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.
Last week was the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London of 1666, a cataclysmic event in London’s history in which the medieval City of London, captured by the top notch Czech drawer and etcher, Wenceslaus Hollar in his ‘Panorama of London’ just 19 years earlier … was lost. Just under 14,000 homes were burned to the ground, along with 87 churches, including the gothic monster that was Old St Paul’s cathedral.
The occasion has been marked by a number of events, including a ceremonial burning of a wooden model replica of the old City on the Thames, the centre piece of a ‘London’s Burning’ weekend created by the creative company Artichoke. The Museum of London have a ‘Fire Fire’ exhibition which will be open until April 2017. A plethora of other exhibitions, talks, concerts and walks are happening throughout the City over the coming months, all of which are listed on the Visit London #GreatFire350 website.
When I first started learning stuff about London (in my early days of being a tour guide), there was something about the Great Fire that caught my imagination more than any other period or event. One of the things I very quickly discovered, learning about history, is that we never seem to actually learn anything. History certainly does seem to repeat itself, and the more I read about the Great Fire, the more connections I saw with the present day, many of which are (unfortunately, in my view) glossed over. Perhaps this is why we fail to learn. One of the main aspects of the fire that intrigued me, was not the immense destruction caused, but the reaction of Londoners, which manifested itself in xenophobic attacks; that omnipresent need to blame foreigners, those that ‘don’t belong’. Although today, kids are taught that the fire was an accident, their 17th century ancestors, had a very different view. As far as they were concerned, the Great Fire was a terrorist attack. I have read horrendous accounts of foreigners being bludgeoned to death in the street or hung up on make shift gallows and murdered, whilst the fire was raging. The first thing that the King, Charles II did upon entering the City to take control, was to arrest and imprison foreigners, to save them from the angry mobs. The Monument, which has stood since the 1670s, close to where the fire started on Pudding Lane, commemorating The Great Fire, is adorned with Latin inscriptions around the base. On the north side, the inscription detailing the aftermath and rebuilding of the City had a line removed in 1830, a line, which in itself was incendiary. In English it read “But Popish frenzy which wrought such horrors is not yet quenched” … or the nutter Catholics did this and we still haven’t sorted them out. Londoners in 1666 had good reason to suspect foul play, in fact, they’d be waiting for a revenge attack after an admiral in the English Navy called Robert Holmes, had just, a few weeks earlier, committed an absolutely unnecessary atrocity on Dutch soil, known as ‘Holmes’s Bonfire’, an act which Londoners had just been celebrating.
The Great Fire occurred also in a fascinating period of English history, just six years after the restoration of the ‘Merrie Monarch’ (after twelve years of being a Republic), one year after the Great Plague, whilst we were embroiled in war with the Dutch and were, as a country, financially crippled. All of this was well documented obviously by our very own diarist, philanderer and cheese burier, Samuel Pepys. A book entitled ‘1666: Plague, War & Hellfire’ by a young historian called Rebecca Rideal has just been published, examining this whole period of London’s tumultuous history. Had this book existed 8 years ago, I’m sure I would have found it an incredibly useful source of research, as it was about that time that I began writing a novel set in the days leading up to and during The Great Fire of London.
The novel, ‘Sixteen Sixty-Six’ begins a few days before the fire breaks out, plunging a number of characters in to the midst of it. I began initially to try and write the idea as a film script, but very quickly realised that it wasn’t enough; I didn’t just want to write dialogue with brief descriptions like “He rows across the river”, “They walk down the street”. I wanted to know what the City smelt like, how it sounded, how it looked, what they wore, what they ate, what it tasted like and much more. Once I made the decision to turn my idea in to a novel, I realised I was creating a world of pain, and about 5 years later I finished it (that was two years ago).
The same xenophobic concerns and prejudices that permeated society in 1666 are very much still swirling around today, as illustrated by the recent EU Referendum ‘Brexit’ vote in June, and its aftermath and the rhetoric of Donald Trump in the States. The Great Fire of 1666 also opened the flood gates for violence and crime, after the thin veneer of law and order had been broken. I had actually already started writing Sixteen Sixty-Six in 2011 when the ‘London Riots’ broke out in various hot spots around the capital. At the time I was living very close to one of the affected areas in Hackney and realised that the behaviour I was seeing was exactly the same way Londoners behaved during those few days in September 1666. It was quite illuminating. This aspect of the Great Fire is just one piece in a much larger puzzle that forms ‘Sixteen Sixty-Six’, but certainly something I explore.
I have added a page to the website called 'Writing' where you can find a synopsis of Sixteen Sixty-Six. Maybe it’s rubbish, perhaps I’ve wasted 7 years of my life. Who knows … but if you think it is something you might like to read, have a Kindle or some kind of e-reading device then it is available to download through Amazon.
If you're visiting London and are looking to do a walking tour that allows you and your family or friends to explore London and get a better understanding of it, get your bearings, see some of the sights plus a few other things that you might not ordinarily know about ... in your own time without being part of a massive group ... then I do Private Walks which hopefully do just this. Below are some of these walks that I did in July.
Tina and Steve did a walk around the sights of Westminster. Here they are in Green Park just before they nipped off to Borough Market to get some lunch. For the last couple of years I've done a 'Fourth of July' walk for alumni of Stanford University. The plan is obviously for me to furnish them with American themed bits of London info, which has, on each occasion involved a stop off at the Stafford Hotel which has had close ties with the States since WWII and includes the rather incredible 'American Bar'. Bottom left is Leigh and her entourage in Westminster, part of a full day 'London Extravaganza'. I also spent the day with Jenny and her family, making sure we ticked off all the 'must see' London sights. I took their photo on Tower Hill, just above the Tower of London.
On the below set of photos, we have Megan, Lindsay and their dad outside the Tower of London, a tour which began at their apartment in Westminster on the other side of central London. Top right is Bryan and his family having a rest in the bombed out church of St Dustan-in-the-east. Bottom left is William and family in Parliament Square during a wander around the iconic sights of Westminster. Lastly, Patricia and Barry outside the National Gallery at the end of their half day walk.
Top left is Skip and his family in St James's Park. I did two half day walks with Mary and her family visiting from Australia. On the below photo, they're standing with Buckingham Palace in the background. Angela and Justin (bottom left) also did a couple of tours, during which time we covered the Westminster area, but also Covent Garden, Fleet Street and a bit of the City of London. Bottom right is Sandra and her crew outside St Paul's cathedral on a wander around the City and ending up (as requested) in a pub.
Jetsun and her family were visiting for a couple of days from Wales. Top right is Patsy, her sisters and partners visiting from Canada en route to a European cruise. Patsy first came on a walk with me with some friends a few years ago. Ed was visiting London with some students from New York. We did a walk around Spitalfields, Brick Lane and Shoreditch in east London which included quite a lot of street art. Bottom right, standing in Victoria Embankment Gardens is a group from the aid charity CAFOD. I think it's the 4th year I've done a walk with them on a sort of annual fun, but educational day out for employees.
Last but not least we have Judith & Mark just by Paternoster Square in the City of London. They'd actually been bought their walk as a gift last Christmas by their son, who had been on one of my regular weekend walks some time ago. We spent a few hours exploring the City of London. Finally, Kristen & Marissa from Australia were spending a bit of time sightseeing after a work trip. They are standing with Westminster Abbey behind them.
So ... if you are planning a trip to London and think that you might like to do a tour with me, then please do get in touch.
June was a reasonably busyish month for 'private walks'. Aside from my regular weekend 'pay what you want' London walks, I do tailor made walks around the capital for couples, families, groups of friends, work colleagues and even the odd lone traveller. They're all a bit a different and are very much based on what those particular people wish to get out of their walk, which could simply be seeing the sights, or maybe something a bit more off the beaten track. Below are photos of some of the people from across the globe that I met in June, along with a brief description of what we did or where we were when I took the photo.
All of the descriptions refer to the set of photos directly below. Top left we have Karen and her crew standing on Tower Hill, with the old Port of London Authority building behind them. I actually met them in the morning to wander around Covent Garden and Westminster where they were staying, but as my afternoon walk had just cancelled, they just carried on, as they were keen to see the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. Top right is Cynthia & co in Spitalfields about to embark on a well earned lunch after a jaunt around East London. Bottom left is whole bunch of colleagues from Soho based digital media company, Agenda 21. It was actually the third walk I've done with them around the area where they work. Bottom right is Vishal & Becca in Seven Dials near Covent Garden.
Top left is Abi in Westlands in east London which is a large architectural antique centre in a de-consecrated church, Shoreditch. Rather oddly, the statue was originally from communist Prague and is for sale. Top right is Diane and family in Covent Garden at the end of our walk around the sights of Westminster. Talking of sights, bottom left is Hank and family outside Buckingham Palace. If you're visiting London this summer, then Buckingham Palace's 'summer opening' is from 23rd July to 2nd October with a special exhibition entitled 'Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen's Wardrobe' which is pretty self explanatory. Bottom right, Jen and family with St Paul's cathedral in the background.
Top left of the four photos below is Brian and family in Parliament Square, with the iconic 'Big Ben' in the background. I did quite a different walk with Frank & Mary around Spitalfields and Shoreditch and included a pub stop. Unfortunately for Serena & John (bottom left) it rained for the entirety of their walk, but never-the-less remained in good spirits throughout. Here they are in Trafalgar Square with the National Gallery behind them. Bottom right is Alex and family from the States who were back in London and came on their first walk with me a couple of years ago. They're standing in the courtyard of the historic 17th century George Inn in Borough, London's last remaining galleried inn.
Top left (below) is Christine on a layover at Gatwick airport from Italy. I met her at Victoria station and did a quick whizz around Westminster before dropping her back at the station to get a train back to the airport. She's standing next to the statue of Charles I at the north end of Whitehall. Top right is Jack and family from the States. I met them at their hotel in Southwark and we did a walk that included Fleet Street and the City of London, dropping them back at Borough Market on Bankside in time for lunch. Bottom left is Karyl and her family at the end of our walk in Piccadilly, before they ventured in to Soho for dinner. Bottom right is a group of teenagers from around Europe, in London for a two week course. They're standing in Horse Guards.
As you can see, an eclectic and varied month of walks. I'm currently taking bookings for July, August and beyond so if you're visiting London and in the planning stages, feel free to get in touch.
I've mentioned street artist, Ben Wilson (the chewing gum guy) previously. He's well known now for painting bits of chewing around London that people have spat on the floor. If you've walk over the Millennium Bridge, then you'll have encountered his art, as that particularly bridge is festooned with hundreds of them. It seems to be his pet project
There were just four people for my regular Sunday wander around East London yesterday. Here they are:
Ella and James that you can see there on the right actually live not far from Old Street roundabout where we began the walk. They've recently moved here from Australia. Anyway ... it didn't take us long to discover that the ubiquitous Ben Wilson has been back in the Old Street area painting some newly masticated bits of gum. There were a few around Old Street and we spotted a new one on Rivington Street. I have to say ... they're pretty good.
Most weekends I do three 'pay what you want' walks around London. On Saturday morning, eight people joined me for the walk from Trafalgar Square to St Paul's cathedral. Over the last few years, I've done a few walks with people from CAFOD (Catholic Aid for Overseas Development). Father George from Sri Lanka and Atul and Pinto from Bangaldesh were accompanied by Dominic, who had been on a walk with me previously. The other half of the group had a distinctly American feel, with Danny & Amina from Massachusetts (I think) and Abby & Kate from North Carolina. I took their photo as we passed through Covent Garden.
For the afternoon walk which takes us over to Bankside & Borough on the south side of the River Thames I had a few repeat walkers; Chris & John who came on the East London walk last year and Kaidi who had been a few years ago and brought with her, two friends, Bonnie & Rhonda. We were also joined by Ewan and his daughter and Steve & Anne. Now, I wanted to mention Ewan because three years ago, at the ripe old age of 41 he was diagnosed with young onset Parkinson's. Parkinson's disease is a degenerative neurological condition, with symptoms such as tremors, slow movement and stiff and inflexible muscles. The name comes from James Parkinson, who amongst other things was an east London surgeon and apothecary, who first published in 1817 his observations on the condition which he called the 'shaking palsy'.
Most people with a cursory knowledge of this disease would probably associate it with the elderly, but as illustrated by Ewan, this is anything but the case. As a husband and father of a young family, Ewan's diagnosis turned his world upside down. It seems he refused to admit his diagnosis for a while, until it was something he could no longer ignore and once he had opened up to friends and family about his condition, realised the importance of a support network. Wanting to widen the net, Ewan set up a self-help website with the aim of providing support to other Parkinson's sufferers, their carers and families. Obviously Ewan's own personal experience forms a large part of the content, but he also includes recipes for healthy eating, exercises regimes and stuff like that. He's also been busy raising the Parkinsons.Me profile locally (he lives in Oxfordshire), taking part in challenges and events. My walk on Saturday was one such event and Ewan was joined by Anne, another person with Parkinson's who lives in London. I'm very pleased they were able to come along.
If you've recently been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, or know someone who has, please have a look at Ewan's Parkinsons.Me website, (recently awarded charity status) and I'm sure he'd be delighted if you got in touch with him, should you so wish.
Incidentally, I took the photo of the group (below) standing by the site of the original Globe Theatre, which opened on Bankside in 1599.
Sunday is the East London walk, which aside from me warbling on about random things that I find interesting, includes quite a lot of street art. Here are Sunday's group in Shoreditch, standing in front of a piece by an artist that I really like; Conor Harrington, an Irish painter, based in London. The group included a lovely bunch of guys from the north of England, a couple who lived in London (and worked in the area) and Efi & Pedro visiting London from Athens.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.