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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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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