London via the backstreets
Matilda Hickson spends a day exploring London via its backstreets and is thrilled by what she learns and discovers
It is the hottest day of the summer so far in London. 35 degrees centigrade. A day surely to spend by a pool or in a cool office or home – not walking around London for more than eight hours and clocking up nine miles to boot?
But today is a special day as I am joining a tour of the back streets of London led by esteemed lecturer and writer Barnaby Rogerson. We start at Hyde Park Corner and finish at the Tower of London. It is only 3.5 miles as the crow flies, but as we will be keeping, literally, to the back streets, we shall be walking much further.
As someone who only comes to London for meetings, and goes straight from the train station to the meeting and back again, I’ve never really given myself the time to explore the city – which is why I’m looking forward to this day – despite the heat.
We meet at Hyde Park Corner and after pointing out the war memorials and a quick discussion about Apsley House and how the Duke of Wellington bought it anonymously from his brother to pay his debts, we set off into Hyde Park at a brisk pace, snatching photos as we go.
We continue to Mayfair and Green Park, where the first performance of Handel's Water Music took place. Crossing Piccadilly, we are reminded that the name comes from piccadill, a type of collar that made a fortune for the tailor, Robert Baker, who invented it. On the way we see the house in Shepherd Market where Patrick Leigh Fermor left to walk the length of Europe, aged 18.
Standing outside the northern entrance to St James’s Palace, built by Henry VIII between 1531 and 1536, I didn't know that the Palace was built on the site of a former leper hospital dedicated to Saint James the Less. Next we stop by a lovely bronze art nouveau-style memorial to Queen Alexandra by sculptor Sir Alfred Gilbert and as we pass by the Duke of York Memorial, we are informed that his mistress was Mary Anne Clarke, whose granddaughter, Daphne du Maurier, wrote a book about her life. I love these sorts of connections.
We reach St James's Park and have a well-earned refreshment break at the café there. Morning tea is laid out beautifully for us and I decide that I need at least two brownies to keep my strength up for the rest of the morning.
The pace continues after our break. Barnaby is on a mission to deliver us to our special lunch venue, Middle Temple Hall, on time, but there is much to see before we get there. We head over to the Admiralty Building where the Horse Guards are changing over for the day. Did we know that the helmets worn by both regiments are actually based on an Ottoman hat, worn by guards (known as the Tressed
Halberdiers) at the Topaki Palace in Istanbul? The long tassels were used to cover their faces so they couldn't see the ladies in the harem as they delivered wood to the fireplaces.
Also, within the Guards’ museum, is a glass wall where you can watch the horses being groomed and inspected at 3pm. The glass wall came about because Queen Victoria came down to inspect the horses one day and found her Guardsmen asleep on duty. Oh, and the Admiralty building is where Ian Fleming and his brother, Peter, used to work and was synonymous with the secret service.
We pop in to see the beautiful ceiling by Rubens in Banqueting House where Charles I was brought for his execution, and at the back of the Ministry of Defence building, we spot some grey stone steps with a column base on the top one. These steps used to lead down to the River Thames, which today is at least 200m away. I hadn’t realised that we no longer walk along the original river bank.
Walking through Whitehall Gardens Barnaby points out a small plaque to William Tyndale, a man who campaigned to have the Bible translated into English so more could read it and to have it placed in every church. From the gardens we walk up Craven Street, where Barnaby points out a bow window of a house that also used to overlook the river a couple of hundred years ago, and the house where Benjamin Franklin used to live as a young man and where he plotted the downfall of the British government.
As we approach the Savoy Hotel, we learn that Gilbert and Sullivan (dramatist & composer) used to hate each other, but that was fine with Richard D’Oyly Carte who made a fortune from them – enough to build the Savoy and buy up a lot of London. As we pass the Savoy a treat awaits us. Not just the cool interiors and posh toilets but a glass of champagne. This is definitely the way to see London.
The backstreet tour is described as being a tour of two cities – the royal city, complete with grand spaces, palaces and parks, and the working city, the ancient heart of commerce. And now we were leaving the former and crossing into the latter. But first we passed through Covent Garden and the theatres before reaching the Inns of Court. I was loving the sense that each area I knew from a tube map, really had its own story and character.
Barnaby continued to introduce people I had never heard of. For example, George Peabody, an American banker based in London who started London’s first housing association and tried to encourage the British to do the same. We walk past some
Peabody flats, that are still in use and said to be light and airy with good-sized rooms.
And so we make it to one of the highlights of the day for me – lunch at Middle Temple Hall. We are about to eat in the same place that Elizabeth I saw the opening night of Shakespeare’s Twelfth
Night. How fantastic - and lunch was too (involved wine and large dessert).
After lunch we visit the Temple Church – a beautiful 12th-century building that is all honey-coloured stone and light interiors. Barnaby informs us the church was built as an apology to the Templars by Henry II for not going on a crusade as promised. He also tells us that to be a Knights Templar you had to be able to prove that you had an aristocratic background going back 400 years. Not for everyone then.
Leaving the church we enter a small street with old houses that used to have their occupants listed on the front porch and further down the road is the Astor family home, which you can explore on one of London's ‘open door’ days (22-23 September 2018). We are now moving into the Blackfriars area and Fleet Street – so there is newspaper history mixed with Romans, monks and Irish scholars.
Leading the way swiftly into St Bride's Church, which has seven layers of occupation finishing with Wren, Barnaby takes us to the crypt that was exposed by bombing in the Second World War. Today you can see an old Roman mosaic that is still in situ – who knew all these treasures were waiting to be discovered?
A quick visit to the river again to discuss the South Bank as we are now definitely into the City part of our tour. The reason the tour is done on a weekday is that we are to experience the 'living' city, the heart of the 'working city' - if we came on the weekend it would be mostly empty. We carry on past the Royal Exchange, which stands opposite the Bank of England, and are whisked on down small streets (passing the London Mithraeum which has recently opened as a museum) to our very welcome afternoon tea spot – Marco Pierre White’s restaurant at Threadneedles Hotel.
Our final leg of the tour takes us from the heart of the City to the Tower of London. I love the mix of ancient churches juxtaposed here with the enormous modern buildings – tiny churches are dwarfed by the Shard, Gherkin and Lloyds building. Our final destination is a Roman wall and the naval memorial, which commemorates the loss of lives at sea in both World Wars.
It has been the most stunning day – so much to learn and to revisit at our leisure. And full marks to Barnaby who has not flagged at all in the heat but kept up the pace, so we finished our almost nine-hour odyssey, on time.
The London Backstreet Walk is organised by Martin Randall Travel, who have other London itineraries as well as many overseas tours. For more information see www.martinrandall.com
Far left: The art nouveau memorial to Queen Alexandra by Sir Alfred Gilbert
Left: The bow shaped window of a house in Craven Street that used to overlook the Thames
Below: The blue plaque that marks the spot where the King's wardrobe used to be kept at 5 Wardrobe Place
Below: The Temple Bar Memorial, in front of the Royal Courts of Justice, marks the boundary between Westminster and the City of London. The memorial takes its name from nearby Temple Church (Image: © Nina Lockwood)
Above: Lock & Co, the world's oldest hat shop on St James's Street Right: Plaque to William Tyndale in Victoria Embankment Gardens (Image: © Nina Lockwood)
Far right, bottom: Dick Whittington (c. 1354–1423) was not just a pantomime character - he really was Mayor of London. His blue plaque is at St Michael Paternoster Church in College Hill. He was a medieval merchant and politician who financed a number of public projects, such as drainage systems in poor areas of medieval London and a hospital ward for unmarried mothers. He bequeathed his fortune to form the Charity of Sir Richard Whittington which, nearly 600 years later, continues to assist people in need
Right: London's ancient churches are dwarfed by the modern buildings in the City Far right, top: Names of occupants of buildings used to be written on outside porches