Please note: Exploring London is aware that sites across London have closed temporarily as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. But we’re continuing our coverage as usual – in the hope you can visit at a later time…

Located at 5 Strand Lane in the West End, these brick-lined baths were long-reputed to be of Roman origin. But they are actually believed to be the remains of a cistern built in 1612 to supply water to fountain in the gardens of Old Somerset House.

The fountain had been built by French engineer, Salomon de Caus, after he was commissioned to do so as part of King James I’s efforts to refurbish Somerset House for Queen Anne of Denmark.

Following the demolition of the fountain, the cistern was neglected until the 1770s when the cistern was used a public cold plunge bath attached to a property at 33 Surrey Street. A second bath, called the ‘Essex Bath’ was added (it’s now under the nearby KCL Norfolk Building).

The idea that they were Roman is believed to have originated in the 1820s when the bath was so described as an advertising gimmick (Charles Dickens’ helped popularise the idea in his book David Copperfield – it is believed Dickens himself may have bathed here).

The 1.3 metre deep bath passed through a couple of different hands in the ensuing decades including Oxford Street draper Henry Glave and Rev William Pennington Bickford, the Rector of St Clement Danes, who, believing in the bath’s Roman origins, hoped to turn them into a tourist attraction.

But his plans came to nothing due to a lack of funds and following his death, in 1944, the National Trust agreed to take on ownership while London County Council agreed to see to its maintenance. They reopened the baths, following repairs, in 1951.

These days, while owned by the Trust, the baths are managed by Westminster Council.

WHERE: 5 Strand Lane (nearest Tube station is Temple); WHEN: While National Trust properties are temporarily closed, viewings are usually arranged through Westminster Council and Somerset House Old Palaces tour; COST: Free; WEBSITE:  www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/strand-lane-roman-baths.

PICTURE: Michael Trapp (licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

ReculverThis striking ruin perched on the shore of Herne Bay in Kent is all that remains of a 12th century church which once stood here, itself constructed on the ruins of a Saxon monastery and, earlier still, a Roman era fort.

The site once faced the now swallowed up Isle of Thanet across a narrow waterway to the east and it was this location which made it a prime spot for the Romans, in the early to middle years of the 3rd century AD, to build one of what became known as Saxon Shore forts, constructed to watch over waterways and resist raiders from across the sea. The square fort – known as Regulbium – featured walls supported by earthen ramparts containing a range of military buildings including a headquarters building at the centre. It’s main entrance was located in the north wall.

Reculver-smallThe fort ceased to be garrisoned by regular troops by the end of the 4th century and archaeologists have found little sign of any activity there at the start of the next century.

Following the arrival of St Augustine in 597 AD and the conversion of local Saxon kings to Christianity, Egbert, the King of Kent, gave land which included Reculver (Raculf) to one Bassa for the foundation of a church or minster (this has been dated to 669 AD). A monastery was subsequently founded on the site which remained there until the 10th century after which the church, which stood roughly at what was the middle of the Roman fort and which had been enlarged during the Saxon period, became a parish church of Reculver.

Remodelled in the 12th century (from which period the towers date), it was visited by Leland in 1540 who wrote of a stone cross which stood at the entrance to the choir and was carved with painted images of Christ and the 12 Apostles (fragments of the cross are now in the crypt at Canterbury Cathedral).

The encroaching sea, meanwhile, continued to move closer and closer to the northern side of the church, seriously so by the end of the 18th century when the vicar persuaded parishioners to demolish the church and build a new one at nearby Hillsborough. Thankfully, while much of the stone from the church was used in the new building, the twin west towers were left standing.

Their value as a landmark was recognised in 1809 when the ruin was bought by Trinity House as a navigation marker. They subsequently strengthened the towers’ foundations to ensure they weren’t undermined any further. Further strengthening measures took place in later years. About half of the Roman fort remains. The site is now managed by English Heritage.

Reculver is a site richly evocative of England’s past with a history going back more than 1,700 years. The remains may only be fragments of what once stood there but they nonetheless tell a myriad of stories.

WHERE: At Reculver, three miles east of Herne Bay (nearest train station is Herne Bay (four miles); WHEN: Any reasonable time in daylight hours; COST:Free; WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/reculver-towers-and-roman-fort/.

Roman-skull-found-at-Liverpool-Street-ticket-hall-_102065More than 50 objects – including skulls from the Roman era – unearthed as part of the Crossrail project have gone on display to the public for the first time. Portals to the Past also features a Roman cremation pot (which still contained remains when discovered), 16th century jewellery, and flint used by Londoners some 9,000 years ago. The free exhibition runs at the Crossrail Visitor Information Centre behind Centre Point at 6-18 St Giles High Street until 15th March. To coincide with it, Crossrail archaeologists will be running a series of lectures on Wednesday evenings starting at 6pm. No booking is required but numbers are limited so it’s recommended that attendees turn up early. For more information, www.crossrail.co.uk/sustainability/archaeology/archaeology-exhibition-portals-to-the-past-february-2014.

A new exhibition celebrating the artists of the German Renaissance opened at the National Gallery yesterday. Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance features paintings, drawings and prints by the likes of Hans Holbein the Younger, Albrecht Durer and Lucas Cranach the Elder and examines how perceptions of the pieces have changed over time. Works include Holbein’s Anne of Cleves, Hans Baldung Grien’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Rosary, and Matthias Grunewald’s drawing of An Elderly Woman with Clasped Hands. There is also a reconstruction of the Liesborn altarpiece, created in 1465 and originally housed at the Benedictine Abbey of Liesborn in Germany. Runs until 11th May. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.nationalgallery.co.uk.

Film-makers Michael Powell (1905-1990) and Emeric Pressburger (1902-1988) have been commemorated with the placement of an English Heritage Blue Plaque at the site of their former workplace, a flat in Dorset House, on Gloucester Place in Marylebone. It was from Flat 120 in the apartment block that they oversaw the production of some of their greatest films including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) between 1942 and 1947. Film director Martin Scorsese was among those who unveiled the plaque. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/discover/blue-plaques/.

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