London is full of surprises. Some of them are even nice ones, that can make you smile or remind you of something you had forgotten. One such surprise was happened upon by the Lovely Wife and I a few weeks ago as we were trying not to walk into tourists on a busy South Bank near London Bridge. As we moved along, we were confronted by a board at the entrance to a side street leading away from the river. It informed us that the Rose theatre was open for visiting, with a helpful arrow inviting us to leave the crowds behind and explore what intrigue might be lying just around the corner.
The fact it claimed ‘free entry’ was also a pull, obviously. That never hurts.
It took a few moments to locate a rather ordinary doorway into an ugly late 1980s building (was not looking too enticing, free or not). We were ushered in by some friendly older volunteer types (I feel I can say that as I am on at Wrest Park, and there is a definite kind of person and attitude that means you are prepared to give up hours of your time for something you are passionate about). And there, in the semi darkness, under water and seen through thick glass, was the – foundations of – the Rose theatre.
It dates from 1587 and was one of handful of purpose-built theatres from that time (predating the original Globe for example by some years). For the 15 or so years it was active it was hugely popular and home to both plays by Shakespeare and in particular Christopher Marlowe; but by 1606 it had vanished. Then in 1989 the foundations were discovered during redevelopment of the area. Importantly, what was uncovered turned out to be more extensive and better preserved then people had thought, and the tide turned from excavation and subsequent destruction to whether the remains could and should be preserved.
It was as we were listening to the story and subsequent talks on the site and Elizabethan dress (apparently, they have a revolving series of talk topics) that we both remembered the kerfuffle around the remains and the efforts to save them (which I, certainly, had forgotten about). As well as the archaeologists, this campaign was spearheaded by the acting fraternity, with the usual suspects such as Sam Wanamaker, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen joined by an elderly Lawrence Olivier – whose impassioned speech asking for the remains to be saved turned out to be his final public ‘performance’. The campaign, as we could see in front of us, was eventually successful and the remains are there to see in a specially constructed basement.
The trust that looks after the site hope that the site can be improved for visitors or even further excavations can happen in the future. I hope so too. Certainly, if you happen to be near London Bridge on a Saturday afternoon, look out for it. It is a little overlooked gem.
After all, it’s free.