The lights go out. complete darkness. total silence. Then voices, in the distance. Men’s voices – this strange and mysterious place was only for men. Slowly our eyes adjust and the lights come on and we can see two rows of columns and a sunken floor. The Mithras Temple comes to life.
The remains of the building are in the most unexpected place: at the bottom of a flight of stairs beneath a massive, modern London office block owned by Bloomberg. This is pretty much the heart of the City of London and the area is functional and busy rather than beautiful and mysterious, and yet here we are, underground, in the dark, close to the Mysteries of Mithras.
First uncovered in 1954 during excavations after the Blitz, the temple remained neglected and in the open beside a busy road for many years. Then, in 2010, Bloomberg bought the site and created a new home for the temple under their headquarters, and this Bunker Museum was the remarkable result.
The men’s voices, heard through the darkness, come thanks to a sound and light show that introduces visitors to the temple. what do we know about it It was one of thousands that existed around the first to fourth centuries AD, built in honor of Mithras, a god who, according to legend, was born of a stone and was praised by many in Rome and her empire.
Beyond that, not much is known about the cult, since with the rise of Christianity, Mithraism faded and its records were lost. One theory based on the remaining ruins is that the cult was an all-male club that was Masonic in character – there were complex levels of initiation, possibly even a secret handshake, and the followers met in temples like this to perform their rituals.
Visiting the museum now, more than 2000 years after its creation, is an exceptional experience (and free, which is rare in London). Bloomberg has done an excellent job of creating an atmospheric home for it, and for visitors wanting to explore a more unusual side of the city, it’s the ideal culmination of a visit that’s a little different – an experience that tries, under and behind and to walk in between the streets of the old town.
A good starting point for such a visit is the Strand Palace, a large, pretty and comfortable hotel on the main thoroughfare from Westminster to Fleet Street. Some of London’s more surprising and quirky sights, like the Temple, are all within walking distance. As you exit the hotel, turn right and you are in Trafalgar Square.
Turn left and you can plunge into another ancient, mysterious and haunted city. On the way to the beach I pass all the statues you would expect – monuments to kings, dukes, politicians and soldiers – but even in the 19th century some people, like the painter GF Watts, thought there should be others that should be recognized. Watt’s plan was that every city should have monuments to the common people, but when he failed to enlist the support of the government or city planners, he decided to do it himself.
The result is a moving monument near St Paul’s Cathedral in Postman’s Park, one of London’s lesser known and smallest parks. It would be easy to miss this place if you didn’t know it was here, and the effect is striking: one minute, people, cars, noise; the next, a nice little green bag.
This is where locals gather for a quiet break. A lonely pigeon stands on the lawn – maybe pigeons are alone here too.
The monument that Watts created stands against a wall at the back of the park and is beautiful. Arranged in rows are plaques commemorating people who lost their lives trying to save others.
People like 19-year-old Amelia Kennedy, who died in 1871 trying to save her sister from a burning house. And David Selves, who in 1886 “supported his drowning playmate and perished with his arms crossed”. These people were not famous, but their memorials are just as worthwhile, if not more so, than the statues of the great men and women in the nearby streets.
I have to say: I like this side of London, the slightly more unusual version away from the main tourist arteries. Near the park, on the outskirts of the city, is the boundary of the ancient Roman settlement and it is a place where the veil of history is thin: violent history, spooky history, ancient history.
I go to Smithfield, the only meat market that has existed on the same site since the Middle Ages, and on to the memorial to William Wallace near where he was executed. Beyond is St. Bart’s Hospital, where Holmes and Watson first met. This is what happens in London: fiction and fact mix. These are also the streets where Fagin roamed and where Pip arrived with his expectations.
The streets here are also home to the city’s celebrity ghosts, including one that has become the most famous in London. I go to where she roamed: a nondescript street near the Old Bailey. As a gift for fans of the double entender, the street is called Cock Lane and the specter’s name is Fanny, and in the late 18th century she was said to be making frightening scratching noises, ‘like a cat searching a cane chair’. Unfortunately it turned out to be a bit of a drunken joke gone wrong, but it’s an interesting place to see (and listen to). And there’s more story, because there always is: This road is the furthest point that the Great Fire reached.
But it’s time for a quick break from history, so I make a stop at the Viaduct Tavern, which turns out to be steeped in history too (of course it does). It has a spirit of its own, built on the site of an old prison, and you can see its history in the faces of the old men sipping their drinks too. It’s the perfect place to really end my morning searching for clues from the past. Yesterday’s streets become today’s pub and I order a pint and some chips and enjoy the present.
Strand Palace rooms start from £102, doubles start from £190. Afternoon tea at Haxells Tearoom includes finger sandwiches such as Scottish smoked salmon with black pepper. Sweet treats on offer include matcha tea; Raspberry Battenberg; plain or fruity scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam.
Find out more at strandpalacehotel.co.uk