In this series I will be contacting a number of Tour Guides from around the world and asking them how they’ve been affected by the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, what restrictions their individual governments have imposed, the impact, what they’ve been doing to keep their business ticking over, what their thoughts are for the future …and things like that.
First up is Silvia in Rome. I met Silvia a number of years ago when me and my dad spent a number of days in 'the eternal city'. Silvia gave us an amazing tour around Trastevere, Campo dei Fiori and the Jewish Ghetto and would highly recommend trying to book either Silvia or one of her colleagues if one day, you find yourself visiting the wonderful city of Rome.
Tell us a bit about your company?
Hi! I’m Silvia from Rome and my company is “A Friend in Rome”. I started it in 2009 and I mainly lead walking tours, but also bike and Vespa tours. I also like arranging experiences and day trips, so last year, I started another activity called ‘Around Rome Day Trips’, devoted to these explorations just outside the city, for travellers based in Rome.
How has your government’s approach to Coronavirus impacted you and your business?
We were in total lockdown for 2 months and officially blocked in our activity for 3 whole months. Museums and archaeological areas were closed on the 8th March and some are yet to re-open. Those that have reopened have strict limitations to prevent a resurgence of the pandemic. Therefore, we cannot lead tours in these places, or with just very small groups.
One airport, Ciampino, has been totally closed, whilst the other, Fiumicino, only operated for emergencies. We’ve only been allowed to move from one “regione” to another (our counties) since the 3rd June. Restaurants have been closed, and many in the city centre have not reopened yet.
Have you been self isolating / in lockdown? If so, how long and what’s your top tip for surviving?
I was in strict lockdown for 2 months and allowed outside with restrictions for the whole month of May. Luckily I like reading and studying and I had tons of books and studying material at hand and time to dedicate. Also I like cooking, which was something many Italians started doing while forced to stay at home. I was already a reasonable cook, but my results have vastly improved. Lastly, I had already started a programme of home gym before the lockdown and it was a good way to keep fit and active. But the top resource was my sunny balcony …the only one in the house. It became my versatile room, from library to gym, from office to concert hall and dining room. I have felt less trapped.
What have you been doing during this period to keep your business ticking over?
I have been doing research and planning future tours and put the final touches to three or four tours which were almost ready and got new ideas. I enhanced my online activity by writing a blog about the “behind the curtains” job of a tour guide. I studied a bit about marketing and social media. I started my LinkedIn page, revised my website texts with an American friend. Alongside this, I have been networking with colleagues I already know outside of Rome, but also made some new “virtual” friendship and hope to meet them soon in person.
What have you most missed about not being able to do tours?
The relationships with new people every day, walking, being surrounded by beauty and history every day, eating gelato with new friends, meeting colleagues after the tours for a drink. I understood how much I already loved my life.
How are you feeling about the future? Do you foresee changes in the tour guiding industry?
Well, surely it will be different for a while. I’m reading what experts say and I am comforted by the fact the direction they show is more or less what I was already doing: off the beaten path tours, not crowded locations, open air as much as possible, small parties and private customised tours. I am trying now to work more with locals, which is something I already wanted to develop and now it’s an urge, as international travellers won’t probably start rebooking until the autumn (2020), but I really hope I can build a new market for my tours and especially new tours just for Italians and Romans. So, generally speaking I’m optimistic.
Do you think life / business will go back to normal?
In time, probably it will. I hope we can all learn some lessons: gratitude, the importance of relationships and not just in private life. Putting our souls in to the job we do, no matter what it is.
What have you been reading / listening to / playing / watching?
I read several books, especially essays on Etruscans and Suburban areas of Rome. I can’t play but listened to some good albums during my gym sessions and I’m still watching a series of readings by an Italian actor, Roberto Benigni on “The Divine Comedy” by Dante.
Is there something in your city that you’re most looking forward to getting back to / revisiting?
I’m waiting for the Etruscan museum of Rome, Villa Giulia, to reopen as I’ve been focusing a lot of my studies on them during this period. I long to go to Babington’s Tea House here at the Spanish Steps. I had just decided to go and pamper myself there when the lockdown started, so had to put it on hold. Back then it was March and a cup of tea sounded lovely, but now maybe I will convert it to a great ice cream on a Roman terrace.
Many sites already reopened in Rome, so I’ve already been back to St. Peter’s and the Vatican Museums, Ancient Ostia, Borghese Gallery and my favourite park Villa Pamphili. Next week I’ll go again to the Colosseum / Forum which reopened last Monday.
Have you found any positives from the current situation?
I understood how important is is to me, to be outdoors, spending time with people who share my interests, experiencing something together like trekking, biking, exploring new places. I understood how much I loved my life already, and my job, and that we do not need too much to be happy: a glass of wine and a sandwich on the grass with good friends was true bliss after the lockdown!
If you're heading to Rome, then I highly recommend booking a tour with Silvia and "A Friend in Rome".
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.
Where is it?
Old Kent Road, the first stop on the Monopoly board and the cheapest property is in south east London, and cuts diagonally from Southwark (just south of Tower Bridge) in a straight line of just over two miles to New Cross.
It is also the only square on the London Monopoly board south of the river Thames.
What’s the story?
As the name suggests, the Old Kent Road was an ancient road used by the Romans and formed part of the famous Watling Street which ran from Dover to Holyhead. Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims travelled down the road on their way to Canterbury in ‘The Canterbury Tales’, written in the late 14th century.
This once rural thoroughfare, was by the late 19th and early 20th century a mix of housing and industry, including gas works. Much of the surrounding area was heavily bombed during WWII and the old terraces were replaced with high rise council estates and new industrial developments.
How do I get there?
I live not far from Old Kent Road, so can safely say, that as a tourist it’s reasonably unlikely you’d be wanting to go there. However, the nearest stations are Elephant and Castle to the west and New Cross Gate to the east. Having said that, there’s loads of developments afoot and a couple of new stations will be popping up along the road as part of the Bakerloo Line extension which will run to Lewisham. So you never know, in twenty or thirty years, maybe it will be a tourist destination.
What’s it like now?
A not particularly pleasant road, choked with traffic and lined with high rise flats, big stores and depots.
Where would I stay?
You’re probably better off staying around London Bridge, although if you’re into Air BnB’s and fancy staying somewhere less central, then Peckham is a vibrant area, just south of Old Kent Road.
What’s of interest?
On the Old Kent Road itself …not much. South London does actually boast the greenest space of anywhere in London and there are lovely places to visit, but in keeping with the Monopoly board theme, you could wander around Burgess Park. Seeing as this is the only spot included on the board south of the river, I’ll mention a few places around London Bridge for starters.
Bankside and Borough
A big draw is the famous food market, Borough Market, which has also doubled up as film locations for the Bridget Jones films and Harry Potter. Southwark cathedral is a wonderful cathedral that often gets usurped by St Paul’s cathedral and Westminster Abbey. You’ve got the Golden Hinde; a replica of Francis Drake’s ship that circumnavigated the world in 1577, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern. You should also definitely stop off for a drink at the George Inn, the only surviving galleried coaching inn in London, which dates back to 1676. If you’re interested in medical history, then the Old Operating Theatre is a must. I do lots of tours around this area, so can show you around, should you so wish.
If you’re interested in military history then you should definitely visit the Imperial War Museum.
In recent years, Bermondsey Street (in between London Bridge and Tower Bridge) has become trendified beyond recognition with a host of restaurants, gastro pubs and coffee shops. For a cultural hit you’ve got the White Cube Gallery and the Fashion and Textile museum and whilst you’re there I highly recommend popping in to Peter Leyton: London Glassblowing and watching some expert glassblowers in action. For foodies, you should definitely seek out Maltby Street Market.
Down by the river you can visit the HMS Belfast, a WWII war ship used during D-Day in 1944 or if you have kids and fancy some theatre, then I can highly recommend, the Unicorn Theatre which just does shows for kids.
The River Thames
I realise that people visiting London for a short period are unlikely to do this, but I always recommend a wander along the river Thames. You can uncover so much. I should know, I’ve walked the entire length of it. Tower Bridge is one of the most iconic sights in London, but many people don’t realise that the entire structure is a museum. From there you can walk through Shad Thames; 19th century warehouses turned in to apartments. You’ll pass the Brunel Museum which housed the Engine Room for Marc Isambard Brunel’s Thames Tunnel, finished in 1843, the first tunnel to be built beneath a navigable river and the historic area of Rotherhithe which is lovely and of particular interest to Americans with a connection to the Mayflower as it collected 65 people from here. The pub of the same name is lovely and well worth a visit.
Further to the east is Greenwich, which you can get to by boat from central London if you’d rather not take the train. It’s a lovely area which includes the Cutty Sark, the Old Royal Naval College and its Painted Hall, the Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory, the Fan Museum, Greenwich Park and loads of other things.
And finally, if for whatever reason you are actually looking for Old Kent Road, do say 'THE Old Kent Road' making sure you use the prefix 'the'. No one in London calls it 'Old Kent Road'.
PLEASE NOTE - There are obviously far more places of interest in south London including museums and galleries, but as Old Kent Road is literally the only road in the whole of south London included on the Monopoly board, it's a bit limiting, so have stuck to more instantly tourist friendly suggestions.
Also in the series:
#00 - An introduction
The current Coronavirus pandemic has obviously affected everyone in many different ways, and like most of the world, we are currently in ‘lockdown’.
Board games which had previously been languishing at the back of a cupboard have resurfaced, been dusted down and played once again. One of these is the UK version of Monopoly which, as I’m sure you know, is based around streets and areas in London. As we were playing the game the other day, it dawned on me that under the current climate and restrictions, this Monopoly board is as close as I’ll get to wandering London’s iconic streets for quite some time. Most of them I would ordinarily be showing people on a tour; Piccadilly, Trafalgar Square, Fleet Street, Whitehall, Pall Mall and Mayfair to name a few.
I also recalled how many times over the last decade on my walking tours that as I’ve walked down Strand, for instance, people have said “Oh, I only know the Strand from the Monopoly board …it’s red isn’t it?” The same comments have been made about Leicester Square (yellow), Bow Street (orange), Pall Mall (pink), Whitechapel Road (brown) and so on.
I had realised a long time ago that for first time visitors to London, planning their trip from somewhere on the other side of the globe, or even for UK residents coming down for a weekend, it’s a daunting prospect. London is a vast metropolis with a population of just under 9 million people living in 32 boroughs (and the City of London), across just over 600 square miles. There are hundreds of museums, a host of tourist attractions spread far and wide, a myriad of hotels, bed and breakfasts and Air BnBs, thousands of restaurants, pubs and cafes, off the beaten path hidden gems, must-see tourist hot spots, super trendy hipster areas and places you might just want to avoid altogether.
In my correspondence with people who have contacted me about doing private walks, if appropriate, I’ve attempted to help them sift through some of this stuff and steer their decision making in terms of which areas they should stay in or which museums and attractions they should visit, explaining where the places are that they want to visit, how to get there and how best to structure their time. I’ve always thought I should endeavour to create something practical to help visitors to London who might be sitting at home trawling through the internet thinking “Where do I start?”, but never known how best to structure it or indeed had the time or inclination.
As I was sitting looking at the Monopoly board the other day, I realised that this was the structure that had eluded me. The board is by no means exhaustive and omits vast swathes of London, but the streets and areas that are included are actually wonderfully suited to visitors to London and the things that might interest them.
And so it is …over the coming weeks and months (or however long it takes) I will post here my ‘Monopoly Guide to London for Tourists’. Due to the real world geographical proximity of a number of the squares I will undoubtedly group some together, but will aim to provide an informative guide to each Monopoly square (property) and answer reasonably succinctly the following questions: Where is it? What’s the story? (a brief historical note) How do I get there? Where would I stay? …and What’s of interest? The last category will include museums, galleries, hidden gems, eateries, pubs, attractions or anything else I think you should see and do in that particular area. I’m going to include some hand drawn maps and at the end, a larger one to hopefully give some context of where all these places are in relation to each other and by proxy, their associated sights and places of interest.
I will approach each square on the board in the order they appear when playing the game and my intention is rather than each post being an in depth historical account, to be a fun, informative and useful tool for first-time visitors to London, as after all, it is these people I often have the pleasure of showing around London, and hope that in the not too distant future, will have that opportunity again.
In the meantime, I realise that this is a particularly challenging time, so wish everyone well.
If you pick up a copy of this weeks Time Out London magazine, you'll discover that I contributed a small column entitled Hidden Landmarks.
London is a multi-layered city and there are loads of little details hiding in plain sight which both Londoners and tourists alike pass every day and don't notice. They're the kind of things I talk about regularly on my walks and are often a great way of helping to explain a much larger topic. Time Out asked me to include some of my favourites, all of which I've mentioned on this website previously.
Metropolitan Police hook
On a building on Great Newport Street (just by Leicester Square Underground Station) close to a busy intersection is a large hook, above which is written ‘Metropolitan Police’. Before traffic lights, a Policeman would stand directing traffic. The story goes that one Policeman had taken to hanging his coat on a 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 installed.
When Christopher Wren rebuilt the City of London following the Great Fire of London (1666) he used 6 million tonnes of Portland Stone which is quarried in Dorset. This area is known as the Jurassic Coast due to the sheer number of fossils found there from the Jurassic period. Although Wren chose not to feature the fossils, the stone is still being used today and the 150 million-year old fossils are used as decorative features, meaning you can fossil hunt all over London.
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.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.