London’s Sporting Heritage

A regular feature by London Tour Guide Rob Woodford

Recent talk of ‘Project Restart’ in England’s elite sport has led to a route plan for its ‘socially distanced’ return.

London’s sporting heritage of course goes back to time immemorial – but I wonder how many tourists (and even many locals) are aware of an ancient sports stadium deep underneath the City.

If you have ever seen the film ‘Gladiator’ then you might have some idea where this is leading!

London’s Roman Amphitheatre attracted huge crowds, who would have witnessed gladiatorial combats as well as blood sports and even public executions!

The stadium had been lost for nearly 2,000 years – until archaeologists discovered the ruins of some of the original circular walls after more than a 100 years of searching.

These tourists pictured enjoyed a visit to the Roman Amphitheatre underneath Guildhall Yard where they are having fun!

The Museum of London’s archaeology team had been given the chance to inspect the site before work was due to start on the new Guildhall Art Gallery building back in 1988.

Perhaps what’s most surprising is that this stadium was found to have been built within the old Roman Wall – because most amphitheatres in other cities in the Roman Empire were located on the outside of their city walls.

The amphitheatre was initially built as a wooden structure around AD70, just a few short years after invasion and conquest in AD43.

Those skilful Roman architects gave it a substantial makeover in stone nearly 50 years later, while at the same time increasing its capacity to over 6,000.

Increasing the capacity (which was during the reign of Emperor Hadrian) meant that many more spectators were baying for blood!

The Romans abandoned Britain in AD410, but were here for almost one-fifth of recorded British history.

Over time their impressive Amphitheatre was left to decay and periodically dismantled and recycled for building materials – until it began to get covered over by other settlements.

In the 11th century the first ever (timber) Guildhall was built over that old place of entertainment, and became the very centre of London’s administration.

The core structure of Guildhall you see today was the work of master mason John Croxton between 1411 and 1429.

The old Roman Amphitheatre was lost forever, or so it appeared – until that archaeological discovery over 30 years ago.

If you stand today in Guildhall Yard a quick glance down to the paving stones reveals an 80cm wide curved of dark stone which marks the circumference edge of the old sporting arena.

But, even better than that, this hidden gem is actually available for all to visit and view for free, by entering the Guildhall Art Gallery.

Its actual remains are located about 8 meters below the surface – once buried between centuries of old rubble and rubbish.

Once inside you will be up close and personal with the remains of the original walls of the stadium.

Check out its drainage system and even the sand that was once laid down to soak up the blood from wounded Gladiators!

If the contest was a ‘fight to the death’ then it wouldn’t have been much fun winning the silver medal in those days!

The exhibit also includes an impressive digital projection that fills in those gaps within the ruins – just to fire up your imagination.

This hidden secret part of London is a protected monument and is quite close to St. Paul’s Cathedral – and is certainly worth taking time out to visit when in London (not in Rome)!

Our talented Black Cab Heritage Tours historians include a visit on their ‘Roman and Medieval London Tour’ and free admission is included.

Ok, so it’s not the massive Coliseum in Rome, but it’s ours, and should be celebrated, and should be visited – Russell Crowe, eat your heart out!

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Black Cab Heritage Tours is Good to Go!

At Black Cab Heritage Tours we place the highest priority on the health and welfare of our customers, team and the wider community. This is particularly the case during the current COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.  It may be a little while before our guests arrive from overseas, as the UK Government recently announced the current 14-day quarantine period remains in place for inbound tourists - to be reviewed every 3 weeks.  We have, however, started to offer a limited number of private tour options as of Saturday 4 July, initially to singles, couples and small nuclear family groups - and we continue to accept future reservations. 

Our approach is in line with the most recent guidance issued by the UK government, and additional advice from the World Health Organisation. We have also put in new health and safety measures in order to promote social distancing and to limit all non-essential face-to-face contact, which has been recognized by Visit Britain as "Good to Go!"