Death of a Salesman – Noel Coward Theatre

Classic American theatre seems to be riding high in the West End at the moment with some stellar productions achieving critical acclaim and winning handfuls of awards. With the Young Vic’s productions of A Streetcar Named Desire with Gillian Anderson heading to New York in 2016 and the monumental A View From the Bridge with Mark Strong juggernauting into the West End and now heading to Broadway from October, not to mention Damien Lewis’s appearance in American Buffalo, clearly London is offering leading interpretations of US theatre. In the year of Arthur Miller’s centenary there has probably been no better time to see top-notch productions of his famous plays including the West End transfer of the RSC’s Death of a Salesman.

Willy Loman is a travelling salesman living in an increasingly urbanised district of New York, returning home one day to find his two grown-up sons have come to stay and long-held frustrations soon bubble over. But Willy’s grasp of time has begun to slip meaning he frequently slides back and forth between the present and a variety of happy times he recalls raising his favourite son Biff, a one-time High School American football star who squandered any promise he once had. Biff, now 34, is home to try and make his latest big idea happen, going into business with his brother Happy, if only they could raise the capital. Happy is an inveterate womaniser constantly in the shadow of his elder brother, even though he has fulfilled all the dreams is family once had for his sibling. Over the course of 24 hours the Loman’s must face the truth about themselves and each other before a very different future is left open to them.

The critics have been incredibly enthusiastic about this production and while I wouldn’t entirely disagree with them, seeing a play for the first time is a different experience. Comparison with the recent multi-award winning version of A View from the Bridge, which I also saw for the first time, at the Young Vic (and again at the Wyndhams) means Death of a Salesman isn’t quite in the same league. So while the main critics may say this is the finest production they’ve seen, I felt it took a little too long to get going and to establish the underlying tension within the family, whereas it was immediate in A View from the Bridge and the inevitability of the outcome drove the action more obviously. I’m splitting hairs of course, we’re talking about the difference between a 4 and 5 star production but it’s worth considering how consistent critics are in how they award those coveted marks.

Greg Doran is pretty good at creating tension and drive within (overly) familiar Shakespeare plays and once you start to get a sense of who everyone is the pace picks up nicely, wringing engaging drama from the events of this day. The movement between past and present, as Willy’s mind re-enacts key moments of contentment with his, then, teenage sons is cleverly handled at the front of the stage, while the actors convincingly offer lighter versions of their older selves. Design and projection are cleverly incorporated into Willy’s memories, offering a more pastoral and idyllic feel to the past when a large tree cast a light shadow on the Loman house and the density of the surrounding apartment blocks becomes transparent, suggesting the light and space that once existed in this place. How much of this romantic past is true the production doesn’t entirely explore, however, and although it seems Miller hasn’t clarified it in the text, it might have been interesting to make these sequences even more dreamlike and suggest Willy is taking refuge in an idealised version of the past that never existed. What if Willy wasn’t the loving father he’s suggesting in these flashbacks and the tension with his sons in the present reflects his failure and their unwillingness to forgive?

Antony Sher’s performance is very good, playing Willy as a man unable to keep the threads of his life together and struggling to deal with the changed circumstances that time has brought. Like his son, when once he was the ‘star player’ in the office, he can no longer compete with the younger generation and new techniques that drives his work as a salesman. Those difficulties peak in repeated confrontation with his sons and Sher seems constantly on the edge of agitated outbursts which seem to be as much about the frustrated inaction of his children as his own failure to be the man he once thinks he was. There seem to be a number of ways to play Willy, and Sher goes for anger but perhaps doesn’t quite give enough sense of the loneliness of his job or evoke too much pity from the audience.

Biff is possibly more interesting a character than his father whose failures he somehow mirrors. Alex Hassell gives him an interesting air of disappointment and pain at being unable to fulfil his family’s early expectations of him. Biff has gone from job to job, never settled down and now at 34 is finding doors closing very quickly. There’s an interesting cross-over with Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof whose early sporting career was also curtailed by the same self-destructive impulses that drive Biff to unnecessarily destroy opportunities that come his way. Brick also has a similarly love-hate relationship with his father where the two can only exist when they’re not together, because home reminds Brick and Biff of how much they’ve lost.

Harriet Walter gives good support as matriarch Linda, a classic Miller woman, like Beatrice in A View from the Bridge, who stands back and almost allows events to unfold despite realising the consequences. There is a resignation in Walter’s performance and devotion to her husband’s needs that means she will sacrifice seeing her sons to maintain his happiness – again as Beatrice rejects Catherine to retain Eddie.  Happy Loman meanwhile (Sam Marks) is looking for his family’s attention and clearly his frequent affairs are a manifestation of the anonymity and lack of love he feels at home.

The open-fronted two story house design works fairly well, particularly for the first half where most of the scenes are set in the kitchen or bedroom, but it dominates the stage so entirely that it crushes a lot of external scenes into the small space at the front of the stage, which is harder to see from the upper levels of the theatre. While the looming house is a constant reminder that these people can never escape the way their family name and shared history defines them, something a little more flexible, such as a rotating stage would have given them more space to create offices and restaurants as characters interact with the wider world, and offered a little more variety in the visuals.

Death of a Salesman is a classic of American theatre and arguably Miller’s most famous play. This RSC production certainly gives the audience plenty to think about as it examines the curdling of the American dream. As Willy and Linda edge closer to finally owning their own home, they realise the thing they’ve worked their whole lives doesn’t mean as much as it once did. While this may not quite have that epic sense of inevitable tragedy offered by Ivo Van Hove’s stripped back A View from the Bridge, this version of Death of a Salesman examines many similar themes. Reasonably priced tickets are available from Last Minute and it’s worth catching before the run ends; it’s the second best Miller production you’ll see this year.

Death of a Salesman is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 18 July. Tickets start at £12.25, while Last Minute also has tickets for £22.50 for the Upper Circle. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Jam: About the Young Idea – Somerset House

Going Underground, A Town Called Malice, Eton Rifles, That’s Entertainment and my favourite The Bitterest Pill – all songs by The Jam who are the subject of this new exhibition at Somerset House. It charts the history  and legacy of a band that formed in 1972, did the usual rounds of playing the Working Men’s Clubs and other small gigs before eventually releasing a series of much loved hits between 1977 and 1982 when they called it a day at the height of their success. London has played host to a number of music exhibitions in recent years including Kylie and David Bowie at the V&A, but none have had quite the same intimate feel as this exhibition co-curated by Paul Weller’s sister Nicky who, back in its heyday, ran The Jam fan club. What emerges therefore is a show that plays down the glamour, giving instead a sense of the real people and most importantly the music.

My own love of The Jam started at university more than twenty years after most of their songs had been released, introduced by friend who even then knew far more about music than I ever will, and while I can’t claim to have the same kind of understanding of the times in which their songs were written, they have become very much part of my London soundtrack. At least one Jam song will shuffle onto my ipod every day referencing familiar London things such as Wardour Street, Tube Stations (at midnight), the Waterloo (& City) Line, so, although the memorabilia on display may have added meaning for original fans – who certainly made up the majority of the attendees on the first weekend – it’s still a fascinating insight into the world of The Jam for those who’ve joined the party somewhat later.

After walking through a stage set with the bands guitars and drums, this very human story begins with schooldays and home-life with photos of the lads growing up as well as school reports, early artworks and newspaper articles. Far from the crystal clear digital images we’re used to seeing at exhibitions, this is full of those wonderful 70s and 80s photos that have fuzzy exposure and crinkled edges. It really adds something to this story to see the real photos that the Weller family has kept in albums and attics for decades. From the beginning it’s clear that this is a family affair and the role of John Weller (to whom the exhibition is dedicated), former boxer and cabbie, is affectionately emphasised in managing the band during their years of fame.

Into the next room and the focus is on their early gigs, many of which only cost £1 (!) so the walls are pasted with flyers and posters as they made their way up the billing. This is accompanied by some performance photographs and difficult tours of America, all of which went in to creating their distinctive sound influenced by Mod styles and early Punk. But it wasn’t just the music that became distinctive and the exhibition demonstrates how their sartorial style of 60s-esque smart black suits and white shoes evolved into more colourful looks as their success grew. Interesting too that some suppliers of their replicable look (including Shelleys shoes, Fred Perry jackets and Ben Sherman shirts) began advertising their clothes ‘as worn by’, to increase sales among fans. Happily a number of recognisable items are on display including a trunk of clothes from one of their tours.

One of the most interesting sections focuses on the band’s engagement with fans, which was of first importance to the group. Run by Paul’s mum Ann, and sister Nicky there are lots of letters on display from fans engaging with the Fan Club which have been carefully kept for more than 30 years. It’s sweet to read them, suggesting a more innocent time when all fans wanted to do was meet their idols for a cup of tea. It makes for an interesting contrast with today when in some cases celebrities only want the fame and forget the fans that put them there. Again emphasising the family connection, there are some lovely stories about Weller’s family making fans cups of tea when they turned up on their doorsteps or giving them money for accommodation instead of sleeping by the stage door. It’s these kinds of insight that add real warmth to this exhibition and explains why The Jam continues to be so beloved by their fans.

There are some interesting videos with tributes to John Weller which are worth watching offering some nice anecdotes about the history of the band as well as interviews with Paul, Nicky and Ann Weller, as well as Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler. In another side room is an old-school music wall made up of multiple screens showing the music videos as well as displaying the guitars and quotes from later musicians on why they still love The Jam. In the final section, the role of the record company comes under examination and the uneasy relationship the band had with their expectations and demands. Here there are copies of all the albums and singles in chronological order so you can appreciate the artwork over the years, as well as alternative versions from around the world including Japan and Spain. Then suddenly it’s all over and with a heavy heart you’re reading some newspaper coverage of the unexpected split and a wall high shot of the final gig.

About the Young Idea is a great tribute to the story of one of Britain’s finest bands. Curated by Tony Turk, Nicky Weller and Russell Reader, its success lies in the pure focus on the music and its effects rather than unnecessary forays into the band’s private lives and subsequent careers. A critic of the Alexander McQueen exhibition complained that there wasn’t enough biography, just the clothes, but when you create something for public consumption, the artist(s) behind it is only a part of the picture, so the decision here to tell the story of The Jam rather than the individuals is the right one, although in places a little extra context on life in the 70s and 80s Britain would be useful for younger visitors.

The only criticism is actually for Somerset House who has misjudged the entry level to these rooms and it appeared enormously overbooked. This may be a first weekend phenomenon but turning up on time and having to wait in a 25 minute queue for my timeslot is excessive and the first couple of rooms are so small that you queue around those too, until things finally open up later on. It’s annoying and some people did leave before they saw anything, so my advice is to absolutely book ahead (no tickets were available on the day) especially for a weekend, and turn up early so at least you’ll be near the front of your timeslot group. It may even out over the run but hopefully Somerset House will reduce the ticket to timeslot ratio to solve the problem.

Don’t let that put you off though, The Jam: About the Young Idea feels as fresh and exciting as the band themselves must have done in 1977. Judging by the extraordinary interest from original fans and the next generation, many of whom are still sporting that distinctive Jam style, this is the must see exhibition of the summer, and at £9.50 for adults actually very good value. You’ll definitely want to rush home and start playing the music all over again. And tomorrow when another song comes onto my ipod I’ll be able to marvel at how three young men in their early twenties created a lasting legacy.

The Jam. About the Young Idea is at Somerset House until 31 August. Tickets are £9.50 for adults, £7 for concessions, but do book in advance and be prepared for some queuing.


The Beaux’ Stratagem – National Theatre

Any play where the characters scheme and plot to win better lives in London is sure to go down well here and this juicy revival of The Beaux’ Stratagem is a joy from start to finish. Quality control at the National Theatre seems to be rather haphazard at the moment; after more than a year of indifferent productions, in the space of a few months there’s been some real highs – Man and Superman as well as this version of The Beaux Stratagem – tempered with a very poor such as Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, along with perfectly ok but not ground breaking shows like Rules for Living.  While their production values can never be faulted, the rest is swings and roundabouts. What the National needs right now is consistency in order to regain some of its former glory.

Happily, there is a common factor in their two recent success, both were directed by Simon Goodwin who turns his hand to George Farquhar’s fun restoration comedy, injecting its long running time with the same verve and pacey feeling that he gave to Man and Superman. It is something of a skill to make the plot skip along so merrily that an audience could quite happily forget the interval and for the second time in one of Goodwin’s productions I could easily have digested the whole thing in one go.

As with many a restoration comedy the plot is a fairly complex farce involving secret identities, deception and more than a little bawdy humour. Two penniless young gentleman (Aimwell and Archer) arrive in Lichfield and take up residence at a local Inn pretending to be master and servant. Their purpose is to convince some hapless heiress to marry one of them and if they fail they’ll move on to the next town and change roles. Aimwell poses as his own brother (a Lord) and at church falls for the beautiful Dorinda. Meanwhile Dorinda lives with Mr and Mrs Sullen who are unhappily married; he is landlord of the inn and spends all his time drinking the profits, while Mrs Sullen is a vibrant young woman railing against the constrains of a forced marriage until she begins to fall for Archer, who she has realised is no man-servant, but meanwhile she is being pursued by an ardent French captain. But Archer, returning her affections, has already begun an intrigue with the inn-keeper’s daughter. Running parallel to this, the inn-keeper Boniface suspects the two gentlemen are not what they seem and joins up with local ne’re-do-well and highwayman Gibbet to expose them and create a new life by robbing the Sullens. Got all of that?

The National’s vibrant production is aided by a clever piece of set design and a group of beautifully judged performances that make it easy to keep track of the complex entanglements. Lizzie Clachlan has design a set on three levels which gives a good view to those in the Olivier circle as well as the stalls, swiftly changing between the inn and the Sullen’s home using some neat sliding panels and different lighting dropped into place. The furniture is changed by the actors so the constant back and forth feels smooth and natural which is crucial in keeping the audience engaged throughout and for maintaining the growing tension as the farce peaks. As Farquhar himself concedes this is a proper plot because it contains a ‘priest and a woman’, not to mention a few digs at the French which still delight an English audience even 300 years later.

The performances are all excellent and really help bring these knotty intrigues to life, as well as giving the whole piece a joyful and exuberant feel. It always adds something when you get the sense that the actors are having a great time and really enhances the badinage. It is interesting to see the difference good direction makes and Simon Goodwin clearly has quite a knack of making these complex dramas feel bouncy and vibrant, maximising the humour but still making the characters seem entirely human, and at times quite empathetic. Greg Doran at the RSC actually has quite a similar skill, giving both the recent Richard II and particularly Hamlet with David Tennant an edge-of-your-seat thriller-like feel which gave fresh intensity to a well-worn classic – but more on that, no doubt, in August when we come to discuss Cumberbatch’s Hamlet.

Back to The Beaux’ Stratagem and Susannah Fielding leads the way with a complex and sympathetic Mrs Sullen, who though restricted by her sex and class feels like a very modern and proactive woman. Eager to shakes off the strictures of her disappointing marriage Fielding gives us a highly intelligent woman whose detachment thaws as she falls in love, playing both the cheeky humour and moments of pathos perfectly. Geoffrey Streatfeild is a great match for her as Archer, charming almost all the ladies in the play as well as winning round the audience. His double act with Samuel Barnett’s Aimwell is nicely played as they scheme and plot to win their ladies, while Streatfeild proves as adept at the play’s physical comedy moments as he is believable during the romantic shenanigans, and it is a delightful performance.

Barnett and Pippa Bennett-Warner as Aimwell and Dorinda have somewhat less to do than the central lovers but deliver equally engaging performances that also have modern resonances. Among the tavern folk and servants, Pearce Quigley stands-out as the dry Scrub, part-time butler to the Sullens and he steals many a scene with his exquisite comic timing. Amy Morgan as the inn-keepers daughter Cherry, Archer’s initial amour, gives a feisty performance and as with the other female roles is unwilling to allow any man to determine her life, disobeying her father, Gibbet and maintaining her chastity with Archer. The strength of the female characters comes across really well here and for those unfamiliar with restoration drama, Goodwin’s ability to balance the near original text with this more contemporary feel should be enough to tempt you.

One slightly overlooked aspect in many reviews in the reinforcement of class divisions in these plays. Despite Archer and Cherry’s mutual attraction in the early part of the play Farquhar casts that aside somewhat as the romantic and monetary dramas of the gentle-folk takes precedence, and Cherry’s later scenes are almost entirely among her own people in the tavern. Similarly Archer falling for Mrs Sullen while posing as Aimwell’s manservant is allowable because she sees through the disguise and recognises him for a gentleman. To some extent these elements are left unresolved in a way that a modern dramatist would probably try to tidy up, but it’s interesting to observe how contemporary audiences for this play would have expected the outcome to maintain propriety in class associations.

When the National Theatre gets it right, it really gets it right. The Beaux’ Stratagem is a delight from start to finish and with the Travelex season offering £15 tickets a good value summer outing. Since the great press reviews, tickets are being snapped up fast but I got a very front row £15 seat about 10 days in advance so keep looking as the National may not release those tickets until closer to the time. As Farquhar explained this is a proper plot because it contains a ‘woman and a priest’ but it also has a great deal more to offer; it is absolutely delightful and a highly recommended summer treat.

The Beaux’ Stratagem is at the National Theatre until 20th September, tickets start at £15. There will also be an NT Live cinema screening on 6th September if you can’t make it to London. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Hay Fever – Duke of York’s Theatre

At times it is easy to wonder if the West End is beginning to lack a little imagination, and it feels as if we’re seeing the same old plays going round and round. That’s not to say the plays themselves are intrinsically bad but seeing the same ones appear so often can feel like stagnation. We come to accept that there’ll be at least 3 Hamlets at any one time, but that has become a pivotal rite of passage for many actors. Yet, do we really need yet another revival of Hay Fever just 3 years since the last one?

Now don’t get me wrong, Hay Fever is a great play and immensely popular. I’m also a big Coward fan which is why, despite my misgivings I went along to this – that and the £10 seat courtesy of Last Minute. Yet, in the time I’ve lived in London I’ve seen a pleasant version with Judi Dench and a very good one in 2012 with Lindsay Duncan and Jeremy Northam, so we probably don’t need another quite yet and certainly not one that is at best mediocre. Now Private Lives was sensibly paced, after a wonderful 2001 production with Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, it didn’t come to the West End again until 2010 in a forgettable version with Kim Cattrall and Matthew Mcfaddyn which was utterly eclipsed by the brilliant pairing of Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor in 2013. Noel Coward wrote a lot of plays but yet we only get Hay Fever, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit on a loop.

The reviews from Bath, where this production originated, were very good, yet the London critics have been far less favourable. So why did I go? Well, I was at a loose end and found an unbelievably cheap ticket, plus Felicity Kendal was so good in the The Vortex in 2008 with a pre-Downton Dan Stevens, that it seemed worth a shot. It’s not awful, it’s just rather lacklustre and the whole thing is trying a little too hard to be funny. I’ve said this before, but Coward’s writing is like Shakespeare in that it has a rhythm to it that you need to trust. If the actor tries too hard to make it funny then it spoils the subtly and can feel a bit dated, whereas playing it fairly straight and letting the words do their job brings out all the humour for the audience.

Hay Fever is set at the Bliss’s country house one weekend in June. Each member of this bohemian and theatrical family has invited a companion down for the weekend without telling any of the others, so when the guests arrive a series of farcical scenes ensue as the family bicker, swap partners and torture their unsuspecting visitors. Much of the humour derives from the increasing bewilderment of the guests as the Bliss family ‘act-out’. The biggest mistake this production makes is taking the interval too soon; there are three acts and the decision to break after the first (just 45 minutes in) is rather inexplicable. By this point not enough has happened to hook the audience into the various permutations of the story, nor is the end of Act One much of a cliff-hanger. It is more conventional and actually far better to stop after Act Two for several reasons; first Acts One and Two take place on the same day whereas Act Three is the following morning; second, the first two Acts are about cause, building up the drama and oddness of the Bliss family ending with a moment of chaos and confusion, while the final Act is about consequences and resolution thus it is more natural to separate them; third by the end of Act One the audience only has a lingering suspicion about the oddness of the family and doesn’t yet know them well enough to be invested in what’s going on, so it’s not really a suitable moment to stop for drinks. The theatre should strongly consider shifting the interval to help pace the play better in the remainder of its run.

The acting is also rather variable and quite mannered, with some performances quite clearly outstripping the rest. Felicity Kendall is largely very good as Judith Bliss the fading actress matriarch desperate for attention. Her greater familiarity with Coward comes across clearly in making Judith’s eccentricities believable rather than hysterical. It’s a little overplayed at times, particularly in Act One where she practically turns into Fenella Fielding, but hits her stride with the feigned melodrama of the later scenes. Sara Stewart as the vampy Myra Arundel is also great fun, wringing ounces of innuendo and allure from her lines, while displaying a no-nonsense approach to the Bliss intrigues. Michael Simkins is also good as a rather unnoticeable Richard Greatham although doesn’t quite bring the same geek-ish comic charm that Jeremy Northam offered in the 2012 production.

The other parts are unfortunately a little more am-dram, not managing quite so well with the subtly or darker elements of Coward’s script. Alice Orr-Ewing is a rather shouty and unvarying Sorrell, while Edward Killingback as Sandy Tyrell looks like he’s walked out of a P.G. Wodehouse, overdoing the buffoonery and not nearly enough of the ardent star-struck admirer. These secondary characters don’t need to be clowns as they all have not-quite-blameless romantic agendas of their own which have brought them down for the weekend so having them all play innocent is quite misleading. I don’t even want to talk about what Simon Shepherd was doing as novelist Mr Bliss, I still can’t work it out and whatever it was he shouldn’t have been doing it at all.

The design is lovely, a large 1920s country house with staircase and landing to give Director Lindsay Posner some variety in staging. Nice as it is, it felt more Agatha Christie manor than bohemian retreat, not quite dishevelled or untidy enough for a family with only one maid / housekeeper / cook and not the slightest concern for social norms. It would have been useful to see something a little more disorderly to match their character, and it just added to the ‘not quite right’ feel of this production. As I say it wasn’t awful, the second and third acts are considerably better than the first and there is some good acting to enjoy. It all just lacks that joy of the Coward farce as events begin to build to their calamitous conclusion.

If you want to see it, then Last Minute has tickets from £10 for the Upper Circle which is very good value for this revival. My seat was upgraded to the stalls on the night so I ended up sitting in a seat worth more than five times as much. A useful tip is to buy balcony tickets for previews because unless it’s a juggernaut show with some major film star you quite often get upgraded to fill the seats lower down, especially for matinees. Once the press reviews are out, you’ll be lucky to get a seat at all never mind a bad one. If the reviews have been mediocre, as is the case here, then just look out for deals and you can end up in a fantastic seat for a fraction of the price. This version of Hay Fever is ok but doesn’t crackle as it should. But please, a message to directors and producers, let’s leave Hay Fever, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit alone for a while. In my Christmas post I asked for David Tennant to have a go at Present Laughter and Noel Coward wrote a ton of other plays so give us all a break and revive one of them instead.

Hay Fever is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 1 August. Tickets are available from £10 on Last Minute or from £20-£80 from ATG, but please please don’t pay £80 for this! Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Walk London: Guided Tours (Summer)

Canal 1

Getting around London can be hard work especially in the summer when the tube just becomes a hot sweaty can of angry people – well a hotter, sweatier can of angrier people than in the winter. I naively used to think that taking the tube meant being a ‘proper Londoner’ but needless to say the excitement of standing in a stranger’s armpit soon palled and I switched to the bus. But even then the frustrations began to creep in – the pushing, being virtually sat on by people with no spatial awareness, the lack of queuing at bus stops (in Kent people queue in an orderly fashion) and buses terminating wherever the hell they like with no notice. If this sounds familiar to you, fear not for TFL has the answer – let’s all walk!

It actually took a tube strike about 18 months ago to get me walking to work. When the tubes were down everyone piled onto my bus route so one day I decided to walk for an hour and I’m still doing it. If you’re nervous about finding your way, TFL’s weekend of guided walks three times a year are a perfect way to get to know backstreets and hidden corners of London. Regular readers of this blog will know that I tried out a couple of these excellent guided walks back in January and during the latest Walk London weekend, I attempted two more.

The first, entitled In the Shadow of the Shard took us from London Bridge station to Tower Hill via St Guy’s hospital, the former centre of the hop industry and the old coaching inns, through Borough Market to the Golden Hind, and then down to City Hall, Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. For many Londoners this part of town is a place they usually go to eat and drink by the river, giving little thought to how that role developed, so this two hour tour was a fascinating introduction to what was once one of the busiest industrial areas of the city. It begins by the Shard itself, currently the tallest building in the European Union and a great tip from guide Neil – if you don’t want to pay to use the viewing platform, take yourself up to the café in St Guy’s Hospital next door and you apparently get a similar vista of London.

St Guy’s, we learn, is famously the place where Keats trained as an apothecary and a statue of him sitting on a bench in a recess from the medieval London Bridge is displayed in the garden. Through some backstreets the tour emerges into the courtyard of The George pub, the last remaining example of a coaching inn where travellers used to stay overnight before catching their coach to destinations in Kent. And, fascinating fact time, we learn that each inn would serve a particular location, so for example if you were heading to Dover you’d stay in one place and for Canterbury another. After wandering through Borough Market, we ended up near the former site of the Clink Prison, now a museum and learn that this road used to be on the banks of the Thames so the cells were often underwater. Next to this is a ruin of Winchester Palace and we discover one alleged origin of the word ‘goosebumps’ – catching a disease from the one of the Winchester Geese i.e. local prostitutes, excellent!

The tour ends with some of the most iconic parts of London, City Hall, Tower Bridge and the Tower of London with a raft of stories about these important locations and an important distinction between the Mayor and the Lord Mayor. It’s a fairly long walk so its two hour run time was overshot but the guide was excellent and kept everyone’s interest throughout with a nice mix of funny anecdotes and facts. It also had a good balance of industry, culture, history and modern development mixing the London that was with the London yet to come.

The following day in quite different dreary weather walk number two took place along the canal path from Little Venice to Camden Lock. It’s an interesting route, scheduled for two hours, that begins among the swanky housing around Warwick Avenue and the lovely views of Little Venice itself which I can confirm even in heaving rain are still lovely. From there it crosses into St John’s Wood, passing a nice looking pub, Crocker’s Folly, and through a semi-dodgy alleyway before finally landing on the canal tow path (rather than just seeing it) about 45mins into the tour.

From somewhere near Lisson Grove this walk shows how mixed the canal pathway is, from incredibly beautiful gardens, houses and bridges to poorly kept and scuzzy areas which could actually be quite scary on your own. It passed the recently constructed John Nash villas, designed in the nineteenth-century but only built from the 1980s which are stunning with private gardens running down to the canal-side owned by nobody knows who, although probably not your average London worker. It also passes the top of the zoo where the hyenas and warthogs are running around their enclosures, while peacocks and other birds are visible in Snowden’s aviary. Camden Lock itself is also very interesting and we luckily got to see it in action.

Although this is a good route and the tour guide was very nice, this didn’t really feel as comprehensive as other walks in the selection. We were given some, frankly, fluffy and tangential facts about Regency England and the troubles of the Royal family which although useful context had nothing whatsoever to do with the area of Maida Vale we were in and despite passing through a number of interesting bridges the whole engineering history of the canal was barely covered. We learnt that it was built for transportation and a couple of facts about pulling barges by rope but there was nothing about why it was built when London already used the Thames, what life was like for the people who worked it and what effect building the canal had on the surrounding development of London. Instead the tour guide seemed to have a personal interest in local graffiti which dominated the discussion far more than it should, and at the expense of other information. Some graffiti chat is fine but that’s not the only thing to show us surely. It seemed as though this region was not her area of expertise and hadn’t done any more than some cursory research on the relevant period, which is not the experience we’d had with other guides who are real experts in their part of London. But hey they’re free so can’t complain too much, and on balance I would recommend this route but not the guide. Another Walk London weekend will take place in September and both of these walks are worth doing in their own ways. And if TFL has their way they might inspire you to walk more around the city.

Walk London is sponsored by TFL and free self-guided tour routes are downloadable from the  website and the Walk 4 life website. Sign up for news on the next free walking guide weekend in September.

Image courtesy of Anna Wolzarz


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