Category Archives: Activity

Autumn Ambles 2016 – Walk London

st-johns-churchyard-wapping

One of the great things about Walk London is the connections their tours make between entirely random things that demonstrate the evolution of London in the last few centuries. Now running for many years, a tour I have long wanted to try out is the riverside stroll from City Hall to Canary Wharf, a two and a half hour industrial voyage beyond the edges of Zone 1 that links Captain Kidd and Ian McKellen with painters Turner and Whistler. Only the eclectic and fascinating Walk London tours could tell one coherent story that takes in hundreds of years of history and covers topics as diverse as the rise of fall of neighbourhoods in East London, secret underground waterways, historic pubs and West End theatre safety curtains.

Usually when you think of East London it’s probably all Hackney hipsters and Kray family violence, but the area from Tower Hill, through Shadwell and Wapping to Limehouse is a beautiful part of the city and one I was completely unfamiliar with. On the clipper to Greenwich, you see wharfs, now converted into luxury flats and hotels, which were once the site of one of the busiest docks in the world, but Walk London takes you through the beautiful backstreets where former warehouses sit next to charming Georgian Squares that could almost have come from Bloomsbury. We learn that these were formerly home to naval officers and their families in what was once a fashionable and prosperous area, close to the bustling industry of the river – which for a weekend and heavily residential area was strangely deserted and entirely lacking in tourists.

The river of course runs right through this story and is the heart of the tour as you make you way along the Thames Path towards the shiny fronted skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, as tour guide Peter expertly points out the various docks and buildings that kept the British Empire afloat. St Katherine Dock was apparently a failure because it was too small, while in many places the walking route disappears to allow boats to get as close to their depositories as possible. So much seems to have changed in the 1960s and 1970s which throughout the walk we hear was the time much of the dockland area fell into disrepair before it was reinvigorated as a residential and financial district much later – and even now it’s hard to picture the bustling and vital place it must once have been.

The Thames has also been a source of considerable artistic inspiration with Jacobs Island being the place that Dickens set the world of Bill Sykes and his dramatic chase through the slums of South London. Similarly two buildings nearby housed artists Turner and Whistler who, while facing the north bank, produced some of their paintings while close to London’s main artery. A more obviously industrial influence is pointed out by Peter at the hydraulic works which he informs us was necessary for opening locks and bridges, as well as operating the safety curtains in the theatres of the West End.

Of course the river had a huge influence on the businesses that grew up around it, so you pass an area full of former workshops where crews could buy rope, sails and other shipping material, including Ropemaker’s Field, a park whose metal pillars have a rope pattern carved into them. Pubs too are major landmarks with many dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth century, claiming to be the place of execution for pirates like Captain Kidd. One notable pub near the end of the tour is The Grapes owned by Sir Ian McKellen which is over 500 years old and close to the place the transport ships for Australia set sail.

City Hall to Canary Wharf is one of the medium length walks which will give you a sense of achievement as your reach the end, but has filled your head with fascinating insights into a less well-known area of the city. Walk London is designed to introduce you to new places, and this tour does exactly that – an interesting and engaging amble through a deserted, historic and beautiful part of town, that was once the lifeblood of the capital.

By contrast, Mayfair and Soho are considerably busier areas and were the focus of the tube walk from Victoria to Oxford Circus. These tours have become a bit of a feature of the Walk London programme, which began with an anniversary walk for the Piccadilly Line last year and one for the Bakerloo Line in the spring (also guided by Mark). The Victoria Line, however, is one of the newest, opened we’re informed by the Queen in 1969 when she took the new line one stop from Victoria Station to Green Park, cutting right though the centre of London  and now diagonally connecting Walthamstow with Brixton.

But Victoria was not the only name proffered for this line, as guide and tube walk expert Mark informs us, Viking was on alternative option as was Walvic. Like the Bakerloo line which takes its name from a contraction of Baker Street and Waterloo, the Viking line would have spliced Victoria and King’s Cross together, while Walvic, unites Walthamstow and Victoria. And while we’re now more used to seeing this this type of word play used to create tag names for celebrity couples, clearly it’s far from new.

From the train station, this walk takes you past Buckingham Palace where several food based anecdotes are on offer including Prince Philip complaining about cold food because the kitchens are so far away, and a visiting dignitary offering a prayer in his native language which was actually an instruction for his former-servant wife on how to tackle the extensive cutlery. Next to Green Park and some tales about double agents staying at the Ritz while Mark displayed his extensive knowledge of city trivia with tales about recent Bond novels being delivered around the world, the drinking habits of Michael Caine’s restaurant partner and how Michael Portillo escaped the paparazzi by running through Browns hotel.

There is a little overlap with the Piccadilly Line walk, so you can hear again about Paul McCartney whistling in Burlington Arcade, but in the backstreets of Mayfair you learn about the Beatles impromptu rooftop gig one lunchtime, in what was once Apple Music in Savile Row, shut down by the police after 42 minutes due to noise complaints, or the likely apocryphal tale of Alexander McQueen sewing a rude message into the Prince of Wales’s suit. The final leg of the tour takes you past St George’s Church near Hanover Square where American President Theodore Roosevelt was married and finally on to Liberty’s close to where Michael Caine spent a night in the cells and we learn the Queen has curtain weights sewn into her hems to prevent any embarrassment from unexpected gusts of wind.

One of the joys of Walk London is you never know what you’re going to find out, and by picking two completely contrasting guided tours, you end up with a huge sweep of history and insights into topics as wide ranging as engineering, spying and pop culture. Thankfully this year’s Autumn Ambles were a couple of weeks earlier so they don’t clash with the Film Festival, and the guides, as ever, are not just knowledgeable and able to field a huge range of questions, but friendly and engaging, making the experience more than just a sightseeing mission. The next Walk London weekend will be in January and I’m already beginning to wonder what I’ll find out about this infinitely amazing city.

Walk London, sponsored by TFL, provides of 40 guided tours of London, three times a year. Walks vary from 1.5 hour city strolls to 4-6 hour hikes along the Thames Path and all are completely free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care – Science Museum

Wounded Exhibition - Science Museum

“Is there anything new to learn about the First World War, don’t we know everything already” I was once asked at an interview. One of the most positive aspects of the raft of Commemoration events that have emerged in the last two years – from exhibitions, plays, books, stories and other engagement activities – is this diversity of war experience that has, really for the first time, contextualised the terrible experience of soldiers with other contributors to the war. This has incorporated battle zones beyond the Western Front and life at home, as well as exhibitions on the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy which were my own research focus. All of this has given the public a much wider sense of what the war meant and its far reaching effects on society.

Adding to this welcome new crop of voices is a brilliant new exhibition at the Science Museum focusing on the medical profession during and shortly after World War One, and the development of treatments and facilities to help injured servicemen both at the Front and in the UK. The main section is divided into three colour-code blocks to aid navigation, focusing first on the physical journey of a wounded soldier from the front through the various treatment points and eventually back home to Britain if the injury was severe enough; second it looks at the scientific and technological advances in medicine that the war created and the ways in which innovation and the repurposing of old ideas took place, before finally considering the long-term work taking place at home in plastic surgery, prosthetics and support for mental breakdown.

But the exhibition opens with a brief introduction to the period before injury and we’re shown examples of shells and shrapnel that were designed to cause maximum damage and destruction to the trench systems of the Western Front and the human flesh within it. The randomness of war is something that comes across strongly and a small display of “lucky charms” and amulets is a powerful example of how much reliance soldiers placed on concepts of chance and mystical protection in a highly uncertain and dangerous environment. Nearby is a bloodied stretcher which crucially sets the scene for this exhibition – it is the first artefact we encounter and would have been the wounded soldier’s first contact with medical assistance.

Round the corner and the orange-painted display cases chart the process of moving injured men to various treatment stages depending on the severity of their wound – including the roles of Regimental Aid Posts and Casualty Clearing Stations – a structure that was overwhelmed by the 400,000 casualties received during the first 140 days of the Somme campaign the exhibition tells us, which led to numerous inventions to speed the transportation of wounded men. Items such as the Colt Stretcher, a hammock-like structure, made manoeuvring easier in narrow trench systems than its flat-wide predecessor, while further up the line motorised ambulances and wheeled transportation trolleys were increasingly common in the wake of the 1916 campaigns. One of the best exhibits is a scale model of a transport train kitted out with bunk-beds that can be flattened against the wall for moving masses of men at once. This section is a meaningful and well executed explanation of the process of developing treatment offered to men at the Front.

The blue section has a slightly unclear starting point but offers a number of mini-stories of progress in the development of particular scientific advances. There’s another incredible model of a complex and tight trench system showing wounded men being evacuated while others are being treated on the spot in dugouts or resting on fire steps. You can move around this section in any order and looking at the development of equipment of blood transfusions, field dressings with iodine given to each man in his pack, splints for broken legs, gas masks and protectors, and oxygen masks used by multiple people at once. Each area focuses on the scientist or inventor who developed these vital instruments, giving them a necessary moment of recognition in the history of medical technology still in use today, as well as reminding us that the Allies were engaged in all kinds of vital war work, not all of it wearing a uniform on the battlefield.

The final section will be the hardest for some to see, although a very necessary part of our understanding of the consequences of the First World War. It looks at rehabilitation and surgical innovation to help those permanently disabled or disfigured by the conflict, returning home to a society largely unprepared to see what war had done to its citizens. Most moving and fascinating are the work of Henry Tonks whose pastel sketches show mutilated faces transformed by plastic surgery. Tonks worked with surgeon Harold Gillies – whose story was dramatised in a so-so 2014 play called Dr Scroggy’s War at The Globe – in wards devoted to facial repairs in Cambridge and Sidcup. There are also examples of prosthetic limbs including legs and arms with replaceable hand sections depending on the sort of manual work the individual needed to do and whether they could afford a slightly more elaborate full hand. As with much innovation in the First World War a single change would have a knock-on effect for other developments and here we see examples of new cutlery and crockery developed for those with prosthesis.

As an addendum to the main exhibition, there is a short display at the end focusing on modern conflict in Afghanistan which cleverly draws a direct comparison between some of the medical items and personal charms from the First World War with similar pieces still used in combat zones today. As with aeroplane technology almost everything it could do were conceived from 1914-1918, and what came next was largely refinement, much is true of the medical innovations on display here, really emphasising how crucial the war was in setting in motion things we take for granted today.

Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care is a fascinating and welcome addition to programme of diverse and inclusive events honouring the Great War, and one that is not to be missed. Much work has gone into coordinating pieces from other museums including the Imperial War Museum (whose own rather lacklustre new galleries launched events in 2014), the Wellcome Collection and several medical museums. The timely launch of this exhibition, a century on from the Somme campaign, captures a new wave of interest in the war, demonstrated last week by Rufus Norris and Jeremy Deller’s moving We Were Here project placing volunteers dressed as First World War soldiers all over the country, each handing out a card with the name of a man who died, to mark the anniversary of the breath-taking brutality of the first day of the Somme, as well as the poignant all-night Vigil and services at Westminster Abbey which included two beautiful and evocative readings of original testimony by actor Luke Thompson (Reading 1 from 33 minutes in and Reading 2). So the answer to that original question is of course we don’t know everything about the First World War. And with the range of Commemoration activities that have grown up around this 100 year recognition touching on all kinds of experience of the Great War, it’s clear that there is still so much more to learn.

Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care is at the Science Museum (first floor Mezzanine) until 15 January 2018. Entrance is free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Winter Wanders 2016 – Walk London

Walk London Guided Tours

Walk London’s thrice yearly free guided tours have become somewhat of a fixture in the London cultural calendar. Having first discovered them exactly a year ago, I try to take part in two every weekend it’s on – although I missed the Autumn Ambles which clashed with the final weekend of the London Film Festival and, for me, the premiere of Steve Jobs. The latest Winter Wanders  were bigger than ever and I decided to try two new additions to the programme one examining film and TV locations in Bloomsbury and the other along the Piccadilly Line, and for the first time I began to wonder if these guided tours have become a victim of their own success.

There was only one opportunity for the Scenes on Screen – Film and TV in London walk, and on turning up to Russell Square tube station there were easily 100 people crowded together. It quickly emerged that two guides had been allocated but one had already left and this multitude were under the care of poor Stella the remaining guide who admirably shepherded the hoard on a 100 minute tour. There was a fair amount of pushing and shoving, and for some it turned into a running tour as they dashed past to be first to the next location so it wasn’t always as well spirited as these usually are. Hard to estimate popularity but given the huge interest in TV locations generally a second tour time might have been anticipated.

But Walk London is actually onto a bit of winner here and has designed a walk that it can easily franchise in other parts of the city, nicely combining film, TV and advertising. It starts off light with a local costume collection at the former horse hospital behind the station before taking in Martin Freeman’s walk through Russell Square in the opening episode of Sherlock and the embarrassed Russell Hotel refusing to acknowledge its role in a Smith and Jones film about aliens despite sharing a dining room designer with the Titanic. From here we looped back round Russell Square Station to look at the McCann Erickson art deco offices – a famous advertising agency responsible for high-profile campaigns.

It stops outside the Brunswick Centre, former home of Catherine Tate and one-time film location for Jack Nicholson before taking in the former home of Kenneth Williams on Marchmonth Street and London’s first gay bookshop that was recreated in Hampstead for the film Pride staring Dominic West. Round the corner was another shop used as the exterior for Black Books, as well as a strip of Georgian shops opposite Euston Station that once contained a Eurovision Song Contest flashmob but most famously doubled for Dover in ITV’s version of The Clocks staring David Suchet as Poirot.

This walk saves most of the big stuff till last, St Pancras and King’s Cross used frequently in programmes like Downton Abbey or major films including The Imitation Game, The Ladykillers, Batman and, of course, Harry Potter which is set to become even bigger news this year when Jamie Parker assumes the role of the grown-up Harry in a new stage version. It’s a good tour covering a lot of ground and different types of famous location in under two hours despite the cumbersome size of the group. Arguably it missed a couple of tricks; a diversion of 5 minutes to the other side of Euston Station would have taken us to North Gower Street, the actual location of Sherlock’s front door and Speedy’s café in the modern version which would have been a big draw, and the McCann visit could certainly have warranted a Mad Men reference given the rivalry with Stirling Cooper throughout the series. Nonetheless this tour is a great addition and Walk London should consider adding more like it – certainly a Strand to Westminster film walk could cover some major blockbusters like X-Men First Class (Somerset House), Four Weddings and a Funeral (Southbank Skate Park), Suffragette (Parliament) and, of course, multiple Bonds (Westminster Bridge and Thames), as well as countless more Sherlock locations. Maybe one for the Summer Strolls given how important the film industry is to the financial and cultural life of London?

The second walk was also new to the programme and is undoubtedly one of the best I’ve done so far. The Piccadilly Line – Featuring a Cricket Bat and Sherlock Holmes is a superb 1.5 hour wander through the heart of London starting at Green Park and ending at Covent Garden. Celebrating 150 years of London tube design, this walk was added especially for this year but is definitely one to retain – particularly as it is a cunning way to encourage people off the tube and to walk this relatively tiny distance. In a considerably smaller and friendlier group of 30-odd, the excellent guide Ian (pictured above) kept the tour together despite passing along London’s busiest streets on a bustling weekend.

At the start we learn that the Piccadilly Line was built in 1906 running mostly under the road because permission was easier to obtain from the council-owned roads than the private landlords on either side. The Line shares its birthday with The Ritz, our first stop, built we learn by Cesar Ritz after having managed the Savoy Hotel and sits close to the Wolseley, a now famous restaurant which was once a car showroom. Across the road we learn that Burlington Arcade is clearly the place for me as whistling is banned within its parade of shops and strictly enforced by security unless you’re Paul McCartney who has dispensation to whistle there. A former garden, the shops were originally built, we learned, by Lord Cavendish the frustrated owner of the neighbouring Burlington House (now the Royal Academy) who was sick of drunks throwing oyster shells (the 18th century kebab) into his courtyard on their way home.

From here we visit St James’s Church in Piccadilly, built by Sir Christopher Wren and damaged in World War II, but from the gardens we can see into Jermyn Street where Florins is visible and is the oldest continuously situated shop in London, fictionally visited by James Bond. Over the road we’re directed to look at Cordings the country clothing store who offered their best customer Eric Clapton a share in their business, while the group is set straight about the statue at Piccadilly Circus – not Eros but Anteros, the God of requited love. Leicester Square steers back to the tube as we compare the red terracotta entrance on the north edge – each station having its own colour, Ian tells us, so people who couldn’t read would recognise which station they were at – with the 1930s sleeker design next to the Wyndhams Theatre.

En route to Covent Garden on the final leg of the walk we take in the former offices of cricket publishers Wisden, a peg for policemen to hang their jackets in the days before traffic lights, Stanford’s map shop which employed Kenneth Williams and was the fictional cartographers of choice for Sherlock Holmes before stopping finally outside the Transport Museum in the heart of Covent Garden with tales of the actor’s church, St Paul’s, itself a lovely summer theatre spot.

In a little over 90 minutes, this tour covered about a mile of easy walk, 300 years of history and was jam-packed with brilliant anecdotes and little tube trivia questions to think about between each stop – a fine addition to the Walk London programme. So another great weekend of learning about London and while TFL need to think about resourcing some of the more popular walks, they are a great opportunity to get to know more about our city from the learned guides. Looking forward to May already.

Walk London free guided tours, sponsored by TFL run three times a year in January, May and October. The programme covers a large part of London and can be viewed on the Walk London website. 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


Walk London: Guided Tours

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?

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 May.


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