As you wander around London, you’ll notice that a white coloured stone is prevalent. It’s called Portland Stone. After the Great Fire of 1666, and realising that building things out of wood wasn’t such a hot idea (pun intended), Christopher Wren used 6 million tonnes of the stuff whilst rebuilding the City. He rebuilt 51 of the 87 churches that burned, with the mighty St Paul’s cathedral being the most famous; a good example of Wren’s use of Portland Stone, which is a particular favourite amongst architects apparently due to its versatility. More recent examples include BBC Broadcasting House, Green Park Underground station, the CitizenM Hotel and the British Museum.
Portland Stone comes, not surprisingly from Portland on the south coast of England, in Dorset, known as the Jurassic Coast due to the amount of fossils found there from the ‘Jurassic Age’ which occurred 199.6million – 145.5 million years ago. A unique feature therefore of Portland Stone is the sheer number of fossils found within it. I’ve heard it said that occasionally as the buildings weather, fossils appear. Whether this is true or not I have no idea. What is certain though, is that I’ve noticed in recent years that a particular type of Portland limestone called ‘Bowers Roach’ is being used on facades and cladding, with the very visible fossils utilised as a decorative feature; a very effective one at that. I love that fact that people walk around London every day passing 150 million year-old fossils, and they have no idea.
As an example, the below photo is of a bench I often sit on to have my lunch on Saturdays. As you can see, it’s positively festooned with fossils.
The photo at the top shows fossils on the New London Stock Exchange building, Paternoster Square. I’m not an aficionado on fossils (as with anything), but the very prominent cone shaped fossils, known as the ‘Portland Screw’ are officially Gastropods ( Aptyxiella Portlandila). Looks like it might have numerous Bivalves (Liostrea Expansa) too, otherwise known as Oysters.
If you fancy yourself as an urban geologist, whilst you’re out and about fossil hunting in London, keep your eyes open for Pecten (Camptonectes Lamellosus) or Scallop Shells, Mussels (Mytilus Suprajurensis) or Ammonites (Titanites Anguiformes) to name but a few. If you happen to be passing through Euston Station, check out their funky benches, which as the Londonist pointed out, must surely be the oldest benches in London.
If you’d like to find out a bit more about Portland Stone, then have a look at Albion Stone’s website, one of the main providers of Portland Stone, including the examples given above.
I haven't written about any of my private walks since March, so thought I'd mention a handful from each of the last three months. Just to re-iterate ... on weekends I often do regular 'pay what you want' group walks, and for the rest of the time I offer private tours around London, for individuals, couples, families, friends and work events. They're all a bit different and depends on what those specific people would like to get out of the walk. If you're visiting London and thinking about taking a private tour, then the photos below might give you a bit of an idea of the sorts of things I do, and you'll know whether I'm the guide for you ... or not as the case may be.
Each year I do a walk with a bunch of students (and their professor) from a University in Buffalo (New York). We often explore around East London and stop off at Columbia Road Flower Market (top left). The Clinton family (top right) did what I call a 'London Extravaganza Tour' which basically means we spent the whole day together (up to 8 hours) and made sure they saw all the sights and loads of other stuff en route. They're standing outside St Paul's cathedral. Another annual excursion I do is for a group of ladies (bottom left) from the States who come to Europe to run the Paris Marathon. A couple of days later they get the Eurostar to King's Cross (where I meet them) and then give them a half day introduction to London, around Westminster. Bottom right is Erin & Frank from New York on the Millennium Bridge looking wistfully away in to the distance. Their walk included Borough and Bankside, just south of the Thames. It's an interesting area that includes the Tate Modern, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, Southwark cathedral, Borough Market and the historic George Inn ... amongst others.
Above left is Lindsey and her parents standing in front of a large section of Roman wall (near to the Tower of London) which dates back to AD200. Centre is John and Kim who did two half day walks with me. They're standing in Trafalgar Square, with the National Gallery behind them. Pictured right, is Todd and co. from Canada who although happy to see some sights and learn about London, really wanted to sit in some pubs and have a few pints ... as you can see.
I've done a few walks with Lynne and her colleagues. On this one, we explored around Soho, Piccadilly and St James's. They're hanging out (above left) in Soho Square. Centre is Ed and co. having had a nice lunch on the terrace outside Gordon's Wine Bar near Embankment. Right is Margarita and her family from the Philippines, with the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields behind them.
Meg & Mike were on their honeymoon. I met them in their Piccadilly hotel and after showing them around Westminster, left them to enjoy some Prosecco in Victoria Embankment Gardens. Melody and family (top right) can be seen standing outside the old Tudor gate of St James's Palace, built for Henry VIII in 1536. Peter, who had been on one of my weekend walks ages ago contacted me about doing a pub crawl with some of his colleagues. I met them at Temple Station and we basically popped in and out of pubs around Fleet Street. I took their photo in The Old Bell Tavern, by St Bride's Church. Bottom right was a Hen Doo I did around Soho and involved a stop off at a cocktail bar. All the ladies present were mostly very well behaved, for which I was very grateful.
For the last few years I've done walks for an organisation based on Gray's Inn Road. This particular walk took in Lincoln's Inn, Strand and finished up on the Southbank. You can see them (top left) in the courtyard of Somerset House. Top right is Phil and his assorted family members outside Westminster Abbey as part of a half day tour around the sights of Westminster, which includes Buckingham Palace, Big Ben & Houses of Parliament, Horse Guards, Downing Street and loads more. Bottom left is Cynthia and friends by Temple Bar, the only surviving City gate (albeit in a different place from where it started). Bottom right is Nancy and her family having a well earned lunch after a morning together spent giving the kids a bit of a London introduction.
So there you have it. If you're visiting London and looking for a private tour guide to show you around, please do get in touch.
Since I began Bowl Of Chalk London walking tours five and a half years ago I have continued to offer three set walks each weekend which operate on a 'pay what you want' basis. Each walk generally lasts about 2.5 / 3 hours. They are as follows:
Saturday morning - Trafalgar Square to St Paul's cathedral.
This walk begins in the tourist hot spot of Trafalgar Square, taking in the square itself, Nelson's Column and the National Gallery building. Although we don't venture around the 'sights' of Westminster, Big Ben is visible at the bottom of Whitehall. After visiting the statue of Charles I next to the official centre of London, we have of late, passed Benjamin Franklin's House, threaded our way through Victoria Embankment Gardens and up in to the bustling Covent Garden and St Paul's, the Actors' church. From here we make our way around Aldwych, passing the church of St Clement Danes and the Royal Courts of Justice, in to the City of London via Fleet Street. We usually veer off through the maze of alleyways that brings us to Dr Johnson's House, the famous statue of his beloved cat, Hodge and past the famous Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub. Back on Fleet Street, we pass the church of St Bride's, and up towards St Paul's cathedral.
Saturday Afternoon - St Paul's to Monument (via Bankside & Borough)
This walk begins by St Paul's cathedral, through the churchyard and on to the Millennium Bridge, taking us over the River Thames towards the Tate Modern on the south side. Here we pass by Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the site of the original Elizabethan Theatre which opened on Bankside in 1599, and along to the usually heaving Borough Market. We usually pop in to the 17th century George Inn on Borough High Street before heading up on to London Bridge, which offers a great view of the iconic Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and the H.M.S Belfast before finishing at the Monument, commemorating the Great Fire of London, 1666.
Sunday - East London
The Sunday walk is very street art heavy, but does include historical elements. We often begin near Old Street, including Bunhill Fields Cemetery, where the likes of Daniel Defoe, William Blake and John Bunyan are buried. We pass the Wesleyan Chapel on City Road before heading in towards Shoreditch, which although is now a plethora of cafes, boutique shops and clubs, was in the 19th century, the centre of London's furniture trade. We usually stop off at Arnold Circus, the UK's first ever council estate, then bypassing the incredibly busy Brick Lane make our way towards Spitalfields with its fascinating Huguenot, Jewish and Bangladeshi heritage. Obviously the street art changes pretty regularly, but I tend (as with all my tours) to talk about things that interest me, and street art is no different. I'll undoubtedly point out and talk about Banksy, Ben Wilson (the chewing gum man), Christiaan Nagel, Bambi, Roa, Jimmy C and Thierry Noir ... amongst others.
If you're in London one weekend and think that one of these walks might appeal (or fit in with your schedule) then please send me a message via the contact form. You won't actually know where we're meeting until I send you all the details confirming the walk and how many places you'd like to book. I do this so I can keep an eye on numbers. Please don't try just turning up. You'll see from the photos that it could be just you, two people, four, eight or more. Unless someone books loads of people at once, it probably won't be that big a group.
Please check the dates on the website homepage to make sure the walk you'd like to join is running, as although it is pretty continuous, there are occasional changes.
March was a busy month for my 'private walking tours' around London. Here are some of the people I met and some of the things we got up to. Top left - I spent the day with Hiroko and Dia. Here they are outside St Paul's cathedral. Top right - Another full day, this time with Marge & Kim, beginning in Covent Garden and exploring Fleet Street in to the City of London before heading over to Bankside & Borough to the south of the river in the afternoon. Bottom left - The first of two walks with Emily and her family around Westminster. Bottom right - Cyrena and family at the end of our walk which began in Trafalgar Square.
Top left - Emily and family again, this time by the Tower of London, with Tower Bridge behind them. Top right - Catriona & co. in Borough Market by Southwark cathedral. Bottom left - Kim and her daughters taking a well earned rest on our walk around Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Hoxton in East London. Bottom right - Alixandra & friends in Parliament Square in front of the iconic Big Ben.
Top left - Louise and family on a special 70th birthday walk (with the dome of St Paul's cathedral behind them). Top right - Jody & Elaine in Trafalgar Square during our walk around the sights of Westminster. Bottom left - Linda and Dana by a blossom tree in St James's Park. Bottom right - Kate & family by St Paul's cathedral on our all day extravaganza to see all the sights and loads of other stuff.
Above left - Friends Marina & Jackie and their daughters in Golden Square, Soho at the end of the first of two walks we did together. Above right - Matt & Lindsey on Bankside outside Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
I'm currently taking bookings for private London walking tours throughout the summer, so if you think you might like me to show you around whilst you're visiting, please get in touch.
Westminster Abbey has been the coronation church since 1066, but before William the Conqueror was declared King in what was then a newish abbey and power and prestige moved from Winchester to London, where did some of his predecessors get crowned? The clue is in the name, and the answer can be found about 10 miles south west of central London in Kingston-upon-Thames.
I went to Kingston (as it is usually known) a couple of weeks ago to watch a friend of mine in a play at the Rose Theatre, and had passed through a couple of years ago on my Thames Walk. On that occasion I had visited the church of All Saints, which had a large sign outside declaring it was ‘Where England Began’, a bold claim, but perfectly justified.
Edward the Elder (son of Alfred the Great) was crowned in Kingston in AD 900. The country at that point was still separate Kingdoms (the main four being East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex) with some of the country still under Danish rule, which is why Edward called himself “Anglorum Saxonum Rex”, the King of the Anglo-Saxons. Twenty-five years later, Edward’s son Athelstan was also crowned in Kingston and as the first King to reign over all the previously separate kingdoms, he is the first king that could be properly described as a King of England. Between AD 900 and AD 979, seven kings are thought to have been crowned in Kingston.
Outside the Guildhall in Kingston is the very stone, on which over 1000 years ago those kings sat for the early coronation ceremonies, laying the foundations for the same ceremony that saw the Queen crowned in 1953. This ancient stone was moved to its current position in 1935, having spent a great deal of its existence being rather unceremoniously used as a mounting block for horsemen in the nearby Market Place. The names of each of the seven kings are inscribed around the base of the stone with a single coin from each of their reigns, set in to the plinth.
On a slightly different note, the coronation stone stands next to a small river, the Hogsmill, which a short distance away flows in to the Thames. A small bridge, called Clattern Bridge, takes traffic over the river to and from Kingston town centre. It is actually the oldest surviving bridge in London. The name is thought to derive from the descriptive sound of horses clattering over the bridge, with the earliest known reference to it, ‘clateryngbrugge’ dating back to 1293, although numerous sources claim its origins are late 12th century. The bridge has not surprisingly received much needed amendments in more recent centuries, but with its three flint arches, is a wonderful example of a medieval multi-span bridge.
If you’d like to visit Kingston-upon-Thames from central London, trains run frequently from Waterloo Station.
A number of years ago I wrote a post about Tower Bridge, and more specifically Dead Man's Hole which can be found secreted on the north side of the bridge by the Tower of London. Dead Man's Hole is in fact a mortuary (no longer operational), once used to temporarily house corpses retrieved from the murky clutches of the River Thames.
Galvanised by the video I recently posted of my Thames River walk, I set out on my bike one night last week and did a spot of filming on Tower Bridge. The next day I hastily edited the footage in to a video to accompany a song I wrote and recorded years ago, which has a suitably macabre subject matter about someone committing murder on a bridge; the victim's body left to the embrace of the river.
You can perhaps therefore see why I chose Tower Bridge to film. The song is called 'The Bridge Last Night' and was recorded by my friend William Reid and includes the talents of other friends; Joantoni Segui Morro (Satellites) on drums, John Parker (Nizlopi, Ed Sheeran) on double bass and Matt Park (Mystery Jets, Helsinki) on electric guitar.
The River Thames doesn't just flow through London, but as the longest river in England, begins in a field in Gloucestershire and winds for 215 miles through 9 counties until it reaches the North Sea.
In 2015 I walked its entire length, beginning at Southend-on-Sea where the river ends, tracing it right back through the Essex Estuary in to London, down to Reading, up to Oxford, then along in to the Cotswolds. The whole adventure took about 3 weeks, but I condensed it down in to a headache inducing 5 minute video entitled 'From the Sea to the Source - Walking the River Thames'.
London Bridge Alcoves
London Bridge was originally completed in 1209, a huge structure spanning the Thames with 19 arches and festooned with buildings and houses. In the early 1800s, the houses were removed and replaced with 14 niches or alcoves until the whole thing was eventually replaced in 1831 by a new bridge designed by John Rennie. Four of those niches have survived; one on the Courtlands Estate (Richmond), another secreted in Guy’s Hospital, just south of London Bridge and the remaining two can be found occupying sites to the east of Victoria Park in East London (pictured).
These niches were familiar to Charles Dickens when he was a boy, as he would have undoubtedly crossed the bridge to visit his father, incarcerated in the Marshalsea Prison, just to the south. His novel, David Copperfield is regarded as perhaps his most autobiographical, based on his experiences of this time. In fact, the title character, David Copperfield, can be found “lounging … in one of the stone recesses, watching people going by”.
Duke of Wellington’s Horse Block
One of our favourite things, here in England, is to go on about beating the French at battles. Second only to that is then remembering and celebrating those men responsible for winning those battles. Topping that exclusive list is Arthur Wellesley, perhaps better known as the Duke of Wellington, or ‘the Iron Duke’, responsible for defeating Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Anyway, aside from the expected statues in his honour or streets, buildings, railway stations, bridges all eulogising his wartime efforts, on the aptly named Waterloo Place in Westminster is a smaller, altogether less significant reminder of the man who made Wellington Boots so popular. On either side of the wide street, outside the rather grand looking Athenaeum Club are two sets of stone steps, each bearing a plaque telling us it was ‘erected by the desire of the Duke of Wellington, 1830’. They are horse blocks and quite simply were put there to make it easier for the Iron Duke to get on and off his horse when visiting his favourite club.
In many places, the River Thames used to be far wider than it is now. The gate (pictured) once stood on the banks of the river, but now occupies the north end of Victoria Embankment Gardens, some 450ft from the river. It’s called the York Watergate, a window back in to the early 17th Century when in 1623 George Villiers (1st Duke of Buckingham) bought a large mansion (York House) which had been built in the mid 16th century after the King, Henry VIII had granted land here to the Bishop of York. Villiers set about having a snazzy Watergate built (finished in 1626) giving both him and his visitors access to the river, which of course at that time was a super highway. The land was sold off and developed in the late 17th century, and again in the mid 19th century, meaning that this structure (along with some paintings of it in situ) is the only reminder of a time when the Thames used to creep right up to the steps inside the gate and the land surrounding it, dominated by rather fine mansions.
Philpot Lane mice
On the corner of Eastcheap and Philpot Lane in the City of London is a building, the ground floor of which, is occupied by one of the many generic epidemic coffee shops in London. On the side of the building is a curious little relief sculpture of two mice nibbling on a piece of cheese. It’s minutia like this that are the stuff of urban legend, spawning all sorts of stories as to what they represent and how they came about. The most ubiquitous of these relating to two builders employed in the construction of the building (it was finished in 1862) and that an argument had begun, when one man accused the other of stealing his lunch (which of course included cheese). A fight ensued, resulting in the death of one of the workers, plunging to his death from the building, whereupon it was later discovered that the cheese eating culprits were in fact mice. Whether the mice were added as a memorial or are actually simply a builders mark, might never be known. Either way, they remain one of London’s many curiosities which people pass every day without noticing.
London is full of curiosities, oddities, street antiques, little windows back in time that people pass every day without perhaps even noticing, or certainly registering their significance. Some of these are well known, and almost certainly all written about in one form or another. Below are a just a few I quite like.
Policeman's Hook - Great Newport Street
Secreted away on the side of a building on Great Newport Street (just by Leicester Square Underground Station) close to the busy intersection of St Martin’s Lane, Garrick Street, Long Acre, Cranbourne Street and of course Great Newport Street is a large hook, above which is written ‘Metropolitan Police’. Long before lights controlled the flow of traffic through this busy thoroughfare, a Policeman would stand directing cars, vans and bicycles using nothing but his hands and a sturdy presence. Hot work during those pre-war summers, and so a place to hang a Policeman’s coat was necessary. The story goes that one Policeman had taken to using a handy nail, protruding from the wall during building work. When the work ended and the nail was gone, the impromptu coat hook was sorely missed, so an official one instated.
WWII stretchers up-cycled as fences
During the Blitzkrieg attacks of WWII, mass civilian casualties were anticipated and therefore numerous A.R.Ps (Air Raid Precautions) were put in to place. One such action was to make loads of sturdy metal stretchers which could also easily be quickly washed down (gas attacks were a real danger too) if contaminated or bloodied. It would seem that a great many of these were taking up valuable space after the war, combined (I’m guessing) with the fact that many fences and railings had been melted down for the war effort. The stretchers became fences themselves. A few examples survive around ex local authority buildings, particularly in east or south-east London. The photo shows such a fence around the Dog Kennel Hill estate, east Dulwich.
WWII Blackout signs
Keeping on the WWII theme, there are still a few old ‘ghost signs’ directing people during the air raids of the 1940s to underground shelters, particularly around residential streets in Westminster. It is well known that thousands of Londoners huddled together deep below ground on Underground platforms, or even railway lines. American talk show host, Jerry Springer was born in Highgate Underground station in 1944, whilst it was being used as a shelter. During the ‘Blitz’, another A.R.P was to enforce ‘Blackouts’, ensuring that no light escaped from buildings or streets at night, and therefore making them harder to identify from enemy planes flying over head. Strict blackout regulations were enforced by wardens and those flaunting the rules would face penalties. Although the darkness made it difficult for German bombers to spot their targets, it also made it difficult for civilians to get around. White stripes were painted on kerbstones to try and make them more visible. The above sign which survives from this period reads ‘PUBLIC SHELTERS IN VAULTS UNDER PAVEMENTS IN THIS STREET’.
As you wander around London, you might pass what looks like a green shed on the side of the road, and either wonder what it is for, or not give it a second thought. The chances are, it’s a Cabmen’s Shelter. People started hiring horses and carriages to take the around the place in the 17th century, which was eventually regulated in a taxi service. The famous black cabs in London today are still officially called ‘Hackney Carriages’. If you were a cab driver, stopping to go to the toilet or grab some food was problematic as you’d need to get (and probably pay) someone to keep an eye on your horse and carriage. So, in 1875, these little huts started being erected, allowing cabmen to duck inside and get out of the rain. Horses could be tied to the bar running around the edge of the shelter, under the watchful gaze of the cabman and someone inside made and sold food. The chimney was for the wood burning stove. By 1914, 61 of these shelters had been built. Only 13 remain, but as they have Grade II Listed status, hopefully won’t be disappearing anytime soon. The shelter pictured can be found on Northumberland Avenue close to Embankment Underground Station and serves refreshments to the public, although most of the ones still in use are solely for licensed cab drivers who have ‘the knowledge’.
"The silly season is over" as a fellow London tour guide said to me the other day, meaning the summer has passed and we're now moving in to the Autumn. Although I'm biased, I think London has something to offer all year round. I meet many people who visit London at Christmas and as our new Mayor Sadiq Khan is busy telling the world; "London is open for business".
So, still clutching on to the coat tails of summer, here are some of the private walks I did in August. As ever, if you're visiting London and would like me to show you around, then please get in touch letting me know what you'd like to get out of the tour, whether it's your first visit to London and stuff like that.
First of all we have Manish and his family who came on a walk around Westminster, the main government & Royal area of London which includes sights such as Big Ben & Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Downing Street, Horse Guards and places like that. There are a plethora of sights in a very walkable area and perfect for first time visitors wanting to do a half day walk. Top right is Miguel and his family during a coffee break on a wander around Brick Lane, Shoreditch, Hoxton and Spitalfields; a mix of history and street art. Bottom left is Jeff and his entourage in Westminster. Bottom right is Rodrigo & Alexandra with the iconic Tower Bridge behind them.
Top left is David and his son. We did a couple of walks together. Here you can see them in the City of London with St Paul's cathedral in the background. Top right is Susan & Olivia from the States. Susan first joined me for a walk with other family members last year and was back this year. They're in Old Spitalfields Market. Bottom left is Karen and family with Nelson's Column behind them. Bottom right is Shane & Michelle from Australia standing in front of the National Gallery.
Top left is Kimberly & Mitch standing in Horse Guards Parade where they do Trooping The Colour on the Queen's official birthday. I did a walk with a lovely bunch of ladies in London for a birthday celebration. They're standing in Victoria Embankment Gardens. After our walk they were taking in a West End show. Bottom right is Julie & co. in Borough Market, a popular food market to the south of London Bridge just by Southwark Cathedral.
In this set we have Audrey and her dad visiting from the States. We spent a few hours just exploring the area around St Paul's cathedral and some of the history of the City of London and Fleet Street. In the centre is Belinda and colleagues and a work afternoon out, which entailed a wander along the south side of the Thames, taking in Borough Market, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, Tate Modern to name but a few. Lastly we have Elena and her caught visiting from Russia in Hoxton during our walk around East London.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.