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.
All three London walks took place this weekend, albeit with varying amounts of people, beginning with just one person, Luciana from Argentina, who came on the Trafalgar Square to St Paul's walk on Saturday morning. Here she is outside Twinings Tea Shop, where we stopped for a cuppa.
Twinings have been operating from the same premises on the Strand since 1706, when Thomas Twining opened Britain's first tea room. Twinings also hold the distinction of holding a Royal Warrant (which you can see just above the door), which basically means they provide tea for HRH Queen Elizabeth II, and also lay claim to having the world's oldest continually used logo.
Next up was the St Paul's to the Monument walk and I was joined by two young French men, Anthony and Mickael spending a year over here to improve their English. It seems to have worked, as their English was 'Superbon, fantastique et tres, tres, tres bien'. Here they are (and me actually for once) standing beneath the Monument, a monument (not surprisingly) to the Great Fire of London. If you come on one of my walks, I'll probably talk about this particular fire quite a bit. It happened in 1666 and in just four days burnt down most of the City of London. The idea is that the Monument stands 202 feet tall, exactly 202 feet to the west of what at the time of the fire was a bakery on the now infamous Pudding Lane, where the fire started.
Today was the east London 'my neck of the woods' walk and I was joined by Maddi and Kim from Australia, Mike, Susan, Kahlee and John from the USA and Brynn from Stoke. The Sunday walk is a mixture of history and street art, and right at the beginning, noticed that Street artist Eine's CHANGE mural on Old Street is in the process of being ... well ... changed. I haven't been able to confirm it, but it looks like Eine himself is doing it. It seems to be half finished and still masking tape all over it. It currently looks like this ...
Here are the group standing outside the Foxtons Estate Agents on Curtain Road. You may wonder why I chose to take a photo of them there, but back in 1577 a building was built on that very site, and was the first in London to be devoted to the performance of plays. It was called The Theatre and was run by a group called the Lord Chamberlain's Men. They moved The Theatre in 1598 over the Thames to Bankside and re-opened it the following year re-naming it 'The Globe'. The Lord Chamberlain's Men employed a young man who arrived in Shoreditch from Straford-Upon-Avon as an actor and playwright. You might have heard of him. He was called William Shakespeare.
So, there we have it. Another weekend of walks. Thanks as ever to everyone who came and made it so enjoyable.
Most Australian - Maddi & Kim
Best Moustache - Mike
The only English person all weekend - Brynn
Looking after English peoples kids award - Luciana, Anthony & Mickael
Most American - Everyone else (inc. Mike)
weekend roundup - 18th/19th feb '12
Saturday - Trafalgar Square to St Paul's
There were two walks this weekend, kicking off in central London on Saturday morning with Severine, Christine and Georges. Discussing the battle of Trafalgar, beneath Nelson's Column seemed as good a place as any to begin a tour with an entirely French group. However, they didn't seem to hold it against me and we wound our way up through Covent Garden and popped in to the Royal Opera House, which had played host to the BAFTA Awards the previous weekend. We didn't spot any celebrities in there on Saturday, although the balcony does give a pretty good view down on what Inigo Jones had originally built as an open Italian style Piazza.
A short while later we stopped in Twinings, who after over 300 years and ten generations are still selling tea from the same premises, begun in 1706 when Thomas Twining hankered for something other than ale, gin or coffee to drink. At the back of the narrow shop, there is a small kitchen complete with a sink, kettle, mini fridge and and vast array of teas for people to try for free ... so we did.
The guy you can see on the left was on hand to discuss the finer points of tea blending, and although I rather predictably opted for an English Breakfast, I'm pleased to report that the other three were rather more adventurous in their tea choices.
After our tea break, we managed to sneak in to the area that houses two of England's four ancient Inns of Court (Inner and Middle Temple) and of course the medieval Temple Church built by the Knights Templar in the late 12th Century and finished up, just as the rain began to fall, in the cosy bowels of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese with a drinkie poops.
Sunday - My neck of the woods
There were seven people and a whippet called Reggie for Sunday's east end walk, and as it was pretty nippy and Reggie was feeling the cold, one of the group fashioned a rather natty outfit for him out of a scarf. The group also featured Denise who was experiencing her second Bowl Of Chalk walk. Here they are in Bunhill Fields Cemetery.
Pretty much straight after I took this photo, we headed over to the Wesleyan Chapel (open to the public) which has been presiding over the area since 1778, includes the home of John Wesley (open to the public) the father of Methodism, has a nice little museum (open to the public), some amazing toilets (open to the public) and was where Margaret Thatcher, (recently portrayed by Meryl Streep) got married to name but a few things. In fact, we didn't actually enter the chapel as they have a service on Sunday (open to the public), but were standing in the car park (open to the public) and I had just been encouraging the group to come back another day and sample and learn about all these things when a lady came out of the church and basically told us to leave because we were standing on private property. She made it quite clear that we weren't welcome. This is a great shame as I've met some lovely, helpful people there who have been more than happy to provide me with information so as I might inform people who come on walks. However, this is the last time I will mention the Wesleyan Chapel ever again. Anyway, it would appear that it is no longer open to the public.
Aside from that rather strange encounter, it was a really great group and although a bit chilly, was lovely and sunny. With Yasmin, a Hackney resident, Annette who runs a great B&B in Hackney, Hannah (also a Hackney-ite), Virginia, who although Canadian, informed us that her mother grew up in Hoxton, Denise with her Kray story and Carole who was more than familiar with the area ... it really was a 'My neck of the woods' walk. I feel I should also mention Keith, just incase he feels left out.
Most French group - Severine, Christine & Georges (Sat)
Most doglike - Reggie
Best moustache - No winner
Most Canadian - Keith & Virginia
Most seasoned Chalker - Denise
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.