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.
The experience of walking along a busy, bustling and noisy Fleet Street and stepping through an innocuous gate in to the quiet, calming courtyards and lanes of Temple, is (I think at least) ... rather magical. If you spend some time exploring this area, you'll find many fascinating historical trinkets but before long you'll find yourself standing in front of the 12th century Temple Church.
The church was originally built by and belonged to the Knights Templar, a monastic order of Knights that became one of the wealthiest and most powerful orders in Christendom; a fact that ultimately proved to be their undoing. The Round Church, modelled on the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (considered the site of Christ's death, burial and rising) came first, consecrated in 1185, whilst the rectangular Chancel or 'Hall Church' came in to use in about 1240. The Chapel once formed part of a much larger compound that comprised of halls, cloisters, domestic buildings, butteries and a kitchen. The whole ensemble sat conveniently next to the medieval waterfront, as at that time, the Thames invaded inland rather more than it does today.
On a date in 1307, which is now forever associated as a day of ill fortune (Friday 13th October) the mighty Templars were finally toppled on the orders of King Philip the Fair of France. The accusations of blasphemy and heresy brought against the Templars are generally considered to be a convenient excuse for King Philip to seize the order's vast wealth and treasures, so as to pay off his own substantial debts. Either way, it marked the end for the Knights Templar, and the church was passed to the Knights Hospitallers, an order which still survives today in the form of St John Ambulance. They in turn had the land confiscated by Henry VIII during the Reformation and the church and surrounding area reverted to the Crown. For centuries now, the area nestling between Fleet Street and the Thames has accommodated the legal profession, housing two of the four Inns of Court in London; Inner Temple and Middle Temple. In the early 17th century, James I formally granted the area to 'those studying and following the profession of the laws' and even today, as part of the same arrangement, the two Inns are responsible for maintaining the church and ensuring that its priest, the Master of the Temple has a splendid mansion to live in.
The church survived largely unscathed during the Great Fire of London, but almost inevitably, succumbed to German incendiary bombs during the Blitz. On the 10th May 1941, Temple Church was struck during an attack and badly damaged. It was to be seventeen years before it was fully repaired, and despite this it is amazing to think, that aside from the pews, a few Victorian alterations and the post WWII stained glass windows, the church is much as it would have looked to the Knights Templar all those centuries ago. If you're familiar with your William Shakespeare, then there is a scene in the play 'Henry VI, part 1' which takes place in the church garden; the plucking of two roses, one red and one white, representing the War of the Roses.
More recently, the Temple Church has seen a bit of a renaissance in the interests of tourists visiting London (and perhaps why they began charging a modest fee to enter) which can probably be attributed to a visit from Tom Hanks whilst filming the film version of Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code'. Either way, it's a beautiful area, an incredible church and is one of those places that often, people who have lived in London for many years don't even know exists.
There's an area just south of Fleet Street known as Temple and comprises of two Inns of Court; Inner Temple and Middle Temple. During the week, the gates which lead down to the 12th century Temple Church and the maze of alleys buzzing with lawyers are open and you can just nip down and loose yourself amongst the streets and lanes. On weekends, as everyone has gone home, it's a bit trickier, but on Saturday morning, I was just mentioning this fact and a guy who happened to be passing said 'I have a key' and let us in ... which was nice of him. So, below is a photo of the group standing outside the round chapel to Temple Church.
On Saturday afternoons walk from St Paul's cathedral to Monument, we pass through Borough Market, which although now a busy food market (on Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays), has had its ups and downs in its 1000 year history. Paul and Elaine who joined us, actually used to live in the area 20 or so years ago when the market was on a down turn, and the area was used reasonably frequently for film locations. The buildings behind them were used the 'hideout' for two of the gangs in Guy Ritchie's 'Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels'.
On Sunday I squeezed in two walks. The first with Mehul & Neha from the States. They were staying by Leicester Square in London's West End, so we spent a few hours wandering around Westminster, which has a plethora of sights, all within walking distance. I haven't been around that area on a Sunday for ages, and although Westminster Abbey is closed to 'visitors' for services on Sundays, we were able to pop in and see the beautiful cloisters and the quite incredible 13th century Chapter House. Here they are next to one of the cloisters.
In the afternoon, I met Josh, Janet, Robin, Oci and Alexis to explore a quite different area, around Spitalfields and Shoreditch in east London. It gets pretty busy on Sundays with the various markets going on, and we also discovered that the local residents from Arnold Circus, England's first council estate were having a bit of a get together. Here they are on the steps leading up to the centre of Arnold Circus.
Most Brazilian - Daniel
Best hats - Josh & Robin
Most German - Anne
Best footballing injury - Brian
It was a reasonably quiet weekend as walks go, but none-the-less, still very enjoyable. On Saturday morning I did the walk from Trafalgar Square to St Paul's with Margriet, from Holland. Aside from stopping for a drink in Covent Garden, we popped by the 12th century Temple church en route to St Paul's, which if you've ever seen the film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, is where Tom Hanks comes when he arrives in London.
There are lots of other things I could have said about it other than mentioning Tom Hanks, but there you go. I've mentioned it before, but think I'll write a brief post about it soonish. Here's Margriet at the end of the walk outside St Paul's cathedral.
On Sunday, Triona and Martin who were over from Ireland came for a wander around the east end. Here they are standing in front of street artist Stik's piece on Princelet Street, just off Brick Lane.
Most Dutch - Margriet
Best moustache - No winners
Most Irish - Triona & Martin
I'm not sure what the official number is that constitutes a 'group', but if it's one, then this weekend I had three groups for my guided tours around London.
Saturday morning kicked off with Chris and Sasha who are over from Australia and joined me for the walk from Trafalgar Square to St Paul's. Covent Garden and Soho are often just referred to as 'Theatre Land' due to the density of theatres in the area. Just behind them on this photo is the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which I think is officially the oldest (still used) theatre site in London. I say 'site' because although it opened in 1663, they're now on their fourth building. The most recent incarnation opened in 1812.
We also managed to get a peak of Temple Church along the way, the 12th century church, built by the Templar Knights that nestles between Fleet Street and the Thames.
In the afternoon, Veronica, Sam and Chris came along for the afternoon walk that starts at St Paul's cathedral. They were also joined by stalwart Keith from Canada, a veritable Bowl Of Chalk veteran, returning for his third walk with me. Here they are down in Borough, close to Cross Bones Graveyard, the unconsecrated ground where the Bishop of Winchester's Geese, otherwise known as prostitutes, were unceremoniously dumped, until it was covered over in 1853. Although 'The Friends of Cross Bones Graveyard' are campaigning to turn the land in to a memorial garden, the land is owned by TFL. Here they are standing in front of a rather large London Underground sign.
London Underground is celebrating its 150th birthday this year. The first line to open was the Metropolitan Railway and the inaugural journey on the 9th January 1863 took passengers between Paddington and Farringdon, just over 4 miles. Today, 3 million passengers are ferried around 253 miles of track in London every day.
Sunday was the mighty group of ... one; Erin from Australia, who although an individual in her own right (quite literally on that particular walk) also happens to be the sister of Robb, instigator of the coveted 'Best Moustache' award. Here she is on Hackney Road, standing in front of a piece by Paul Don Smith, who when not stenciling guys in bowler hats with a tap on their head, paints pretty natty portraits all over east London.
Youngest - Sam
Most Canadian (2nd week in a row) - Keith
Best Moustache - No winners
Most Australian - Erin, Sasha & Chris
On Saturday morning I met Kate and Dave for the walk from Trafalgar Square to St Paul's. It was actually Kate's second walk with me, having already been on the east end walk. As they were both Optometrists, I was keen to take them to see the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers, who reside within Apothecaries' Hall, but unfortunately it was closed. However, we did manage to nip in to Inner and Middle Temple to see the amazing 12th Century Temple Church.
In the afternoon, I met Jay and Angel (Angelique) who came for a wander from St Paul's to the Monument. Here they are outside the Anchor Pub on Bankside. They've currently got some measurements on the floor showing you the distances jumped by both the Olympic and Paralympic Long Jump record holders, so it's quite fun watching people trying to see how far they can jump. You can also see the Shard rising up in the background.
On Sunday I met Anne Marie and Vincent, who had come to have a look around the east end from Germany, via France. Here they are standing in front of one of street artist Eine's shop front letters. You'll see these everywhere around Shoreditch, Hoxton and Old street.
Thanks to everyone who came on walks last weekend.
Most Australian - Dave
Most Mauritian - Angel
Best Moustache - No Winners
Most Multi Lingual - Anne Marie & Vincent
Repeat Offender - Kate
Due to either people not turning up, or cancellations I only have one walk to report on from this weekend, which was Saturday morning's Trafalgar Square to St Paul's wander. But, what a splendid group they were, so I thought I'd splash out and furnish you with a few more details than I normally do. How lucky you are.
So, there were five people in all. Tess and Monique from Holland, Rita from Lithuania, (who came on the Sunday east end walk a few months ago), George who came from a variety of places, but predominantly Austria and last by no means least, Dave who came from London, via London.
I missed a trick here, because right before I took this photo we'd walked past the 12th Century Temple Church, which nestles just off Fleet Street. The whole area is pretty much closed off on weekends, but fortunately Monique happened to be really strong and somehow effortlessly pushed open an otherwise locked gate. Naughty.
Soon after this, we went for a drink at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which is what is generally referred to as a 'historic pub'. We were sitting in the new pub because the old pub burnt down in a massive fire. So, this one was built in 1667 and if you look at the photo below, you'll see a small list of the various Monarch's that have reigned since the new pub was built.
A short while later, we were passing the Bridewell Theatre, which stands in the shadows of the infamous steeple of St Bride's church. I won't go on about it too much, but the building survives from the late Victorian period and was once a swimming pool, wash room and general education and P.E type place for the children who's parents were busy keeping all those printing presses on Fleet Street going. The swimming pool has since been made in to a theatre, and quite craftily, we managed to get down to the bar, which was once the wash room. (by-the-way, it's not actually a pub/bar tour). Here we met a very nice bar manager who very kindly explained the history of the place to us, complete with photos they'd recently found of its transformation and previous Victorian life.
Whilst the group were talking to the nice bar manager I took this photo of an old wooden washing machine which still stands rather obtrusively in the bar. They've also got a pretty antiquated dryer and some industrial size Victorian drying racks/radiators.
Anyway, we saw lots of other things along the way, and gradually wound our way up to St Paul's cathedral where we finished. Thanks very much to the group. I really enjoyed it.
Bowl Of Chalk veteran - Rita
Tallest - George
Most Dutch - Tess & Monique
Most Snap Happy - Dave
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.