Guildhall Art Gallery in London: go for the Romans, stay for the plates

If you and a friend are idly rambling across the City of London from the Bank of England towards the Museum of London, you may find that you stumble across the Guildhall Yard outside the Guildhall Art Gallery.

And if you stumble across the Guildhall Art Gallery you may realise that you have never actually been inside, and decide to visit.

And this would be a good decision for any number of reasons.

Firstly there is a Roman amphitheatre in the basement.

Well, part of one, because Roman amphitheatres were pretty big, actually. Go back up to the Guildhall Square, and they have drawn a big black line on the ground to help you trace our the perimeter further.

Guildhall Yard, with the medieval Guildhall to the left and the 20th century art galley building to the right. In th foreground you can see a curved line which represents the perimeter of the amphitheatre. People are walking or standing in the square.

In fact, the amphitheatre is probably the reason the Guildhall, the administrative buildings for the City of London was built where it is. No need to start from scratch when you can re-purpose some nifty foundations and all that.

The City of London (note the capital letter), in case you are wondering, is a sort of super local council, needing to organise all the usual things in its immediate surroundings such as schools and the bin collection. But it combines this with continuing its historical role representing the financial, mercantile and commercial interests that still have their home in the City (note the capital letter). Bits of it are modern.

An old medieval building is on the left and at right-angles a modern concrete building with many glass windows.

Bits of it are not. It had special mention in the Magna Carta and everything, and was such a political force that it was stripped briefly of its powers after it supported the republicans against the kind in the civil war (when Charles II took back over, obviously). It survived the Great Fire of London and the Blitz mostly intact. Mainly it just lost its roof, and its protective guardians, the two giants Gog and Magog, chained up in the main hall since time immemorial. Luckily they were able to carve some new ones.

Incidentally, if you are wondering what the Magna Carta is, here is a song about how the British invented democracy.

Anyway. Guildhall has one of the 17 copies of the Magna Carta. Because of course it does.

A picture of the Magna Carta, an old parchment with a large seal at the bottom

It’s not the administrative centre for London as a whole. It’s not where the mayor of London (currently Sadiq Khan) hangs out.

No. It’s where the Lord Mayor of London hangs out. Glad we cleared that up then.

Anyway. The historical buildings are now used for municipal and corporate entertaining. You can hire them, in fact, should you need a medieval banqueting hall that seats 900 and is suitable for formal dinners and cabarets (apparently). You can also visit them on a tour once a month or so.

But underground you can enjoy the fact that 2 000 odd years has exposed the clever plumbing arrangements for the amphitheatre, thus putting the focus on the Roman’s mad engineering skills not the fact that the stadium was used for watching people and animals fight to the death.

Some people stand in a darkened room containing some ruins from a Roman amphitheatre. Glowing green digitally projected figures and seats give an impression of what it may have looked like.

The Guildhall Art Gallery has about 4 000 works of art to its name, but only displays about 250 of them at any one time, which means that there’s a high chance of being able to go back a few times and not get bored after you have looked at your favourite things.

A gallery in the Guildhall Art Gallery. There is a woman walking up some stairs bewteen colums to a large open plan room with a red carpet, green walls and gold framed paintings. The ceiling is white glowing panels.

Among the things that will be there will be (changing) paintings of London. Mama has been out of the Big Smoke for just long enough to forget just how irritating she found travelling around, sorry, trying to travel around the capital, and decide that there were some things about it she quite liked enjoyed. In a misty nostalgic sort of way. So she liked that area.

Three paintings of London at the Guildhall Art Gallery. The top one shows an almost phtograph like quality of a pleasantly overgrown bit of wasteland and some red roofs. The bottom left is abstract black, grey and white squarish shapes and lines. Another shows a street scene at a markey with some cars and a building in the background.

The Guildhall Art Gallery is also big on the Victorians. Now Mama is not big on the Victorians. Mama tries not to judge historical periods, but largely fails when it comes to the Victorians, irrational though this may be. She considers them class and prejudice ridden, sentimental, violent, sexist, hypocritical, with terrible fashion and interior design sense, and a particularly unfortunate habit of demonstrating all of these traits all over the rest of the world.

Still, free art is free art. Which is presumably what all the great unwashed thought when the City graciously started collecting them paintings in the 1800s.

Two Victorian paintings. The upper one shows a woman cradling a dying man in a forest. A figure in black stands behind a tree, holding a sword. The second shows a groups of women in long red, blue or green stresses standing draped beside a river.

And then there is thirdly. Which is that if you are really lucky, you will be there when they have got the plates of William de Morgan out of the cupboard for a special exhibition.

A selection of William de Morgan plates with styalised animal and plant designs in blue, red and brown.

Mama was just this lucky.

A large plate with a styalised blue bird design by William de Morgan

William de Morgan was an Arts and Crafts sort of person, a friend of the wallpaper designer William Morris, who spent a very long time mucking around with tiles in Fulham and trying to work out how to do iridescent glaze on his pottery, called lustreware. And managed it! At which point this sort of thing became very unfashionable and so he turned, considerably more successfully, to novel writing.

A William de Morgan vase and plate in red lustreware in the Guildhall Art Gallery. Tiles are displayed on the wall behind and some people are in the background looking at them.

Mama does not share this lack of enthusiasm for de Morgan’s ceramics, and was actively distressed when she was alerted to the appearance on the Antique’s Roadshow of someone who had bought a de Morgan dish at a car boot sale for a fiver. Bah.

A large plate with a brown styalised dinosaur and foliage design. A woman in a floral dress stands in the background with her back to us.

Mama also appreciates de Morgan because his wife, Evelyn, was such a good painter she subsidised the pottery for years, a suffragette and an outspoken pacifist. Mama always admires people with taste. Even if they were born in the Victorian era.

Large plate with a styalised red peacock design by William de Morgan

De Morgan’s Dad was also on display. For excellence in maths. Mama quite enjoyed that bit too. Mama enjoys other people’s excellence in maths. It’s like watching somebody juggle with 17 balls while standing on a tiger. Or something.

The back of a William de Morgan plate which has blue and white rings and the name of his factory on it

So. The Guildhall Art Gallery is worth a visit if you are ever at a loose end in the area. Would probably be improved of they had a cafe on site though.

More information

The Guildhall Art Gallery’s page on the City of London website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Corporation of London.

Address: Guildhall Yard London EC2V 5AE

Admission: Free

Opening: Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm. On Sunday it closes an our earlier.

Getting there: Don’t drive. I don’t care if it’s a bit of a walk from either the underground stations of Bank (Central and Northern lines) or St Paul’s (Central line). Just don’t. There’s probably a bus, but Mama doesn’t live in London any more so her encyclopedic knowledge of London’s bus network has faded.

Save for later?

GUILDHALL ART GALLERY in London has a Roman amphitheatre as well as paintings and a copy of the Magna Carta
Fifi and Hop

Welwyn Roman Baths, Hertfordshire

There are few things in life more exciting than an interesting door.

Welwyn Roman Baths entrance
What is behind door number 3?

What could be behind it? A rabbit? A talking mole? Winnie-the-Pooh and a giant pot of honey? Martin Freeman with oversized feet? Martin Freeman dressed as a talking rabbit-mole with oversized feet eating a giant pot of honey in front of Winnie-the-Pooh? Gotta be a possibility, yeah?

Of course, the dilemma then becomes whether or not to collapse the wave and actually go through the entrance and find out, because the problem with real life is that it very rarely measures up to professionally bumbling British actors and highly anthropomorphised animals.

Luckily, when you go though this door, you will find a bath, specifically Welwyn Roman Baths, and baths are pretty cool, even when they aren’t 2,000 years old. WATER PLAY!! BOO YAH!!!

Although I am bound to say there didn’t seem to be much of that fabulous wet stuff in evidence in these ones.

Welwyn Roman Baths, as well as having one of the best entrances in the heritage business, also amuse Mama by being under a motorway. In a steel vault no less. That’s what you get the authorities to do when you find out that the fascinating baths you discovered and have been excavating for ten years are about to have the A1(M) driven right over the top of them. Or at least, that’s what you do if you are Dr Tony Rook. Props to him. Must have been a hell of a fight, says Mama, who has had to negotiate building work with her local council.

Welwyn Roman Baths
The statue on the far right is, apparently, Tony Rook!

The baths are, of course, part of a much larger villa complex, much of which has not been thoroughly explored. But it seems that they were a smaller en suite to the ones probably used by the owner. Still jolly impressive. I could get right into the Roman lifestyle. Apparently they used to spend all afternoon lolling around in the water! Now that’s civilisation.

It helps that Welwyn Roman Baths are surrounded by a wealth of hands on opportunities and displays which really add value to the experience. Without them, we would of course, have looked, nodded seriously at the explanatory placards, but we would also have been out within ten minutes and have forgotten the place almost instantly, even with the H2O interest.

Roman board game at Welwyn Roman Baths
Hours of fun!

With the very child friendly activities, we were able to explore different aspects of the baths – how they were constructed, how people used them and the place they had in Roman culture. There was a focus on Roman life in general, always popular, especially when you get to wear the centurion’s helmet. And there was also quite a lot about how archaeology works, its triumphs and its pitfalls as well. Mama felt that this added up to a pretty immersive experience overall.

Centurion's helmet at Welwyn Roman Baths
This is heavy!

And not everything is just there for the kids. Mama particularly enjoyed the board of Roman era quotes about the public bathing experience. She thinks it’s important to be reminded that people from the past can be just as tartly observational as anyone on Eight Out of Ten Cats.

Roman baby's bottle at Welwyn Roman Baths
Plastic tat eat your heart out!

Mama also enjoyed the audio guide, narrated by Dr Rook no less, something she was actually able to listen to since we were happily occupied by the jigsaw puzzles, the colouring in and the sponge on a stick toilet paper replacement. Getting to listen properly to the audio guide is a thing that almost never happens to Mama, let alone at her leisure.

Not that she really needed the recorded version, because the man himself was pottering around the gallery, and very willing to answer questions, as was the enthusiastic guide looking after the whole experience. In fact, what Mama also particularly appreciated about Welwyn Roman Baths was that when not needed at the desk, the chappie in charge circulated among the visitors and engaged them in conversation. Mama is aware, you see, that docents in historic places of interest are very willing and able to answer questions, but she cannot always think of one to act as an ice breaker so this proactive approach was welcome.

But she would also like to reassure the more retiring visitor that it was also not intrusive.

So all in all, having popped in for what Mama assumed would be a very swift visit we ended up spending well over an hour or so inside, perhaps even longer (Mama failed to time our visit). If you are ever trundling up the A1(M) and see the turn off for Welwyn (it’s the one before Stevenage!), spare a thought to the history you are passing over, and if you happen to be visiting that area, give serious consideration to visiting the baths in person.

More information

Welwyn Roman Baths internet page.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about baths and the art of bathing in the UK.

Address: Welwyn Bypass, Hertfordshire, AL6 9FG

Opening: January through November on Weekends, Bank Holidays and School Holidays from 2pm to 5pm.

Admission: Adults £3.50, children under 16 are free.

By car: Leave the A1(m) at junction 6. It’s right there, give or take a roundabout or two. Free parking exists! There are also toilets and a picnic area on site. No coffee dispensing emporium though.

By public transport: Welwyn Roman Baths are 1.3 miles from Welwyn North station.