WALKING INTO SECRET LONDON
The British are great walkers and going on a walking tour of London is a great way to make friends and learn about a hidden London even most Londoners don't know much about, writes Moutussi Acharyya
Many visitors to London return home with a sense of anti-climax – the images of London burnt into our consciousness often fall short of expectations. Especially if we take the predictable tourist route of whirlwind coach or taxi tours where we see little and learn even less. Going shopping on Oxford Street and visiting the typical tourist cliches of Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace are not the only ways to see London. There are others who take the walking tours and come away raving about a secret London, where you can enjoy the beauty of a city hidden behind the glittering sprawl at a leisurely pace; places where buses and cars cannot go and where you are allowed to stand and stare and soak in the quirky British eccentricities of this damp and delightful metropolis. Many have seen London only through these walks and have returned again and again, because the variety offered is endless. To quote Dr Johnson, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford.
There are several walking tour firms but London Walks is the oldest and the best and has received many awards and glowing reviews from happy customers across the world. Described by Time Out as 'London's best guided walks', it offers over 500 different walks. Its trump cards are its brilliant and sometimes eccentric guides (many of them well-known actors, lecturers and writers), who are experts in their own field and the best in the business. If you want to learn some things about the world's most cosmopolitan city, the one to pick is London Walks, because of its charming, knowledgeable guides who will make your day.
On the unique London Walks, you can discover the Chelsea river views that inspired the painter Turner in his final years or find out where London's first nude statue is. You can explore London's finest country house in Charlton and unearth the secrets of the Mother of Parliaments. Spy out the village that gave its name to a car and the Russian word for railway station. Learn which church steeple gave us the design of the traditional wedding cake, where the sandwich was invented and where in Bond Street you can see London's oldest artefact. Visit the house where musicians Handel and Jimi Hendrix both lived. Climb the famous 311 spiral steps of the Monument, the tallest and finest isolated stone column in the world, go from East to West and back again at Greenwich observatory or fly on the world's biggest big wheel. There is pomp and ceremony and spectacle, but your quirky guides will also take you to a London that is intimate, with quiet corners, crooked cobbled streets, winding alleyways and sunny squares, and show you the most liveable of all cities, with more green spaces than any other metropolis, and gardens everywhere.
David Tucker owns London Walks with his wife Mary. Mary, the boss, an actress in the West End, guided me years ago on the Thames and Chelsea Pub Walks and endeared herself with her charm and unpretentiousness. David, her husband, is a literary historian, university lecturer and journalist and on all his walks, he is a mine of information and willing to answer even the silliest questions. London specialises in hiding the best of itself, said Pierre Maillaud, and you will realise this when those zany, adventurous guides show you a totally unexpected London.
This walk is the distillation of the brilliant guides of London Walks' many years of experience in probing the forgotten nooks of the world's most elusive city. Exploring parts of London that few people know exist – up creeping lanes, round out-of-the-way corners, past secret islands of green, where you discover the most curious, unpredictable, eccentric aspects of London. London's secret alleyways and courtyards gradually reveal themselves, including a monastery, a stretch of an old Roman wall with its bastion, a fort making a defiant last stand. Concealed courts are keyholes into London's past, harbouring everything from a forgotten Norman crypt to the musty smells of an ancient prison, to a beautiful but virtually hidden 300-year-old courtyard. Venerable livery halls of the city guilds, quaint old inns and galleons lying at anchor – attend to business as they've done for centuries. Round the corner an ancient church or two – flinty signposts to the eternal landscape of the past – somehow keep the 21st century at bay. Nearby, London's eeriest and most hidden graveyard weathers the centuries. And everywhere, the rustle of the shades and the voices – of Dr Johnson and residents of his old neighbourhood, Shakespeare and town criers, Bunyan and Ballad singers, Dickens and chimney sweeps – come back to haunt you. You learn the origin of London's newspapers in Fleet Street and the walk ends with Dr Johnson and his favourite cat.
"SOMEWHERE ELSE" LONDON
Elsewhere is always surprising. Especially when elsewhere is the dark side of the moon: the Victorian underside of 21st century London. A wonderful goulash of a walk, it gets you into streets that you'd never find off your own bat – streets that look like an old movie set and a neighbourhood precious few Londoners have dared investigate. Yellow brick, perfectly preserved, all unselfconscious self-respect, real Cockney – unaltered Dickensian London. The miracle is it's still there, screwed into the underbelly of central, modern London. And getting there is a bit of all right too – because there's a dramatic river crossing, a stroll along the Thames, a visit to the world's foremost arts complex, London's best loved old theatre, a real London street market (instead of a tourist trap), a stunning bird's eye view of the capital (and there's a lift, so you won't have to climb hundreds of stairs!), and many forgotten corners of "the real London" just over the river. Everything from trace evidence – archaeological fragments – to the old, furtive, toil-worn, hard-scrabble, soon-to-be-passing, villainous past: a paupers' burying ground, a ragged school, ancient "model dwellings", a prison, Octavia Hill's cottages, etc. You hear those people speak through the guides: the beggars, the prostitutes, the soon-to-be-executed "Black Maria", pickpockets, street sellers, the Body Snatching Borough Gang, etc. It is history as seance. And at the end of the walk you'll be able to get into the Old Operating Theatre museum at half price!
Time Warp London
It's a boat ride – and a walk – into the birthplace of modern London, under three Brunel bridges and over two Brunels' tunnels to the best-kept secret in London. There are icons, and several secrets. A secret gateway for the Russian Czar. Six dead men on a haunted ship. Broken bones by the silent Harpy. Broken slipways on the Isle of Dogs. Shattered columns, shattered dancers, magic at the Tunnel Club. A monster ship. And the world's most important tunnel.
The 8th Wonder of the World is the underground cathedral and the Grand Entrance Hall to Brunel's tunnel under the Thames. In Brunel's Thames Tunnel, you're only a 7-minute tube ride away from the Houses of Parliament, yet 500 years away in time. This place still looks and feels like what it once was. The Mayflower – the Pilgrim Father's pub – is here. The Thames foot tunnel built by the Brunels to Wapping was the first underwater tunnel in the world. You can sneak right down into the underground cathedral – even though it's locked and closed to the public, because your guide is the Curator of the Brunel Museum and he's got the key! Be warned, access to the Grand Entrance Hall is severely restricted – you stoop down through the short tunnel to descend by temporary staircase into a huge chamber, half the size of Shakespeare's Globe, but hidden underground. That low tunnel is not unlike the entryway to a bomb shelter; and it's about the same height as the tunnel into Egypt's Great Pyramid (this tunnel also takes you into a kind of "Great Pyramid" – oh okay, an enormous silo – that opens downwards). Visitors with claustrophobia or any concerns can contact the Brunel Museum beforehand. The Brunel Museum waives its £6 admission charge for us. But asks for a £3 donation to help the museum charity look after the underground cathedral.
Famous square mile
The Famous Square Mile is the classic London walk where, along with your guide, you chronicle 2,000 years of London's history in the heart of the city. From St Paul's Cathedral broadly covering the Jubilee Walkway, the walk explores many rarely visited parts of the City of London including gardens, churches, hidden courtyards, and cutting-edge modern architecture, set against a splendid Medieval backdrop. Threading your way through an intricate network of narrow alleys and cobblestone lanes, you visit the ruins of the Roman temple of Mithras, the Bank of England, the Lord Mayor's mansion house and ancient Guildhall. Your guide enthrals by blending historical commentary with bizarre anecdotes and wild, mildly scurrilous gossip about past and present celebrities and defunct royals. An area of extraordinary richness and density, the "one square mile" is the oldest part of the capital, with continuous development since the founding of the Roman town in the first century AD, reflecting the vibrancy of a mercantile centre whose architecture contains examples of remarkable survival.
THE LITERARY LONDON WALKS
This is the tour-de-force of London walks, especially for bookworms. For many Indians, fed on a diet of English classics since childhood, it is London's literary claim to fame which holds the most attraction. Follow in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Watson along with scenes of their exploits – Baker Street; bustling Charing Cross; the Strand's gas-lit alleys; Covent Garden with its Opera House and colourful market stalls, ending at the superb re-creation of Sherlock Holmes' study. Housed in the building immortalised in The Hound Of The Baskervilles and featuring many artefacts donated by the Conan Doyle family, it's a place where fiction turns into fact.
On another evening literary soiree, you can enjoy company beyond compare – shades of Oscar Wilde and G B Shaw; Dickens and Thackeray; Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Circle (who lived in Squares and loved in triangles); George Orwell, W B Yeats and T S Eliot. The venue's a moveable feast: a procession of handsome Georgian squares; the humming little warren of streets in the Museum quarter; and a couple of the best old pubs in London.
ROCK 'N' ROLL LONDON
If you're tired of history and the ancient then there's rock n' roll London. It's all aboard the night train for Rock 'n' Roll and a bit of Booze. Head to the rockstars' haunts and hangouts where they riffed and let rip, displaying their wealth and their wild antics. The Rolling Stones, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, David Bowie, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Blur, Oasis... the Who's Who of the music world strung along a London trail where each act has a naughty London tale to tell. Very often a tale so decadent – so down and dirty – that the present-day musicians couldn't hold a candle to them.
Another popular tour is the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, showing you where they lived, loved and played, down to their Apple offices and their last impromptu concert together on a rooftop, to the Abbey studios where they composed their greatest hits, walking down memory lane with the Fab Four on the zebra pedestrian crossing featured as the iconic LP cover for Abbey Road.
Jack the Ripper London
He came silently out of the midnight shadows in 1888, striking terror in the hearts – and throats – of drink-sodden East End prostitutes and leaving a trail of blood that led....nowhere. Little did Jack the Ripper know then that once hunted as London's most sadistic murderer, he would one day become such a big industry, based on his short but infamous reign of terror. In keeping with this morbid fascination, the Jack the Ripper walk has become one of the most popular of the London walks. If you want the colourful and the bizarre, the strange and the unusual, this place of menacing shadows and gory sites of his murders still recreates that era of gaslight and fog, the stealthy footsteps and the dimly lit alleyways he lurked in. You can later steady your nerves in the Ten Bells, the very pub where his prospective victims, perhaps under the steely gaze of the Ripper himself, tried to drown their sorrows.
The old riverside walk begins from Lambeth North Underground. Lambeth is London's best kept secret. It's Londoner's London, the home of cockneys, Charlie Chaplin and Pearly Kings and Queens. It's studded with special places – London's only medieval palace, the Imperial war museum, the Museum of Garden History (where you break for a cup of tea). Lambeth is also the vantage point for the most heart-stopping tableau in London – the riverfront view of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben and the entire Westminster skyline. In short, if you haven't been to Lambeth, haven't trod the Queen's Walk, you haven't really seen Westminster and the West End. That view was our backdrop as we followed the river downstream. History parades before you – the palaces that fringed the north bank, Cleopatra's needle, Scotland Yard, and then, as St Paul's comes into view, you reach your destination – the great South Bank Arts Centre. My guide was Stephanie, an ex-elephant-keeper!
Weary of walking and need to give your tired feet a rest? If you opt for the London Panorama, you can take a boat ride in between snatches of walking and see London at its most memorable. You begin as London began – with the Thames. Silvery lifeline, main highway, chief processional route, the Thames is, quite simply, London's Grand Canal. You embark on the boat at Tower bridge and go ashore at Westminster Bridge, the two bridges which bracket London. To set sail on this stretch of water is to glissade down the centuries. Here, kings and queens were borne in painted and gilt state barges – on the one shore, Wren's St Paul's Cathedral engraves the sublime against the London sky; on the other, Shakespeare wrought his magic at the Globe theatre, "not for an age, but for all time!" The Thames knew great men and women in death too – these waters bore Elizabeth I's funeral as well as Nelson's and Churchill's. And hand in glove with history, it is also the most famous of all London views, as throat-catching today as it was to Wordsworth 200 years ago – "Earth has not anything to show more fair..." Ashore, you take in St James palace, the Mall and Trafalgar Square, where your guide weaves in idiosyncratic detail to add depth to the powerful spectacle before you.
LEGAL & ILLEGAL LONDON: The Inns of Court
The Inns of Court – habitat of the wigged and gowned English barrister – could pass for a collection of Oxford and Cambridge colleges right in the heart of London. They're a warren of cloisters, courtyards and passageways set amongst some of the best gardens in London, witness to ancient rites and customs, high drama, colourful characters, and matters of life and death amid delightful surroundings. It's a rich confection, making this the prettiest and most historical of the central London walks. You discover quiet gardens, a truly eclectic architectural rattle-bag, and a glorious roll-call of British eccentrics. The Wits, the Windbags and Wayward Wigs – the cream of English Intellect milking the nation as it battles over Wives, Writs, Wills, Widows and Wrecks. You find out what happened when Tony Blair met Cherie and walk in the footsteps of the famous character, the untidy London Barrister, Horace Rumpole, who defends criminals at the Old Bailey! And as these are private grounds it is a real privilege to be shown around. Hear the case being argued in the High Court and then give your verdict at the end.
London's Ancient Villages
Chelsea – the village of palaces – is Chelsea Reach, "Hyde Park on the Thames". Its trendy Sloane Rangers, artists' studios, Hooray Henries, and scarlet-coated Chelsea Pensioners, clad in the garb of the old soldiers or Redcoats. Its cannons from the Battle of Waterloo and Chinese lanterns from the Flower Show, Thomas More's church and ancient Crosby Hall where Richard III stayed. The ancient and the modern blend harmoniously – Christopher Wren's Royal Hospital and Paul Getty's stately mansion – Mick Jagger's house and an ancient apothecary garden that changed the course of American history. Your walk through this ancient riverside village is punctuated by visits to three delightful pubs.
It's easy to forget just how green London is – and a walk in Richmond Park offers a chance to savour some of the capital's most glorious scenery. A perfect autumn walk, where you can expect to see rutting deer and piratical parrots. It's where the other half lives, who like to see but not be seen. Not far from Richmond Gate (S), is Pembroke Lodge – a Georgian mansion with a café attached, surrounded by landscaped gardens. You can also wander up to King Henry VIII's Mound, with its famous sightline straight across to St Paul's. Skirting along the top of the Isabella Plantation – the ornamental woodland garden – you wander past ponds and woods. Then take a boat from Richmond to explore the glorious Hampton Court, a riverside Tudor palace. There is nothing more restful than to walk by the river after exploring the great park to the east.
Then there is Greenwich, another village to which you can travel by boat. The Tower, Tower Bridge, Docklands, and the stateliest buildings in England glide past you, and if you are lucky, you may be in time to see the Tower Bridge opening up. Royal Greenwich, maritime Greenwich and zero degrees longitude, you see it all. Feasts on its secrets – tiny particulars you'd otherwise miss. A walk through the village of Piccadilly is a dream, where beautiful places, beautiful things flow past like blossoms on slow water. It's the realm of riches, rank and those who rule. Of extreme elegance and splendour. Of exclusivity and eccentricity.
We have all heard of Mayfair but how many of us have visited. It is not just another village, it is the best address in London, the playground of the rich and famous. A patrician promenade through the parallelogram of purses. Pip pipping where Old Masters and old money, Rollers and Rolexes are par for the course. Where diamonds and furs, champagne and caviar are the norm. A boulevardier and a bailiwick of butlers, titles and glamour.
If aristocratic London is your thing, you must visit Belgravia, a movie set corner of the city, the grandest London drawing room of them all. It looks different. Feels different. Sounds different. All pearly stucco and cut glass accents and blue blood – the place simply breathes money. The people who live here are people who could live anywhere. Which is why they live here. It has been home to the very rich, the very powerful, the very secure.
Now you've seen the past, interested in glimpsing London's future? The Docklands today is all shining chrome, glass and steel, chock-a-block with superb, futuristic buildings, built as a testament to the revival of London's fortunes during the Thatcherite years. It's Cobblestones, Quaysides & Cloud-capped Towers. Down here the Thames is broad-shouldered, easy and big. There's a salt tang in the air. Like the river, time bends here. And flows backward. And then, round other corners, ricochets into the fireworks of a futuristic London. Because this is Wall Street on Water – a place where cutting-edge, 21st-century power and energy are made visible and tangible. A place where this time-honoured city is re-inventing itself. Spectacularly. Once a desolate wasteland with grim warehouses sprawled across the riverbanks, today it is buzzing with activity.
If you head into the financial heart of the capital on a weekend, you'll find a deserted world where fascinating historical architecture nudges up against the modern metal and glass. There are ancient churches and synagogues, hidden parks, remnants of the old London Wall and the imposing stone architecture of old financial institutions like Lloyd's of London that have probably seen happier economic times.
These are only a few of the walks on offer which help you unearth the hidden gems of legends, firsts, inventions, adventures and birthplaces that has shaped London's compelling, and at times, turbulent past. You may well come away feeling like Thomas Moore, "Go where we may, rest where we will, eternal London haunts us still." London cannot ever be fully understood or known. All you can do is revel in its richness and enjoy a slice of the adventure.
With all the famous stories about British reserve and insularity, visitors to London automatically assume that they will be in for a rude rebuff if they make friendly overtures. These walks may prove you completely wrong. The Brits may be shy and buttoned up but on a walk, in the safe anonymity of a crowd, many of them relax and let down their guard. Yes, many Londoners come on these walks and often end up behaving in a way they would never have dreamed of if alone with you, especially after you sit down with them at a pub and down a pint or two. You can make friends for life on these walks, not only of the native variety, but also among the thousands of visitors from all parts of the world. You often end up by trooping to the nearest pub after the walk with a bunch of perfect strangers, where you all make plans to meet again for a particular walk that has caught your interest.