If you pick up a copy of this weeks Time Out London magazine, you'll discover that I contributed a small column entitled Hidden Landmarks.
London is a multi-layered city and there are loads of little details hiding in plain sight which both Londoners and tourists alike pass every day and don't notice. They're the kind of things I talk about regularly on my walks and are often a great way of helping to explain a much larger topic. Time Out asked me to include some of my favourites, all of which I've mentioned on this website previously.
Metropolitan Police hook
On a building on Great Newport Street (just by Leicester Square Underground Station) close to a busy intersection is a large hook, above which is written ‘Metropolitan Police’. Before traffic lights, a Policeman would stand directing traffic. The story goes that one Policeman had taken to hanging his coat on a 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 installed.
When Christopher Wren rebuilt the City of London following the Great Fire of London (1666) he used 6 million tonnes of Portland Stone which is quarried in Dorset. This area is known as the Jurassic Coast due to the sheer number of fossils found there from the Jurassic period. Although Wren chose not to feature the fossils, the stone is still being used today and the 150 million-year old fossils are used as decorative features, meaning you can fossil hunt all over London.
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.
It's been a while since I've posted anything about the actual walking tours I do in London, so as January draws to a close, thought I'd rectify that and include some photos of walks I've done this month.
If anyone reading this is interested in joining a walk, then this is pretty much how it works.
Most weekends (please check the dates on the homepage for availability) I do x3 'pay what you want' walks. Each is about 2.5 / 3 hours long and are as follows.
Saturday AM - Trafalgar Square to St Paul's cathedral (via Covent Garden and Fleet Street) which looks a bit like this:
Saturday PM - St Paul's to Monument (via Bankside & Borough) and looks a bit like this:
Sunday AM - East London (around Old Street, Shoreditch and Spitalfields including LOADS of street art) which looks a bit like this:
Incidentally, these tours don't have a theme, I literally warble on about things I find interesting. If you'd like to join one, please send me a message via the Contact Form letting me know which walk you'd like to join and how many places. I'll reply with the details of where we'll meet etc.
Then, during the week I do 'private tours' (for which I have set fees) and are tailor made where possible to the people on that walk and could be anything from just a couple of hours to six hours. A lot of these walks are for first time visitors interested in getting a bit of a London overview, whilst seeing a lot of sights, or as was the case this month, two groups of students from Buffalo and Singapore, some other students from the States in London on a study semester abroad, and a couple who have lived in London for 20 years and thought they'd explore an area they weren't too familiar with ...amongst others
So, if you're visiting London and would like to do what Time Out says is one of 'The best London Walking Tours' which I'm obviously milking for all it's worth, whether it be a weekend 'pay what you want' walk, or would like to discuss a private tour ...please do get in touch.
Greenwich is a fascinating area of London, with a host of museums and places of interest for tourists to visit; not least the Cutty Sark, the Royal Observatory and the National Maritime Museum.
The area is dominated by the Old Royal Naval College, an impressive complex of riverside buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor at the behest of Queen Mary in 1694 as a Royal Hospital for men invalided out of the Navy. The buildings might be familiar with those even yet to visit London, as this World Heritage Site has formed the backdrop to many a blockbuster film; Pirates of the Caribbean, Les Miserables, Cinderella, The King’s Speech, The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall …to name but a few.
I recently visited the Painted Hall, known as the UK’s ‘Sistine Chapel’ and originally conceived as a dining room, but soon became a ceremonial space reserved for special functions. Once you go inside, it’s not hard to see why.
As the name suggests, the Painted Hall is covered in frescos, totalling about 40,000 square feet and took Baroque artist James Thornhill (and his team of assistants) nearly twenty years to complete. They began work in 1707.
The Painted Hall comprises three connected spaces; the domed vestibule, the Lower Hall and the Upper Hall. Thornhill’s compositions, which include a cast of over 200 characters presents a vivid and suitably biased picture of early Eighteenth Century Britain, beginning with King William and Queen Mary, then Queen Anne and her consort Prince George of Denmark, and finally the arrival of the Hanoverians with King George I sitting in the midst of a large family portrait.
Baroque painting is not really my cup of tea, but the sheer scale, skill and audacity of the project cannot be disputed. Also, Thornhill’s masterpiece has only recently re-opened to the public following a two year (and £8.5 million) restoration, so is particularly striking and bright.
For those interested in Naval history, you can stand on the exact spot where Admiral Lord Nelson’s body lay-in-state after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 before being moved to St Paul’s Cathedral for his burial in January 1806. You can also view a copy of the maquette made by E.H. Baily for the statue which now stands on the top of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.
Over the last few years I’ve been joined on a couple of walks by Naomi Clifford, a writer of history books specialising in telling the forgotten stories of women in history.
After our most recent wander around London Naomi presented me with one of her recent books; Women and the Gallows (1797 – 1837) which delves in to the stories of 131-female “unfortunate wretches” hanged in England and Wales. Naomi has also published ‘The disappearance of Maria Glenn’ and most recently ‘The Murder of Mary Ashford’ and is already beavering away on a new book about an auxiliary ambulance driver in London during WW2 called June Spencer.
As if she hasn’t got enough to do, Naomi and producer Lena Augustinson have launched a podcast series called ‘The Door’, which through conversations with historians, writers and the like and keeping with the theme of Naomi’s books, aims to further unlock little-told stories of women in history.
The episodes (all of which are under 30 minutes long) thus far include topics such as discussing Maria Branwell (mother of the Bronte sisters) and A Stitch in Time: Women, Needlework and Art.
The City of London recently hosted a temporary outdoor exhibition about forgotten businesswomen of 18th century Cheapside in the City of London. Naomi invited me along to look at the exhibition with her and talk a little bit about the development of the City, its Guild system and endeavour to put in to context the environment and world in which these women operated. So, on a rather wet and windy Friday afternoon in October, we did just that, the fruits of which can be heard under the title ‘Businesswomen of 18th century London’. If you do listen, perhaps ignore the fact that I was evidently having a competition to see how many times I could say the word ‘basically’.
The exhibition is no longer in situ but can still be viewed Online.
If you enjoy the content of Naomi and Lena’s podcast series, please do subscribe so as not to miss their future offerings.
The Rugby World Cup 2019 is about to kick-off in Japan on Friday and as I come from the town of Rugby (where the game was invented) and happen to be a fan of the sport, thought I’d take a visit to Twickenham Stadium in west London to mark the occasion. It is the home of England rugby and with a seating capacity of 82,000; the largest dedicated rugby union venue in the world.
Twickenham rugby ground had pretty humble beginnings, when in 1907, members of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) purchased for the grand sum of £5,500 12s 6d a 10-acre market garden used to grow cabbages. It’s still affectionately known today as the ‘cabbage patch’. The first club game took place at the newly built stadium in 1909 and the first international match to be played there was between England and Wales on the 15th January 1910. The capacity back then was 20,000, and the stadium has been constantly re-developed over the years and is now unrecognisable from its first incarnation over a century ago.
Although you can take stadium tours, I went to peruse the World Rugby Museum which is housed there and through a collection of 38,000 objects, tells the story of the games' origins through to the present day. Although slightly shrouded in myth, the story begins in 1823 when a schoolboy at Rugby School called William Webb Ellis was playing football and with a healthy disregard for the rules, caught the ball and ran forward towards the opposition goal, sowing the seeds for an entirely new game which became known as rugby.
The first ever international rugby match took place in Edinburgh in 1871 between England and Scotland and the museum has on display the only surviving jersey (and therefore the oldest international jersey) from that game, which belonged to England’s John Clayton (himself a pupil at Rugby School).
The museum charts the spread of the game across the globe and has a vast array of memorabilia reflecting the different countries in which the game is played, establishment of the rules, the development of the women’s game, rugby’s role in the First World War and the players who lost their lives, World Cups, iconic players, memorable moments and so on. Perhaps my favourite artefact was commentator Bill McLaren’s meticulous commentary notes from a match in 1979; a work of art in itself.
If you’re in London and a rugby enthusiast, then the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham could well be worth adding to your ‘To Do’ list.
This year’s Rugby World Cup final will take place on the 2nd November and whichever nation is victorious will lift the Webb Ellis Cup, named after the young schoolboy who may (or may not) have inadvertently invented the game all those years ago.
After graduating from Oxford university, Webb Ellis joined the church and for a time was rector of St Clement-Danes, a church which I wrote about a few years back and pass on my regular Saturday morning walk from Trafalgar Square to St Paul’s cathedral.
Eltham Palace in the Royal Borough of Greenwich (South East London) is a mash up of medieval and Tudor palace and a state of the art 1930s millionaire’s mansion.
The palace began as a moated manor in the 11th century, becoming a Royal Palace in the early 1300s when it was gifted to the future Edward II. By the early 14th century it had become one of the most frequented royal residencies in the country and home to successive monarchs. In the 1470s during the reign of Edward IV, a great hall was built, which has survived to this day.
Henry VIII spent a great deal of his childhood at Eltham and it was at the palace in 1515 that Cardinal Wolsey took his oath of office to become the Lord Chancellor.
By the 17th century Eltham had fallen out of favour as a royal palace and after the Civil War was left to ruin, being used as a farm; the buildings tenanted.
Various attempts were made to repair the buildings and the great hall over the next two centuries, but it wasn’t until 1933 that Eltham really took on a new lease of life when millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld leased the site from the Crown and set about building a new home for themselves.
Although they only occupied the new Eltham Palace for about 8 years, handing over the lease to the Army Educational Corps, it is the period during which the Courtaulds entertained their high profile friends (including royalty) which has been restored to be enjoyed by the public.
The house is a mix of Bond villain lair and backdrop for a Hercule Poirot murder mystery and was kitted out with cutting edge 1930s technology including electric fires, surround sound (for playing records in different rooms), private internal telephone exchange, centralised vacuum cleaner and underfloor heating.
The house adjoins the medieval great hall and sits within 19 acres of gardens and is run by English Heritage.
The masticated artworks by street artist Ben Wilson, who paints pictures on to bits of chewing gum that people have spat on the floor, are firm favourites amongst people who come on my walks. I would perhaps venture as far as to say, they are often, the highlight. I posted last year in May, mentioning that Wilson had been busy painting gum in Shoreditch (east London), and for a short while, my walks in the area were significantly improved. After only a few weeks though, someone came and stole them all.
I've noticed recently some really lovely, detailed chewing gum paintings that Wilson has completed, so have included a few here. Most are approximately the size of a 10 pence piece, a few, more like a fifty pence piece.
This one is a night scene on Rivington Street (Shoreditch) where the gum is situated.
I happened to be cycling along Kingsland Road one day and spotted Ben Wilson lying on the pavement painting. The next time I passed, I stopped to see what he had created. It was the above painting showing the view from where he was lying.
A handful of lovely landscapes have appeared on the walkway on the south end of the Millennium Bridge (Wilson's favourite spot) depicting St Paul's cathedral, the bridge and pedestrians.
A night scene, with St Paul's cathedral.
This one I think reads 'Rolo on the Millennium Bridge'.
'Tent Man'. I'm assuming Mr. Wilson knows the significance of this.
If you're looking for a day trip out of London, why not visit Hever Castle in Kent? Its rich and varied history spans over 700 years, but is probably most famous for being the childhood home of King Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn.
Originally built in the 13th century as a defensive castle, Hever was home to the Boleyn’s throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, was later passed on to another of Henry VIII’s wives, Anne of Cleves and from the mid 16th century onwards was home to numerous families.
By the early 20th century, Hever Castle had fallen in to disrepair, but was given a new lease of life by the American born businessman, politician and newspaper publisher, William Waldorf Astor, who invested millions in restoring Hever Castle and constructed the impressive lake and gardens, which can still be visited today.
Visitors hoping to experience Hever Castle as Anne Boleyn would have known it will be disappointed, as much of its interior was restored in 1905. Never-the-less, the building oozes history and many rooms and corridors which you can wander through maintain original features or aspects the Boleyn family would have known, including Anne’s own bedroom. Henry VIII’s bed chamber for instance still boasts 16th century panelling and a mid 15th century ceiling and the gatehouse still contains a 13th century toilet, which emptied directly in to the moat.
The building is festooned with intriguing artefacts and paintings, particularly the Long Gallery which extends across the entire width of the castle, displaying an exhibition of 18 original portraits hung in dynastic order of the Tudors.
Once you’ve finished touring the castle, you can, as we did, while away an afternoon exploring the 125 acres of gardens (which when we visited was resplendent in autumnal colours), take a boat on the 38-acre lake, get lost in the maze or promenade through the Italian garden. We were lucky enough to fit in a spot of archery, before it closed until February.
Hever Castle is located 30 miles from central London. For those without a car, trains run from London Victoria or London Bridge stations to Edenbridge Town station. After that it’s a 3-mile taxi ride to the castle. If you’re happy to undertake a 1-mile country stroll, then head to Hever Station (unmanned and no taxis) – a map of the walk is available on the Hever Castle website.
Please Note - In the photos below you'll notice a lot of cobwebs in the rooms. It was a spooky Halloween feature, rather than a lack of cleaning on behalf the people at Hever Castle.
We've had a balmy summer, but now as we move in to September, I thought I'd write briefly about some of the private walking tours in London I've done over the last few months.
Above left is Hillary and friends on a walk which took us from St Paul's cathedral, through the Inns of Court around Fleet Street and Strand (where they are pictured). Top right is Thorsten and friends on a walk around east London, which aside from bits of history, includes a plethora of street art. Bottom left is Sylvia & Paris in the bombed out church of St Dunstan-in-the-east towards the end of a walk which included the areas of Bankside & Borough to the south of the river Thames. Bottom right is Annette and her family outside Buckingham Palace during a tour around the sights of Westminster.
Top left is Jamie and his lady friend in St James's Park. Top right is Alison and family in a rather dry looking Green Park, whilst giving them a bit of an introduction to London. Bottom left is Stacey & Andrew outside Buckingham Palace, which incidentally will be open to visitors until the end of this month. Bottom right is Terry & Jim by the Thames with the skyline of the City of London behind them.
Top left we have Kirsten and her family in the area of St James's, where I left them at the end of our walk. Top right are colleagues from CAFOD on a day out, exploring London. We began in the morning with a walk about the Great Fire of London, 1666, then in the afternoon dropped them off in Covent Garden after covering Fleet Street. Here they are in Wardrobe Place in the City of London. Bottom left is Bethany and family from the States in Trafalgar Square. Bottom right is Christie and Dan with the dome of St Paul's cathedral behind them.
Top left is Andy and his colleagues exploring the area of Soho one evening. Top right is Nancy & co from Canada standing beside Canada Gate next to Buckingham Palace. Bottom left is Drita and co with the iconic Tower Bridge behind them. Finally, we have Sara and family by Westminster Abbey.
If you are coming to London and fancy doing a private tour that is hopefully fun and informative, then please get in touch.
I've mentioned chewing gum artist Ben Wilson on a number of occasions over the last few years. For the uninitiated, Mr. Wilson paints tiny pictures on pieces of chewing gum that people have spat on the floor. He's been making masticated art on London's streets for over a decade, but if you walk over the Millennium Bridge, and look down, you'll be sure to see his handy-work adorning what Londoner's call 'the wobbly bridge'.
On today's east London walk, which has been previously described as a street art walk with a few other bits about London thrown in, we soon discovered that in the last week or so, Ben Wilson, (the chewing gum man) has been on what Gary (one of the walkers) described as a 'chewing gum painting bender'. I'm sure there are more recent additions, but these are the ones that we spotted today around Old street, Shoreditch and Rivington Street.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.