Over 1000 years ago, a thoroughfare existed in the southern region of an island just off the coast of the Holy Roman Empire. It was known as Strondway. Today, it is known as The Strand. Walking down this street is like flipping through a history book at lightening speed; ancient Roman baths stand next to glamourous art deco hotels; revolutionary printing presses jostle for space amidst pubs that feel as old as time itself. This tour leads you to some of the most iconic destinations along this one vibrant street – expect tales of outrage and conspiracy, hauntings and revolutions.
This tour was written by Kathy Lette and narrated by Christopher Biggins.
Welcome to London, a city that haemorrhages history. You are standing in Trafalgar Square – the true heart of London, as all distances in the capital are measured from this very spot. Designed by Sir Charles Barry, the project was begun in 1829 and finished in 1841.
The square is dominated by Nelson’s column. Designed by William Railton and erected in 1849, Nelson’s column celebrates his great victory over the French at the battle of Trafalgar. It is cast from cannons recovered from the wreck of the Royal George, a 100-gun ship that sank in 1782. Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson wasn’t just famous for his naval wartime wins, however. The one-armed, one-eyed Casanova made waves in British society in the late 18th century with his tumultuous, and very public, affair with Lady Emma Hamilton, the wife of the British envoy to Naples.
Perched on the square’s pedestals are a colossal pride of bronze lions, erected in 1867. The total cost of the column was about £46,000, or roughly £2million in today’s money. Such is the statue’s national psychological significance that Hitler’s first objective, once he’d successfully invaded Britain, was to dismantle the statue and transfer it to Berlin.
Trafalgar Square is a favoured meeting place for both protesters and party-goers alike, providing the backdrop for the capital’s major celebrations like New Year’s eve and the Olympic bid win, as well as political rallies. For example, the first big public meeting of 7,000 suffragettes fighting for the right to vote was held here at 3 pm on 19 May 1906.
Execute a quick 360 and you’ll notice that at each corner of the square is a statue…. except that money ran out for the statue of William IV. Consequently, this pedestal on the north-west corner of the square is now occupied by a series of controversial contemporary works of art.
To learn more about Nelson’s torrid affair, the suffragettes and the story behind the oldest statue in the square, listen to the full audio tour with your iMBARC membership.
Theatres, museums and galleries are a British forte, and most galleries in London are free to the public and offer the most jaw-dropping treasure trove of paintings and sculptures. That imposing building at the top of the square is the National Gallery, which also houses the Portrait Gallery and the Sainsbury Wing. The Sainsbury Wing, which was founded in 1991 by the great-grandsons of the creators of the eponymous supermarket chain, was actually built on the vacant site of a furniture emporium that had been destroyed in the World War II bombings. The wing, which spans the area of 6 football pitches, now houses the entire early Renaissance collection of the National Gallery.
The church at the top right hand of the square is St Martin-in-the-Fields, which broadcast the first religious service in the world. St Martin’s was built by order and at the cost of Henry VIII, who disliked to see the funerals of ordinary subjects passing his palace at Whitehall.
Listen to the full audio tour for more on the National Gallery and the church, plus the story of the sassy and scintillating royal mistress, Nell Gwynne.
We now begin our stroll down the Strand to St Paul’s cathedral. This ancient road provided the route from London to York during the Roman Empire. The name was first recorded in 1002 as ‘Strondway’. It is formed from the Old English ‘strand’, meaning bank or shore and referred to the shallow bank of the once much wider River Thames.
At the start of the Strand is Charing Cross, so named because the body of Edward II’s wife “chere reine” (or “dear Queen”) rested here. Although it’s more likely that the term comes from the Anglo-Saxon word cerring, a bend, as Charing Cross stands on the outside of a 90-degree bend in the River Thames.
Strolling along the Strand, take a brief glimpse of number 440. This is the Coutts bank, immortalised in the 1889 Gilbert and Sullivan musical, the Gondoliers. ‘The aristocrat who hunts and shoots / The aristocrat who banks with Coutts.”
Download the full audio tour for more, rather bloody, Charing Cross history, and plenty of fascinating stories about buildings along the Strand and Covent Garden Plaza from the origins of ‘My Fair Lady’ to stories of ‘cleanly’ singing husbands…
You are now outside London’s Savoy Hotel. Count Peter of Savoy was the maternal uncle of Eleanor of Provence, queen consort of Henry III of England and travelled with her to England 1246. King Henry III gave him the land between The Strand and the Thames where Peter built the Savoy Palace in 1263. The Savoy Palace became the London residence of John of Gaunt, 2nd Duke of Lancaster until it was accidentally burned down by Wat Tyler’s followers in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. King Richard II was still a child, and his uncle John of Gaunt was the power behind the throne and so a main target of the rebels. Londoners marched here to protest against the loathed Duke. The over-zealous rioters threw what they thought was a box containing jewels onto the fire. Unfortunately for them and the building, the box contained gunpowder. It exploded, destroying the great hall. All that’s left of the original palace is the Queen’s Chapel.
In eighteenth-century, this was the church you would come to if you wanted to be married illegally or in secret. The infamous John Wilkinson conducted these weddings and advertised ‘five private ways by land to this chapel and two by water’, should you need to escape in a hurry.
The Savoy Hotel was by built Richard D’Oyly Carte with profits from his Gilbert and Sullivan operas. It opened on 6 August 1889. In 1890, Carte hired the hotel’s first famous manager, César Ritz, who later became the founder of the Ritz Hotel. Both theatre and hotel were the first in London to be lit by electricity.
Get a glimpse into the lives of the hundreds of famous faces that have crossed the threshold of the Savoy Hotel with the full audio tour – from famous love stories and celebrity ghosts to scandalous incidents and the most entertaining air-raid shelter in town.
Now back to your stroll along the famous Strand. In 1915 Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, ‘I decided to go to the Strand for the purpose of hearing the Strand roar, which I think one wants, after a day or two of Richmond’. Virginia was talking about the traffic, but a hundred years earlier it was Lions that roared on the Strand…
There are more stories of wildlife, plus how one building evolved from housing trained animals to important societies to well-paying guests over the decades. Listen to it all on the full tour.
If you like conspiracy theories, now look right to Waterloo Bridge. Think back to the dark, sinister days of the Cold War. On 7th September 1978, Georgi Markov, a 49-year-old Bulgarian exile and campaigner against President Todor Zhivkov, was waiting for a bus on the crowded pavement of Waterloo Bridge. Amid the bustle, he was jabbed sharply in the thigh with the end of an umbrella. His assailant apologised before leaping into a passing taxi. Returning to the BBC that afternoon, Georgi Markov recounted the odd incident to colleagues but thought little of it until he became severely ill.
Three days after Markov was jabbed, he was dead. Doctors found a pellet of a poison with no known antidote lodged in his leg. It is assumed that Georgi was assassinated by a member of the KGB, as a birthday gift for President Zhivkov.
The BBC was a lifeline to millions locked behind the ‘Iron Curtain”. Transmissions were regularly jammed by the Communist authorities. The network’s crucial role in transmitting news throughout the Cold War meant that
many BBC staff, like Georgi, became targets.
At 143 Strand is Indian Club Bar and Restaurant, established by Krishna Menon, India’s first High Commissioner to the UK. Founding members including Nehru and Lady Mountbatten. The building was not just an oasis for Indian expatriates and diplomats from the nearby High Commission but also a hive of political activity. It was here that meetings about the newly independent India took place.
Hear about Menon’s brush with MI5 as well as the history behind the only building on the Strand to have survived the Great Fire of London in the full app audio guide.
Now stroll further down the Strand to Somerset House, the first Renaissance Palace in England. When Henry VIII died in 1547 his son, Edward VI, was still too young to ascend the throne. Edward Seymour, the boy’s ambitious and successful uncle, seized this opportunity and had himself deemed Lord Protector and Duke of Somerset. The new Duke and Protector was determined to build himself a palace in keeping with his new rank. The Duke already owned land on a prime site between the Thames and the Strand; an important thoroughfare linking the Tower of London to the east and the Palace of Whitehall and Westminster to the west. It was here that he began building his great mansion, Somerset House, in 1547.
After Edward Seymour, Somerset House was graced with the likes of the flamboyant Anne of Denmark, the militant General Fairfax and the puritanical Oliver Cromwell. Did you know Britain is the only country to have asked for the return of its monarchy after a revolution? Find out why, and more about Somerset House’s historic guests and residents in the full audio guide.
Next to Somerset House is one of London’s most prestigious universities, Kings College. It was established in 1828 by the Duke of Wellington and the bishops of the Church of England as an Anglican alternative to the non-denominational University College. It has honed the wits of the famous and the fabulous, from the romantic poet John Keats and Thomas Hardy, author of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, to Hanif Kureishi, the author of “My Beautiful Laundrette”, as well as the comedian Rory Bremner and Susan Hill, whose famously terrifying theatrical ghost story “The Woman in Black” has been running in London for more than 25 years.
It has also nurtured the brilliant minds of Lord Lister, who invented an antiseptic system, as well as the Nobel Laureate Maurice Wilkins, who was a co-discoverer of DNA structure. Another student was the prominent pathologist Thomas Hodgkin, who gave the first account of Hodgkin’s disease, a form of lymphoma and blood disease. As you walk by, take a look at their windows; they have some interesting biographies of students come and gone posted upon them. King’s College has also offered intellectual succour to reformers like Florence Nightingale who founded the world’s first school of professional nursing at St Thomas’ Hospital in 1860, and Desmond Tutu.
Next stop, Church of St. Clement Danes. This baroque gem was designed by the genius Christopher Wren in 1682 and made famous in the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons say the bells of St Clements,” whose tune is still played by on the church bells today. The church now functions as the central church of the Royal Air Force. Louisa Twining of Twining Teas was baptized here. She went on to become a famous philanthropist, offering much more than just “tea and sympathy”.
Like so much of London, the church was almost decimated by German bombs during the London Blitz of 10 May 1941. The outer walls, the tower and Gibbs’s steeple, survived, but the interior was gutted by fire.
On the north side of the statue’s base is a bronze relief with the name ‘Mrs Thrall’ scratched above it. The woman is really Mrs Hester Thrale, whose diaries provide many amusing anecdotes about Johnson, who was her great friend. Johnson lived happily with Hester and her husband for many years. But Johnson was so incensed by her second marriage in 1784 to Italian music teacher Gabriel Piozzi that he burnt all the letters she ever sent him. Her portrait hangs in Johnson’s house which you can see later on in the walk.
You have now reached the end of the Stand and are about to embark on Fleet Street. If you’re a tea addict, it must be time for a cuppa, as tea is British penicillin. At the start of Fleet Street is the quaint little Twinning’s Tea Shop.
In Elizabethan London, coffee was the cocaine of day. Queen Elizabeth I irritated her European neighbours by opening up diplomatic relations with her new-found Moroccan and Ottoman friends, establishing good trading relations and sea-faring agreements. This trade allowed goods such as tea, coffee and chocolate from Asia and Africa to filter into England. The Middle East had coffee houses over a hundred years before they ever appeared in England but coffee houses caught on very quickly in this city, so by 1663, there were more than 83 coffee houses in London.
Some men spent so much time there that their mail was delivered directly to the coffee house. But coffee houses only admitted male patrons, prompting the city’s females to draft up a “Women’s Petition Against Coffee” published in 1674. It wasn’t until 1706 that tea was introduced to Britain.
Learn about some famous coffee lovers including one of the most famous British diarists, plus the story of the man who introduced England to tea and began a nationwide love affair with the drink in the full guide.
You are now in Fleet Street, named after the River Fleet which flows into the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge. Below London, lie many subterranean rivers, of which the Fleet River is the largest. Fleet Street is one of London’s most famous roads. It was, and still is, a major artery in the heart of London; its history is rich, fraught with drama, destruction, political intrigue and bloodshed.
The Roman settlement of Londinium (present-day London) ruled the area from 50-476. Archaeologists and scholars maintain that a Roman amphitheatre once stood on the site of the Fleet Prison, and Roman citizens were certainly buried outside the city walls here. Red ashes have been found beneath the ground of Fleet Street, vestiges of Boudicca’s rebellion against the Romans during which she succeeded in sacking and burning the burgeoning city.
Learn more about Boudicca’s bloody rebellion, the story of how Fleet Street came to be synonymous with print and publishing by the 16th century in the full audio guide.
For legal eagles, it’s now time to visit the Inns of Court. Built in 1422 by churchmen (who were the lawyers of the time) they constructed their inns around squares and courtyards much like medieval cloisters. An impressive list of members includes Sir Thomas Moore, the poet John Donne, Richard Cromwell, and Cardinal Newman. More recently, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Students here have included Oliver Cromwell, William Penn, Disraeli and William Gladstone. It was here, in Lincoln’s Inn Field, in 1586, that Babington, who tried to assassinate Elizabeth I, was hanged, drawn and quartered. The punishment proved so grotesquely messy and hideously gruesome that the stench of burning entrails overwhelmed Elizabeth, prompting her to order Babington’s 13 accomplices to be simply hanged instead.
Looming before you now are the splendid Gothic buttresses of The High Court. It’s ironic that Britain’s highest court in the land is situated in what was once the most lawless and notoriously dangerous part of London. The cobbled lanes and dark passageways between Blackfriars and the Temple were such a terrifying haven for villains that it was known as Alsatia, after Alsace, the disputed no man’s land between France and Germany.
This area offered sanctuary to those on the run from the times of persecution in the Middle Ages, as well as political pamphleteers of the 17th century. In the 1550s, Edward VI abandoned his father Henry VIII’s palace Bridewell, which was built here. The area quickly became a hotbed of scandal, crime and anarchy. Neither the Temple nor the City wanted to take responsibility for this den of iniquity. The police refused to venture onto its treacherous streets.
Discover the story of criminals past in Alsatia from authors escaping persecution for their writings to gangs of thieves and their inventive methods of operation. Plus, learn of another famous group of inhabitants of this area, who smashed in windows, amongst other things, but were certainly not criminals…
Next stop, the Temple Church. The Knights Templar, a brotherhood of noblemen organised to protect pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, met here in the 12th Century. Forced to disband by the King of France and the Pope, they leased their inns to lawyers in 1312 who were finally granted the estate in perpetuity by James I. The church, built in 1185, is designed in the round style of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It’s the only Gothic church to have survived the 1666 Great Fire. The church also withstood the Blitz.
Above the Temple gateway is Prince Henry’s Room. This half-timbered house was built in 1600 as a tavern. One of the few structures to survive the Great Fire, it boasts the finest Jacobean carved ceilings in London. It is decorated with Prince Henry’s feathers. Had Henry not died at 16 of typhoid, there would have been no Charles I and consequently no Civil War, so well worth a pause and a ponder…
There is so much more to hear, whether you’re wandering the streets of London following the guide, or simply listening in from the comfort of your home. Hear about St Dunstan in the West church and the romance-poet-turned-vicar, then discover the story of the man behind the cross-eyed statue on Fetter Lane. His story is a colourful one, trust us. After that, it’s time to listen to the gruesome reality of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Enjoy the literary history of a 12th-century church site, the secret government departments hidden right in central London and tube stations turned treasure stores. Learn of secret doors and ancient Roman baths, and the endless scandals of Fleet Street. Discover the man behind the first world’s first dictionary, who certainly wasn’t word perfect, and find out why wedding cakes look the way they do, plus the criminal past of ‘the oracle of felony.’ Hear about the first purpose-built prison, that also happens to have been the world’s first host of a table tennis championship. Travel from Ludgate to Britain’s most famous court at Old Bailey. Hear of the haunted remains of Newgate Prison and the ghost stories lurking here. Listen to the first chapter of medieval churches, plus the only Renaissance Cathedral in England built on ancient sacred grounds.
As a member of iMBARC you can enjoy this audio tour plus all the guides on the AnyTour app for free. So take a self-guided tour on your next holiday, explore your own city, or enjoy a little escapism from your sofa.
Copyright for London Walks. Kathy Lette 2013
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