I was born in the heart of Southwark, in the handsome Victorian wing of Guy’s Hospital. In those days the area was a down at heel, working class neighbour of the City across the river, not the trendy place that the makeover of Borough Market and the Mordor’s tower of the Shard have subsequently made it. My mother chose to have her baby there because she herself had been born in Bermondsey and benefitted from Guy’s programme for disadvantaged children before there were such things as the NHS and free medical care for all. Southwark is in my blood.

I am a writer, and in the summer of 2002 I started working on a sequence of poems about this historically rich part of London, which grew up round the first bridgehead the Romans threw across the river. I already had my mother’s memories of the place to draw on; I had seen the last surviving inn from the time of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims; I had been told many times about the low life — the prostitution, the theatres, the bear-baiting— that went on in the Tudor and Stuart periods. But I wanted to get under the skin of Southwark, down to its deepest levels, and for that I needed archaeology.


London Bridge excavations © MOLA

Between 1991 and 1998, while traffic thundered overhead, a team from Museum of London Archaeology Service (now MOLA) excavated the area around Borough High Street in advance of the building of the Jubilee Line extension; and in 2002 an account of what had been discovered was published, Settlement in Roman Southwark. It was very happy timing for the research I needed. The archaeology had enabled topographical maps through time to be reconstructed. I saw that the wing where I had been born lay over one of the marshy creeks that were later used by shipping to bring in goods from all over the Roman world, with provenances attested in the artefacts buried in the silt,

the merchantmen/ Row up the river – from Narbo, Aquileia, Palmyra, Pontus, Rome”

The unpoetically named ‘Structure 3’ yielded rich material for me. From the arrival of the Romans almost to their departure it had been a smithy. The iron came from the Weald and Kent, down what is now the Old Kent Road to Borough; the earliest road surface uncovered in the dig was deeply rutted by carts bringing in merchandise, and I imagined the scene,

Three days to get here—/Ruts the size of drains till you reach the good roads/And then the endless scurry of waggons.”

All kinds of iron goods were made here,

The ore is white-hot:/ On the anvil watch it fold and curdle/…Nail, awl, horseshoe, from his glittering shoulders,/The roar of transformation dins the smithy like a drum.”


The excavation of a ‘smith urn’ close by (see Note below), dedicated to the Celtic blacksmith’s striker-god, Sucellos, made the archaeologists speculate that this workshop was owned by a native, in other words, British, family. I am half-Welsh, and I knew that the inhabitants of this part of Britain then spoke the ancestor of modern Welsh. So I made the hero of my poem a blacksmith by the name of Gallo, whose wife gives birth, as my mother did, in an upper room overlooking the ship-filled, cosmopolitan Thames,

Let us give thanks: Sucellos, /The striker-god, and the three mothers/ Protect us, hold us in their sheltering hand.”

Without the difficult and sweltering work done by the archaeologists of MoLAS, I could never have lived and recreated this vivid world.

All quotations from Imperium, Enitharmon Press, 2005.

Note: the image of the ‘smith urn’ is taken from the report by George Dennis of the excavations at 1-7 St Thomas Street, in ‘Southwark Excavations, 1972-74, Vol II’ published by the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society and the Surrey Archaeological Society.