A longtime member of the Context team, Caroline got her start with us in Rome before returning to London to complete her Master’s degree in Classics at King’s College London. Currently she’s finishing up her Ph.D., researching Latin inscriptions during the Grand Tour. We tapped her expertize in order to find out what makes her passionate about London and the walks she leads.
Context Travel: What is your favorite walk to lead for Context and why?
Caroline Barron: Without doubt, the British Museum walk. I am biased, as much of my PhD research is connected with the Museum, but even if it wasn’t, it would still be my favourite walk! The British Museum is just the most phenomenal institution; the collections are unparalleled, and unlike the Louvre, or the Met, which can feel quite overwhelming, it is possible to get a good sense of the Museum’s history and development in just one visit. The thing that I really love about the British Museum walk though are the stories; there are so many fabulous and fascinating stories about how the collections developed, and the extraordinary people and processes involved in bringing these antiquities to London…I could happily talk about them all day!
CT: If there’s one book travellers should read before visiting London, what would it be and why?
CB: For an overall history of London, I think it’s hard to beat Peter Ackroyd’s ‘London’. It is long, and heavy, but very accessible and full of incredible facts about how London developed, and what life was like. He does an excellent job of bringing back to life the parts of the city that are now completely lost from view, it’s an invaluable source. I’m also a 19th century junkie, so any of Dickens’ novels that are set in London are a must read – ‘Bleak House’, ‘Little Dorrit’, and of course, ‘Oliver Twist’ are wonderfully atmospheric. Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’ too!
CT: For many, archeology doesn’t immediately come to mind when they think of London. What do you think people would be surprised to learn when it comes to London and archeology?
CB: People are always astonished by the extent of the archaeological remains in London; there’s the Roman Wall, which pops up in various places in the old City, bath houses, domestic houses, an amphitheatre, mosaics, bronze statues, and hundreds upon hundreds of smaller finds, and that’s just within the tiny boundaries of the Roman city! I think visitors are also surprised by the fact that much of what we know of Roman London has been discovered relatively recently; it was only after the devastation of the Blitz that many of these sites came to light, and only really in the last 20-30 years that they’ve been properly investigated. Archaeologists are still excavating incredible finds today too, just last October a perfectly intact marble eagle was excavated – it was in such pristine condition, that the archaeologists at first thought it was a piece of Victorian garden sculpture! The quality of the artefacts or the size of sites excavated in London (and the rest of England too) is also usually a surprise to most people; they don’t expect to find such ‘precious’ objects here, but the reality is that Roman Londinium was a hugely cosmopolitan, exciting, thriving city to live in, not unlike today’s city, and the kinds of objects that its inhabitants were acquiring is reflective of that.
CT: If you could chose only one piece to show people in the British Museum, what would it be and why?
CB: That’s an impossible question! Can I pick one piece from each department?! If I really, really had to pick, then it would be between the 7th century B.C. Assyrian Lion Hunt reliefs from the Ashurbanipal’s Palace at Ninevah, which are just stunning in their detail and vitality, and probably the bronze Head of Augustus upstairs in Room 70. His incredibly piercing alabaster eyes survive, which is very rare, but it’s the actual portrait that I adore – it’s a classic example of early Augustan propaganda, and I love revealing those details to people. I’d also find it very hard not to walk past the mummy of Artemidorus; his mummy case literally tells the story of Egypt and its colonisation by the Greeks and then the Romans, he’s amazing.
CT: You often lead walks for families in London. What’s a tip you would give to families visiting the city to make their experience more enjoyable?
CB: I think the best piece of advice I could give would be not to pack too much in to each day; I sometimes find London overwhelming as an adult, so I do sympathise with younger children who can find it really tiring! I think the best approach is to plan your walk, or visit for first thing in the morning, and then spend the afternoon exploring a neighbourhood or ticking off London’s brilliant parks. A trip down the river is also a really fun thing to do, and something most visitors forget to plan. And don’t forget to take advantage of Friday evenings! All the Museums and Galleries in London are open until approx. 8 pm on Fridays, and they’re much quieter than in the day – that can be a really nice thing to do en route to dinner, or on your way home.