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.
Lock & Co is the oldest hatters in the world. They’ve been based in the St James’s area of Westminster since 1676 and not surprisingly for a shop that is is over 340 years old, have had an eclectic array of customers.
In the early 1800s Lock & Co made Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson’s signature ‘bicorne’ hats and in September 1805, before sailing for Spain, Nelson settled his bill. This was fortunate for Lock & Co, because after the battle of Trafalgar, Nelson no longer required any hats and was in no position to settle any outstanding debts.
In 1849, the St James’s Street hatters made a small round hat for nobleman Edward Coke’s (pronounced ‘Cook’) gamekeepers, which although officially called ‘the Coke’ became better known as ‘the Bowler’.
In more recent history Lock & Co received Royal Warrants, currently providing hats for both HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and HRH The Prince of Wales. Since the 1990s they have had a ladies floor and provided many of the hats and fascinators seen at the Royal Wedding in 2011. As another Royal Wedding (Harry & Megan) was announced today (to take place in Spring 2018), Lock & Co will no doubt find their services in demand once again.
Lock and Co are also quite understandably proud of the fact that they once received a postcard, simply addressed to ‘the best hat shop in London’.
If you enter Lock & Co, you’ll discover in their back room, framed on the walls, little templates of some very famous heads. In 1852, a machine called a ‘conformateur’ was invented in Paris, which although resembling a torture device, actually accurately measures a person’s head. The contraption is placed on a customer’s head, and a series of pins mark the contours of the head, creating a miniature template 1/6 of the actual size. It is mostly used for hard hats and people wishing to resize an existing hat, as the template can then be placed in to an adjustable block and by moving the pins, be used to reverse the process and recreate the circumference of the customer’s head. If the hard hat is heated, and the block placed inside the rim, it will them mould itself to the exact shape of the head. To get a better idea, watch this video showing how the ‘conformateur’ works’.
What you can see framed here, are these little 1/6 sized head templates, all signed by the customer. Below are just a few examples.
This photo includes Henry Winkler, Michael Palin, Kenneth Branagh and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.
Here we have Charles Chaplin, Donald Sinden, Freddie Fox and Hugh Bonneville.
And finally, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nicolas Cage, Jackie Onassis, Lord Lucan, Cecil Beaton and David Walliams.
In short, if you've ever wondered what shape head some celebrity, politician or Royal had or has, then pop along to Lock & Co and you might find out.
London is full of curiosities, oddities, street antiques, little windows back in time that people pass every day without perhaps even noticing, or certainly registering their significance. Some of these are well known, and almost certainly all written about in one form or another. Below are a just a few I quite like.
Policeman's Hook - Great Newport Street
Secreted away on the side of a building on Great Newport Street (just by Leicester Square Underground Station) close to the busy intersection of St Martin’s Lane, Garrick Street, Long Acre, Cranbourne Street and of course Great Newport Street is a large hook, above which is written ‘Metropolitan Police’. Long before lights controlled the flow of traffic through this busy thoroughfare, a Policeman would stand directing cars, vans and bicycles using nothing but his hands and a sturdy presence. Hot work during those pre-war summers, and so a place to hang a Policeman’s coat was necessary. The story goes that one Policeman had taken to using a handy nail, protruding from the wall during building work. When the work ended and the nail was gone, the impromptu coat hook was sorely missed, so an official one instated.
WWII stretchers up-cycled as fences
During the Blitzkrieg attacks of WWII, mass civilian casualties were anticipated and therefore numerous A.R.Ps (Air Raid Precautions) were put in to place. One such action was to make loads of sturdy metal stretchers which could also easily be quickly washed down (gas attacks were a real danger too) if contaminated or bloodied. It would seem that a great many of these were taking up valuable space after the war, combined (I’m guessing) with the fact that many fences and railings had been melted down for the war effort. The stretchers became fences themselves. A few examples survive around ex local authority buildings, particularly in east or south-east London. The photo shows such a fence around the Dog Kennel Hill estate, east Dulwich.
WWII Blackout signs
Keeping on the WWII theme, there are still a few old ‘ghost signs’ directing people during the air raids of the 1940s to underground shelters, particularly around residential streets in Westminster. It is well known that thousands of Londoners huddled together deep below ground on Underground platforms, or even railway lines. American talk show host, Jerry Springer was born in Highgate Underground station in 1944, whilst it was being used as a shelter. During the ‘Blitz’, another A.R.P was to enforce ‘Blackouts’, ensuring that no light escaped from buildings or streets at night, and therefore making them harder to identify from enemy planes flying over head. Strict blackout regulations were enforced by wardens and those flaunting the rules would face penalties. Although the darkness made it difficult for German bombers to spot their targets, it also made it difficult for civilians to get around. White stripes were painted on kerbstones to try and make them more visible. The above sign which survives from this period reads ‘PUBLIC SHELTERS IN VAULTS UNDER PAVEMENTS IN THIS STREET’.
As you wander around London, you might pass what looks like a green shed on the side of the road, and either wonder what it is for, or not give it a second thought. The chances are, it’s a Cabmen’s Shelter. People started hiring horses and carriages to take the around the place in the 17th century, which was eventually regulated in a taxi service. The famous black cabs in London today are still officially called ‘Hackney Carriages’. If you were a cab driver, stopping to go to the toilet or grab some food was problematic as you’d need to get (and probably pay) someone to keep an eye on your horse and carriage. So, in 1875, these little huts started being erected, allowing cabmen to duck inside and get out of the rain. Horses could be tied to the bar running around the edge of the shelter, under the watchful gaze of the cabman and someone inside made and sold food. The chimney was for the wood burning stove. By 1914, 61 of these shelters had been built. Only 13 remain, but as they have Grade II Listed status, hopefully won’t be disappearing anytime soon. The shelter pictured can be found on Northumberland Avenue close to Embankment Underground Station and serves refreshments to the public, although most of the ones still in use are solely for licensed cab drivers who have ‘the knowledge’.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.