Where are they?
Leicester Square, Coventry Street and Piccadilly are all in the heart of London’s West End, where tourists flock to visit Chinatown, take in a show, buy tat from one of the many tacky souvenir shops or eat in a generic epidemic restaurant.
What’s the story?
Leicester Square was developed in the 1630s by the 2nd Earl of Leicester, Robert Sydney. His mansion, Leicester House occupied what is now the north side of Leicester Square.
Coventry Street is named after King Charles II’s Secretary of State Charles Coventry, whilst Piccadilly is not named after a landowner, architect or any person for that matter …but a type of shirt collar popular in the 17th century. The ‘picadil’ was a stiff collar and ‘must have’ gentleman’s fashion item made popular by a tailor called Robert Baker, becoming so ubiquitous that the street's name changed from Portugal Street to Piccadilly.
How do I get there?
Leicester Square Underground station is on Charing Cross Road, right next to Leicester Square. Piccadilly Circus Underground station is at the east end of Piccadilly, Green Park Underground station is in the middle and Hyde Park Corner Underground station can be found at the far west end of Piccadilly.
What’s it like now?
I understand the attraction for some tourists, but Leicester Square, Coventry Street and Piccadilly Circus are probably amongst my least favourite places in London on account of their tackiness, the overpriced and not particularly great restaurants and the sheer number of tourists clogging the pavements. I’ve always imagined that Piccadilly Circus to be our own half hearted attempt at Times Square in New York. Piccadilly however is rather grander with a sort of French boulevard feel and as you walk away from Piccadilly Circus, the shops and restaurants become more luxurious and high end and the buildings seem to effortlessly ooze grandeur.
Where would I stay?
Although unlikely you’ll stay there, I have to mention ‘The Ritz’, a Grade II listed hotel, opened in 1906 by Cesar Ritz after being sacked by the Savoy Hotel. It’s known the world over and intrinsically linked with glamour, opulence and famous guests. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died in 2013 in a suite at the Ritz, having been staying there for about 4 months.
Just off Piccadilly is the Cavendish Hotel, then a little further towards Piccadilly Circus is Le Meridien. The Ham Yard Hotel recently opened in a newly developed courtyard area a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus. The Thistle Piccadilly is a 4-star hotel on Whitcomb Street, close to Leicester Square and I’ve also been to the Radisson Blu Edwardian on Leicester Square itself. If you’re looking for some 5-star luxury modern sheek then W London might do the trick. There are more affordable options for those travelling on a budget, such as the Premier Inn Leicester Square.
What’s of interest?
Burlington Arcade is a covered shopping street which has been providing a largely wealthy customer base with antiques, silver, jewellery, watches, shoes, perfumes and fashion accessories since 1819.
You’ll notice the arcade has its own private Police force known as ‘Beadles’ (they’re the ones in the top hats and waistcoats) who for the last 200 years have been ensuring amongst other things, visitors don’t whistle, open an umbrella, sing or play a musical instrument or carry a large parcel. There is an intriguing reason why the Burlington Arcade is covered which I’ve written about previously, and just for the record, it’s apparently the longest covered street in Britain.
Situated in Burlington House next door to the arcade is the Royal Academy of Arts which has been promoting the visual arts through exhibitions, education and debate since 1768. The Royal Academy was founded as a privately run and funded charity, run by artists, elected by their peers (still the case today) as well as being home to Britain’s longest established art school.
Fortnum and Mason
Fortnum and Mason (or Fortnum’s as it is known) is a large department store founded in 1707 by Hugh Mason and William Fortnum. The latter happened to be Queen Anne’s footman and as such had to ensure the palace was lit by brand new candles each evening. He kept the old ones, sold them on and used the money to help fund his new business enterprise. As such, you’ll notice candles are a motif throughout the shop, which sells groceries, household goods, men’s and women’s fashion and lots of other things, all at a slightly higher price than you can buy elsewhere. They’ve held Royal Warrants for some 150 years, currently providing ‘general provisions’ to the Queen and as such have garnered the nick name ‘The Queen’s Grocers’. If I’m in the area on a walk, I often take people in to Fortnum and Mason, just to experience the opulence of the place, and on the off-chance they’re handing out samples at the confectionary counter.
The oldest bookshop in London has been selling books on Piccadilly since 1797 when it was founded by John Hatchard. Although now owned by Waterstones, Hatchards are bookseller of choice to The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles.
St James’s Piccadilly
A rare example of a church designed by Sir Christopher Wren outside the ‘City of London’. St James’s was badly damaged in 1940 during an air raid, and subsequently restored. The spire is apparently made of fibreglass. Today you’ll no doubt stumble across the market in the courtyard and the church hosts regular concerts; mostly classical, but also welcomes well known faces from the world of folk and pop.
Waterstones Piccadilly is the bookseller’s flagship shop and the largest bookshop in London, housed in an imposing 1930s art deco building that once once home to Simpson’s department store which in turn was the inspiration for the classic British sitcom ‘Are you being served?”.
Running parallel to Piccadilly on the south side is Jermyn Street which has been a mecca for high end gentlemen’s fashion for 300 years. You’ll still find an abundance of shirt shops, but also everything a gentleman could possibly need in the form of shoes, cuff links, ties, grooming, cigars, whiskey, natty dressing gowns and lots more. Just to stand out in the crowd you’ll also find Paxton and Whitfield (the Queens cheese shop) and Floris (the Queen’s perfumeries), both of which have been in operation since the 18th century.
The term ‘circus’ literally comes from the Latin for ‘circle’ and like many junctions in the area, it was once a roundabout. For some reason, many people meet at the ‘statue of Eros’ which has been moved a number of times since it was originally installed in 1893 as a fountain and called the ‘Angel of Christian Charity’. The Eros moniker seems to have stuck, and even appears on maps.
You’ll be unable to avoid noticing a huge wall of advertising which is able to exist because it is apparently the only plot of land in the vicinity not owned by the Crown estates (The Queen) who have an incredible dislike for advertising on their buildings. To make up for it, all the advertising is on that one building.
The Criterion Restaurant
Established in 1874 (and recently renamed Savini at the Criterion), this beautiful restaurant is a window back to a time when Piccadilly Circus wasn’t chock full of cheap souvenir shops, human statues and burger restaurants. It’s been used as a backdrop in many a film, and Sherlock Holmes fans might be interested to learn that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used it as a setting for the initial meeting between Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes in the very first Sherlock Holmes story; ‘A Study in Scarlet’.
Café De Paris
Just off Piccadilly Circus is Café De Paris which opened in 1924 as one of London’s first nightclubs; its dance floor modelled on the ballroom of the Titanic. Today, they still host ‘the most debaucherous cabaret show London has seen’ (their words, not mine) and regular club nights.
Just north of Leicester Square is Chinatown, based around the very un-Chinese sounding Gerrard Street, which as you’d expect is brimming with Chinese food options which have been multiplying since the first Chinese settled there in the 1920s. A favourite amongst Londoners is the fabulously named ‘Wong Kei’ on Wardour Street, largely due to the legendary rudeness of the waiting staff.
In the centre of Leicester Square, a rather bemused looking statue of William Shakespeare looks out at the overly expensive cinemas, chain restaurants, tourists and street performers, adorned by a quote from Twelfth Night which reads ‘There is no darkness, but ignorance’ which currently strikes me as being particularly pertinent.
The large Odeon Cinema on the east side is often the venue of choice for Film Premieres, but I’d really recommend checking out the nearby Prince Charles Cinema, who specialise in showing cult, art house and classic films alongside recent mainstream releases at a much more affordable price. When I moved to London 20 years ago, the Prince Charles Cinema was a home from home.
The TKT half price ticket booth is situated on the south side of the square; great if you’re looking for bargain tickets to a West End show for that day. Like every tourist hotspot around the world you’ll find an M & Ms World and also a Lego Store.
Leicester Square is generally somewhere I avoid, unless I’m required to pass through it en-route to somewhere else.
You are in Theatreland. There are theatres everywhere, but I just wanted to mention the Jermyn Street Theatre, a small studio theatre with an audience capacity of 70. If you’re looking for theatre that is intimate and independent, then you should definitely see what the Jermyn Street Theatre have to offer.
Where is it?
Trafalgar Square is about as close to the centre of London as you can get and is where a number of the Monopoly board properties converge; Strand (red) to the east, Whitehall and Northumberland Avenue (pink) to the south, Pall Mall (pink) to the west and Leicester Square (yellow) to the north.
What’s the story?
One of our favourite pass times in this country seems to be going on about beating the French in battles. Trafalgar Square is no exception. It was opened as a public square in the 1840s and named after a naval battle we won against a joint French and Spanish fleet off the south-west coast of Spain (near Cape Trafalgar) in 1805. Prior to that, the area had been known as ‘King’s Mews’, housing the Royal stables which were moved to their current site within the grounds of Buckingham Palace.
The name ‘Trafalgar’ is actually of Arabic origin, originally being ‘Taraf - al - Ghar’ meaning ‘extremity’ or ‘edge’, in reference to the Cape Trafalgar’s coastal position.
How do I get there?
One of the exits of Charing Cross Underground Station pops out in Trafalgar Square itself. Failing that, Embankment and Leicester Square Underground stations are just a few minutes away.
What’s it like now?
Trafalgar Square is a sort of magnet in London, effortlessly pulling tourists towards it, largely because it is in the midst of a host of sights and places popular with visitors, but also because it’s Trafalgar Square …and heading to Trafalgar Square is just what you do.
The road running along the north side of the square in front of the National Gallery was pedestrianised just under 20-years ago, and has become a place for human statues in Yoda costumes, street performers, buskers, pick pockets and what author Russell Hoban would describe as ‘the low budget drinking club' to hang out.
It’s the kind of place you might want to pass through rather than linger and have a picnic. However, if you get there early in the morning before it gets busy it can be quite tranquil.
Trafalgar Square has been a place for political demonstrations and gatherings since it opened and today is no different, often hosting celebrations of the different faiths and cultures that make London such a cosmopolitan city.
Where would I stay?
You have plenty of options. Aside from the hotels I included in the Whitehall and Northumberland Avenue post, I’ve picked people up to do tours from the Haymarket Hotel, which is a minutes walk from Trafalgar Square on Suffolk Place. I’ve been to the St Martin’s Lane Hotel on the lane of the same name and as mentioned before, the Amba Hotel over Charing Cross station is a popular choice. There seems to be a plethora of private apartments that can be rented in the area too.
What’s of interest?
Out of all the properties on the Monopoly board, Trafalgar Square is the most compact, but there are many interesting things all within a couple of hundred yards.
Opened in 1838, the National Gallery began life in the 1820s in a house on Pall Mall with 38 paintings that had belonged to a banker called John Julius Angerstein. Today the collection comprises just under 3,000 paintings, including works by Hans Holbein, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian and Turner …to name but a few. One of my personal favourites is ‘Supper at Emmaus’ by Caravaggio.
In 1991, the Sainsbury Wing opened on the north-west corner of the square and houses much of the renaissance works in the collection.
National Portrait Gallery
With its entrance just around the corner from the National Gallery on Charing Cross Road, when it opened in 1856, the National Portrait Gallery was the first gallery dedicated to portraits in the world. The galleries are all arranged chronologically, displaying portraits of historically significant or famous British people and includes the ‘Chandos Portrait’ of William Shakespeare.
The collection also comprises a large amount of photographs and each year hosts the BP Portrait Award in which anyone of the age of 18 can submit a portrait for consideration. About 50 or 60 portraits are chosen for the exhibition and is always a treat.
As the name of this church would suggest, this area was once quite rural. There’s been a church on the site since the 13th century and the current one, which presides over the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square was completed in 1726 to the design of architect James Gibbs. St Martin-in-the-Fields hosts regular free lunchtime concerts, has a café in the crypt and a brass rubbing centre and exhibition space. They also run a homeless shelter next door. Fans of Harry Potter might be intrigued to learn that J.K Rowling worked for Amnesty International in offices beneath the church in the early 1990s, when she was working on the Harry Potter series.
Being in Trafalgar Square, you’re never going to be far from a theatre, but just a few steps up St Martin’s Lane you’ll find the London Coliseum which was opened in 1904 by theatre impresario Oswald Stoll. The story goes that Stoll meant it to be named after the Colosseum in Rome, but spelt it incorrectly which he later maintained he’d done on purpose. Then again you probably would, wouldn’t you? Today’s it home to the ENO, the English National Opera.
Dominating the south end of Trafalgar Square is the imposing Nelson’s Column, which stands just under 170ft tall and is topped off by a statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson, who died at the Battle of Trafalgar. The column was completed in 1843 and apparently is the same height as the mast of Nelson’s ship, the HMS Victory.
The four bronze lions around the base are equally famous and were added some 25 years later and created by Edwin Landseer who interestingly was a water colourist and had never made a sculpture in his life. Supposedly, Queen Victoria had a couple of dead lions sent to his studio to use as models, but he chose to base the hind legs and back end of each lion on his own dogs, which is why it’s physically impossible for an actual to lion to sit as Landseer’s lions do in Trafalgar Square.
The Fourth Plinth
There are a number of ‘dead white men’ statues in the square including King George IV on the north-east corner. However, funds ran out before the final statue of King William IV could be added on the north-west corner and for the next 150 years or so it remained empty. Since the early 2000s the plinth has become a place for temporary artworks including sculptures by Antony Gormley, Yinka Shonibare and more recently Michael Rakowitz’s ‘The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’. There are some who believe the spot is being reserved for a statue of The Queen after she pops her clogs, and after recent events, calls have been made for it to be a place to honour victims of the slave trade.
American visitors might be interested to see a statue of George Washington on a patch of grass outside the National Gallery, next to Charing Cross Road. It was a gift from the people of Virginia in the 1920s and legend would have you believe that because Washington said he never wanted to set foot on English soil, American soil was shipped over with the statue and laid down beneath.
On a little roundabout just to the south of Trafalgar Square is a statue of King Charles I who has the distinction of being the only Monarch we’ve ever executed. He had his head chopped off on the 30th January 1649 at Banqueting House (visible down Whitehall from the statue). The statue had actually been made during Charles I’s lifetime and a guy called John Rivett had been asked to melt it down and turn it in to souvenirs that people could buy at the execution. However, it turns out that John Rivett was a Royalist (which he neglected to mention), melted down something else and hid the statue. Then when Charles II returned in 1660, Rivett sold it back to him.
Just opposite the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery is a statue of a nurse called Edith Cavell who during WWI was executed by a German firing squad after being accused of espionage. Although she had been helping to evacuate British soldiers from occupied Belgium, as a nurse she tended to soldiers from all sides without discrimination and the base of the statue is inscribed with her quote “I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone”.
Other points of interest
The Centre of London
On the roundabout, just behind the statue of Charles I is a plaque on the floor which basically marks the centre of London and mentions also that ‘Mileages from London are measured from this point’.
The spot marks where the final cross was erected in 1290 on the behest of Edward I after his wife Eleanor died and was brought from Lincoln to Westminster. There were 12 crosses altogether and marked the processional route to London (A 19th century replica stands outside Charing Cross railway station), but the central-ness of the spot really boils down to it being a central meeting point between the City of Westminster and the City of London when there was little else in between. Since 1865 cab drivers have been required to learn ‘the knowledge’, which are streets, monuments, hotels and places of interest, from memory. Today that amounts to about 24,000 streets and 320 routes within a 6-mile radius of that exact plaque.
Britain’s smallest Police station
On the south-east corner of Trafalgar Square is a pillar which many people pass without a second glance. It was in fact added in the 1920s as a lock-up for drunk and disorderly people. (A drunk tank). Today it seems to be used to house odds and ends like brushes and bags of grit.
The crossing lights
When you cross the roads around Trafalgar Square, pay particular attention to the crossing lights. They must surely be the most politically correct crossing lights in the world. A few years ago, the ubiquitous ‘green man’ was changed to celebrate the Pride Festival to two men or two women holdings hands, and even a couple bearing the transgender sign. It seems no one got around to changing them back and last year, Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan decided they should stay forever.
A distinct lack of pigeons
If I meet people on walks who haven’t been to London for 20 or 30 years, and are in Trafalgar Square, they always say “Where have the pigeons gone?”. Trafalgar Square was famous for having a population of about 30,000 pigeons and people would buy bird seed from vendors to feed them. It cost Westminster Council a fortune in cleaning away bird poo, plus the fact that it damages stone work and statues. About 20-years ago, the pigeon food sellers were banned and now every morning someone turns up with a Harrier Hawk or two and flies them around to scare the pigeons away. It works.
Where is it?
Fleet Street runs from the end of Strand to Ludgate Circus junction. Despite being only about 550 metres long, it packs in a lot.
What’s the story?
The street takes its name from the river Fleet, one of London’s ‘lost’ rivers which still trickles along in tunnels beneath Farringdon Street and New Bridge Street, perpendicular to Fleet Street where it joins Ludgate Hill.
Originally the river formed the natural western boundary of the Roman city of Londinium. From the early years of the 16th century, Fleet Street became a hub for printing and publishing, which at the beginning of the 18th century moved in to newspapers. By the 20th century almost every building on Fleet Street belonged to a national newspaper with both the writing and printing taking place on the street, spawning the name ‘ink street’. Even though all of the newspapers began moving out in the 1980s, “Fleet Street” is in the UK still used as a byword for the newspaper industry.
How do I get there?
As Fleet Street literally runs from Strand, you could get the No.15 bus (mentioned in the Strand post), or alternatively use Blackfriars Station. Temple or Chancery Lane stations are within easy walking distance. If you’re travelling from further afield, there’s a City Thameslink station on Ludgate Hill with ‘real trains’ that come in from Brighton and Gatwick in the south, parts of south east London and Bedford, Cambridge and St Albans to the north.
What’s it like now?
Some of the newspaper heritage is still visible with names of newspapers lingering on buildings, but the historic identity of ‘ink street’ is long gone, and has become a generic business street. As a main thoroughfare between Westminster and the City it does get super busy (particularly at peak times), many of the buildings are interesting to look at, particularly above eye level and heading east you are afforded a lovely view of St Paul’s cathedral at the top of Ludgate Hill.
Where would I stay?
I do occasionally meet people who stay in and around Fleet Street, which I think is an interesting choice. Firstly, you’d be incredibly well placed between the main sites of Westminster to the west and St Paul’s cathedral and the Tower of London to the east. It is a business district, so during the week, the pubs in particular would be packed, but on the weekend, it’d be dead and you’d find many of the shops don’t bother opening. I’ve met people to do a private walk at the Apex Temple Court Hotel on Fleet Street and they did say that almost every other guest was a business man or woman staying for work reasons. There is a Premier Inn close by just behind St Bride’s church but if you’d rather be close to St Paul’s cathedral there’s the King’s Wardrobe secreted away in a lovely little courtyard or the recently renamed Leonardo Royal Hotel. Budget travellers will be thrilled to learn that there’s a YHA Hostel on Carter Lane in a building formerly occupied by St Paul’s cathedral choristers.
What’s of interest?
City of London Dragon
If you begin at the east end of Fleet Street where it meets Strand, you are standing at Temple Bar which marks the boundary between Westminster and the City of London. It was a later western extension of the original Roman city, and as such had a gate, known as ‘Temple Bar’ because it began life as a simple bar across a gate close to the Temple church. The city gates were largely removed in the 18th century due to congestion problems, but Temple Bar survived, and with its own intriguing history can now be found between St Paul’s cathedral and Paternoster Square.
The City of London boundaries are now marked by dragons (There are 13 of them) and this one was erected in 1880 with sculptures of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in niches either side. The Dragon (sometime referred to as a Griffin) is the symbol of the City of London, holding a shield with the cross of St George and a small sword of St Paul; the coat of arms of the City of London.
To your right, you’ll find the myriad of passages leading down to the river, which are the precincts of Inner Temple and Middle Temple Inns of Court and the wonderful Temple Church, mentioned in the Strand post.
Dr Johnson’s House
Tucked away on Gough Square is one of London’s small house museums; Dr Johnson’s House. Much of the area was destroyed during WWII but No.17, despite being damaged (still visible) was spared demolition largely on account of the fact that it was where the first definitive dictionary was compiled in 1755 by the larger than life character that was Samuel Johnson. His quote “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” adorns the introduction to almost every book about London ever written. If you’d like to learn about Johnson, his contemporaries like David Garrick or the former slave Francis Barber who became Johnson’s man servant and heir to his fortune, or just about life in 18th century London, then it’s well worth a visit. Also say hello to the statue of Johnson’s cat Hodge who sits proudly on a dictionary at the opposite end of the square.
St Bride’s Church
A number of churches around London have secrets which you only find out about if you go in and explore. St Bride’s on Fleet Street is no exception. Following the familiar pattern of many of the City churches, St Bride’s was a medieval church burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren and then bombed in WWII. St Bride’s was completely gutted but lovingly restored and is known as the ‘Journalists and Printers’ church’. In the north east corner, you’ll discover an altar adorned with photos of journalists who have died whilst reporting in war zones.
I encourage you to head down in to the crypt where you’ll find cases filled with artefacts that have been found on the site, dating back to the Roman period, and exhibition boards detailing the history of the Fleet Street printing industry.
If you wander over to the small chapel at the far end, you’ll see reflected back in angled mirrors on the ceiling, the remnants of a Roman pavement, hidden beyond a medieval wall. If you join one of the church’s weekly Tuesday afternoon tours, you’ll even get to see the thousands of bones piled up in the ossuary next door. Not for the squeamish.
I almost forgot. Perhaps the most famous thing about St Bride’s is their spire and its distinctive tiered design which is said to have inspired a local baker to create the first tiered wedding cake. For this reason, many people simply call it ‘the wedding cake church’.
If you walk up Ludgate towards St Paul’s cathedral there are a number of little lanes and alleyways off to your right in an area that once belonged to a large Dominican Monastery, whose monks wore black. The area, a pub, a station and a bridge are now all known as ‘Blackfriars’. In 1613, the Globe Theatre on Bankside burned down during a performance of Henry VIII. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (the theatre troupe Shakespeare belonged to) decanted to the old Blackfriars Monastery and built an indoor candle-lit playhouse whilst the Globe was being rebuilt. You’ll still find ‘Playhouse Yard’ there today. William Shakespeare bought a house close by (the deed of which still exists) just three years before his death. You’ll find a plaque commemorating the fact on St Andrew’s Hill on a building on the other side of Ireland Yard from a pub called ‘The Cockpit’.
St Paul’s cathedral
Like a number of ‘places of interest’ I’ve mentioned, a short paragraph clearly does not do St Paul’s cathedral justice. There’s been a church dedicated to St Paul on the same site since the year 604. The current cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and finished in the first decade of the 18th century after the previous building (known as Old St Paul’s) burned down during the Great Fire of 1666.
The cathedral reaches 365ft tall (one for foot for each day of the year) and remained the tallest building in London for just over 250 years until it was usurped by the Post Office Tower (now the BT Tower) in 1963. Despite now being way down the list of London’s tallest buildings, St Paul’s cathedral remains a protected view and remains visible from a number of vantage points around London.
Horatio Nelson’s tomb has pride of place in the crypt directly beneath the dome and the cathedral has hosted the funerals of the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill and more recently Margaret Thatcher, not to mention the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana in 1981. Like Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s cathedral is first and foremost a place of worship, but aside from regular services there’s so much to experience. If your legs will allow, climb to the top of the dome (2nd biggest in Europe after St Peter’s in Rome) for incredible views across London, learn how the building survived the intense bombing in the area during WWII and much more.
A short walk from St Paul’s cathedral, you’ll find postman’s park in the former church yard of the wonderfully named church of St Boltoph without-Aldersgate. In 1900 a small section of the garden was given over to a memorial dedicated to ‘Heroic Self-Sacrifice’ with the names of people who died in the act of saving another person’s life. The tablets are beautifully rendered, incredibly moving in their simplicity and featured prominently in the film ‘Closer’ based on the play of the same name by Patrick Marber.
Just north of St Paul’s cathedral is an area called Smithfield, which for the last 900 years has been a meat market. However, all that is about to change as the Museum of London, an absolutely brilliant museum about the history of London is preparing to move in to the Victorian meat market buildings. The area is on the verge of a huge amount of change, but it’s a fascinating area. Scottish patriots or fans of Mel Gibson’s ‘Braveheart’ might like to pay a visit to the spot where William Wallace was executed in 1305. Close by is the beautiful medieval church of St Bartholomew-the-Great, originally part of an Augustinian priory in 1123 and has been used as a film location for films such as ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, Robin Hood; Prince of Thieves’, ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and many more.
On the other side of the market is a genuine bona-fide hidden gem in the form of Charterhouse, a 14th century priory that was largely rebuilt in the 16th century. The rambling assortment of buildings sit within a 7-acre plot hidden away from the world and is a retirement home. However, they recently opened a small museum and provide tours. If you can, I highly recommend visiting this unique, living breathing piece of London history.
There are a large amount of pubs in the area, and not only that, put pubs that are historically interesting like Ye Olde Mitre, just off Hatton Garden. However, as we’re supposed to be focusing on Fleet Street, here are a few on that street alone.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Often, if establishments put the words ‘Ye Olde’ at the beginning of their name, it means they’re not old, but would like to be. However, a look at the sign over Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese’s threshold on Wine Office Court which reads ‘Rebuilt in 1667’ plus the list of Monarch’s that have reigned since it was rebuilt, beginning with Charles II would suggest you’re dealing with the real thing. You are.
Stepping in to Dr. Johnson’s local is a to step back in time. Once your eyes adjust to the dark, you’ll notice sawdust on the floor, low ceilings, a brazier burning in the ‘gentleman’s bar’ and the feeling that it probably hasn’t changed that much since the fictional character of Charles Darnay entered in Charles Dickens’ novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Be sure to head down two floors to the cellar bar, but be careful not to bang your head on the way down, or up.
The Tipperary is a saloon bar style Irish pub on Fleet Street and claim not only to be the first Irish pub outside Ireland but the first to serve Guinness in England.
The Old Bell
Standing on the site of an earlier pub, The Old Bell (which I exuberantly labelled Ye Olde on my map) was apparently built by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire for the masons working on the adjacent St Bride’s church.
The Punch Tavern
Occupying the site of a former 19th century gin palace, the Punch Tavern received its current name after employees of the nearby Punch magazine who were frequent patrons.
Where is it?
Strand is a major road in central London which runs from Trafalgar Square to the City of London where it becomes Fleet Street.
What’s the story?
Until the development of Victoria Embankment in the second half of the 19th century, Strand was the major conduit between Westminster and the City. Strand in German, Dutch, Norwegian (and most northern European languages) means ‘beach’ (which is where the word ‘stranded’ originates – to be beached) and as such, runs along the northern edge of the river Thames. Londoners always refer to the thoroughfare as ‘The Strand’ although it doesn’t actually have a prefix. From the medieval period, the northern riverside was dominated by lavish, aristocratic mansions, which although long gone, live on in street names, with Somerset House, the only actual survivor.
How do I get there?
Strand is just under a mile long, and has a number of transport links. To the east is Charing Cross and Embankment stations, and Temple can be found just over half way along. Strand is also serviced by the No.15 bus which goes all the way from Trafalgar Square to the Tower of London, via St Paul’s cathedral. It’s the only surviving ‘Routemaster’ bus route, which for the uninitiated, means that on weekends and bank holidays you can still board the old iconic ‘hop on and hop off’ buses, the kind you see pictures of on postcards and are effectively antiques on wheels.
What’s it like now?
Twice serving 19th century Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli described Strand as ‘perhaps the finest street in Europe’. The same couldn’t be said now. A few old shops and stalwarts like Simpsons and the Savoy Hotel survive alongside west end theatres such as the Adelphi and Vaudeville Theatres, but much of Strand is dominated by generic high street shops, the doorways of which unfortunately, at night, become makeshift homes for London’s homeless population. At rush hour, or when ‘Changing The Guard’ is taking place outside Buckingham Palace, the traffic on Strand comes to a stand still.
Where would I stay?
Being so central, there’s a huge amount of choice, but as with my previous posts, I only mention hotels I’ve actually been to, which in this instance includes the Amba Hotel, Charing Cross, Strand Palace and ME London. I’ve also been to a few privately rented apartments near Victoria Embankment Gardens. Probably the most famous hotel on Strand (or maybe London) is the Savoy, which when it opened in 1889 was London’s first luxury hotel. I have been there to pick people up to begin Private walks, but don’t expect most people reading this to have the funds to even buy a cocktail there. I’ve represented the Savoy Hotel on the map with a picture of Kaspar the Cat, which resides at the hotel, is made of wood and was carved in 1927 with the sole purpose of being the 14th guest in the private dining rooms should a table of 13 book. The superstition dates back to 1898 and the death of a guest called Woolf Joel after dining at the Savoy with 12 other guests. His death incidentally, was in no way connected to the hotel.
What’s of interest?
Gordon’s Wine Bar
On Villiers Street, close to Embankment station is London’s best kept, worst kept secret, Gordon’s Wine Bar; a delightful little worm hole back in time that has been serving wine in its characterful, candlelit cellar since 1890. They do great buffet style lunches and the walls are adorned with an array of original framed newspaper pages relating to Royal events. In the summer you can sit out on Watergate Walk and pretend you’re sitting on a terrace somewhere far more exotic.
Top Tip – The main door is usually shut and the place will look like it’s been closed for decades. To enter, head down the steps leading to Watergate Walk, and through the doors on your left.
Victoria Embankment Gardens
In 1858, London was plunged in to ‘the great stink’, after the Thames became stagnant with raw sewage. An engineer called Joseph Bazelgette kindly designed 2,500 miles of sewers to help alleviate the problem, and reclaimed a large chunk of river to build a sewage works, on top of which was laid Victoria Embankment Gardens. If you wander through you’ll notice a number of statues and memorials and undoubtedly see the ancient Egyptian Monument known as Cleopatra’s Needle, which dates back to about 1450BC, but has no connection with the Egyptian Queen of the same name. There’s a twin needle in New York and another in Paris.
York Water Gate
Nestling on the north side of Victoria Embankment Gardens is a weathered structure which was a Watergate built for George Villiers (the 1st Duke of Buckingham) in 1626, allowing his wealthy friends to arrive by boat at his residence, York House. I included York Watergate in my list of London Curiosities. Many people don’t notice it, but it is a very clear marker for showing just how far up the river used to come before Bazelgette reclaimed it.
Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy
I don’t imagine many tourists visit this particular church, hidden away behind the Savoy Hotel, but this Grade II listed building dates back to the early 16th century and does not come under the jurisdiction of a bishop, but is owned by the Duchy of Lancaster (AKA The Queen). A piece of trivia for you is that Bob Dylan filmed the now famous video for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ standing in between the Savoy Chapel and the Savoy hotel.
Courtauld Institute of Art
The Courtauld as it’s usually known is a wonderfully underrated gallery. There is an admission fee, but they have an amazing collection of 530 paintings heavily weighted towards ‘Impressionist’ and ‘Post Impressionist’ art including works by Manet, van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne and about 26,000 drawings and prints by the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Dürer, Canaletto and Picasso. In 2018, the gallery closed for a number of years for a major refurbishment, but you can take a virtual tour of the Courtauld collection.
Step off Strand in to the courtyard of Somerset House and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped in to a film set. That’s because you have. This largely 18th century building has been the back drop to a couple of James Bond films, The Duchess (starring Keira Knightley), Guy Ritchie’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ starring Robert Downey Junior and many more. The building itself has a fascinating history (far too much to write here) but you can jump on a free tour of the site, which also includes a visit to the ‘Deadhouse’ beneath the courtyard. Today the building is home to hundreds of businesses and entrepreneurs, but also has regular exhibitions and cafes for you to enjoy a cuppa.
As well as being a ridiculously opulent and grand early 20th century building and home to the longest continuously occupied diplomatic mission in the UK (the Australians) and standing over a 900-year old well, Australia House has a special place in the hearts of Harry Potter fans. The building was turned in to ‘Gringott’s Wizarding Bank’ for the film of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
St. Clement Danes church
Standing directly opposite Australia House is St Clement Danes, made famous by the nursery rhyme which begins “Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clements”. It was burned out during WWII and the rebuilding was paid for by the Royal Air Force. For this reason, you’ll see the RAF insignia dotted around and memorials to Bomber Harris (itself pretty contentious) and Lord Dowding. The interior has memorials to all the Allied air forces and pilots who fought during WWII. If you walk along the north side (closest to the Royal Courts of Justice) you’ll notice a lot of shrapnel damage still scarring the outer wall.
Royal Courts of Justice
A huge section of Strand is dominated by the gothic revivalist grandeur of the Royal Courts of Justice which opened in 1882. During the week you’ll often find journalists and photographers or demonstrators outside and I highly recommend popping in if you can. The entrance hall alone, which is pretty much empty, is a good five times bigger than St Clement Danes. George Edmund Street who designed the building literally built a cathedral to law.
Twinings Tea Shop
Directly opposite the Royal Courts of Justice is the tiny corridor-like shop of Twinings, a tea brand that most people around the world have heard of. They’ve been selling tea from that exact spot since 1706 and is a must visit spot for tea enthusiasts visiting London. You can have a look at their tiny museum at the back of the shop and note their Royal Warrant proudly displayed above the door as you enter.
Inner and Middle Temple
The Knights Templar originally had a base in this part of London and after they were disbanded in the very early 14th century, the land was sold to lawyers, and two of London’s four Inns of Court have been based there ever since.
If you can, I highly recommend wandering through the alleyways and courtyards that stretch all the way to the Thames and I see regularly used as sets in TV dramas. You’ll undoubtedly stumble across Middle Temple Hall, the oldest surviving Elizabethan hall in London, where the first performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ is said to have taken place.
You’ll also discover the incredible Temple Church, which Tom Hanks’ character visits in ‘The Da Vinci Code’. Although badly damaged during WWII, the round chapel dates back to 1185, whilst the new bit, which forms the main bulk of the church was completed c1240. It’s a wonderful hidden gem, so if you can visit, I highly recommend it.
If you walked along Strand from Trafalgar Square, you'll now find yourself on Fleet Street, which as it happens, is the next property on the London Monopoly board.
Where is it?
The final two orange properties are a little further west of Bow street, but still in the heart of London’s West End. Marlborough Street actually doesn’t exist, and is thought that the manufacturers actually meant Great Marlborough Street in Soho. Vine Street is a tiny dead end, just off Piccadilly towards the south end of Regent Street.
What’s the story?
These two streets are an odd inclusion on the Monopoly board. Marlborough Street, because, as mentioned, it doesn’t exist, and Vine Street because it’s only about 70ft long, without anything of note on it, not even a pub. It is thought that the three orange properties were a nod to law and Policing, which in 1935 when the British version of Monopoly was created, all three were synonymous with. Bow Street (as previously mentioned) is famous for the ‘Bow street runners’ and subsequently the Bow Street Police Station & Magistrates Court. Great Marlborough Street was home to the once very famous Marlborough Street Magistrates Court, whilst although a damp squid now, Vine Street at the time housed another large Police station.
Later in this series I will be writing about Piccadilly, Regent Street and Oxford Street (all very close by) so to avoid repetition will for the benefit of this, concentrate on Great Marlborough Street and the area of Soho.
Great Marlborough Street was developed in the early 18th century and named after one of Winston Churchill’s ancestors; John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough. The name Soho which refers to a triangular area hemmed in by Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road, Shaftesbury Avenue and Regent Street, is thought to get its name from a hunting cry. The area was in the 16th century largely woodland, used for hunting.
How do I get there?
The nearest Underground Station is Oxford Circus, but Soho is also flanked by Tottenham Court Road, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus Underground Station (just a few minutes walk to Vine Street …not that you’ll be really wanting to go there).
What’s it like now?
When Great Marlborough Street was first developed it was a wealthy residential street, but is now lined with shops, a few restaurants and businesses. The main reason you’re likely to go there is to visit the department store Liberty’s, or en route to Carnaby Street to do a spot of shopping.
Where would I stay?
Soho is actually a great location to stay whilst visiting. It’s close to a lot of the main sites found in Westminster, but has its own vibe going on that makes you feel like you removed from the pomp of the Royals and the Victorian grandeur of Whitehall. Soho is a maze of streets, all packed with bars, clubs, restaurants and pubs. For this reason it's very much a destination where Londoners go for post work drinks and revelry, and for that reason will be noisy at night. I’ve met many people who have stayed in Soho and they’ve all mentioned the noise, although I think most have stayed in privately rented apartments rather than hotels.
On Great Marlborough Street itself and formerly the magistrates court previously mentioned is the Courthouse Hotel. If you fancy staying where some famous people have appeared in court, then it might be the place for you. In 1895 Oscar Wilde took the Marquess of Queensbury to court there for libel. In 1963, Christine Keeler attended over sex allegations which lead to the Profumo scandal becoming public. Mick Jagger received a £200 fine for drugs charges and a few years later, fellow Rolling Stone Keith Richards was fined after being found guilty of drugs and firearms charges. John Lennon, Francis Bacon and Johnny Rotten all appeared in court there.
Other hotels nearby include the Soho Hotel, The Resident (formerly The Nadler) and if you a seeking some historic boutique hotel action, then try Hazlitt’s on Frith Street.
What’s of interest?
The Photographer’s Gallery
Opened originally in 1971 nearer Covent Garden, the Photographer’s Gallery was the first gallery dedicated to photography in the UK, re-opening on its current site on Ramillies Street in 2012. As well as continuous exhibitions of their own, TPG is home to the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize.
Generally, just called Liberty’s, this department store dominating the west end of Great Marlborough Street has been going for nearly 150 years. Although the black and white wooden facade would lead you to believe it’s a Tudor building, the shop was actually built in the 1920s using timber from two Victorian Royal Naval ships. The frontage on Great Marlborough Street is apparently the same length as one of the ships; HMS Hindustan.
Charing Cross Road, until reasonably recently was synonymous with bookshops. There still are a number of second hand and antiquarian bookshops which are well worth browsing, but I wanted to mention Foyles, which at some point in its potted history held the record for the world’s largest bookshop, based on having 30 miles of shelves. Foyles relocated next door a few years back and has scaled down (and modernised), but is still a great bookshop. Foyles was founded in 1903 by two brothers, who when they discovered in the 1930s that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party were burning books, sent Hitler a telegram offering to buy them from him. Hitler declined.
Originally opening from a basement on nearby Gerrard Street in 1959, Ronnie Scott’s which has been based on Frith Street since 1965 is a world famous Jazz club, and was also the last place that Jimi Hendrix performed in public, shortly before his death in 1970.
You’re never going to be far from a theatre in Soho, but just opposite Liberty’s on Argyll Street is the London Palladium; an early 20th century, Grade II listed theatre which people in the UK generally associate with the annual televised Royal Variety Performance. A far newer addition to London’s theatre scene is the Boulevard Theatre, which opened in 2019 in the former Raymond Revuebar by the grand daughter of Paul Raymond ‘the King of Soho’. Another theatrical stalwart is the Soho Theatre on Dean Street, who specialise in new writing, comedy and cabaret.
The Seven Noses of Soho
In the 1990s, artist Rick Buckley stuck casts of his own nose on buildings around Soho in response to the amount of CCTV cameras on our streets. I think he literally felt that the government were being nosey. Most were removed, but seven of the noses escaped the attention of Westminster Council and have become part of buildings and are known collectively as the Seven Noses of Soho. If you can’t spot them yourself, you might wish to enlist the help of tour guide Pete Berthoud and join his quirky Seven Noses of Soho tour.
Old Compton Street
If you’re in search of a gay bar or five, then Old Compton Street is the place for you. It’s been a focal point of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community for decades. In 1999, the Admiral Duncan pub was targeted by a Neo-Nazi with the intention of injuring members of the gay community. Unfortunately, the nail bomb he detonated killed three people and injured many more.
The epicentre of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ lost its mantle of being a mecca for British fashion over half a century ago, but never-the-less is still a name most people recognise and is remembered in the Kinks song ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’. Today there’s still loads of shops, but more high street than boutique.
Eating and Drinking
Soho is a great place for restaurants and pubs, so I highly recommend wandering around and seeing what you can find that tickles your taste buds. However, here are three:
Mildreds is a great vegetarian and vegan restaurant on Lexington Street. You can’t book a table and it can get pretty busy at peak times, so be prepared to wait.
Directly opposite Mildreds, nestling in an 18th century town house is Andrew Edmunds who have been serving quality British fare for over 30 years. I’ve been a couple of times and thoroughly recommend it. It’s a cosy, candlelit delight.
The John Snow
If you’re having dinner at either of the two above restaurants, then pop in for a drink at the John Snow first; a great boozer named after the man, who in 1854, after a devastating Cholera epidemic in that exact area told everyone (for the good it did) that he had discovered that Cholera travelled not in the air, or by contagion, but in the water. He ordered the handle of a water pump (which was close to were the pub now stands)to be removed after realising the source had become contaminated.
Soho Square just close to Tottenham Court Road Station is a hang out at lunchtimes for all the media, TV and film people that work in the area, and is a perfectly nice place to watch the world go by. You might even spot Paul McCartney, as he has an office on Soho Square. Another is Golden Square, just off Beak Street. It’s a bit paved over now and surrounded by advertising, film and publishing companies, but if you’re in the area and fancy somewhere to rest your weary legs …it might do the trick.
Where is it?
Bow street in Covent Garden is a short street in the heart of London’s West End, running to the east of Covent Garden piazza from Long Acre.
What’s the story?
Completed in 1677, Bow Street gets its name, like many places do, for a literal reason. It is simply shaped like a bow. The area of Covent Garden itself had since the 13th century (at least) housed a convent, with a garden, providing vegetables for Westminster Abbey. After the reformation in the 1530s, the land came under the ownership of John Russell, the Duke of Bedford, who unusually never got round to developing the site. One hundred years later, the same family got their act together and instructed architect Inigo Jones to create for them what they hoped would be the wealthiest residential district in London. He based his design on an Italian piazza. Granting a license for a vegetable market in the middle of the piazza lead to the wealthy residents moving out, and by the 18th century, what was now known as Covent Garden had become impoverished. The market carried on until the late 1970s.
Bow street was where the novelist / barrister Henry Fielding formed in the 18th century, a small force of six upstanding citizens to apprehend, serve writs and arrest criminals, gaining in the process the nickname ‘the Bow street runners’ and predating the formation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829.
How do I get there?
Covent Garden Underground station is on the corner of Long Acre and James Street, right next to Covent Garden Piazza. Please Note – The station has no escalators. Your journey to street level is either by lift or the staircase. If you choose the stairs, be aware that there are 193 of them. I once met a couple to start a private walk, outside Covent Garden Underground station where they were arriving. They took the stairs and needed a good few minutes to recuperate. Also, a top insider tip is that Leicester Square Station is only about 260 metres away, the second shortest distance between stations on the London Underground.
What’s it like now?
Covent Garden is super touristy and in essence is really a shopping and hanging out destination, but far more tasteful than nearby Leicester Square. The 1830s market buildings were kept and now mostly house high end shops and generic epidemic restaurants. Inside you’ll be entertained by string quartets and opera singers, whilst on the cobbled piazza you’ll encounter street performers and singers belting out popular songs. They all have to audition and get 30 minute slots, so they all have a good level of ability. If you’re visiting over the Christmas period, then Covent Garden always has a large Christmas tree and loads of decorations. Unless you’re visiting the Royal Opera House or passing down it en route to one of the many nearby theatres, Bow Street itself probably isn’t a street you’ll be flocking to as a destination.
Where would I stay?
I’m biased obviously (as we share the same surname) but the ‘Fielding Hotel’ is a boutique hotel situated on Broad Court about 30 seconds walk from the Royal Opera House. I’ve met a number of people who have stayed there. If you have the finances to stay at one of London’s more famous hotels, then the Waldorf Hilton (whose heyday was undoubtedly in the 1920s and 30s) is close by on Aldwych.
I’ve also picked people up for private walks who have stayed in and around the Covent Garden area in private rented apartments, which is probably a better solution if you have kids or would rather do self catering. I have to say that for visitors to London it’s a good choice of area to stay in.
What’s of interest?
There are nearly 40 theatres in London’s West End and many of them are in and around Covent Garden, including the theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Lyceum which seems to have been showing ‘The Lion King’ forever. You might also want to check out the Donmar Warehouse on Earlham Street, the artistic director of which throughout the 1990s was a young Sam Mendes.
Royal Opera House
Originally opened in 1732, and having endured a number of fires and enjoyed a £200 million refurbishment a few decades ago, the Royal Opera House is undoubtedly London’s most opulent and grandiose opera venue. You can pop in and visit their café which overlooks the piazza and keep an eye out for Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Globe Head Ballerina’ which overlooks Russell street.
Although a Masonic meeting place has occupied the site since 1775, the current vast art deco building which is home to the United Grand Lodge of England, was completed in 1933. Although largely used by members, parts of the building are actually open to visitors from Mon-Sat, offering guided tours, opportunities to learn about the architecture of the building and the history, exhibitions and a Museum of Freemasonry. It’s an incredible building and well worth having a look around if you can. Oh yes, and it’s free to visit.
Sir John Soane’s Museum
Sir John Soane was a neo-classical architect, and upon his death in 1837 had arranged that rather than passing to his son (who he disliked immensely) his house, drawings, architectural models, collection of paintings, sculptures and antiquities would be preserved and left as they were upon his death. Today, what is now the Sir John Soane’s Museum is located on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields and is one of those places that the more curious you are, the more you will discover.
The London Film Museum
Although opened a decade or so ago as a general museum dedicated to the British film industry, the LFM has in recent years become a sort of James Bond ambassador, housing the largest official collection of cars used in James Bond films and rebranded themselves ‘Bond in Motion’. Obviously mostly of interest to James Bond enthusiasts.
London Transport Museum
You have to pay to visit the London Transport Museum, but it’s well worth it and with an impressive collection of buses, trams, trains and all sorts of vehicles linked with the growth of London since the 1800s. It's very interactive, so a great place for kids to explore. For this reason, maybe avoid school holidays if you can. They also have posters and artwork associated with the London Underground; always at the forefront of great design. Also, a top tip for tourists looking to pick up London souvenirs that aren’t the usual tat, pop in to the LTM shop. They’ve got an amazing array of Londony gifts.
Covent Garden Market
As mentioned, it’s a tourist hot spot, but a nice one and well worth having a mooch around the Jubilee Market, Apple Market or East Colonnade Market for handmade jewellery, paintings, prints, antiques, collectables or to stop and be entertained by one of the many street performers.
St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden
On the west side of Covent Garden piazza is St Paul’s church, known locally as ‘the actor’s church’. You might have trouble getting in, as the front door has been blocked up since the 17th century. However, it became a famous non entrance when George Bernard Shaw used it as the back drop for the opening scene of his play ‘Pygmalion’, which later became ‘My Fair Lady’ the musical. If you find your way in to the church through the back entrance you’ll notice it’s chock full of memorials to actors and people involved in the theatre industry; perhaps the most recognisable name being a certain south east Londoner, Charles Chaplin.
Neal Street and Neal’s Yard
North of Covent Garden is Neal Street, which seems to have attracted a large number of shoe shops. If you can find it, stop off at Neal’s Yard, a small colourful courtyard surrounded by converted warehouses, now trading as shops and cafes.
A specialist bookshop in maps and travel books which has been going since 1853 and until last year had been trading on Long Acre for over 100 years. It’s moved just a few hundred yards to nearby Mercer Walk.
Eating and Drinking
Not surprisingly, with so many theatres in the vicinity, there are a lot of choices for food and drink. Here are just a few suggestions.
Founded in 1798 and proud owners of the ‘oldest restaurant in London’ accolade, Rules specialises in traditional British food, with a strong meat bias. Expect a selection of pies, puddings, game, steak, venison, lamb and pork. They’ve made a huge effort to maintain a lot of original features, and it does feel like stepping back in time. Not surprisingly it’s been used as the back drop for TV dramas like Downtown Abbey and more recently the James Bond film ‘Spectre’. It is, as you might expect, a bit more pricey than your bog standard restaurant, but if you’re treating yourselves, well worth seeing if you can book a table. They’ve let me in a couple of times so can’t be that posh.
Lamb and Flag
Set back on Rose Street, the Lamb and Flag is a grade II listed 18th century pub hiding behind a 1950s façade. At one time it hosted bare knuckle boxing, garnering the nickname, ‘the bucket of blood’. It’s truly atmospheric, and if you’re looking for somewhere to eat, but think it looks too busy, do check upstairs, where there’s a whole floor set aside for dining, serving above average pub food. Not long ago we had a family gathering there and had a fantastic Sunday lunch.
I’m not a coffee aficionado, but even I know that Monmouth Coffee is a London institution, having been roasting coffee at their Monmouth Street premises since 1978. They later opened another shop in Borough Market.
Where is it?
Like a large number of the properties on the Monopoly board, Whitehall and Northumberland Avenue are both in Westminster, and as they’re slap bang next to each other, have covered them both in one sitting. They’re actually pretty much as close to central London as you can get as they both meet at the roundabout at the south end of Trafalgar Square, which is officially the centre of London. Whitehall runs south from Trafalgar Square, morphing in to Parliament Street before reaching Parliament Square (although on my map, I’ve called the whole thing Whitehall). Northumberland Avenue has a similar starting point and cuts south easterly for about 350 metres towards the River Thames.
What’s the Story?
Whitehall takes its name from a 16th century palace originally built by King Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor; Cardinal Wolsey, on the site of York Place. When Henry VIII removed Wolsey from power in 1530 he took the liberty of acquiring the palace, changing the name to Whitehall (thought to be the colour of the stone), from which point on it became a Royal Palace, used by subsequent Monarchs until it burned down in 1698. Over the years it grew considerably, boasting some 1500 rooms and was one of the largest palaces in Europe. The Royal Court moved away and gradually, the area became populated by government buildings to such an extent that ‘Whitehall’ is now a byword for government.
Northumberland Avenue was in the 17th century the grounds of a large mansion built at the beginning of the century for Henry Howard (1st Earl of Northampton) and in 1642 became Northumberland House when the wonderfully named Algernon Percy (10th earl of Northumberland) married one of Howard’s distant relatives and moved in. In the late 19th century, the house was demolished to make way for the avenue that exists today, largely lined with super duper hotels.
How do I get there?
As both Whitehall and Northumberland Avenue are situated in the centre of London, you have no shortage of transport links. There’s an entrance / exit to Charing Cross Underground station at the north end of Whitehall / Trafalgar Square, but Embankment and Westminster Underground Stations are just a few minutes away.
What’s it like now?
Much of Whitehall is dominated by government buildings of one sort or another such as the MOD and the Cabinet Office. You’ll also pass Horse Guards and Downing Street and probably find yourself fighting through crowds of tourists and kids on school trips. Northumberland Avenue is perfectly nice, if not a little bland. You’re more likely to walk down it en route to somewhere else.
Where would I stay?
My suggestions are always based on places I’ve actually been to, generally to pick people up who have booked me for a private tour. Being the kind of area that it is, you’re unlikely to find much budget accommodation. Nestling in between Whitehall and Northumberland Avenue you’ll find the Royal Horseguards Hotel and the Corinthia London, both luxury hotels. On Northumberland Avenue itself you’ll find the Club Quarters Hotel, Citadines Trafalgar Square and The Grand at Trafalgar Square, whilst heading towards Big Ben and Parliament Square you have the London Marriott Hotel County Hall and the Park Plaza, Westminster Bridge. Both of these last two suggestions are on the south side of Westminster Bridge. If you’re looking for something close to Westminster Abbey, then just by St James’s Underground Station are St Ermin’s Hotel and Conrad London St. James and for those looking for something a bit kinder on the wallet, then I’ve also been to the Hub by Premier Inn, London Westminster.
What’s of Interest?
How long have you got?
A mid 18th century stables for the Household Cavalry (or Queen’s Life Guard) who still stand guard each day between 10am and 4pm. They’re also the only ceremonial guards left standing where tourists can actually have their photo taken with them, and as such are guarded by armed Police. That’s right; the guards are guarded by guards. They do their own ‘change’ each morning, separate to the more famous ‘Changing The Guard’ at Buckingham Palace, and if you get there at 4pm you can watch the final inspection.
Household Cavalry Museum
If you walk through the courtyard, under the arch on to Horse Guards Parade, then the Household Cavalry Museum is on your right, and as you’d expect, explains the history of the regiment. The museum is actually housed inside the stables and a nice touch is that they inserted a glazed partition so you can watch a sort of behind the scenes of the Queen’s Life Guard either preparing for their hour long shift, or returning.
Horse Guards Parade
A ceremonial parade ground where on the Queen’s official birthday (she has two), she inspects her troops at ‘Trooping the Colour’. It also hosted the beach volleyball during the 2012 London Olympics. You get a nice view across to St James’s Park, the back wall of Downing Street to your left and the Grade I listed 18th century Admiralty House to your right, juxtaposed against a concrete block of a building called ‘the Citadel’ which was actually built at the start of WWII as a top secret bunker.
On the opposite side of Whitehall to Horse Guards is Banqueting House, a large colonnaded building which was built in 1622 and is the only surviving part of the old Whitehall Palace. It was where King Charles I had his head chopped off in 1649 and if you go in (which you can for a small fee) the entire ceiling (or at least a canvas made to look like the ceiling) was painted by Flemish artist and diplomat Peter Paul Rubens in 1636.
Women of World War II memorial
Due to the presence of the MOD and the Old War Office building, Whitehall has its fair share of ‘dead white men’ statues, so rather than mention all of those, thought I’d bring to your attention my favourite; the Women of World War II memorial, which stands over 20ft tall and is adorned by a large number of uniforms worn by women in various roles (mostly previously occupied by men) during WWII. It was only unveiled in 2005 and I think its really simple, evocative and poignant.
Downing Street was built in 1682 by Sir George Downing, but only a small section survives. It is quite possibly one of the most famous, but also innocuous streets in the world, and since 1732, No. 10 Downing Street has been home to the Prime Minister. No. 11 is used by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, known by everyone else as the ‘finance minister’. Up until 1989 you could merrily wander down Downing Street and have your photo taken standing outside No. 10. Not surprisingly, you can now only glimpse the street from behind huge gates under the watchful eye of armed Police. Security was further stepped up when the IRA tried to mortar bomb No. 10 from the parade ground behind in the early 1990s.
Originally built by Edwin Lutyens to commemorate ‘the Glorious Dead’ of WWI, the Cenotaph is now used to remember all wars in which British servicemen and women fought. If you visit in November, the base will be buried beneath wreaths of poppies laid for Armistice Day.
Churchill War Rooms
As you cross King Charles Street you’ll see signs for the ‘Cabinet War Rooms’, although they’re now called the ‘Churchill War Rooms’, one of the branches of the Imperial War Museum. Secreted beneath the Treasury Building, the underground complex of rooms and corridors were used by the British government as a command centre throughout WWII. To cut a long story short, at the end of the war in 1945, the doors were shut and everything was just left as it was. They still have maps with pins stuck in the same place as they were 75 years ago, meeting rooms set out and the bedrooms of government ministers and their families. It’s a fascinating museum, and well worth a visit, particularly if you have an interest in WWII and / or Winston Churchill.
Big Ben and Houses of Parliament
This is what everyone knows it as, but Big Ben is actually the bell inside what only recently became the Elizabeth Tower and the adjoining building is officially the ‘Royal Palace of Westminster’. The old palace burned down in 1834 and the current late 19th century gothic revivalist building was designed by Charles Barry. The history of the building actually spans over 900 years, which you can learn all about on the tours they run of our UK parliament, which begin in the magnificent medieval great hall. If you want to get a photo that encompasses the whole building and Big Ben, then you’ll need to cross to the other side of Westminster Bridge.
One of the few surviving parts of the old Palace of Westminster; a 14th century stub of a moated building which as the name suggests was once a lock up for valuables. Over its considerable history its had a number of other uses, so why not pop in and find out, courtesy of English Heritage who manage it.
Undoubtedly on most peoples must visit lists, Westminster Abbey is a World Heritage Site with over a thousand years of history, a treasure trove of artefacts, the resting place for over 300 of the great and the good (or not so good) of British history, the scene of every coronation since 1066, 16 Royal weddings and loads more. Basically, the place is oozing history and if you can, check out the brand new ‘The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries’ which amongst other things offer absolutely stunning views down the entire length of the Abbey. Also, if you want to experience the building without paying to enter or attend a service, pop along to Evensong.
We’re very lucky in London with the sheer number of parks and gardens we have at our disposal, and in Whitehall Gardens which runs along Embankment between Whitehall and Northumberland Avenue you’ll find what is quite possibly (especially during the summer months) one of my favourites. I know very little about flora and fauna but even I can tell this garden is chock full of an amazing array of shrubs and flowers. A few years ago I happened to be wandering through Whitehall Gardens with a couple of botanists from New Zealand who spotted four plants and flowers indigenous to their country that they’d never seen outside of New Zealand.
Benjamin Franklin House
Located on Craven Street (just behind the Sherlock Holmes pub) is the only surviving Benjamin Franklin residence in the world. He lived at the address for 16 years. Now a small museum, groups of visitors are shown around by an actress pretending to be his landlady. Also, if you walk to the far end of the street, you’ll pass the house that Herman Melville lived in, and see a smallish green shed on the side of the road selling snacks. It’s actually a listed building and one of the few surviving cabmen’s shelters in London; small huts that started popping up in the 1870s so that cabbies could tie up their horses (note the bar running around the side) and get out of the rain.
If you wander across either Hungerford Bridge or the adjacent Golden Jubilee Bridge to the other side of the River Thames you’ll find yourself in an area known as the Southbank. Badly bombed during WWII, the concrete brutalist architecture attests to post-war redevelopment. The Royal Festival Hall was the first building to be built in 1951 and the other arts and concert venues followed and are known collectively as the Southbank Centre. If you walk in the opposite direction back towards Westminster bridge you’ll pass the London Eye, the London Dungeon, the Sea Life Centre and within St Thomas’s Hospital, the Florence Nightingale Museum.
Eating and Drinking
It’s a touristy area which means the majority of pubs and cafes should probably be avoided. However, if you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan, just off Northumberland Avenue is a pub called ‘The Sherlock Holmes’. It’s pretty bog standard and will be brimming with tourists, but if you go upstairs, then there’s an entire recreation of the apartment that Holmes shared with Watson which was actually an exhibit in the 1951 Festival of Britain.
If you’re near Westminster Abbey and need a quick snack, then Pickles Sandwich Bar on Old Queen Street seems to be one of the few non-chain establishments in the area. Close by is the Two Chairmen, a pub which has a dining room upstairs, serves good food and although a 2-minute walk from both Westminster Abbey and the Churchill War Rooms, is located in such a place that you’re unlikely to find too many tourists in there.
Where is it?
Pall Mall in Westminster, stretches in a south westerly direction from Trafalgar Square for about 600 metres to St James’s Palace. The West End (theatre land) and Piccadilly Circus are off to the north east, Mayfair is above and Green Park to the left with St James’s Park directly below. You’re more likely to encounter tourists wandering along the adjacent ‘The Mall, at the end of which is Buckingham Palace, but don’t worry, Pall Mall and its surrounding streets have much to offer.
What’s the story?
The first major event that changed what was largely marsh land in to a Royal hotspot was when King Henry VIII knocked down a leper hospital (called St James) to build a palace of the same name, finished in 1536. The unusual name of the street ‘Pall Mall’, which leads from it, derives from the Italian game of ‘Pallo a Maglio’ (ball to mallet) which seems to have been a cross between croquet and golf, popular amongst the Monarchs and aristocracy in the 17th century.
After the Great Fire of London in 1666, many wealthy families decanted to the area and the nearby St James’s Square became the place to live. As such, many of the shops close by were set up to service the Royals and aristocrats.
In 1807 Pall Mall became the first street in London to have gas lighting, and like much of Westminster still has a large number of gas lamps, many of which date back to the 1820s.
How do I get there?
Green Park, Piccadilly and Charing Cross Underground stations are all just a five-minute walk from Pall Mall.
What’s it like now?
Pall Mall still exudes a high level of grandeur, largely emanating from the large number of *gentlemen’s clubs that I will undoubtedly never set foot in, and more than likely, neither will you. There'll also be nothing to tell you they even exist. Quite a number of the shops that were founded in the 17th and 18th centuries are still knocking around too.
I learned a lot about London and its history through curiosity rather than academic study, and as such spent a great deal of time wandering in to buildings and offices and talking to the people that work there. The imposing Athenaeum club founded in 1824 on the corner of Pall Mall and Waterloo Place was one such establishment, and I recall being rather curtly escorted out. However, do have a look at the wonderful street antiques directly outside; horse blocks requested by the Duke of Wellington himself in 1830 to aid with the getting on and off his horse when visiting the club.
*A ‘gentlemen’s club’ in this instance refers to a private member’s (still often male dominated) club that doesn't so much involve naked women lap dancing, but wealthy old men sitting around in leather arm chairs smoking cigars.
Where should I stay?
As you can probably imagine, any hotels in this area aren’t going to be for the budget traveller, but I have been a few times to the Hotel Sofitel London St James to pick people up for private tours, and also the Cavendish Hotel, which is just the other side of St James’s Square on the corner of Jermyn Street and Duke Street St James.
Even if you can’t afford to stay at the The Stafford Hotel just off St James’s Street, you should (especially if you’re American) pop in for a cocktail at their American Bar, which is decked with American football helmets, baseball caps, military regalia and other US based paraphernalia left by guests, including a letter from Ronald Reagan.
What’s of interest?
Presiding over the opposite end of The Mall from Admiralty Arch is the Queen’s residence, Buckingham Palace which will undoubtedly be on the must see list for any first time visitors to London. Since 1993 parts of Buckingham Palace including the State Rooms and garden, have been open to the public for a couple of months each summer whilst the Queen is at her Balmoral Estate in Scotland. You can check dates and availability on the Buckingham Palace website to see if opening times coincide with your visit.
A lot of first timers like to catch a glimpse of the ‘Changing the Guard’ ceremony which takes place in and around Buckingham Palace each day in the summer and every other day during the winter months. Although I understand the attraction for visitors I personally don’t think it’s a great spectator friendly spectacle, so if you want to make sure you get the best vantage points and understand what on earth is actually going on, then Fun London Tours offer regular ‘Changing The Guard’ tours.
Green Park and St James’s Park
When Buckingham Palace was originally built as Buckingham House back in the early 18th century it was effectively a country retreat surrounded by park land, now reduced to Green Park and St James’s Park. Of the two, I think St James’s Park is the more pleasant. As the name Green Park suggests, there’s not much going on in the way of flowers. St James’s Park not only has an abundance of flora, but offers great views from the blue bridge crossing the lake. The park frames Buckingham Palace in one direction and the almost fairy tale castle-esque rooftops of Whitehall in the other. You’ll also notice a lot of birds which have been a feature since the the 17th century when the park housed a large aviary. The road which runs along the park’s south side is still called Birdcage Walk. Keep an eye out for the Pelicans which have been resident in the park since 1664. Not the same ones obviously.
St James’s Palace
If you walk down the Mall from Buckingham Palace, the whole area to your left is dominated by the precinct of St James’s Palace. You’ll pass Lancaster House, then arrive at a gate through which you will undoubtedly spot a couple of guards and a large white, early 19th century building. This is Clarence House, currently home of Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
One of the oldest surviving parts of St James’s Palace, on Pall Mall behind Clarence House, is the original gate house, dating back to 1536. A dead giveaway that it’s an old building are the ‘loopholes’ through which arrows could be fired to protect the entrance. You’ll be amazed that you can get so close to the official residence of the Royal Family, yet you probably won’t see another tourist there.
Clustered around the bottom end of St James’s Street where it meets Pall Mall are some of my favourite shops in London which you should definitely pop in if you have time. They all have Royal Warrants which means they currently sell a product or service to either the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh or Prince Charles and in most cases have serviced Monarchs for centuries.
Berry Bros & Rudd
The Queen’s wine shop, Berry Bros & Rudd began selling coffee in 1698 and although they’ve been a wine shop for most of the three hundred odd years they've been in business, their sign outside still shows a coffee grinder. They’ve held a Royal Warrant since the reign of George III and amazingly, beneath the street, boast some two and a half miles of wine cellar.
Lock & Co
The oldest hat shop in the world and inventors of the ‘bowler’ hat, have been making and selling hats since 1676. They have provided hats for the likes of Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, the Duke of Wellington and Horatio Nelson and once received a postcard simply addressed to ‘the best hat shop in London’. If you want to discover some of their other famous customers, check out the signed, miniature head templates they have framed on the wall.
A couple of doors up from Lock & Co is John Lobb, a boot maker who having been in business for just over 150 years is the new kid on the block. If you go inside, you can watch the craftsmen and women at work and see their array of wooden lasts including Queen Victoria’s.
Truefitt & Hill
Truefitt and Hill is a barbershop that has been providing gentlemen with the finest grooming products and services since 1805, and as such, makes them the oldest barbershop in the world.
Crown Passage is a tiny alleyway running from Pall Mall, parallel to St James’s Street and I only mention it, firstly because it wouldn’t look out of place in a Harry Potter film, but secondly, if you’re peckish there’s a good amount of sandwich shops. In fact, almost all the local eateries are on this one narrow passage. There’s also the Red Lion pub and for a more comprehensive food selection go to Davy’s Wine bar at the opposite end, a cavernous basement area hidden away down a staircase. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be the only tourists in there.
St James’s Square
A nice spot to sit and have a picnic in the summer (along with hundreds of office workers) is St James’s Square. Finished in 1677, the square, as was the custom, was a private garden for the wealthy residents surrounding it. The private houses are now businesses, but Nancy Astor was living at No.4 when she became the first female politician in 1919 and Norfolk House was the HQ of Anglo / American intelligence during WWII and was where Eisenhower directed the Allied Expeditionary Forces for the D-Day landings in 1944.
At the bottom of the Mall, next to Admiralty Arch and housed in a white colonnaded building is the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), which was originally founded in 1946 as an institute to champion all contemporary arts and has regular exhibitions, talks, films, theatre and performance.
Within spitting distance of Pall Mall are a number of other Monopoly square properties that I shall be visiting in future posts, including Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Piccadilly and Leicester Square.
Where is it?
I have included these three Monopoly board squares together as geographically (in real life) they run one in to the other, although if you were to start at Angel, as the light blue squares do, you would first reach Pentonville Road, and then Euston road rather than the other way around. If you’re looking at a map, Angel sits approximately 1.5 miles directly north of Blackfriars Bridge and the two other roads run for about 1.8 miles above the West End in central London to Regent’s Park.
What’s the Story?
‘The Angel’ has the curious distinction of being the only property on the Monopoly board which isn’t either a thoroughfare or area. Although locals to tend to refer to the area as ‘The Angel’ rather than ‘Angel’ (Like the Old Kent Road) it takes its name from a pub which once stood at the crossroads. Apparently in 1935 when Victor Watson (of Waddington’s board game manufacturers) and his secretary Marjory Phillips came on a day trip to London to find the streets they would use for their UK version of the American game, they stopped for lunch at the Angel Café Restaurant (formerly The Angel Inn) and decided to include it on their board. Both Pentonville Road and Euston Road were originally called ‘New Road’ built in the mid 18th century as a bypass for coaches to avoid central London and whisk passengers away from the City to the western suburbs. King’s Cross where the two roads join was at that point a village known as Battle Bridge.
How do I get there?
Using London’s Underground network:
The Angel – Angel station which boasts the longest escalators in Europe.
Pentonville Road – Either Angel to the east or King’s Cross station to the west.
Euston Road – A plethora of Underground station choices beginning with King’s Cross in the east, then heading west; Euston, Euston Square, Warren Street (at the north end of Tottenham Court Road) or Great Portland Street.
What’s it like now?
Angel is a bit of a mix, but has in recent years become more affluent. The current PM Boris Johnson lived there until last year when he sold his Georgian town house for £3.75 million. I used to know Dan Crawford who founded the King’s Head pub theatre on Upper Street in Angel. It’s a lively street full of pubs, bars, cafes, restaurants and a couple of cinemas. When Dan opened the theatre in 1970 he said that everyone thought he was crazy because the whole street was boarded up and no-one wanted to go there. King’s Cross has undergone a major revamp in the last decade (galvanised by the Eurostar terminal) and had been a red light district. Neither Pentonville Road or Euston Road are particularly pleasant; incredibly busy, choked with traffic and exhaust fumes. They actually form the edge of the congestion charge zone north of central London, so perhaps not surprising.
Where would I stay?
There’s an abundance of hotels in the area, although you might want to avoid the major roads. It’s a bit further south but I seem to have picked people up to do private tours on numerous occasions from the Montague on the Gardens, a hotel right next to the British Museum. If you’re arriving by Eurostar or popping over to Paris, then obviously a hotel close to King’s Cross St. Pancras International would be a good bet.
What’s of interest?
If you get to Angel and fancy a cuppa, then the Angel Café Restaurant patronised by Victor and Marjory back in 1935 is now a bank, but they do have a plaque commemorating their Monopoly fame. Instead, I’d suggest going to the Candid Café on Torren Street about a minutes walk away. It’s a great little place and is part of a larger arts organisation, accessed through an innocuous doorway on the street and up a couple of flights of stairs. It’s a quirky refuge away from the hustle and bustle outside and I can guarantee that you won’t find another tourist in there (unless of course they’ve read this).
I’m a big theatre fan and have already mentioned the King’s Head theatre (moving to a new premises next door right now) and just around the corner from them is the world renowned Almeida Theatre. If you’ve got kids then definitely check out what’s on at the Little Angel Theatre, a puppet theatre proving kid and family friendly shows since 1961. It was founded by John Wright, father of Joe Wright; film director (The Darkest Hour, Atonement).
If antiques and collectables are your thing, then seek out Camden Passage, and for dance enthusiasts then look no further than the nearby Sadler’s Wells, a performing arts theatre specialising in all forms of dance.
If you walk west from ‘The Angel’ you’ll head down Pentoville Road towards King’s Cross. Probably not much to interest tourists, but if you’re a clown (and I do know a couple) then on the right hand side you’ll pass Joseph Grimaldi Park, a former graveyard, named after one of the people buried there in 1837. Grimaldi is known as the father of modern clowning and has been remembered along with musician Charles Didbin with graves adorned with bronze plates which when stepped on, play musical notes. You are quite literally encouraged to dance on someone’s grave.
King’s Cross has recently undergone a huge period of change and redevelopment and thanks to J.K Rowling and her Harry Potter series, the not particularly exciting King’s Cross station is now a must visit attraction for Harry Potter fans who eagerly queue up to have their photo take pushing a trolley in to a wall on their way to platform 9¾. I went there years ago with some people on a tour, and there wasn’t really anyone there. Now, it’s properly organised.
St Pancras International Station next door is home to the Eurostar. It was a 19th century railway station which was saved from demolition in 1967 in no small part by the poet John Betjeman whose efforts have been rewarded with a great statue inside the station on the first floor concourse. Also look out for work by Tracey Emin and Paul Day’s huge sculpture, ‘The Meeting Place’.
Directly behind both stations is a former Victorian goods yard which has recently been utterly transformed in to a vibrant area called King's Place, with bars, shops, restaurants and is home to St Martin’s art college.
If you fancy a nice walk up to Camden (or further) then I can highly recommend a wander up the Regent’s Canal. Maybe visit the London Canal Museum before you do. You’ll pass close to St Pancras Old Church which I think is well worth a visit. It’s considered to be one of the oldest Christian worship sites in Europe but has a fascinating church yard which includes John Soane’s tomb which Giles Gilbert Scott used as inspiration for his winning design of the now iconic red telephone box, and is the back drop to a body snatching scene in Charles Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Perhaps most intriguing is ‘The Hardy Tree’. In the late 1860s a young Thomas Hardy was working for the architect firm allocated the sensitive job of exhuming remains from the burial ground so as to build a railway line in to the nearby station. Hardy got the thankless job and arranged hundreds of gravestones around an ash tree, which remains there to this day.
The British Library regularly has paying exhibitions, but I highly recommend popping in to their free permanent exhibition, the treasures of which reveal 2000 years of human experience through books, manuscripts and sound recordings. You can expect the oldest religious texts from around the world, original scores from renowned composers, handwritten drafts of novels by your favourite authors, Shakespeare’s first folio or Beatles lyrics jotted down on the back of Julian Lennon’s first birthday card.
The Wellcome Collection is a fascinating museum just opposite Euston Station, exploring the connection between medicine, life and art, advertising themselves as the “free destination for the incurably curious”.
Just around the corner is the Grant Museum of Zoology, a natural history museum founded in 1828 and is part of University College London, originally formed as a teaching collection. It’s one of the oldest natural history collections in the UK and houses nearly 70,000 specimens.
If you’re in the mood for bypassing the West End shows and sampling some theatre from innovative, early career practitioners, then why not get a ticket to a show at the New Diorama Theatre, an 80-seat theatre, nestling in the midst of a particularly unexciting modern office development.
Finally, as you reach Great Portland street Station you’ll find yourself on the edge of Regent’s Park, one of London’s Royal Parks, at the north end of which you’ll find ZSL London Zoo.
If you walk directly south of Euston Station for about 10 minutes, you’ll get to Russell Square. Much of the area just to the west is dominated by the British Museum, which many people I meet factor in to their time in London. I often get asked questions during correspondence with people who have booked a tour with me. One such question was “How long will it take us to se everything in the British Museum?” There’s about 8 million artefacts, so I wouldn’t worry about trying to see everything. They do offer ‘Around the world in 90-minute’ tours which take in the biggies as well as a few less known objects, so joining one of those might be a good start.
I just wanted to mention a few other museums that are very close to the British Museum and perhaps not on every visitor’s radar. The first is on Russell Square itself and is situated in a house. It’s called the Weiner Holocaust Library and formed in 1933 is one of the world’s most extensive archives on the Holocaust and Nazi era. A great many people use it for research purposes, but on the ground floor they have a small changing exhibition which if you ring the buzzer they’ll be more than happy for you to view. A bit further down the road is the Foundling Museum, established in 1739 by Thomas Coram as Britain’s first home for children at risk of abandonment. If their display of ‘tokens’ (which parents left as a way of identifying their child should they wish to return and reclaim them) doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, then I don’t know what will. Close by is the Charles Dickens Museum on Doughty Street; a former residence of the great author and his family, and as you might expect is a mine of Dickens paraphernalia and treasures. Close by in Clerkenwell (a fascinating area in its own right) is the Postal Museum which along with other post related exhibits, gives you a ride along a 1km stretch of mail rail.
Where is it?
Whitechapel Road is in the borough of Tower Hamlets and runs east from Aldgate, once the eastern gate out of the City of London, eventually becoming Mile End Road. The area is generally referred to as the East End.
What’s the Story?
The area of Whitechapel, and the road included on the Monopoly board gets its name from an ancient church which once stood just south of the Whitechapel Road, but was badly damaged during WWII, later demolished and is now the site occupied by Altab Ali Park.
Historically, east London has been a poorer cousin to west London which coupled with its proximity to the docks lead to it becoming a migrant area; French Huguenots in the 17th century and Jewish immigrants in the 19th and early 20th century. More recently it became a Bangladeshi area. Whitechapel however, will be forever associated with the Jack The ripper murders which took place in and around the area in 1888.
In recent times, Brick Lane, which runs north, on a site occupied by the Truman Brewery, has been gentrified, and on Sundays when the markets are in full swing, it’s a hot spot for hipsters. It is also festooned with street art.
How do I get there?
Whitechapel Road and Whitechapel High Street are dotted with tube stations including Aldgate, Aldgate east and Whitechapel. Just north in trendy Shoreditch there’s an Overground station as well as an Underground and mainline station at Liverpool Street.
What’s it like now?
Like a lot of London, there’s a great deal of development going on and the rough edges often associated with Whitechapel are, for better or worse being gradually filed down. It sits within one of the two poorest areas of London, but within the same borough is Canary Wharf, the second big financial hub, so again, as with much of the city, an interesting dichotomy of people living together. Whitechapel is incredibly diverse with a large Muslim population and Bangladeshi community, which you’ll certainly get a feel for around the markets on Whitechapel Road and the familiar waft from the numerous curry houses.
Where should I stay?
Like Old Kent Road, it’s unlikely you’d want to stay on Whitechapel Road itself (although not beyond the realms of possibility), but more likely in one of the numerous hotels popping up in and around Hoxton and Shoreditch (just north) or near to the Tower of London to the south.
What’s of interest?
Whitechapel Road itself might not be a No.1 priority for visitors to London, but has far more going for it than the previous Old Kent Road and a host of things to see and do within a stone’s throw.
For culture vultures, just at the south end of Brick Lane on Whitechapel High Street you’ll find the Whitechapel Gallery, a contemporary art gallery which has been premiering world class international artists for well over 100 years and is a key part of London’s cultural landscape.
A short walk further east you’ll pass the monumental east London Mosque which I visited a number of years ago and the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which ceased trading in 2017 but had been making bells in Whitechapel since 1570. They not only cast the famous ‘Big Ben’ but amongst many others, the Liberty Bell. An American investment firm bought the premises but their application to turn it in to a boutique hotel is currently under review by the government. If you’re feeling peckish then Tayyabs, a family run Punjabi restaurant since 1972 is the go to curry house in the area for Londoners, despite a plethora of them on Brick Lane.
For those with an interest in medical history, you should definitely check out the Royal London Hospital Museum. It's a fascinating and eclectic mix which among many other things includes a model of John Merrick's (the elephant man) skeleton who lived and died at the hospital in the late 19th century.
Just south west of Whitechapel Road you’ll find the mighty Tower of London, a must visit London attraction which after 1000 years of history, needs no introduction. Whist there, make sure you pop in to the often over looked church of All Hallows by-the-Tower, which quite remarkably pre-dates the Tower by 400 years, has an intriguing museum (including some Roman floor) and a couple of historical titbits that Americans might find interesting.
On the opposite side of the Tower you’ll find the serene St Katherine Docks, central London's only marina, where you’ll often find the Queen’s Royal Barge parked up, and then a bit further on, Wilton’s Music Hall; one of only two surviving Victorian music halls in London, which has shows on regularly. It’s a real delight.
Brick Lane, running north from Whitechapel Road is just over half a mile long and on Sundays gets transformed so that every nook and cranny of the Old Truman Brewery which dominates the central portion gets turned in to a market of some form or another, whether it be street food, vintage clothes or people just selling stuff off the back of a lorry. It’s a vibrant and culturally diverse area and its rich migrant history is perhaps best encapsulated in the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid Mosque, which opened in 1743 as a Huguenot chapel, has been used as a Methodist chapel, a Synagogue and a Mosque. As such, it's an anomaly and stands on the corner of Fournier Street, lined with beautiful early 18th century houses and well worth a look.
The abundance of curry houses has waned slightly in recent years due to the extortionate business rates, but they’re not the only food people flock to Brick Lane for. At the Bethnal Green Road end are two famous 24-hour bagel shops which no-one ever seems to know the names of, but can tell you the colour of the facade of their favourite.
Old Spitalfields market which had been a fruit and veg market from 1637 until 1991 (when it moved further east) got cut in half by uber-architect Norman Foster and gentrified beyond belief. Still worth checking out the stalls of vintage wear and it’s lined with generic epidemic restaurants. Just outside is the famous Ten Bells pub, synonymous with Jack The Ripper as it was where he picked up his final victim, Mary Kelly.
If you're looking for a quirky, historical, under the radar museum, then look no further than Dennis Severs House at 18 Folgate Street; a time capsule of an 18th century weaving house.
Shoreditch and Hoxton
Just north of Spitalfields and otherwise known as Hoxtditch, is the epicentre of hipsterdom. It’s where the cool kids go to get drunk, eat kebabs and throw up. Lots of bars, coffee shops and clubs. If you get a chance, do seek out Arnold Circus, a quiet enclave and the UK’s first council estate.If you're in the area on a Sunday, then a stop off at an east end institution, Columbia Road Flower Market will give you a real flavour of London life. You’ll find, in all these areas I’ve mentioned, LOADS of street art and it often feels like wandering around an open air art gallery. You can still see an original Banksy in the beer garden of gig venue Cargo on Rivington Street, amongst many others artists like Eine, Roa, Bambi, Thierry Noir and one of my favourites; the chewing gum artist, Ben Wilson.
I do regular Sunday morning ‘pay what you want’ tours around these areas most weeks, so please do get in touch if you’d like to join.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.