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The Old City of London

January 29, 1989|ED SHEEHAN | Sheehan is a free-lance writer living in Honolulu

LONDON — Where the Bank of England stands now, neolithic hunters once carved elk with flint axes and Roman legions built a camp called Londinium. The crowded square mile of the "city of London" holds as much history beneath its crowded streets as is offered above them.

Scraps of the Roman wall remain, and bowlered businessmen bustle past remnants of a temple to the god Mithras at the heart of one of the world's great financial centers.

More than 20 centuries of London's history also comes vividly to life in the neighborhood's fascinating Museum of London. The museum is an offering for people who usually shun such places, a thoroughly entertaining theater in which to briefly soak up the city's rich history.

Well Laid Out

It's more fun than formal, and it's cleverly laid out for a comfortable ramble through a cantilevered gallery. Its 7,500 items are arranged chronologically, beginning when hunters stalked mastodons on the site of Heathrow Airport.

The first display is an improvised cross-section of London earth. From the bottom up, buried in strata like a marble cake, are flint tools, pottery shards, tile scraps and bronze and iron implements.

On the top, casually arrayed on today's turf, are beer bottles and soft-drink containers. Stuffed mice play in a re-creation of a Roman kitchen. Music is used for subliminal effect: madrigals in the medieval section, Handel for Georgian times, fox trots for the 1940s.

In one tiny space a model of the city is slowly consumed by the great fire of 1666. The recorded words of English diarist Samuel Pepys explain that day as the flames crackle. In a shockingly realistic touch, hot air is blown out over the spectators.

It is an absorbing saunter through many centuries, experiencing and, in many places, touching the ways in which London's people lived and worked.

Old Prison Gates

There are macabre moments, too. The massive iron gates from infamous Newgate Prison bring a chill with their awful finality. Outside is a cage-like contraption in which bodies of criminals were once hung, like beef, on public display.

Nearby, visitors can walk into a prison cell of a century ago. Walls are covered with the graffiti and names of inmates, and it conjures up the dank stenches and despair of the time.

Lighter exhibits are in the majority, however. They range from ivory false teeth of the 17th Century to the present queen's 1952 coronation gown. A fascinating Cheapside street hoard glitters; it's the stock of a jeweler, hidden before his flight or death more than 200 years ago.

Also displayed are fire engines, Viking canoes, theater memorabilia, Chippendale chairs and tea tins. Victorian shops of drapers, chemists and tobacconists appear as if their proprietors had just left for the corner pub.

Among the galleries the stroll is akin to walking with William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Sherlock Holmes or Sir Winston Churchill, or revisiting the history books of childhood.

The museum then leaps into times more familiar. Anyone more than 60 years old will feel nostalgic, gazing at a Woolworth's notion counter, circa 1930. Ornate elevators from Selfridge's lifted millions of grown-ups in the Oxford Street emporium.

A little black Ford evokes sweet memories of swing bands and rumble seats on long-ago summer nights.

The largest single item is the coach of the Lord Mayor of London, built in 1757. Almost three tons of opulence, this red and gold carriage could be a Cinderella fantasy magnified 50 times. It is still in use, trundled annually through the streets by six huge horses, carrying his lordship to the swearing-in ceremony.

The museum, opened in 1976, is a few blocks from St. Paul's Cathedral beside the massive Barbican Centre. It contains classrooms, libraries and an auditorium in addition to the display gallery.

There is also a pleasant restaurant, plus room on the grass for brown-baggers. Throughout are oases of upholstered chairs.

Admission is free. Open Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 2 to 6 p.m. Children are welcome.

For more information on travel to London, contact the British Tourist Authority, 350 S. Figueroa St., Suite 450, Los Angeles 90071; phone (213) 628-3525.

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