Here's a handy guide to what you'll see en route.
You'll begin queuing in Southwark Park, south east London. When I was there earlier, the sign was warning of a 14 hour queue. You'll have lots of time to take in what's around you. Here are a few highlights and fun facts.
After about 10 minutes you'll find yourself down by the river at Bermondsey. You'll be walking alongside the river Thames for the entire route.
The River Thames
The Thames is the entire reason why London exists and the Roman's settled here over 2000 years ago. It's 215 miles long and flows through 9 counties, its source being in Kemble, Gloucestershire. A few years ago I walked the whole thing from the 'Sea to the Source'. It was once a tributary river of the Rhine in Germany (when we were still landlocked to the rest of Europe). In central London the Thames has a tidal change of about 23ft, so see if you can see any 'mudlarks' looking for things that have washed up. It's basically a massive archaeological site and in the 19th century a politician called John Burns referred to it as 'liquid history'.
The City of London
From this point on the river you'll see the City of London opposite. It looks very modern but was the Roman city of Londinium founded in about 48AD. It's the original financial district. You'll see a number of tall buildings including 'the Gherkin' (No. 30 St Mary's Axe) and the 'Walkie Talkie' (20 Fenchurch Street).
Fun Fact - During the hot summer of 2013 (a year before completion) the 'Walkie Talkie' acted as a massive magnifying glass and was melting and scorching things including a car parked on the street below. The architect Rafael Vinoly said "it's not my fault, the sun was in the wrong place".
You'll also get your first glimpse of:
Undoubtedly one of the most iconic structures in London, Tower Bridge was completed in 1894. It's a 'bascule' bridge allowing the road to lift to allow ships through and is actually a steel structure with stone cladding.
Fun Fact - The winning design was chosen as part of a competition, judged by architect Horace Jones. He chose his own design as the winner.
St Saviour's Dock
You'll pass around where one of London's subterranean rivers, the Neckinger meets the Thames. In the 17th and 18th century it became known as Jacob's Island, a notorious place of execution. In 1838, Charles Dickens described the area as "the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities hidden in London".
Fun Fact - The name is thought to derive from 'devil's neckcloth' in reference to the nooses used to hang people here.
Next you'll pass through old riverside warehouses, once used to unload the myriad of goods that arrived in London from across the globe and now turned in to super duper apartments. You'll pass beneath the south side of Tower Bridge which is where all the engine rooms are housed, as originally the bridge was powered by coal furnaces.
Fun Fact - Tower Bridge has its own mortuary on the north side of the river, where bodies from the river were pulled out.
Tower of London
As you pass City Hall, on the other side of the river you'll see the Tower of London. It's actually 21 separate towers, but the White Tower in the centre dates back to 1090, a couple of decades after the Norman conquest.
Fun Fact - The Tower was London's first zoo. From the 1200s until 1835, animals given to monarchs as gifts were housed there, with the public paying to see them.
A WW2 ship that was used during D-Day in 1944. It has been a museum open to the public for over 50 years.
Fun Fact - If the guns on the front were to fire they'd hit a service station on the M1 motorway (over 12 miles away).
The original London Bridge opened in 1209 and was the longest inhabited bridge in the world. It remained there until the early 1800s. The bridge you're passing is the third on the site and opened by the Queen in the early 1970s.
Fun Fact - The 2nd London Bridge was sold to an American called Robert P. McCulloch who shipped it over to Arizona and created a man-made lake around it called Lake Havasu and made it into a tourist attraction.
Next you'll pass Southwark cathedral which was founded in the early 12th century. It's a beautiful church, originally called the Collegiate Church of St. Saviour and Mary Overie. The 'Overie' was short for 'church over the river'.
Fun Fact - William Shakespeare's younger brother Edmund was buried there in 1607.
You'll pass by a replica of Francis Drake's galleon, the 'Golden Hind' which left to circumnavigate the world in 1577, returning to Deptford (near where you started queuing) in 1580. They were really pirates, but we called them privateers to make us feel better.
Fun Fact - The ship was originally called 'the Pelican' but its name changed during the journey in honour of one of the main financiers, Christopher Hatton whose family emblem was the golden hind (a female red deer).
You'll pass the remains of the 14th century palace of the Bishop of Winchester who once had jurisdiction over the area. The imposing wall and its rose window were discovered after a warehouse fire in the 19th century.
Fun Fact - The area of Bankside in the Elizabethan period was known as the 'City of Sin' as it housed the brothels and theatres. The church made money from the prostitutes and the women were known collectively as 'the Bishop of Winchester's Geese'. To be 'bitten by a Winchester Goose' meant you had contracted a sexually transmitted disease on Bankside and features in one of Shakespeare's plays.
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
Finished in the late 1990s by American Sam Wanamaker, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre is a recreation of an Elizabethan Theatre and memorial to the bard. The original site is actually on the street behind.
Fun Fact - It has the only thatched roof in central London (after thatch was banned following the Great Fire of London in 1666).
Tate Modern and Millennium Bridge
The Tate Modern was a 1960s power station built by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed the now iconic red telephone boxes. It's now a modern art gallery.
The Millennium Bridge opened in the year 2000 and is a pedestrian foot bridge that joins the Tate Modern to St Paul's cathedral in the City.
Fun Fact - The Millennium bridge was open for 2 days and closed for 2 years because it had a massive wobble. It will be forever known as 'the wobbly bridge'.
Blackfriars Bridge & Blackfriars Railway Bridge
The Victorian pedestrian and traffic bridge gets its name from the monastery that stood on the north side until the 16th century. It was run by Dominican monks who wore black, hence the 'blackfriars'.
The railway bridge leads in to Blackfriars station and Underground station which is the only underground station in London to have exits on either side of the Thames.
Fun Fact - The railway bridge has solar panels on the roof which generates half the electricity for the station. It's the largest solar powered bridge in the world.
The National Theatre
Founded in 1963 by Sir Lawrence Olivier (you'll pass a statue of him outside), the current brutalist building opened on this site in the late 1970s. The new King Charles III once said "it's a clever way of hiding a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting."
Waterloo Bridge was bombed at the beginning of WW2, rebuilt largely by women and therefore nicknamed 'the ladies bridge'.
The area now known has the Southbank was destroyed in WW2. It was rebuilt to house arts venues such as the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Hayward Gallery and the Royal Festival Hall, the first building to open here in 1951.
The London Eye
Opened as 'the Millennium Wheel' in the year 2000 and renamed the 'London Eye'. It takes 30 minutes to go all the way around.
Fun Fact - It has 32 pods. Each one represents one of London's 32 boroughs.
Westminster Bridge and the Royal Palace of Westminster
Westminster Bridge is painted green, the same colour as the benches in the House of Commons.
The medieval Palace of Westminster burnt down in 1834. A few bits survived including the Great Hall, where the Queen is Lying-in-State. It was rebuilt by architect Charles Barry and completed in 1870. 'Big Ben' is actually called the Elizabeth Tower and the tower on the opposite end is called the Victoria Tower which houses documents and bills of parliament dating back to the 14th century.
Fun Fact - Big Ben is the name of the 14 tonne hour bell, not the tower.
Lambeth Palace has been home to the Archbishop of Canterbury since the 1200s. The oldest part of the current building dates back to the 15th century.
Fun Fact - Behind those walls is a garden of just over 10 acres, making it one of the oldest and largest private gardens in London.
Lambeth Bridge was completed in 1932 to replace a Victorian Bridge. It had originally been the site of a ferry that took horses across the Thames, which is why the road on the opposite bank is called Horseferry Road. You'll notice the paintwork is largely red, the same as the benches in the House of Lords.
Once you've crossed Lambeth Bridge, you'll be on the final stretch before you enter the Great Hall to see the Queen Lying-in-State.
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.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.