This coming Sunday (10th July at 4pm) I'll be running my first ever 'Hampstead' walk.If you're unfamiliar with the area, Hampstead was once a small country village, which although only 4 miles from central London stands about 440ft (134 metres) above sea level. It remained largely undeveloped until well in to the 18th century when people were drawn there by the clean air, large open spaces and abundance of springs. It became known as the 'Vale of Health'. It has managed to retain its village feel and stands next to 800 acres of heathland which is open to the public and enjoyed by Londoners, especially the fantastic views of the capital from Parliament Hill.
Hampstead attracted a huge amount of writers, artists and well known historical characters, and as such has about 75 commemorative plaques on their former homes. We'll pass by quite a number, including the houses of H.G Wells, Peter Cook, John Constable, Daphne du Maurier, Marie Stopes, Robert Louis Stevenson and John Keats to name but a few. Today's residents of Hampstead include the likes of Ricky Gervais, Liam Gallagher, Helena Bonham Carter and Jonathan Ross.
As well as a fine array of 18th century houses, winding streets and also the impressive Fenton House built in the late 17th century, Hampstead also has quite a number of modernist houses built in the 1930s, including 66 Frognal, the 'sun house' (the first modernist concrete house to be built in London) and No.2 Willow Road which is now a National Trust property. We'll also pass Admiral's House, which was not only painted by local artist John Constable but is said to have been P.L Traver's inspiration for 'Admiral Boom' in her Mary Poppins stories. You'll have to come on the walk to find out the whole story.
Although we won't be breaking out on to Hampstead Heath itself, we will have the opportunity to glimpse a small part of the Heath as we walk up 'Judges Walk' to Whitestone Pond, the highest point in Hampstead. If you would like to join one of my Hampstead walks, please check the schedule on the Home Page for upcoming dates. I'll be running them on Sunday afternoons so you can combine it with a visit and perhaps Sunday Roast in one of Hampstead's many gorgeous pubs, or perhaps a visit to the nearby Kenwood House or maybe just a stroll around Hampstead Heath. If you're brave enough, you could go for an outdoor dip in one of the Hampstead Ponds.
This coming weekend I'll be starting my new regime of Weekend London Walks, including some entirely new adventures in parts of London I've not previously covered on group 'pay what you want' walks. This coming Sunday (3rd July) at 3pm I'll be doing my inaugural 'Holborn, Clerkenwell & Smithfield' tour, so thought I'd write a brief post describing a little bit about what you can expect.
If you've been on walks with me before you'll know I'm quite keen on the etymology of words and place names, so we'll talk about 'Chancery' (we'll meet outside Chancery Lane underground station) and the legal 'Inns' that used to be in the area. We'll meet right by the impressive Staple Inn, a black and white Tudor building which is still standing and dates back to 1585. We'll pass by the gothic Victorian Holborn Bars, which was once Furnival's Inn, where Charles Dickens lived when he began writing the Pickwick Papers. We'll move on to Hatton Garden, today, London's 'jewellery quarter', once London residence of the Bishop's of Ely from the 13th century and part of which was grant to Christopher Hatton in the 16th century. We'll pass through a little alley way to discover a lovely little pub, Ye Olde Mitre, the origins of which date back to 1546 and a delightful little church which has managed to survive from the reign of Edward I (1272 - 1307). From there we'll move on to Smithfield.
Smithfield has an intriguing, gruesome and varied history as a jousting ground, the site of a yearly fair which began in the 12th century, St Bartholomew's Hospital and a monastery founded in 1123, part of which the church of St Bartholomew-the-Great survives today, a meat market which has been on the site for 900 years and amongst other things ...executions. Queen Mary I ('Bloody Mary' had over 200 Protestants executed there, many of whom were burned at the stake. Perhaps the most famous execution at Smithfield was Scottish patriot William Wallace in 1305. We'll pass by the 'oldest house in London', walk over a Black Death burial site, stop outside another ancient monastery, which gets used regularly as a film set and currently houses about 45 'brothers'. We'll also talk about the meat market and its changing fortunes over the years before heading on to Clerkenwell.
There was another 12th century monastery in Clerkenwell, parts of which still survive today, not just physically, but in an organisation that everyone will be very familiar with. We'll pass through the Tudor gatehouse and by the old Norman church to Clerkenwell Green which features in Charles Dickens 'Oliver Twist' and take a look at some of the buildings, old and new. At the end we'll go in search of the original 'Clerk's Well' which gives its name to the area.
Please Note - This walk might change a bit. The purpose of this blog post is to just give you a taster of what you can expect.
This weekend on Sat 2nd July I'll also be doing 'The Great Fire' walk, 'Around St Paul's cathedral' and 'Fleet Street'.
If you'd like to join the walk listed here, or any of my other walks, please book first, by sending me a message via the Contact Form. Thank you.
If you’re preparing to visit London for the first time, then it can be a little daunting. It’s a big place and there’s a lot to think about and plan. You might have a lot of questions such as where will I stay? How do I get to central London from the airport? What should I see? How do I use public transport?
As a tour guide in London I get asked these questions a lot, so have decided to do a series entitled ‘Questions from London Tourists’, whereby I shall endeavour to answer some of these questions. Today I’ll answer the question …where is everything?
London has a ridiculous amount of large museums, galleries, places of interest, iconic buildings, parks and small museums. To answer the question ‘Where is everything?’ I’m literally going to pick out what I consider to be ‘The Biggies’ (not everything), the places a first time visitor might want to ensure they tick off during their stay; things like Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.
The second thing I’ve done is to draw a map (yes, I drew it myself) to show you as simply as I can, where these places are clustered. The reason I’ve done this is because it will help you make the best use of your time, so in one day or morning, you can see a number of places all within walking distance, rather than travelling back and forth across London using public transport. It’ll hopefully help you plan your days better and enable you to understand and visualise where everything is.
1 – Buckingham Palace
2 – Trafalgar Square
3 – Big Ben & Houses of Parliament
4 – Westminster Abbey
5 – St Paul’s cathedral
6 – Tower of London
7 – Tower Bridge
8 – The British Museum
This area is called Westminster. It’s the government and Royal area of London and has the highest density of ‘sights’ in one area, all of which are completely walkable. It also has London’s West End, where a huge amount of theatres are situated and people go to ‘catch a show’. Covent Garden and Soho also have a lot of restaurants, pubs and bars.
Places of Interest
Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and Houses of Parliament, Downing Street, Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, China Town.
Museums and Galleries
National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, The Courtauld Gallery, The Royal Academy, Churchill War Rooms, London Transport Museum.
The London Eye.
St James’s Park and Green Park.
Covent Garden, Soho, Whitehall, St James’s, Mayfair, Piccadilly.
This area is called The City of London. It’s London's first financial district and although looks quite modern, was actually where the Roman’s settled in about 48AD. Londoners refer to it as ‘the square mile’ and it forms a small semi circle north of the Thames that stretches from Blackfriars Bridge in the west to Tower Bridge in the east.
The three ‘Biggies’ in the City of London for first time visitors are St Paul’s cathedral in the centre/west of the City and the the Tower of London and Tower Bridge which are slap bang next to each other on the far east side.
Places of Interest
St Paul’s cathedral, Tower Bridge, The Tower of London, The Monument.
Museums and Galleries
Guildhall Art Gallery, Bank of England Museum, Dr Johnson’s House.
This area is South Kensington and Knightsbridge. It’s one of London’s most desirable and expensive areas. Exhibition Road houses the vast collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens along with Kensington Palace are close by. Harrods, the famous department store is also found here.
Places of Interest
Albert Memorial, Royal Albert Hall, Harrods.
Museums and Galleries
Victoria and Albert Museum, Science Museum and Natural History Museum, Kensington Palace, Serpentine Gallery
Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens
I am a Tour Guide in London and give both private and group walks around the capital for first time visitors and seasoned Londoners alike. If you are visiting London and would like to do a tour with me, please get in touch.
Also in the Questions from London Tourists Series:
01 - How do I get to central London from the airport?
Like most cities, if you arrive in London by plane, it’s quite likely you’ll be miles away from where you want to be (in fact it’s highly unlikely you’ll even be in London) and have to work out how to get from the airport to central London (as I’m assuming you’ll be heading to central London). This can be a daunting task, particularly if you have luggage, children and jet lag.
In my correspondence with people who have booked me for private tours around London, I quite often get asked about travel to and from airports, so have decided to format it in to a handy, and hopefully helpful guide. It’s the first post in a series entitled ‘Questions from London Tourists’.
There are five main airports you might arrive at, but only one of them is actually in central London. Ironically, this airport, London City Airport, is rarely used by tourists, but is mostly used by business people as it is next door to one of London’s main financial centres.
Two of the airports try to hoodwink you in to thinking they’re in London by having ‘London’ in their name, but they’re not. London Luton airport is nearly 30 miles north of central London in a place called Luton, which is not in London. London Stansted Airport is more than 40 miles north east of central London. These two airports are used by the cheap airlines like EasyJet and Ryan Air, but fear not, there are easy ways to get in to central London from them, which I shall explain shortly.
Most people tend to fly in to Heathrow or Gatwick, which are by far the biggest and most frequently used airports servicing London, but I’ve also included London Southend Airport (again …not in London), which I’d never even heard of until I met someone on a walk who had used it.
Heathrow airport is 14 miles to the west of central London. Most of the American tourists I meet fly to Heathrow.
How do I get to central London from Heathrow Airport?
Train – The Heathrow Express leaves every 15 minutes to Paddington Station and takes 15 minutes (from Terminals 2 & 3) and 18 minutes from Terminal 5.
The cheapest adult ticket is about £25, so although it’s the quickest route to central London, it’s also the most expensive in terms of public transport. Note – Unless you’re staying right by Paddington station, you’ll still have to either navigate the Underground or jump in a cab to continue your journey.
Underground – Heathrow Airport has three of its own stops on the Piccadilly Line (dark blue) and heads straight in to central London. At just £3-5 this is by far the cheapest option, but also perhaps the longest. The journey between Heathrow and Green Park (in central London) will take about an hour, because you’ll also stop 19 times. At rush hour when Londoners are using it, it might get pretty packed, hot and uncomfortable. However, it’s how I always get to and from Heathrow Airport.
Note – Underground trains will often display the final station on the line to let you know where they’re heading. In this instance it’ll be ‘Cockfosters’ which obviously creates much amusement for first time visitors. Also as Heathrow is at the end (or beginning) of the line, you can’t go the wrong way. Bonus.
Taxi – The taxi option from any of the airports is appealing based on the fact that you just dump all your luggage in to the car, then sit there until you arrive at your destination. However, taxis from any airport will be expensive and you run the risk of getting stuck in traffic.
A taxi to central London from Heathrow Airport will cost anything between £50 and £100.
I just got a quote from a taxi firm for x3 people in a people carrier with x3 pieces of luggage and hand luggage and was quoted £93 one way from Heathrow to Trafalgar Square.
Gatwick airport is 29.5 miles south of central London.
How do I get to central London from Gatwick Airport?
Train – The Gatwick Express heads from Gatwick airport to Victoria station in central London every 15 minutes. The journey takes 30 minutes and an adult ticket will cost about £18.50.
However, there are many other regular trains that go the same way. Southern Trains have x4 services an hour and it takes 35 minutes. If you book in advance, a ticket will cost £12.50.
Thameslink and Great Northern Trains have regular services that go to London Bridge, London Blackfriars, Farringdon and St Pancras International; all in central London.
Taxi – Depends on traffic but the journey will take an hour upwards and prices will start at £60.
London Stansted Airport
London Stansted Airport is 42 miles north-east of central London.
How do I get to central London from London Stansted Airport?
Train – The Stansted Express runs every 30 minutes and the journey to Liverpool Street Station takes just under 50 minutes. You could pick up a one way ticket booked in advance for £9.70 but generally a single will be £20.70 and a return £30.70.
Top Tip – The Stansted Express stops at a number of stations en route. One of them, Tottenham Hale, is on the Victoria Line (on the London Underground) so depending on where you’re heading it might be quicker to jump off there.
Coach – National Express coaches run frequent services to central London. It takes about 1 hour to get to Stratford in east London and then you can get the Central Line (red) in to central London. A single ticket is £16.
Taxi – A people carrier in to central London will cost about £132.
London Luton Airport
London Luton Airport is 28 miles north of central London.
How do I get to central London from London Luton Airport?
Train – London Luton Airport doesn’t have its own train station so you’d need to first get a shuttle bus to take you to Luton Parkway Station which will take about 10 minutes.
From Luton Parkway Station trains in to central London take about 40 minutes and run every 10 minutes. A ticket will cost about £16.50.
Coach – The National Express service to Victoria Coach Station (in central London) runs 35 times a day. It takes about 1 hour and 35 minutes and will cost £12.
Taxi – A taxi will take at least 1 hour and 15 minutes and prices start at about £70.
London City Airport
London City Airport is approximately 8 miles east of central London.
How do I get to central London from London City Airport?
DLR – The DLR stands for Docklands Light Railway and is part of Transport For London’s rail network which includes the Underground. In about 30 minutes you’ll be at Bank Station in the City of London and will cost you less than £3.
Taxi – A taxi in to central London will take thirty minutes or so and cost £40 or more.
London Southend Airport
London Southend Airport is approximately 36 miles east of central London.
How do I get to central London from London Southend Airport?
Train – There is no express service from London Southend Airport but Greater Anglia Trains run regular trains in to Liverpool Street Station every 20 minutes. It takes just under an hour and tickets start at £19.
Taxi - I got a quote from a taxi firm for x3 people in a people carrier with x3 pieces of luggage and hand luggage and was quoted £129 one way from London Southend Airport to Trafalgar Square.
Please note – All the taxi fares and times given will differ depending on the company you use, the size of the car, the amount of people in your group and luggage and of course …the traffic.
All information and fares were correct (as to the best of my knowledge) at the date of posting.
I am a Tour Guide in London and give both private and group walks around the capital for first time visitors and seasoned Londoners alike. If you are visiting London and would like to do a tour with me, please get in touch.
The other evening, I was driving around Sydenham in south east London, and took a wrong turning. I pulled in to an access point which opened in to what looked like a small estate of modest 1970s housing so I could reverse out. In front of me, quite incongruously was what looked like a large stone monument, so obviously I got out for a closer look.
It turned out to be the spire of a long gone church that once stood in the City of London and had been built by none other than Christopher Wren.
Sir Christopher Wren is a name that pops up regularly on my walks. During the Great Fire of London in 1666, 87 churches were destroyed within the City of London, a small area, known today as ‘the square mile’. Wren, professor of astronomy at Oxford university at the time was responsible for overseeing the rebuilding of 51 of these churches; his most famous being St Paul’s cathedral, where he is also buried. Another famous spire of his is that of St Bride's church, said to have inspired the modern day wedding cake, which we pass on my regular Saturday morning 'pay what you want' London walking tour.
A few of these churches were demolished during the Victorian period, and most of the remainder were destroyed during the bombing of WW2, although a large number were restored. So how did the spire of one of Wren’s City churches end up in the middle of a housing estate in Sydenham?
The spire once belonged to a church called St Antholin’s which was completed in 1682 and stood on Budge Row, a street that no longer exists, just off Watling Street. It’s where the current New Change shopping centre now stands, literally a stone’s throw from St Paul’s cathedral. The spire was apparently damaged in 1829 and bought for £5 by a guy called Robert Harrild who had made his fortune by inventing a new bit of machinery used in the Fleet Street printing presses. He had the spire transported to his manor house, Round Hill House, in Sydenham and re-erected in his garden.
St Antholin’s church was demolished in 1875, and in the 1930s, Robert Harrild’s house became a social club, until it too was demolished in the 1960s. A housing estate was built on the site, but somehow Wren’s spire seems to have stayed where it was. Up until three years ago the spire was in a pretty dilapidated state, but has been restored by the Heritage of London Trust and the L&Q Housing Association.
Up until the beginning of March last year, I did regular weekend group walking tours around London, that looked a bit like this:
Time Out London said they were one of the best walking tours in London.
Then a pandemic hit and it's been a bit quiet on the walking tour front this last year.
However, restrictions are lifting and as of June (2021) I'll be restarting the weekend walks. They'll work on the same 'pay what you want' basis as they did before and I'll initially be offering the same three walks I did previously, which are:
Sat 10:30AM - Trafalgar Square to St Paul's cathedral (via Covent Garden & Fleet Street).
Sat 2:30pm - St Paul's cathedral to Monument (via Bankside & Borough)
Sun 11am - East London (Old Street, Spitalfields & Bricklane and quite street art heavy)
Each walk is about 2.5 hours long.
Following government restrictions, numbers will be limited.
If you'd like to join one of my weekend London walking tours, please send me a message via the contact form and I'll respond with the details about where we'll meet.
The current dates and times are:
Sat 5th (AM & PM), Sun 6th, Sat 12th (AM only), Sun 13th, Sat 19th (AM only), Sun 20th, Sat 26th (AM & PM), Sun 27th
Sat 3rd (AM & PM), Sun 4th, Sat 10th (AM & PM), Sun 11th, Sat 17th (AM & PM), Sun 18th, Sat 24th (AM & PM), Sun 25th, Sat 31st (AM & PM)
If you'd like to book a private walk, then please feel free to contact me about that too, as I'm still offering tailor made private walking tours in a number of areas in London.
Where are they?
Regent Street and Oxford Street are two major thoroughfares that form a large ‘T’ shape in the heart of London’s west end. Contrary to popular belief, Bond street doesn’t exist as a street, but is the name of an underground station situated between Marble Arch and Oxford Circus. About 500ft away is New Bond Street, which slices through Mayfair until it runs in to Old Bond Street by Piccadilly. It is often thought that this what Victor Watson of Waddington’s was referring to when he selected the streets for the UK version of Monopoly in 1935.
Like a number of the other properties, I have included them together due to their proximity. New Bond street and Old Bond street are found in Mayfair which also happens to be the final property on the board.
What’s the story?
Regent Street was named after the Prince Regent (Later George IV) and was principally designed by architect John Nash in the first quarter of the 19th century, cutting a huge boulevard through the existing streets and as such is regarded as an early form of town planning. The curved section towards Piccadilly was originally colonnaded, but was partly demolished in the 1840s due to the fact that the covered pavements were attracting prostitutes and “doubtful characters”.
Oxford Street is a Roman route, and later went by various names including Tyburn Way, only becoming Oxford Street in 1739, named after landowner Edward Harley (the 2nd Earl of Oxford).
Old Bond Street dates back to 1686, named after its developer Thomas Bond. New Bond street followed in the 1720s.
How do I get there?
Regent Street is served by Piccadilly and Oxford Circus underground stations. Oxford Street is over a mile long with four underground stations which from east to west are Marble Arch, Bond street, Oxford Circus and Tottenham Court Road. Bond Street underground is close to New Bond Street.
What’s it like now?
Both Regent Street and Oxford Street are super busy shopping streets, which most Londoners will generally avoid if they can. I don’t know who handed out this award, but Oxford Street would seem to hold the dubious title of ‘Europe’s busiest shopping street’. I’ll be mentioning a few of the shops, but think big high street department stores and big name brands rather than small boutiques. If you’re visiting around the Christmas period, then both Oxford Street and Regent Street are popular due to their displays of Christmas lights. Old Bond street is largely lined with high end luxury shops like Gucci, Prada and Dolce & Gabbana. New Bond Street is equally chock-full of znazzy haute-couture shops, it’s pavements teeming with the super glamorous.
Where would I stay?
A few of the hotels I’ve been to around these particular streets are the Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill (where I’ve also had afternoon tea), The Langham Hotel at the north end of Regent Street, which is often the winner of London’s most haunted hotel award. Just north of Oxford Street on Berners Street you’ll find the Sanderson London and close by is the Charlotte Street Hotel. All these options are basically luxury hotels, so if you’re a budget traveller or backpacker, then there’s a hostel on Dean street (just south of Oxford Street) called Sohostel or the hotels I mentioned in the post which included Soho.
What’s of interest?
Reputedly the oldest and largest toy shop in the world, Hamley’s was originally founded in 1760 by William Hamley, and called Noah’s Ark. Since 2019, Hamley’s has been owned by an Indian multinational conglomerate company called Reliance Industries and covers about 54,000 square feet over 7 floors. That’s a lot of toys. It goes without saying that in the run up to Christmas, the shop gets incredibly busy, but it’s worth a visit just for the experience and encountering the shop assistants demonstrating toys on the shop floor with a slightly mad glimmer in their eye.
Liberty of London
On the corner of Regent Street Street and Great Marlborough Street is the department store ‘Liberty’s’ which I mentioned when discussing the orange properties. It’s a lovely looking building, made from the timber of two 19th century naval ships.
The English fashion brand and retailer Jaeger has been trading on Regent Street since 1935, but was originally founded in 1881. The Apple Store opened in 2004 in a grade II listed, late 19th century building once occupied by a glass making and mosaic firm from Venice called Salviati. In 1898 they installed a beautiful mosaic on the outside of the building incorporating coats of arms from Westminster and the Venetian islands of Murano and Burano.
At the north end of Regent Street where it meets Langham Place is Broadcasting House, an Art Deco building and headquarters of the BBC since 1932. Above the front entrance is a sculpture by controversial artist Eric Gill, who also bestowed upon us the font, ‘Gill Sans’.
Selfridges was opened in 1909 by Gordon H. Selfridge, an American who was in no doubt that the British could make quality goods, but less certain at our ability to sell them. Selfridges was London’s first American style department store with 130 departments and encouraged Londoners to view shopping as a leisure activity with the slogan “Why not spend the day at Selfridges”.
Other nearby department stores include Debenhams, House of Fraser and John Lewis.
The Wallace Collection
Just north of Selfridges, occupying a former town house on the north side of Manchester Square is The Wallace Collection, an absolutely brilliant gallery and museum which first opened to the public in 1900. The collection includes over 5,000 works of art (inc. Titian, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Gainsborough), furniture, porcelain, sculpture and an incredible selection of arms and armoury. Everything you see was mostly collected in the 18th and 19th century by successive members of the same family; the Marquesses of Hertford. The 4th Marquess left his home and collection to his illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace, whose widow in turn bequeathed it to the nation.
I think the Wallace Collection probably falls beneath the radar of many visitors to London, whose itineraries are understandably filled with visits to the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum. If you can find the time to visit the Wallace Collection, you won’t be disappointed.
The Cartoon Museum
Despite Britain’s long running tradition of cartoons and caricatures, appearing in news-sheets in the 19th century and comics such as ‘The Beano’ and ‘The Dandy’ launching in the late 1930s, The Cartoon Museum which comprises over 6,000 original cartoon and comic artworks and a library of over 8,000 books and comics has only been in existence since 2006, moving to its current site on Wells Street in 2019.
The 100 Club
The 100 Club on Oxford street is a world famous gig venue, which began hosting live music in 1942 (as the Feldman Swing Club) with none other than Glenn Miller being one of its earliest performers. It’s been called the 100 Club since 1964 and moved from the Jazz scene to Blues, then the Mods of the 1960s hosting The Who and The Kinks, the punk scene of the 1970s with bands such as The Sex Pistols and The Clash, and more recently the Britpop phenomenon of the 1990s including Oasis and Suede. About a decade ago, the club faced closure, but a campaign backed by many of the musicians who have played there managed to keep it going and is a favourite haunt for big name acts to play secret shows when they’re in London.
Pollock's Toy Museum
Pollock's began life as a printers in Hoxton (east London) in the 1850s, later moving to occupy a shop in Covent Garden. The owner Benjamin Pollock made materials for toy theatres by hand. The museum moved to its location on Scala Street (Fitzrovia) in the late 1960s (as a separate entity from the shop) with its collection of mostly Victorian toys including teddy bears, dolls houses, puppets and toy theatres displayed across six small rooms and the staircases.
New Bond Street and Old Bond Street
Sotheby's Auction House
Sotheby’s was established in 1744 and is one of the world’s oldest auction houses, specialising in fine art, photographs, books and antiquities, jewellery, watches and musical instruments. On the day of writing, a Rembrandt self portrait is being auctioned for an estimated £16 million, alongside works by Gerhard Richter, Joan Miro, Francis Bacon and Picasso (to name but a few).
Most auctions are held during the day and are open to the public, with no obligation to bid, so if you fancy being part of an auction, why not pop in.
Unveiled in 2005 to commemorate 50 years of peace since the end of WW2, Allies, a sculpture by Laurence Holofcener is popular with tourists, not least because it depicts a convivial chat between Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill on a bench, but because you can sit between them and have your photograph taken.
Handel and Hendrix in London
The 18th century composer George Frideric Handel and 20th century rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix lived next door to each other at 23 and 25 Brook Street, albeit some two hundred years apart. Handel occupied an entire Georgian town house, whilst Hendrix rented a top floor flat briefly between 1968 / 69 with his then girlfriend Kathy Etchingham. The two buildings are now connected to create Handel & Hendrix in London. I visited the museum a few years back and it’s absolutely fascinating visit, particularly (as it goes without saying) if you have an interest in music.
Royal Institution / Faraday Museum
On Albemarle Street, which runs parallel to New Bond street, you will find the Royal Institution which was founded in 1799 with the aim of introducing new technologies and teaching science to the general public. A large number of scientists have been associated with or worked inside the building (14 of whom have won Nobel prizes). In the basement you can visit Michael Faraday’s magnetic laboratory where he conducted experiments in electricity and magnetism and see the tools and instruments he used in his pioneering research. You are cordially invited to explore the building and discover the instruments that have made science work for the last 200 years and the key role that the RI played in the development of the modern world.
Eating and Drinking
It goes without saying that in this part of town you are spoilt for choice for places to eat and as I’m not really a foodie, probably not best placed to offer advice. However, if you fancy treating yourself then I can highly recommend Nopi, just off Regent Street which serves Middle Eastern and Asian inspired plates. If you’re after a nice cosy authentic boozer that won’t be over run with tourists then just north of Oxford street you won’t be disappointed with either the Newman Arms or The Champion.
Also in the series:
#00 – Introduction
#01 – Old Kent Road
#02 – Whitechapel Road
#03 – The Angel, Euston Rd & Pentonville Rd
#04 - Pall Mall
#05 – Whitehall & Northumberland Avenue
#06 – Bow Street
#07 – Marlborough Street & Vine Street
#08 - Strand
#09 - Fleet street
#10 - Trafalgar Square
#11 - Leicester Sq, Coventry St & Piccadilly
I meet many visitors to London who have never encountered the word ‘mews’ before, or indeed British people who, although familiar with the term in the lexicon alongside road, street or lane, don’t actually know what it means.
The word ‘mews’ originates from the French ‘muer’ (to moult) and refers to the confinement of hawks, often in a tower whilst they gained their adult plumage. Bruce Castle in Haringey has a tower that is thought was used for this exact purpose.
Mews became widely used to describe the confinement of animals in general and by the 16th century often described an area boasting a number of stables. The area we now call Trafalgar Square was, during the reign of Henry VIII, known as the King’s Mews and the name lingered on until the mid 19th century when the stables were relocated to Buckingham Palace. Although built 300 years after the King's Mews, the National Gallery stands on the site but incorporates architectural features from Henry VIII’s stables; the hollow pepperpots which would have acted as air vents to let the horse manure smell drift out of the roof.
Many of the more affluent areas of London such as Kensington, Chelsea and Mayfair have large houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries. The house entrances face the thoroughfare whilst threading along the back is the mews; a service street where the stables were located. Aside from housing horses and carriages, these mews also provided accommodation for stable boys, would be where tradesmen could enter, and deliveries were dropped off. In their day, these tiny streets would have been a hive of activity and pungent smells. Today these mews streets are much sought after and the stables have been converted into houses, allowing the residents to enjoy the relative peace and quiet of a street that has little or no traffic in an otherwise busy area.
In Brockley, south-east London there is a conservation area of Victorian housing which was developed as a suburb for the wealthy middle classes. South London already benefitted from a comprehensive rail network (one of the reasons that when the first Underground Line opened in 1863, and the others followed, they steered clear of south London). Residents in Brockley had easy access to central London (Brockley Station opened in 1871), and if needed would have hired a coach and horses, rather than have their own. For this reason, the mews in Brockley remained largely undeveloped, unlike other areas of London, and instead traverse the main roads like little country tracks. The stables which still do exist are therefore a rarity and add significant historic value to the area.
Over the last few months with lockdown measures in place and restrictions on travel and movement, Brockley’s mews have become little havens that children can explore, play games, pick blackberries or discover the latest street art on garage doors. On Breakspears Mews there is a community garden and Wickham Mews particularly, with mature trees, shrubs and overgrown hedges really makes you feel like you’re a long way from the traffic on Lewisham Way and almost transported to another time and place. That’s not to say you won’t encounter a number of abandoned vehicles or household objects left to be reclaimed by nature, but if you look carefully you can see the names of long forgotten businesses painted on to peeling timber and you might even come across the Royal Coat of Arms from one of the original gates to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
What’s on offer?
Throughout August (and beyond), whilst adhering to the latest government public health guidelines, I will be offering socially distanced private London walking tours for individuals, families, couples or small groups who are mixing in a bubble.
Please Note – If you would like to do a tour with people NOT in your household or bubble, the maximum number of attendees is x6 (as per government guidelines).
Each walk will be a maximum duration of x2 hours at a fixed cost of £100. (That’s for the time, not per person, so will be the same if it is one person or six).
Which areas of London do you cover?
My walks tend to be in and around central London; Westminster, the City of London, Bankside & Borough and east London (Shoreditch, Hoxton, Spitalfields). The east London walks include a lot of street art.
What will we learn?
When you contact me about the walk, you can let me know which area(s) you are interested in exploring and / or any particular interests in the group. I can then see if I can accommodate and formulate a plan based on that. I do occasionally do themed walks (such as the Fire of London) but I tend to wander around warbling on about things I find interesting, and tailor the walk to the group when I meet them.
I have done many walks either for schools, or for families who have requested the tour be geared towards their children.
We live in London. Why would we go on a tour?
I started ‘Bowl of Chalk’ over 8 years ago and for the first year or so, my customers were all Londoners. Until Covid-19 struck, lots of Londoners used to come on my walks to learn about their own city. People often discover how little they know about the city they live in, bits of street furniture they pass every day and had never noticed, curiosities and intriguing bits of architecture. Often, people who have lived in London for years, see it in a whole new light.
Because of the current Covid-19 situation many people who work in central London are working from home, and because of the incredible lack of tourists who would normally descend on the capital in the summer months, it’s actually a great time to explore the city and enjoy the relative quietness. It also means that doing a socially distanced tour is much easier.
When are your tours available?
I’m offering tours seven days a week (between 10am – 4pm) and happy to schedule them to fit in and around your own preferences (based on my own availability).
What Covid-19 measures are in place?
I (the guide) will be wearing a mask and all attendees will be required to also wear protective masks. Throughout the walk we will ensure we adhere to the government social distancing guidelines and there will be no shaking of hands / contact. A cashless payment can be made at the end of the walk using a card reader. I will also bring hand sanitiser.
If you’d like to find out more, please peruse the Bowl of Chalk website, and have a look at what other people have said by reading some reviews. At the beginning of the year, Time Out London listed Bowl of Chalk as one of the “best London walking tours”.
Interested in doing a socially distanced London tour? Contact me.
Where are they?
Leicester Square, Coventry Street and Piccadilly are all in the heart of London’s West End, where tourists flock to visit Chinatown, take in a show, buy tat from one of the many tacky souvenir shops or eat in a generic epidemic restaurant.
What’s the story?
Leicester Square was developed in the 1630s by the 2nd Earl of Leicester, Robert Sydney. His mansion, Leicester House occupied what is now the north side of Leicester Square.
Coventry Street is named after King Charles II’s Secretary of State Charles Coventry, whilst Piccadilly is not named after a landowner, architect or any person for that matter …but a type of shirt collar popular in the 17th century. The ‘picadil’ was a stiff collar and ‘must have’ gentleman’s fashion item made popular by a tailor called Robert Baker, becoming so ubiquitous that the street's name changed from Portugal Street to Piccadilly.
How do I get there?
Leicester Square Underground station is on Charing Cross Road, right next to Leicester Square. Piccadilly Circus Underground station is at the east end of Piccadilly, Green Park Underground station is in the middle and Hyde Park Corner Underground station can be found at the far west end of Piccadilly.
What’s it like now?
I understand the attraction for some tourists, but Leicester Square, Coventry Street and Piccadilly Circus are probably amongst my least favourite places in London on account of their tackiness, the overpriced and not particularly great restaurants and the sheer number of tourists clogging the pavements. I’ve always imagined that Piccadilly Circus to be our own half hearted attempt at Times Square in New York. Piccadilly however is rather grander with a sort of French boulevard feel and as you walk away from Piccadilly Circus, the shops and restaurants become more luxurious and high end and the buildings seem to effortlessly ooze grandeur.
Where would I stay?
Although unlikely you’ll stay there, I have to mention ‘The Ritz’, a Grade II listed hotel, opened in 1906 by Cesar Ritz after being sacked by the Savoy Hotel. It’s known the world over and intrinsically linked with glamour, opulence and famous guests. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died in 2013 in a suite at the Ritz, having been staying there for about 4 months.
Just off Piccadilly is the Cavendish Hotel, then a little further towards Piccadilly Circus is Le Meridien. The Ham Yard Hotel recently opened in a newly developed courtyard area a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus. The Thistle Piccadilly is a 4-star hotel on Whitcomb Street, close to Leicester Square and I’ve also been to the Radisson Blu Edwardian on Leicester Square itself. If you’re looking for some 5-star luxury modern sheek then W London might do the trick. There are more affordable options for those travelling on a budget, such as the Premier Inn Leicester Square.
What’s of interest?
Burlington Arcade is a covered shopping street which has been providing a largely wealthy customer base with antiques, silver, jewellery, watches, shoes, perfumes and fashion accessories since 1819.
You’ll notice the arcade has its own private Police force known as ‘Beadles’ (they’re the ones in the top hats and waistcoats) who for the last 200 years have been ensuring amongst other things, visitors don’t whistle, open an umbrella, sing or play a musical instrument or carry a large parcel. There is an intriguing reason why the Burlington Arcade is covered which I’ve written about previously, and just for the record, it’s apparently the longest covered street in Britain.
Situated in Burlington House next door to the arcade is the Royal Academy of Arts which has been promoting the visual arts through exhibitions, education and debate since 1768. The Royal Academy was founded as a privately run and funded charity, run by artists, elected by their peers (still the case today) as well as being home to Britain’s longest established art school.
Fortnum and Mason
Fortnum and Mason (or Fortnum’s as it is known) is a large department store founded in 1707 by Hugh Mason and William Fortnum. The latter happened to be Queen Anne’s footman and as such had to ensure the palace was lit by brand new candles each evening. He kept the old ones, sold them on and used the money to help fund his new business enterprise. As such, you’ll notice candles are a motif throughout the shop, which sells groceries, household goods, men’s and women’s fashion and lots of other things, all at a slightly higher price than you can buy elsewhere. They’ve held Royal Warrants for some 150 years, currently providing ‘general provisions’ to the Queen and as such have garnered the nick name ‘The Queen’s Grocers’. If I’m in the area on a walk, I often take people in to Fortnum and Mason, just to experience the opulence of the place, and on the off-chance they’re handing out samples at the confectionary counter.
The oldest bookshop in London has been selling books on Piccadilly since 1797 when it was founded by John Hatchard. Although now owned by Waterstones, Hatchards are bookseller of choice to The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles.
St James’s Piccadilly
A rare example of a church designed by Sir Christopher Wren outside the ‘City of London’. St James’s was badly damaged in 1940 during an air raid, and subsequently restored. The spire is apparently made of fibreglass. Today you’ll no doubt stumble across the market in the courtyard and the church hosts regular concerts; mostly classical, but also welcomes well known faces from the world of folk and pop.
Waterstones Piccadilly is the bookseller’s flagship shop and the largest bookshop in London, housed in an imposing 1930s art deco building that once once home to Simpson’s department store which in turn was the inspiration for the classic British sitcom ‘Are you being served?”.
Running parallel to Piccadilly on the south side is Jermyn Street which has been a mecca for high end gentlemen’s fashion for 300 years. You’ll still find an abundance of shirt shops, but also everything a gentleman could possibly need in the form of shoes, cuff links, ties, grooming, cigars, whiskey, natty dressing gowns and lots more. Just to stand out in the crowd you’ll also find Paxton and Whitfield (the Queens cheese shop) and Floris (the Queen’s perfumeries), both of which have been in operation since the 18th century.
The term ‘circus’ literally comes from the Latin for ‘circle’ and like many junctions in the area, it was once a roundabout. For some reason, many people meet at the ‘statue of Eros’ which has been moved a number of times since it was originally installed in 1893 as a fountain and called the ‘Angel of Christian Charity’. The Eros moniker seems to have stuck, and even appears on maps.
You’ll be unable to avoid noticing a huge wall of advertising which is able to exist because it is apparently the only plot of land in the vicinity not owned by the Crown estates (The Queen) who have an incredible dislike for advertising on their buildings. To make up for it, all the advertising is on that one building.
The Criterion Restaurant
Established in 1874 (and recently renamed Savini at the Criterion), this beautiful restaurant is a window back to a time when Piccadilly Circus wasn’t chock full of cheap souvenir shops, human statues and burger restaurants. It’s been used as a backdrop in many a film, and Sherlock Holmes fans might be interested to learn that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used it as a setting for the initial meeting between Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes in the very first Sherlock Holmes story; ‘A Study in Scarlet’.
Café De Paris
Just off Piccadilly Circus is Café De Paris which opened in 1924 as one of London’s first nightclubs; its dance floor modelled on the ballroom of the Titanic. Today, they still host ‘the most debaucherous cabaret show London has seen’ (their words, not mine) and regular club nights.
Just north of Leicester Square is Chinatown, based around the very un-Chinese sounding Gerrard Street, which as you’d expect is brimming with Chinese food options which have been multiplying since the first Chinese settled there in the 1920s. A favourite amongst Londoners is the fabulously named ‘Wong Kei’ on Wardour Street, largely due to the legendary rudeness of the waiting staff.
In the centre of Leicester Square, a rather bemused looking statue of William Shakespeare looks out at the overly expensive cinemas, chain restaurants, tourists and street performers, adorned by a quote from Twelfth Night which reads ‘There is no darkness, but ignorance’ which currently strikes me as being particularly pertinent.
The large Odeon Cinema on the east side is often the venue of choice for Film Premieres, but I’d really recommend checking out the nearby Prince Charles Cinema, who specialise in showing cult, art house and classic films alongside recent mainstream releases at a much more affordable price. When I moved to London 20 years ago, the Prince Charles Cinema was a home from home.
The TKT half price ticket booth is situated on the south side of the square; great if you’re looking for bargain tickets to a West End show for that day. Like every tourist hotspot around the world you’ll find an M & Ms World and also a Lego Store.
Leicester Square is generally somewhere I avoid, unless I’m required to pass through it en-route to somewhere else.
You are in Theatreland. There are theatres everywhere, but I just wanted to mention the Jermyn Street Theatre, a small studio theatre with an audience capacity of 70. If you’re looking for theatre that is intimate and independent, then you should definitely see what the Jermyn Street Theatre have to offer.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.