About 5m below the rather innocuous 1960s King’s Walk shopping centre in Gloucester lies a section of the Roman City Wall. Only open to the public every now and then, I jumped at the chance to visit this summer.
The entrance is right in the middle of the shopping centre, underneath a large metal cover. Making my way down two flights of stairs I was soon into the damp, heavy basement air, and in the midst of concrete and piping was the wall. At least there were lights- an old sign perched on the wall warned ‘do not touch candles’!
About 10m or so long and around 3m in height, this section stood a little north of the city’s old East Gate. There were three phases of building from the 1st to 4th centuries AD including some hefty blocks from the lower courses of the earliest wall. It was a little disconcerting seeing it in the basement of a shopping centre, out of place yet exactly where it always was.
Coming in through the short tunnel from the stairs, I first came to the city-side of the wall. Anyone living in Roman Gloucester would never have seen this as it was obscured by an earthen bank. Black painted lines on the floor show you where timbers were found, used to strengthen this rampart, and a red patch of paint, now barely visible, shows the location of a Roman townhouse, pushed right up against the rampart. It was finally demolished in the 3rd century to make way for a lane inside the wall circuit.
On the far side from the entrance is the wall’s outer face. Unlike the rough-hewn stone of the interior, here the work was neatly faced and smooth. A later addition is the ‘King’s Bastion’, part of the 13th-century fortification of the walls during the reign of Henry III. This semi-circular structure isn’t as well built as its Roman forebear but it was remarkable thinking how the wall was still so important over 1,000 years after its original construction. The wall finally went out of use in the 17th century during the Civil War when Charles I ordered sections to be pulled down after the Siege of Gloucester in 1643.
There’s something wonderful about seeing ancient structures and buildings, especially when they’re parts of modern towns and villages. That sense of continuity over millennia is always exciting, and Gloucester’s old city wall is a good example, even if it is now part of the city’s hidden history (unlike places such as York with their impressive wall circuits still standing). An important element of the city, standing for 1,500 years, visiting it now forces you to think about what the city has been through from its role as a fortress after the Roman conquest to the Civil War in the 17th century, and the generations of people who lived through it all. I loved it.
How to visit the King’s Bastion: the entrance to this part of the wall is in the King’s Walk shopping centre off Eastgate Street. Entry is via pre-booked ticket (it cost me £5) available from the Museum of Gloucester on Brunswick Street or the Tourist Information centre on Southgate Street. This part of the wall is only open intermittently, and next open as part of the Gloucester History Festival in September 2018. The tour lasts about 45 minutes.
If it’s not open: you can also see parts of the city wall at the Museum of Gloucester where a section is often open to the public. Again, it’s worth checking before going. You can see it from above through the glass roof in front of Boots on Eastgate Street. Apparently there’s a section incorporated into a shop, the Gloucestershire Furniture Exhibition Centre, on the corner of Parliament Street and Southgate Street. Probably worth asking before you start searching behind the sofas…