Paris is a city for strolling we are told, but you’d be hard pressed to find a city more interesting than London to walk around. Any given part of it is teeming with thousands of years of history and an hour in any direction will take you through several completely distinct areas; my walk to work alone takes me through literary Bloomsbury, seedy Soho, austere Mayfair and the changing greenery of Hyde Park; each bit is totally different and amazing in its own way. London also gives you so many walk-options – urban, residential, riverside, park, canal-side, historic, modern or some combination of all the above. But how much do we really know about our fair city… probably not as much as you think you do, as Walk London’s wonderful guided tours have pointed out.
Tour companies run fee-paying guided walks all year round but three times a year (January, May and September) Transport for London sponsors a weekend of 40 or so free blue-badge guided walks as part of Walk 4 Life to encourage us off the over-strained public transport system. This has been running for about 5 years apparently, but I’ve lived in London for 10 and this is the first time I’d heard about it, and thanks again to 4 Kids One Mom Guide to London for promoting this in advance.
During the weekend, I decided to try out two of these walks, one in an area I thought I knew pretty well and the second in a new part of town. So Day One I pitch up to ‘Hidden Alleyways and Courtyards: Printing, Priories and Prisons’ which takes you through the backstreets of St Paul’s and Chancery Lane taking in Fleet Street, the supposed site of Shakespeare’s house, a former Royal palace and more places of incarceration than you’d imagine one city could need. While some of this is tucked away, most if it is right there in front of us, turned into offices, pubs and faceless buildings that we walk past every day.
The tour guide was excellent, incredibly well informed and managed the hugely oversubscribed group really well. It may have taken me 5 years to work out these were going on, but clearly everyone else knew given the numbers, and anything free and high quality is bound to appeal. It’s an interesting route from the front of St Paul’s Cathedral to Dr Johnson’s house, which direct would be a 10 minute walk but is a two hour tour packed with fascinating sites and information.
The second tour took me from Pimlico to Westminster, examining the architecture of South Belgravia (now Pimlico) and how the area developed alongside the industry of the river. This time the guide had a folder of historic photographs, showing the group how places used to look including Millbank Prison beside Tate Britain and the businesses based on the river front. It was a brilliant way to vividly show us how much London is changing all the time. This tour also took in Vauxhall Cross (MI6) and Thames House (MI5) – can’t go wrong with a bit of spy chat – Lambeth High Street and Palace and stunning views of Parliament from the Victoria Embankment. Again, our guide was excellent and bursting with anecdotes about every aspect of this fascinating area.
Although the free guided tours aren’t running again until May, there are a variety of walks to download from the TFL website for you to do yourself or you could pay around £10 for one of the various two-hour guided tours from other companies. One tip it is still winter so it’s pretty cold in London especially when you’re standing still to listen to the information, so at least 2 pairs of socks, gloves and hat are essential. Also don’t make the mistake of thinking a cup of tea will keep you warm – I ended up carrying my cup for 2 hours because we didn’t pass any bins on the St Paul’s tour and my gloved hand got very cold! Tour 2, no tea and toasty warm gloved hands in pockets – lesson learned!
Overall this is a fantastic opportunity to get to know London, even the bits you thought you were familiar with. The TFL sponsored tours run three times a year – in January, May and September – but I definitely recommend planning your own routes especially along the river from the Embankment to the Tower of London (roughly 45 minutes) or around the parks. Now Doctor Johnson famously said when a man is tired of London he’s tired of life, and that couldn’t be truer. With plenty of walks on offer there’s clearly so much still to learn and to discover. London is a fascinating, ever-changing place and every time you think you know it, you learn a hundred new things in a weekend – how can you ever be tired of that?