I meet many visitors to London who have never encountered the word ‘mews’ before, or indeed British people who, although familiar with the term in the lexicon alongside road, street or lane, don’t actually know what it means.
The word ‘mews’ originates from the French ‘muer’ (to moult) and refers to the confinement of hawks, often in a tower whilst they gained their adult plumage. Bruce Castle in Haringey has a tower that is thought was used for this exact purpose.
Mews became widely used to describe the confinement of animals in general and by the 16th century often described an area boasting a number of stables. The area we now call Trafalgar Square was, during the reign of Henry VIII, known as the King’s Mews and the name lingered on until the mid 19th century when the stables were relocated to Buckingham Palace. Although built 300 years after the King's Mews, the National Gallery stands on the site but incorporates architectural features from Henry VIII’s stables; the hollow pepperpots which would have acted as air vents to let the horse manure smell drift out of the roof.
Many of the more affluent areas of London such as Kensington, Chelsea and Mayfair have large houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries. The house entrances face the thoroughfare whilst threading along the back is the mews; a service street where the stables were located. Aside from housing horses and carriages, these mews also provided accommodation for stable boys, would be where tradesmen could enter, and deliveries were dropped off. In their day, these tiny streets would have been a hive of activity and pungent smells. Today these mews streets are much sought after and the stables have been converted into houses, allowing the residents to enjoy the relative peace and quiet of a street that has little or no traffic in an otherwise busy area.
In Brockley, south-east London there is a conservation area of Victorian housing which was developed as a suburb for the wealthy middle classes. South London already benefitted from a comprehensive rail network (one of the reasons that when the first Underground Line opened in 1863, and the others followed, they steered clear of south London). Residents in Brockley had easy access to central London (Brockley Station opened in 1871), and if needed would have hired a coach and horses, rather than have their own. For this reason, the mews in Brockley remained largely undeveloped, unlike other areas of London, and instead traverse the main roads like little country tracks. The stables which still do exist are therefore a rarity and add significant historic value to the area.
Over the last few months with lockdown measures in place and restrictions on travel and movement, Brockley’s mews have become little havens that children can explore, play games, pick blackberries or discover the latest street art on garage doors. On Breakspears Mews there is a community garden and Wickham Mews particularly, with mature trees, shrubs and overgrown hedges really makes you feel like you’re a long way from the traffic on Lewisham Way and almost transported to another time and place. That’s not to say you won’t encounter a number of abandoned vehicles or household objects left to be reclaimed by nature, but if you look carefully you can see the names of long forgotten businesses painted on to peeling timber and you might even come across the Royal Coat of Arms from one of the original gates to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
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.
Since I began Bowl Of Chalk London walking tours five and a half years ago I have continued to offer three set walks each weekend which operate on a 'pay what you want' basis. Each walk generally lasts about 2.5 / 3 hours. They are as follows:
Saturday morning - Trafalgar Square to St Paul's cathedral.
This walk begins in the tourist hot spot of Trafalgar Square, taking in the square itself, Nelson's Column and the National Gallery building. Although we don't venture around the 'sights' of Westminster, Big Ben is visible at the bottom of Whitehall. After visiting the statue of Charles I next to the official centre of London, we have of late, passed Benjamin Franklin's House, threaded our way through Victoria Embankment Gardens and up in to the bustling Covent Garden and St Paul's, the Actors' church. From here we make our way around Aldwych, passing the church of St Clement Danes and the Royal Courts of Justice, in to the City of London via Fleet Street. We usually veer off through the maze of alleyways that brings us to Dr Johnson's House, the famous statue of his beloved cat, Hodge and past the famous Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub. Back on Fleet Street, we pass the church of St Bride's, and up towards St Paul's cathedral.
Saturday Afternoon - St Paul's to Monument (via Bankside & Borough)
This walk begins by St Paul's cathedral, through the churchyard and on to the Millennium Bridge, taking us over the River Thames towards the Tate Modern on the south side. Here we pass by Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the site of the original Elizabethan Theatre which opened on Bankside in 1599, and along to the usually heaving Borough Market. We usually pop in to the 17th century George Inn on Borough High Street before heading up on to London Bridge, which offers a great view of the iconic Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and the H.M.S Belfast before finishing at the Monument, commemorating the Great Fire of London, 1666.
Sunday - East London
The Sunday walk is very street art heavy, but does include historical elements. We often begin near Old Street, including Bunhill Fields Cemetery, where the likes of Daniel Defoe, William Blake and John Bunyan are buried. We pass the Wesleyan Chapel on City Road before heading in towards Shoreditch, which although is now a plethora of cafes, boutique shops and clubs, was in the 19th century, the centre of London's furniture trade. We usually stop off at Arnold Circus, the UK's first ever council estate, then bypassing the incredibly busy Brick Lane make our way towards Spitalfields with its fascinating Huguenot, Jewish and Bangladeshi heritage. Obviously the street art changes pretty regularly, but I tend (as with all my tours) to talk about things that interest me, and street art is no different. I'll undoubtedly point out and talk about Banksy, Ben Wilson (the chewing gum man), Christiaan Nagel, Bambi, Roa, Jimmy C and Thierry Noir ... amongst others.
If you're in London one weekend and think that one of these walks might appeal (or fit in with your schedule) then please send me a message via the contact form. You won't actually know where we're meeting until I send you all the details confirming the walk and how many places you'd like to book. I do this so I can keep an eye on numbers. Please don't try just turning up. You'll see from the photos that it could be just you, two people, four, eight or more. Unless someone books loads of people at once, it probably won't be that big a group.
Please check the dates on the website homepage to make sure the walk you'd like to join is running, as although it is pretty continuous, there are occasional changes.
I was incredibly impressed that people actually bothered or were able to turn up this weekend, what with all the snow and general coldness. Top marks for effort everyone.
On Saturday morning, I met Mackenzie, Wendy, Erica and April for the walk from Trafalgar Square to St Paul's. Just to give you an idea of the temperature, or lack of it, the fountains in Trafalgar Square looked like this:
Here are the group, standing in front of the statue of George Washington, which is situated outside the National Gallery (the building you can see above). Seeing as they were a group of American's, and George Washington was the first President of the United States, it seemed an appropriate place to take the photo.
There's a nice little story about that statue, which is that Washington apparently said that he never wanted to set foot in London again, so when the statue was given as a gift in 1921 by the people of Virginia, they sent over a load of American soil with it to be laid underneath, so that he never would. A bit cheeky perhaps.
On Sunday it snowed non stop for the entire My neck of the Woods walk, but Zuzana, Guglielmo and Mary still valiantly turned up to wander around the east end, Mary (from the USA) incidentally, was on her second Bowl Of Chalk, after coming on one last year. It was my first ever walk in the snow, so was interesting to see how everything looked under a blanket of white. Here they are at Arnold Circus, the first council estate in England, completed in 1896 and featured not long ago, in a BBC2 series called The Secret History of Our Streets.
Here are a few other snowy scenes we saw along the way.
Not surprisingly, Columbia Road Flower Market was pretty sparse but it at least meant that Mary and the other two were able to have a good look around the many independent shops that line the road and are pretty much only open on Sundays. Incidentally, the pub you can see there in the photo, The Royal Oak has featured in a few TV shows and films, including 'Goodnight Sweetheart' (with Nicholas Lyndhurst, best know for playing Rodney Trotter in 'Only Fools and Horses') and Guy Ritchie's 'Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels'.
Many of the houses in the area of Spitalfields where I took the above photo were built in the early 1700's to house the influx of French Huguenots who had settled in the area in the 17th Century. Also, whilst I'm thinking about it, there's a great blog called 'Spitalfields Life' written by The Gentle Author who has set himself (or herself?) the challenge of writing 10,000 stories about the area, the fascinating characters that live there, shops, customs, history and much more. The project should be completed in the year 2037, but one volume has already been published as a book. It's well worth having a read if you are of even a mildly curious disposition.
Most Italian - Guglielmo
Most likely to be celebrating her 40th birthday - Wendy
Best moustache - No winners
Best named person to meet in Old Street - Mary Young
Most bobbly hat - Zuzana
Weekend Roundup - 28th/29th April '12
If you weren't already aware, the predominant theme of this weekend's London walks is rain. Paul who came on the east end walk this morning, described it as 'London rain', the kind of relentless grey drizzle that seems to have no beginning and no end until you can't actually quite remember a time when it wasn't constantly raining. This morning however saw a mild fluctuation in this constant wetness with some really quite forceful gusts of wind and moments of much heavier rain. Therefore I would like to congratulate everyone who turned out this weekend despite the ongoing showers, and would like to add, that I'm slightly miffed to note that as I write this, it has stopped raining.
I tried to take photos of the groups in brief moments of 'un-rain'.
Trafalgar Square to St Paul's
So, here are the group from Saturday morning, shortly after we met near to Trafalgar Square. It was a pretty international weekend walker wise and this group featuring Alina, Michaela, Roberta, Zuzanna and Briana came from Austria, Russia, Poland and the U.S.A.
Behind them, you can see the National Gallery which began in 1824 with just 38 paintings, housed in a town house in Mayfair. The current building was finished in 1838 and the collection now consists of over 2,300 works of art. It's well worth a visit and as the collection belongs to the public of the United Kingdom, it's FREE.
St Paul's to the Monument
In the afternoon there were nine brave souls, who when they booked the walk, possibly envisaged wandering around Borough market and Southwark bathed in glorious sunshine. Well, eight of them did, as Liam actually contacted me on Saturday morning to see if he could come, so he knew exactly what he was letting himself in for. There was a large Chilean contingent on Saturday afternoon so I added to my limited multi lingual capabilities and can now say 'Hombre Verdi' which is 'green man' in Spanish. However, I do realise that it might not open too many doors for me if I ever find myself in Spain ... or Chile for that matter.
Maria, Emma and Becky were all born and bred Londoners, and with Liam from Northern Ireland it was a heady mix. Standing in front of St Paul's cathedral you can also see Dominique, Rodrigo, Ximena, Patricia and Javier.
My neck of the woods - east end walk
Today's walk around London's east end was a bit of a wash out, with just three people deciding to venture out in the cold, wind and the wet. However, I'd like to think that up until the point where we were all freezing cold, soaked to the bone and lost the will to live ... we had fun. Didn't we? Even if Ruth, Paul and Andrea didn't ... I think I did. Fortunately they came armed with suitably cheery dispositions. Also, it was quite handy because we were only a small group and Paul had a really big umbrella, which isn't a euphemism, he did. You can see it here.
You see ... it's pretty big. Anyway ... they're standing in front of one of street artist Roa's large scale animals. I posted a thing on facebook at the beginning of last week to say that Roa had literally just put the finishing touches to a brand new addition in his menagerie of animals in east London with a giant hedgehog. It looks like this:
So there we have it. Another weekend, another trio of walks around London and once again I've been fortunate enough to meet some lovely people, who I hopefully might see again on another walk one day ... perhaps when the weather's a bit better.
Most inappropriate footwear - Maria (brand new white pumps - only £2.50 though)
Most Chilean group - Saturday afternoon
Biggest umbrella - Paul
Best moustache - No winners
Most last minute booking - Liam
Most Austrian - Michaela & Roberta
Most giggly group of international friends - Alina, Zuzanna & Briana
Most Columbian - Andrea
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.