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.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.