Where is it?
Strand is a major road in central London which runs from Trafalgar Square to the City of London where it becomes Fleet Street.
What’s the story?
Until the development of Victoria Embankment in the second half of the 19th century, Strand was the major conduit between Westminster and the City. Strand in German, Dutch, Norwegian (and most northern European languages) means ‘beach’ (which is where the word ‘stranded’ originates – to be beached) and as such, runs along the northern edge of the river Thames. Londoners always refer to the thoroughfare as ‘The Strand’ although it doesn’t actually have a prefix. From the medieval period, the northern riverside was dominated by lavish, aristocratic mansions, which although long gone, live on in street names, with Somerset House, the only actual survivor.
How do I get there?
Strand is just under a mile long, and has a number of transport links. To the east is Charing Cross and Embankment stations, and Temple can be found just over half way along. Strand is also serviced by the No.15 bus which goes all the way from Trafalgar Square to the Tower of London, via St Paul’s cathedral. It’s the only surviving ‘Routemaster’ bus route, which for the uninitiated, means that on weekends and bank holidays you can still board the old iconic ‘hop on and hop off’ buses, the kind you see pictures of on postcards and are effectively antiques on wheels.
What’s it like now?
Twice serving 19th century Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli described Strand as ‘perhaps the finest street in Europe’. The same couldn’t be said now. A few old shops and stalwarts like Simpsons and the Savoy Hotel survive alongside west end theatres such as the Adelphi and Vaudeville Theatres, but much of Strand is dominated by generic high street shops, the doorways of which unfortunately, at night, become makeshift homes for London’s homeless population. At rush hour, or when ‘Changing The Guard’ is taking place outside Buckingham Palace, the traffic on Strand comes to a stand still.
Where would I stay?
Being so central, there’s a huge amount of choice, but as with my previous posts, I only mention hotels I’ve actually been to, which in this instance includes the Amba Hotel, Charing Cross, Strand Palace and ME London. I’ve also been to a few privately rented apartments near Victoria Embankment Gardens. Probably the most famous hotel on Strand (or maybe London) is the Savoy, which when it opened in 1889 was London’s first luxury hotel. I have been there to pick people up to begin Private walks, but don’t expect most people reading this to have the funds to even buy a cocktail there. I’ve represented the Savoy Hotel on the map with a picture of Kaspar the Cat, which resides at the hotel, is made of wood and was carved in 1927 with the sole purpose of being the 14th guest in the private dining rooms should a table of 13 book. The superstition dates back to 1898 and the death of a guest called Woolf Joel after dining at the Savoy with 12 other guests. His death incidentally, was in no way connected to the hotel.
What’s of interest?
Gordon’s Wine Bar
On Villiers Street, close to Embankment station is London’s best kept, worst kept secret, Gordon’s Wine Bar; a delightful little worm hole back in time that has been serving wine in its characterful, candlelit cellar since 1890. They do great buffet style lunches and the walls are adorned with an array of original framed newspaper pages relating to Royal events. In the summer you can sit out on Watergate Walk and pretend you’re sitting on a terrace somewhere far more exotic.
Top Tip – The main door is usually shut and the place will look like it’s been closed for decades. To enter, head down the steps leading to Watergate Walk, and through the doors on your left.
Victoria Embankment Gardens
In 1858, London was plunged in to ‘the great stink’, after the Thames became stagnant with raw sewage. An engineer called Joseph Bazelgette kindly designed 2,500 miles of sewers to help alleviate the problem, and reclaimed a large chunk of river to build a sewage works, on top of which was laid Victoria Embankment Gardens. If you wander through you’ll notice a number of statues and memorials and undoubtedly see the ancient Egyptian Monument known as Cleopatra’s Needle, which dates back to about 1450BC, but has no connection with the Egyptian Queen of the same name. There’s a twin needle in New York and another in Paris.
York Water Gate
Nestling on the north side of Victoria Embankment Gardens is a weathered structure which was a Watergate built for George Villiers (the 1st Duke of Buckingham) in 1626, allowing his wealthy friends to arrive by boat at his residence, York House. I included York Watergate in my list of London Curiosities. Many people don’t notice it, but it is a very clear marker for showing just how far up the river used to come before Bazelgette reclaimed it.
Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy
I don’t imagine many tourists visit this particular church, hidden away behind the Savoy Hotel, but this Grade II listed building dates back to the early 16th century and does not come under the jurisdiction of a bishop, but is owned by the Duchy of Lancaster (AKA The Queen). A piece of trivia for you is that Bob Dylan filmed the now famous video for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ standing in between the Savoy Chapel and the Savoy hotel.
Courtauld Institute of Art
The Courtauld as it’s usually known is a wonderfully underrated gallery. There is an admission fee, but they have an amazing collection of 530 paintings heavily weighted towards ‘Impressionist’ and ‘Post Impressionist’ art including works by Manet, van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne and about 26,000 drawings and prints by the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Dürer, Canaletto and Picasso. In 2018, the gallery closed for a number of years for a major refurbishment, but you can take a virtual tour of the Courtauld collection.
Step off Strand in to the courtyard of Somerset House and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped in to a film set. That’s because you have. This largely 18th century building has been the back drop to a couple of James Bond films, The Duchess (starring Keira Knightley), Guy Ritchie’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ starring Robert Downey Junior and many more. The building itself has a fascinating history (far too much to write here) but you can jump on a free tour of the site, which also includes a visit to the ‘Deadhouse’ beneath the courtyard. Today the building is home to hundreds of businesses and entrepreneurs, but also has regular exhibitions and cafes for you to enjoy a cuppa.
As well as being a ridiculously opulent and grand early 20th century building and home to the longest continuously occupied diplomatic mission in the UK (the Australians) and standing over a 900-year old well, Australia House has a special place in the hearts of Harry Potter fans. The building was turned in to ‘Gringott’s Wizarding Bank’ for the film of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
St. Clement Danes church
Standing directly opposite Australia House is St Clement Danes, made famous by the nursery rhyme which begins “Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clements”. It was burned out during WWII and the rebuilding was paid for by the Royal Air Force. For this reason, you’ll see the RAF insignia dotted around and memorials to Bomber Harris (itself pretty contentious) and Lord Dowding. The interior has memorials to all the Allied air forces and pilots who fought during WWII. If you walk along the north side (closest to the Royal Courts of Justice) you’ll notice a lot of shrapnel damage still scarring the outer wall.
Royal Courts of Justice
A huge section of Strand is dominated by the gothic revivalist grandeur of the Royal Courts of Justice which opened in 1882. During the week you’ll often find journalists and photographers or demonstrators outside and I highly recommend popping in if you can. The entrance hall alone, which is pretty much empty, is a good five times bigger than St Clement Danes. George Edmund Street who designed the building literally built a cathedral to law.
Twinings Tea Shop
Directly opposite the Royal Courts of Justice is the tiny corridor-like shop of Twinings, a tea brand that most people around the world have heard of. They’ve been selling tea from that exact spot since 1706 and is a must visit spot for tea enthusiasts visiting London. You can have a look at their tiny museum at the back of the shop and note their Royal Warrant proudly displayed above the door as you enter.
Inner and Middle Temple
The Knights Templar originally had a base in this part of London and after they were disbanded in the very early 14th century, the land was sold to lawyers, and two of London’s four Inns of Court have been based there ever since.
If you can, I highly recommend wandering through the alleyways and courtyards that stretch all the way to the Thames and I see regularly used as sets in TV dramas. You’ll undoubtedly stumble across Middle Temple Hall, the oldest surviving Elizabethan hall in London, where the first performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ is said to have taken place.
You’ll also discover the incredible Temple Church, which Tom Hanks’ character visits in ‘The Da Vinci Code’. Although badly damaged during WWII, the round chapel dates back to 1185, whilst the new bit, which forms the main bulk of the church was completed c1240. It’s a wonderful hidden gem, so if you can visit, I highly recommend it.
If you walked along Strand from Trafalgar Square, you'll now find yourself on Fleet Street, which as it happens, is the next property on the London Monopoly board.
Last weekend I did all three walks, encompassing the full spectrum of group sizes, beginning with what is officially known as a 'biggish' group on Saturday morning for the walk from Trafalgar Square to St Paul's. It was also London Open House weekend, so we took the liberty of sticking our noses in to the entrance hall of the Royal Courts of Justice, a quite formidable building on the Strand, officially opened by Queen Victoria in 1882.
Nicole and Drew were back for their second walk and the rest were newbies hailing from India via the UK, Australia via Switzerland and the States.
In the afternoon it was just Barbie, all on her own, so could officially be termed 'an incredibly small group'. She had joined the Sunday walk the previous week, when there had been a somewhat larger contingent. Here she is on London Bridge.
The building just behind Barbie, to the left of her head has been in the news recently. It's 20 Fenchurch Street, previously dubbed the 'Walkie Talkie' and now renamed the 'Walkie Scorchie' because during a rather more clement day the other week, the sun's glare had apparently reflected off the windows and melted parts of a car, amongst other things. Londoners of course love nothing better than to bestow nick names upon the city's buildings, as the Gherkin, Cheese Grater, Razor and Wobbly Bridge can testify.
Sunday's east London walk was a 'medium sized group' and saw the return of Eric and Gail from Saturday morning. They were joined by John, Christopher and Elika. Here they are standing by one of street artist, Stik's pieces on Princelet Street, just off Brick Lane.
Youngest - Sophie
Best new sensible haircut - Drew
Best moustache - No winners
Biggest family group - The Lynch's
Most Kevins in one group - Saturday morning (x2)
Jeepers. So it was a really lovely weekend of walks and met some great people and experienced very different types of weather. Saturday was one of those really nice cold, but crisp autumnal days and in the morning I met Kat and Nancy for the walk from Trafalgar Square to St Paul's.
Here they both are outside the Royal Courts of Justice, which was unusually busy for a Saturday ('cause it was open) due to the London Open House Weekend which happens once a year and if you've never got involved, then you perhaps should next year, because it's great. Lots of buildings all over London, from the flat Jimi Hendrix died in to the Gherkin are open to the public for one weekend only.
We also sampled some tea at Twinings tea shop before winding our way through Fleet Street to finish at St Paul's. I'll also quickly mention that Nancy has her own mobile hairdressing business and zips around London on bike visiting people at home to cut their hair, so if you fancy having your hair coiffeured in the comfort of your own home, then get in touch with her.
Kat is one of a select group of people to do both Saturday walks on one day, so after a spot of lunch, returned for the afternoon walk from St Paul's to Monument, where she was joined by Rachel, Hannah, Claire and also Liron (who had done the east end walk previously) and David, both from Israel.
Rachel is busy, trying to uncover things to do, see, eat and experience in London for Londoners ... and anyone else for that matter, which she compiles in to a radio podcast for Shoreditch Radio and just last week unleashed a brand spanking new website called 'i love London town' ... which you should also check out. Anyway ... we had a wander around Borough and Southwark, before heading back over London Bridge to finish at the Monument.
Sunday was an entirely different weather kind of day and Sabine and Dario, from Germany, braved what began as a steady influx of greyness and rain to become mildly torrential during their exploration of the east end. We popped to the Geffrye Museum en-route, which is a great little place built in 1714 and now is a museum dedicated to the history of how people lived in London from 1600 to the present day.
Because of the Open House weekend, I took the liberty of taking them to the wonderful Hoxton Hall, built in 1863 and one of only two surviving Victorian music halls in London. It was originally called McDonald's Music Hall and strangely was forced to close down after less than ten years due to complaints about the noise.
Keenest double whammy Saturday walker - Kat
Best moustache - No winners
Most likely to be unobtrusively recording - Rachel
Most Israeli - Liron and David
Most German - Dario & Sabine
Weekend Roundup - 12th/13th May '12
Last weekends London walks got off to a flyer on Saturday morning with a great group who were a mixture of people who had been on previous walks (Nathalie, Tamsin and Rowan), some Americans, Andrew and Sharon (who was visiting London for the first time ever), another, Mary, who had arrived from Boston that morning and hadn't even been to sleep yet (pretty hardcore), some Londoners, two of whom (Elly and Alan) live in Soho so literally just had to step out of the front door to begin the walk, Amy who seemed to have worked at some point in most of the areas we walked through and Luana and Manuela from Brazil.
Covent Garden was overflowing with 'Punch & Judy' performers as it was the annual Maye Fayre and Puppet Festival. I think the main reason being that on the 9th May 1662 a guy called Samuel Pepys recorded in his now rather famous diary that he'd seen his first performance of the show there, so it's regarded as Mr Punch's birthday and a celebration is held as near as possible to that date each year. If you've ever visited, you'll perhaps have noted that there's a pub, also called the Punch & Judy overlooking what was originally intended as the grand entrance to St Paul's church on the west side of Covent Garden piazza.
Here's the group a bit later on standing outside the entrance to the Royal Courts of Justice. If you're wondering why Elly is holding up a pair of pants and Manuela is actually wearing a rather fetching pair of orange undies over her jeans then it's because we encountered an open top bus laden with scantily clad blokes, showering the unsuspecting public with pants. As you do.
Sunday - My neck of the woods
On Sunday for the east end walk, I was joined by a massive group that was also massively international. Out of the seventeen people who came along, only two were English and the rest arrived via France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Holland and the USA.
It was a glorious day for exploring the east end, with Columbia Road flower market in full swing and loads of other fragments of history and bits of street art to uncover along the way.
So, here are the group who I will endeavour to name. Apologies if I've spelt anyones name incorrectly. From left to right - Tim, Ana, Lisa, Eva, Michela, Olga, Sabrina, Esther, Alexandra, Sheila, Bruce, Miguel, Carolin, Kate, John, Marie and Ruth.
Following on from this walk, I also did a special birthday walk for Charlie and her friends, but completely forgot to take a photo. However, thanks incredibly to everyone who came along for walks.
The BOC Trilogy of walks Award - Tamsin and Rowan
Most Eastern european named Portuguese person - Olga
Best moustache - No winners
Highest jumper in a photo - Tim (see above)
Best translator - Alexandra
Most jet lagged - Mary
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.