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.
A number of years ago I wrote a post about Tower Bridge, and more specifically Dead Man's Hole which can be found secreted on the north side of the bridge by the Tower of London. Dead Man's Hole is in fact a mortuary (no longer operational), once used to temporarily house corpses retrieved from the murky clutches of the River Thames.
Galvanised by the video I recently posted of my Thames River walk, I set out on my bike one night last week and did a spot of filming on Tower Bridge. The next day I hastily edited the footage in to a video to accompany a song I wrote and recorded years ago, which has a suitably macabre subject matter about someone committing murder on a bridge; the victim's body left to the embrace of the river.
You can perhaps therefore see why I chose Tower Bridge to film. The song is called 'The Bridge Last Night' and was recorded by my friend William Reid and includes the talents of other friends; Joantoni Segui Morro (Satellites) on drums, John Parker (Nizlopi, Ed Sheeran) on double bass and Matt Park (Mystery Jets, Helsinki) on electric guitar.
The River Thames doesn't just flow through London, but as the longest river in England, begins in a field in Gloucestershire and winds for 215 miles through 9 counties until it reaches the North Sea.
In 2015 I walked its entire length, beginning at Southend-on-Sea where the river ends, tracing it right back through the Essex Estuary in to London, down to Reading, up to Oxford, then along in to the Cotswolds. The whole adventure took about 3 weeks, but I condensed it down in to a headache inducing 5 minute video entitled 'From the Sea to the Source - Walking the River Thames'.
London Bridge Alcoves
London Bridge was originally completed in 1209, a huge structure spanning the Thames with 19 arches and festooned with buildings and houses. In the early 1800s, the houses were removed and replaced with 14 niches or alcoves until the whole thing was eventually replaced in 1831 by a new bridge designed by John Rennie. Four of those niches have survived; one on the Courtlands Estate (Richmond), another secreted in Guy’s Hospital, just south of London Bridge and the remaining two can be found occupying sites to the east of Victoria Park in East London (pictured).
These niches were familiar to Charles Dickens when he was a boy, as he would have undoubtedly crossed the bridge to visit his father, incarcerated in the Marshalsea Prison, just to the south. His novel, David Copperfield is regarded as perhaps his most autobiographical, based on his experiences of this time. In fact, the title character, David Copperfield, can be found “lounging … in one of the stone recesses, watching people going by”.
Duke of Wellington’s Horse Block
One of our favourite things, here in England, is to go on about beating the French at battles. Second only to that is then remembering and celebrating those men responsible for winning those battles. Topping that exclusive list is Arthur Wellesley, perhaps better known as the Duke of Wellington, or ‘the Iron Duke’, responsible for defeating Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Anyway, aside from the expected statues in his honour or streets, buildings, railway stations, bridges all eulogising his wartime efforts, on the aptly named Waterloo Place in Westminster is a smaller, altogether less significant reminder of the man who made Wellington Boots so popular. On either side of the wide street, outside the rather grand looking Athenaeum Club are two sets of stone steps, each bearing a plaque telling us it was ‘erected by the desire of the Duke of Wellington, 1830’. They are horse blocks and quite simply were put there to make it easier for the Iron Duke to get on and off his horse when visiting his favourite club.
In many places, the River Thames used to be far wider than it is now. The gate (pictured) once stood on the banks of the river, but now occupies the north end of Victoria Embankment Gardens, some 450ft from the river. It’s called the York Watergate, a window back in to the early 17th Century when in 1623 George Villiers (1st Duke of Buckingham) bought a large mansion (York House) which had been built in the mid 16th century after the King, Henry VIII had granted land here to the Bishop of York. Villiers set about having a snazzy Watergate built (finished in 1626) giving both him and his visitors access to the river, which of course at that time was a super highway. The land was sold off and developed in the late 17th century, and again in the mid 19th century, meaning that this structure (along with some paintings of it in situ) is the only reminder of a time when the Thames used to creep right up to the steps inside the gate and the land surrounding it, dominated by rather fine mansions.
Philpot Lane mice
On the corner of Eastcheap and Philpot Lane in the City of London is a building, the ground floor of which, is occupied by one of the many generic epidemic coffee shops in London. On the side of the building is a curious little relief sculpture of two mice nibbling on a piece of cheese. It’s minutia like this that are the stuff of urban legend, spawning all sorts of stories as to what they represent and how they came about. The most ubiquitous of these relating to two builders employed in the construction of the building (it was finished in 1862) and that an argument had begun, when one man accused the other of stealing his lunch (which of course included cheese). A fight ensued, resulting in the death of one of the workers, plunging to his death from the building, whereupon it was later discovered that the cheese eating culprits were in fact mice. Whether the mice were added as a memorial or are actually simply a builders mark, might never be known. Either way, they remain one of London’s many curiosities which people pass every day without noticing.
At the end of this week I will be embarking on the final stretch of a Thames Walk. I have already walked from the sea to Putney, and on Friday I will walk from Putney to the source in the Cotswolds, a distance of about 170 or so miles. This particular endeavour has come about from a mildly obsessive, geeky interest in the River Thames, a river, which was called “liquid history” by the 19th / 20th century politician John Burns. His wonderfully astute turn of phrase effortlessly captures the tidal nature of the dark river and the simple fact that each and every day, with the changing tides, its waters offer up gifts from the past. Like a cat bringing in from the garden, a dead mouse or a frog for the pleasure (or displeasure) of its owners, the River Thames, leaves strewn about its banks and beaches, glimpses of our own history for us to find, or not, as the case may be.
It was through my own interest in this remarkable open archaeological site that curls like a giant ribbon through London that I came across a lady called Nicola White, a mudlark (amongst other things) who enjoys nothing more than walking her dog through the quieter reaches of the Thames estuary and picking up these treasures as she goes. Some of her finds she turns in to pieces of art, others items she keeps and in 2011 she found a message in a bottle, which for her marked the beginning of a new journey.
Since that first message, Nicola, has over the last few years, found over 30 messages and it was these I found particularly interesting. Some are from children just intrigued to see if anyone finds their message, some are cries for help, or desperation with the world. Others are from lovers declaring their undying love for each other, whilst many are quite enigmatic or simply pearls of wisdom the writers wished to share. Nicola has managed to track down many of those people who left the message and when I discovered that she was presenting a large number of them at a temporary exhibition in Greenwich, I knew I had to go and see them and meet her.
Nicola has mounted about 33 of her ‘words from the water’ on one wall of the gallery, which will take you through a whole gambit of emotions. Some are sad, some poignant, others obtuse and some will bring a smile to your face. One of my favourites was from a boy called Jack from Kent, who simply wrote on his message “I wish I could be a dino thunder power ranger the red ranger”. Through Twitter, Nicola managed to track Jack down and cordially sent him the requested Power Ranger costume, and in turn Jack (or Jack’s parents) sent Nicola a couple of photos of Jack proudly wearing his new Power Ranger outfit. Brilliant.
Filling the rest of the compact ‘Made in Greenwich’ gallery are an amazing array of curiosities that Nicola has found, mostly courtesy of the Thames. She has a great collection of clay pipes from throughout the centuries, buckles, children’s toys, bottle stops, coins, trinkets, religious offerings, ceramics, watches, bullets and in fact a whole cabinet dedicated to war paraphernalia. In one glass case was a 17th century jaw-bone, complete with a few teeth. I asked her how she knew it was from the 17th century. It turns out that she found the entire skeleton, so obviously called the police and it was taken away for examination. The forensic report concluded that the skeleton belonged to a 24 year old man who died in the mid 17th century, and she was permitted to keep a bit. She also told me that she found a hand grenade with the pin still in it, which was swiftly whisked away by the Police and detonated in a controlled environment.
The thing that really struck me about seeing both the ‘words from the water’, Nicola’s collection of stuff and meeting her in person, is that although she’s not a historian, but has provided a few bits of contextual information, the objects are there purely because Nicola wishes to share them. Her interest in them and her passion for the river, is much the same as mine, which is rather than these finds being displayed in a dry historical setting, the thing that really draws you in, are the untold stories behind each and every object, the human element, the questions that remain unanswered. Who did this bracelet belong to? How did this man die here? How did this Victorian child feel when they dropped their beloved toy in the river? Who was the woman that this declaration of love was made to? As Nicola said of a coin she found that dates back to the late 17th century, it’s incredible to think that the last person to touch that coin before she did was the person who dropped it 300 or so years ago. You can’t help but wonder who that person was, what their life entailed and so on.
So, all in all, if you find yourself in Greenwich (or even go especially) anytime between now and 12th August, Nicola’s fascinating exhibition and her mudlarking finds, plus some of her art are all there for you to marvel at, inside the ‘Made In Greenwich’ Gallery (324 Creek Rd, SE10 9SW) each day from 11am. It’s small, it’s compact and it’s free, but Nicola has managed in the space of a few years to collect a quite astounding array of trinkets, oddities and mysteries from the banks of the river that offer you a unique glimpse in to our own very human history and connection with the river from the present day, all the way back to the medieval period … and beyond. Well worth a visit.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.