-looking chairs and tables right next to it.  There was an old gent having a cigarette outside, and although he didn't look very approachable I asked him to confirm that there was in fact a bit of Roman wall in a cafeteria.  Yes, there was, he told me, it's in the basement of Lloyd's, in a staff dining-room.

After this minimalist discovery I wasn't prepared for the magnificence of what's at panel #3 - where you actually get to step through the wall.  It's up to 10.6 metres (35 feet) high here, and the lower section of a whole 4.4 metres (14.5 feet) is Roman.  I hung around here for a quite a while, luxuriating in the satisfaction of having lots of lovely wall to look at.

The site at #2 is pretty good too: there's a whole lot of wall just at the entrance to the Tower Hill Underground station - with its promise of 'home' and the rewards to be found there after this long archeological day.  So, as this is the last thing to be seen and done, I could relax and meditate, in the satisfaction of knowing the job was almost done.  I touched a stone, making sure it was a (low-down) Roman one.  With this hand I have touched a stone that a Roman (well, a Roman slave, probably) put in a wall over two thousand years ago.  I have been in touch with history.

Why was #2 the end of my tour?  I could no longer be conned.  I could see to the south nothing but a broad and busy thoroughfare between me and the Tower of London: there could be nothing remaining there.  Panel #1 was going to say only that: here building had been.  I did not go to look at the panel - if indeed there is one there.  I entered the Underground station and caught the train home.

Although doing the London Wall Walk is in one sense an extraordinary thing for someone living in Western Australia to do, in another sense it is an everyday event.  I mean in the sense that it simply involves walking some city streets looking at things.

When I allow myself to remember my experience of the London Wall Walk some of the things I remember are just too 'everyday' for me to have included in the account I have given so far.  Some other things I have forgotten.  As de Certeau reminds, 'Surveys of routes miss what was: the act itself of passing by' (1984: 97).

But I remember why my daughter wasn't with me, for example: she went to the Zoo that day.  The Zoo as a tourist site was too 'easy' for me while the Wall was too 'hard' for her - in the sense of the associative demands that an appropriate response makes on the tourist/theorist.

And I remember lunch.  It was so expensive at the London Museum, obviously a tourist trap, where an ordinary sandwich and a beer cost as much as the complete works of Shakespeare.  And I remember the two men at the next table: I wondered if they were there on business or pleasure, as they looked more like locals than tourists.  The point about mentioning them is to raise the problem of selection.  Whereas the local can safely ignore something that is there everyday, the tourist does not enjoy that luxury, and has to look at everything, in case it might be unique, and just the opposite of everyday.

Then there was the temperature.  In London I was always too cold or too hot.  I had my big parka on, but sat in the sun to eat my sandwich and had to take off a couple of layers of clothing or else melt.  When I started walking again of course I had to carry my coat, which made it difficult to keep referring to the guidebook.  And that was also why I never looked at the big map: I just didn't have enough hands to manage all the things I was carrying and using.  And I couldn't stop and put everything down to open the relevant map or guidebook.  There was a time constraint - isn't there always?  I didn't want to get back to our base much later than the time I told my daughter I would be back in case something went wrong for her.

And in fact it did: she was later home than me, having had to make a detour on the underground lines around an IRA bomb threat and also having gone east instead of west at one point.  She didn't get back until two or three hours after I was expecting her, during which time I was wondering how to start finding police stations and hospitals and all the rest of it ...  All everyday stuff, and all part of the extraordinary business of tourism.

Finally, I remember London streets, full of Londoners going about their everyday affairs.  Among them I didn't want to 'look like a tourist'.  Why didn't I want to be seen rubbernecking at things that were everyday for them?  Especially things like signs that referred to things that no longer existed, that had ceased to exist in 1761, or, for that matter, in 200 AD.  My everyday as a tourist inserted in their everyday as servants of commerce created a sort of affective dissonance in me, which I avoided by keeping my gaze fixed ahead, on some imaginary goal, rather than confessing, by my behaviour, to my actual status as flâneur.  The point of my cautionary tale - or one of its points - is this: one person's everyday is another's spectacle.

First published here.

Works cited

Chapman, Hugh, with Jenny Hall and Geoffrey Marsh 1985, The London Wall Walk, Museum of London, London.

Debord, Guy 1983, The Society of Spectacle, Black & Red, Detroit.

de Certeau, Michel 1984, 'Walking in the city', Chapter 7 of The Practice of Everyday Life, tr. Steven F. Rendall, from Arts de faire, University of California Press, Berkeley and London: 91-110.

Director-General of the Ordnance Survey 1983, Londinium: A Descriptive Map and Guide to Roman London, second edition [first edition 1981], Southampton.  Copyright Governors of the Museum of London, 1981.

Foucault, Michel 1979 [1975], 'Docile bodies', in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Penguin, London: 135-169.

MacCannell, Dean 1989, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, second edition, Schocken, New York.

Plant, Sadie 1992, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, Routledge, London & New York.

Prato, Paolo & Gianluca Trivero 1985, 'The spectacle of travel', tr. Iain Chambers, AJCS, 3, 2 December: 25-43.  Available at URL:

Garry Gillard | New: 6 May, 2017 | Now: 20 December, 2018