Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is a pub in London that people often ask me about, and in fact, we regularly pass by on the Saturday morning walk. It would appear to be one of those old or historic drinking holes that has managed to wedge itself in to the public consciousness, as it is a name familiar with many visitors, either through guide books or a friend of a friend who suggested they should visit. In my opinion, there are many good reasons for this, and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese's reputation as a place to literally soak in history is well justified.
You can approach 'The Cheese' from a couple of directions, but if you are walking down Fleet Street, you turn off in to Wine Office Court, a narrow alleyway that gets its name from the wine licences that were once granted in a nearby building. Next to the well worn front doorstep to the pub is a sign listing all the monarchs that have reigned since the pub was rebuilt in 1667 (yes, it's the 'new' pub), having burned down during the Great Fire of London the previous year. There's actually been a guest house on the site since 1538, and prior to that it is thought to have been a guest house for the Carmelite monks who in the 13th century occupied much of the area. If you have a look around the surrounding streets, you'll discover, there's a nearby Carmelite Street and also a Whitefriars Street and a small part of the old monastery is hidden, but visible beneath a much newer building on the other side of Fleet Street.
Stepping inside the pub, you'll be plunged in to near darkness, but once your eyes grow accustomed to the light (or lack of it), you'll notice the floor is covered in sawdust. To your left is the old chop room, and to your right, you can enter in to an atmospheric, wood paneled room, that was once the domain of 'gentlemen' only, but is now a cosy bar, complete with a fire place, above which is a painting of a former waiter William Simpson, who began working at 'The Cheese' in 1829. The painting gets passed down through successive landlords and in the photos below, you can see him on the right of each picture gazing down on customers in 1919, and still there today in the same place.
Being careful not to bang your head, you can venture down another couple of floors in to the old cellars, where there is another bar, and depending on how busy the pub gets, they can open up further rooms at the back, and have another couple of floors above which are used mostly for private functions. Perhaps not surprisingly, due to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese's proximity to Fleet Street, the pub has a long line of literary connections, including Samuel Johnson, who compiled his dictionary in the mid 18th century just around the corner in Gough Square (now Dr Johnson's House), Oliver Goldsmith, who lived opposite at No. 6 Wine Office Court, Mark Twain, E.M Forster, Alexander Pope and George Bernard Shaw. Perhaps the most often asserted literary connection is that in Charles Dickens' novel 'A Tale Of Two Cities', Sydney Carton leads Charles Darnay along Fleet Street and 'up a covered way, in to a tavern' and invites him to dine. Although not mentioned by name, it is thought that the scene takes place in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.
The pub is now run by the Sam Smiths brewery and the food they do is what I call 'no nonsense bog standard pub grub', so don't expect too much. It does the trick and to be honest, you'll find that most people go there for the atmosphere, as it's perhaps the nearest you'll get to feeling like you've gone back in time to the 18th century or 19th century if you'd prefer that. Like I suspect many people, the little bar on the right as you go in, is my favourite and as you sit there you can almost sense all the people who have sat, just like you for the last three hundred odd years. It's a great place to while away a few hours on a cold, wintery evening, much like the ones we have now, and much like the ones they had back then.
A number of years ago, I came across a 'No Entry' sign. That in itself isn't particularly strange; they're pretty universal around the world I think, a red circle with a thick white bar struck through the centre. This one was no different, and at a moments glance, you probably wouldn't notice anything particularly unusual about it. We're so used to being bombarded with signs telling us where to go, where not to go, when to stop, when to turn left or right, when it's one way, where we can cycle, where we can't etc etc, that after a while they kind of almost disappear from view altogether or at least you stop paying them much attention. This particular 'No Entry' sign however, upon closer inspection had been slightly altered. The familiar white bar was being carried, with some difficulty, by a silhouetted figure, struggling under the weight. It looked rather like this ...
After the first one, I saw a couple of others around London, but that was it really, and as I said, it was a couple of years ago. Over the last few weeks I've seen a positive flurry of new altered (or hacked) signs, so have taken the liberty of photographing them as I find them. They're not just in the street art saturated area of east London either, you can find them in Westminster, Southwark, Covent Garden and no doubt a plethora of other places I'm yet to discover. It seems as well, that the people who come on my walks really like them too, mainly because they're incredibly well executed, but also humorous and with each one, comes an element of surprise. At the end of the day, the sign itself or at least its 'message' or 'instruction' is still completely visible, but has been, if anything ... embellished. I have no doubt that the authorities don't see it in quite the same way.
I've recently discovered that the man responsible for adding this touch of humour to our streets is in fact a French born artist, living in Italy called Clet Abraham. If you're interested in finding out a little bit more about him, and why he does what he does, then watch this great little film by Ingrid Fochs about him. In it he says "I'm always trying to find the best way to catch my audience, and this is the humorous, to make them feel good. And when they're feeling good, if I get it, bring a little spark. Sometimes that spark travels among the public".
So, I'm very happy to help that spark travel among the public, as I think his altered street signs are great. Next time you're out and about, you might even spot one. If you visit Florence, you'll find the city positively festooned with Clet Abraham's embellished street signs, as it's where he lives, has a studio and began his unique brand of art. In the mean time, here are a few others I've seen in London. The last two, I'm pretty sure are by him, but not certain. Either way ... have a look and enjoy.
It seemed that even a bit of a drop in temperature wasn't going to deter people from turning up this weekend, and I did all three walks, beginning with the usual Trafalgar Square to St Paul's jaunt which takes us through a rather festive looking Covent Garden.
Nestling in one corner of Covent Garden is the tardis like Royal Opera House. An art work by Yinka Shonibare was recently installed on the side of the building, showing a ballerina, rather like a giant version of the kind you might expect to pop out of an old music box. Her head is a hand made globe, made by ace globe makers Bellerby & Co and jutting out horizontally inside an orb, the plan is that the ballerina twirls majestically on the hour. On Saturday however, it seems that the 'Globe Head Ballerina' had endured an unfortunate accident, and lost a couple of limbs and was clunking and bashing around less majestically than usual, high up above intrigued on lookers. Hopefully she'll get fixed and be back to her graceful best soon.
In the afternoon, 13 people joined me for the walk from St Paul's cathedral to Monument via Bankside and Borough. It was a heady international mix hailing from Holland, the States, Bombay, Liverpool and the Isle of Wight to name a few. Ali who had done 2 walks with me previously was there to complete 'the trilogy' and Pete was on his second walk with me. Here they are standing in front of the remains of the 12th century Winchester Palace, once the London residence of the Bishop of Winchester. The 'Rose Window' which adorns the western wall of the great hall can be seen above them.
On Sunday, another healthy sized group came along for my east London walk including Glen and Norma who despite doing a walk with me a few weeks ago in torrential rain, came back for another. Here they all are on our way through Bunhill Fields Cemetery, home to Daniel Defoe and William Blake and stands on the other side of City Road from Wesley's Chapel, built in 1778.
Best ear warmers - Katie
Best moustache - No winners
Special award for completing the Bowl Of Chalk Trilogy - Ali
Best hat - Mel (came with room for ears - on the top)
Most Davids in one group - Sunday (David & David)
Most difficult name to remember & pronounce - Irgan & Vanechka (joint winners)
We had a nice couple of walks this weekend, with a healthy number of Londoners out to explore their own city, alongside visitors from further afield. Saturday morning kicked off with a group of 11 hailing from Australia, the States, Holland and Finsbury Park amongst other places. Here they all are in Trafalgar Square, one of the first stops on the walk, after which we weaved through Covent Garden and Fleet Street en route to St Paul's cathedral.
The man on the left with the rather pink pushchair (and baby) was not actually on our walk, but men with pink pushchairs are of course very welcome.
On Sunday, Rob & Els, who had been on the Saturday walk returned to explore east London and were joined by fellow Dutch visitors Anna, Chantal and Jane (or Jannika) who was also celebrating her birthday. The group was further bolstered by Tracy, Troy and Nick and completed by my old friend Steve and his lady friend Amalia who was also celebrating her birthday (although hers had officially been on Friday). So, all in all it was a pretty birthday-tastic walk.
Here they all are standing next to Syd's Coffee Stall on the corner of Calvert Avenue and Shoreditch High Street. It has been there since 1919 when Sydney Tothill returned from the trenches of the First World War and used his invalidity pension to construct a small tea and coffee stand, which is still run today by his grand daughter Jane.
Tallest - Rob
Best ear warmers - Gabbi and Laura
Best Moustache - Ryan
Name most likely to make you think of the Trojan war - Troy
Most Dutch group - Sunday
Parliament Square was first constructed by Charles Barry in 1868, and despite its name (the 'square' part), became the first modern day roundabout in 1926. It sits flanked by Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, St Margaret's Church, the imposing Westminster Abbey, the Supreme Court and numerous government offices. Despite its location, it is notoriously difficult to access, and unless you're prepared to play chicken with the ceaseless waves of traffic (which I wouldn't recommend), your best bet is to use the crossing on the Abbey side. There are ten statues in the vicinity, and eight on the square itself, but who are the eight on the roundabout?
Starting in front of Big Ben, you'll find a statue that I really like; the rather bullish, compact figure of Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), wrapped in an overcoat, with stick in hand. The statue, by Ivor Roberts-Jones was due to be unveiled by the Queen in 1973, but when it came to it, she let Churchill's widow, Clementine do the honours. During the May Day demonstrations in 2000, Churchill was unceremoniously given a new haircut, a Mohican, fashioned from a piece of turf.
Next up is David Lloyd George (1863-1841) who was Prime Minister from 1916-1922. Again, I really like this statue. It's by Glynn Williams and with Lloyd George's coat billowing and his hat held in his right hand, it seems incredibly modern and dynamic. This could be because in the grand scheme of things, it's pretty new, unveiled by Prince Charles in 2007. Lloyd George was a Welshman, and true to form, he is standing on a plinth made of Welsh slate. The statue itself was a contentious issue, as David Lloyd George some what blotted his copy book by selling honours to boost his party funds.
After passing the statue of David Lloyd George you will come across a statue of a man who looks like he has been caught in the midst of ice skating. The likely-hood of this being the case is minimal as it shows Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts (1870-1950) who was the South African Prime Minister during WWII and the only person to sign the peace treaties ending both the First and Second World Wars. Similar to his Welsh neighbour, he stands on a plinth made of South African granite.
Moving on from Smuts, we delve back in time to a statue that was erected in 1876 by Thomas Woolner. It is of former Prime Minister, Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmeston (1784-1865). Nicknamed 'Pam', he was by all accounts a bit of a ladies' man, and died two days before his 82nd birthday. Apparently his last words were "Die, my dear doctor? That's the last thing I shall do!".
Moving to the left, you'll find Edward George Geoffrey Smith Stanley, otherwise known as the 14th Earl of Derby (1799-1869) who became the first person to hold the position of Prime Minister three times and is still to this day, the longest serving leader of the Conservative party. He also helped to abolish slavery and interestingly, the statue was unveiled by Benjamin Disraeli in 1874. Disraeli, is now his next door neighbour in the square. There are four reliefs around the plinth, which depict various important moments in Derby's career.
So, Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (1804-81) was Prime Minister twice and a favourite of Queen Victoria. The statue is generally regarded as being an incredibly good likeness, which is perhaps not surprising seeing as the sculptor, Mario Raggi had made his bust from life, shortly before Disraeli died. On the photograph below you can see the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the background. It's a copy of a statue in Chicago by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and occupies the same patch on the other side of the road as the statue of George Canning.
Next up we have Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), resplendent in a pair of incredibly tight trousers; a man, who many people forget served twice as Prime Minister. The main reason for this is that he is predominantly associated with formulating the first united police force in 1829, which is also why policemen and women today are still known in the UK as 'Bobbies'. Bob, being short for Robert of course ... in case you didn't known that.
Last but not least is a man who needs no introduction, and is the only one on Parliament Square who is still alive (at the time of writing). It is of course Nelson Mandela who was born in 1918 and former president of South Africa. The statue was apparently originally intended to be situated outside South Africa house by Trafalgar Square, but was erected in its current position in 2007. Mandela was there himself for the unveiling, no doubt wearing a similar floral shirt to that worn by his statue.
Now, assuming you've read this far, it can't have escaped your notice that there are currently no statues of females in Parliament Square. However, with this in mind, apparently at the unveiling of his own statue, Nelson Mandela noted that upon visiting the square with his fellow activist, Oliver Tambo, forty five years earlier, they had joked whether a statue of a black person would ever stand in the same vicinity of Jan Christian Smuts. Well, he lived to see that day. There's plenty more room, so it'll be interesting to see who's next.
On Saturday, it was the Lord Mayor's Show. It happens each year when the new Lord Mayor of the City of London is officially welcomed in to their new year long post, and this year was the turn of Fiona Wolfe, only the second female Mayor in the history of the City of London ... the first being in 1983. When considering this fact, you should also bear in mind that last Saturday was the 798th Lord Mayor's Show. The City of London closes down for much of the day, and the streets are lined with thousands of people watching the parade go by, so I therefore decided to change the usual itinerary and instead, we stayed around Westminster.
Unfortunately for us (and everyone involved with the Lord Mayor's celebrations) it rained non stop for the entire morning. Despite the dismal weather I was joined by a hardy group, all from England, who weren't going to let the rain dampen their spirits. There were 7 in all; Carole from Blackpool, Dermot and Theresa from the Midlands and Glen, Norma, Judy and Ken all from London.
Quite early on, Ken made the excellent suggestion that I should furnish them with information under cover and out of the rain, so for the rest of the walk we darted from one bit of shelter to the next, under umbrellas, doorways, arches, markets and wot not. We ended up taking in a bit of Whitehall, including Banqueting House, Horse Guards and St James's Park.
Sunday, although a bit cold, was a lovely day for a walk around east London and I was joined by 10 people, or 10.5 if you include Lara who was just 18 months old. At about midnight on Saturday night / Sunday morning I had an email from a guy saying that him and his son were sitting in an airport in New York, (en route) from New Zealand and realised it was late notice, but could they come on the walk the next morning at 11am. I replied, giving him the meeting point details, and sure enough, they there were, Ryno and Francois, just arrived from the States. It's quite incredible really.
It was a pretty South African heavy group, sprinkled with a couple of Americans, a Canadian, an Australian and even Alex from Wolverhampton. Here they all are on Leonard Street, just near Old Street with Ian Stevenson's 'JUST LOOK AT THIS' mural behind them.
Least waterproof waterproof - Judy
Second least waterproof waterproof - Ken
Youngest - Lara
Best moustache - No winners
Most American - Kaidi & Wendy
Name most likely to conjure an image of a large, horned, odd toed ungulate - Ryno
If you are visiting London, then it's entirely possible (perhaps even inevitable) that you will visit Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and the rather iconic Big Ben, all of which reside in an area called Westminster. Once you have done this, and if you have a bit of spare time, I can highly recommend exploring the streets just west of Parliament.
Moving away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist hot spot of Parliament Square and the centre of government, in just a couple of minutes you'll find yourself in a startlingly quiet enclave of beautiful early 18th century streets. For me, the icing on the cake is Smith Square, developed in the 1720's and dominated by the former church of St John the Evangelist which seems to be bursting out of the meagre space it has been allocated.
Built by architect Thomas Archer between 1713-1728, St John's is today regarded as one of the finest examples of English Baroque architecture going. The building served as a parish church for about 230 years and since the 1960's, St John's has been a concert hall, which still plays host to a plethora of internationally renowned musicians, singers and orchestras all year round.
The building has the rather unusual nickname of 'Queen Anne's footstool', and legend has it that when Archer asked the ailing Queen Anne (she died in 1714) how she would like the new church to look, he caught her in a petulant mood. In response to his question, she kicked over her footstool, pointed at it and said "Like that!". St John's does indeed have four towers (or sticky-uppy bits, as I like to call them) pointing upwards from each corner, giving the building the appearance of an upturned footstool.
Charles Dickens described the church in his novel 'Our Mutual Friend' as "appearing to be some petrified monster, frightful and gigantic on its back with its legs in the air." I'm not sure I'd go that far, but it is certainly striking and domineering.
The church itself has not had an easy ride of it over the years. In 1742 the interior was damaged by fire and thirty one years later it was struck by lighting. In 1815 the towers and roof had to be stabilised, and then in 1941 it was hit and gutted by an incendiary bomb during the Blitz and remained open to the elements for the next twenty years until it got the love and care it deserved to bring it to its current incarnation. Talking of the Blitz (as I was) if you wander down Lord North Street (picture above) see if you can spot the old WWII public shelter signs still visible on the walls, which during the 1940's directed local residents to underground shelters.
One of the first walks I ever did, just over two years ago was attended by two Australians who at the time, were working in London. They are called Robb Musgrave and Ria and Robb has the curious distinction of being the winner of the inaugural 'Best Moustache' award. Over the course of the next year or so, they came on all my regular weekend walks, and so too did their visiting family and assorted friends and relatives. The baton now seems to have passed on to Robb's sister Erin, who has now done all my walks. Her aunt Susan was visiting from Australia last month, so I met them both in Trafalgar Square and we did a walk around Westminster to introduce Susan to the city. They are pictured below (top left) having a well earned sandwich in St James's Square.
Next up, is Lorita and Bonnie standing outside Buckingham Palace, then bottom left standing next to two iconic red telephone boxes, Samer and Rania from Lebanon via Dubai. Outside Westminster Abbey is Brittney and Luke who were visiting from Australia.
On the three photos above, from left to right are the McIntyre family from Scotland, standing in St James's Park and in the centre, Larry and Karen from the States in front of Horse Guards on Whitehall. Finally Rose, Theo, Max and Frankie who were visiting from the Isle of Man did a walk around east London.
Don't forget, if you're visiting London, and would like to do a private walk around London, then let me know and I'm sure we can sort something out.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.