Walking Old London

16 01 2009

One of the many ways to enjoy London is to go on a guided walk.  This way, you get to see the city at walking speed with a knowledgeable guide without wasting time getting lost.  A walking tour takes you through all the nooks and crannies in London, of which there are many.  Even if you have already seen a particular part of London, these tours can uncover yet another layer of this complex city.

On our first full day, we decided to take the Old London: the Medieval to Georgian walking tour with Hilary of London Walks. The tour was first rate and our guide was excellent.  Hilary led us on a loop concentrating on the area know as “the city,” the original city of London before it subsumed Westminster and other neighboring areas. 

The first stop of our walking tour was this Roman wall that was surrounded by modern buildings. Did you know that modern London is built right on top of old Roman Londoninium? If you look over the railing you see in the photo below, you can look down 14 feet to the bottom of the Roman street.  As a result, every building project in London needs to stop immediately if after breaking ground the workers find any historic objects until their significance can be ascertained.  This wall was sitting right next to a high rise hotel.  We would never have found this especially choice section of the wall without Hilary.

A remnant of old Londinium is surrounded by modern London.

The next stop on our walk was St. Olave’s Church, a tiny medieval church that escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666.  Charles Dickens was so inspired by the grinning skulls over the churchyard entrance that he included it in his literary collection “Uncommercial Traveler,” calling it St. Ghastly Grim.

St. Olave’s Church, a medieval country church in the big city of London.

St. Olave’s was also the church regularly attended by the essayist Samuel Pepes, famed for his encrypted private diary chronicling first hand the happenings of the Restoration period, including Great Fire of London.

Samuel Pepes and our tourguide Hilary.

Most of medieval London was destroyed by the Great Fire of London, including 87 parish churches and St. Paul’s Cathedral.  The fire itself started at Thomas the baker’s house on Pudding Lane and through a combination of wind conditions, poor decisionmaking by the lord mayor, and ineffective medieval firefighting techniques, a small flame became a conflagration that decimated the city.

The Great Fire of London began on Pudding Lane and ended on Pye Corner. Was it a dessert conspiracy?
There are several competing stories about how the fire started, but somehow Thomas the baker was not held responsible in any of them.  Instead, the blame was placed on the French and the Catholics.   What was not uncertain, however, was the fact that the Great Fire changed the course of London’s architectural history.  Among other things, flammable building materials such as wood and straw were prohibited thereafter in the city.  The Great Fire also propelled the career of the architect Sir Christopher Wren to the greatest heights.  Wren was the architect commissioned to design nearly all the parish churches destroyed by the fire, including his crowning glory, St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Monument to the Great Fire of London, commissioned by Charles II and designed by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke. The tube stop is named after it, and it is currently being restored to its full glory.

After speaking about the Great Fire, Hilary led us through a series of beautiful Wren designed churches that finally culminated in his most famous work, St. Paul’s Cathedral.

We walked through this beautiful ruined Wren Church that was transformed into a peaceful garden in the middle of the city.

In between Wren churches, we saw some wonderful examples of modern London architecture.

A modern interpretation of Gothic architecture.

Incidentally, this building was used as Cruella de Ville’s base in the 101 Dalmations movie.

KFC Telephone Booth

A London street built after the Great Fire.

We saw several churches that demonstrated key developments of Wren’s design style, from the simpler church built for a poorer parish to St. Stephen Walbrook, Wren’s own parish church and said to be one of his finest creations.  While plain looking from the outside, the interior of St. Stephen Walbrook is said to be one of the most perfect buildings in the world.  The dome was the one originally designed for St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The dome at St. Stephen Walbrook.

Interior of St. Stephen Walbrook, Sir Christopher Wren’s own parish church.

Henry Moore’s modern stone altar in St. Stephen Walbrook.

Another interior shot of St. Stephen Walbrook.

After seeing the churches Wren “practiced on” we were finally led to his greatest creation, St. Paul’s Cathedral.  But first we walked through some pretty side streets.

This is so clean!

Pheasants in the window of a butcher shop.

Our tour ended with this wonderful view of St. Paul’s Cathedral. 

St. Paul’s Cathedral

Since it was around 4:30 PM at this point, Hilary suggested to the group that we stop for some tea at a local shop and then go to Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which starts at 5 PM on weekdays.  We took her suggestion and had the most perfect ending to our walking tour.  

St. Paul’s Cathedral at twilight.

Evensong at St. Paul’s was simply divine.  Hearing the angelic voices of the choir in the most magnificent cathedral I’ve ever seen made it one of the most memorable experiences of my life.  In my opinion, St. Paul’s is more beautiful than the Notre Dame or Canterbury Cathedral, although they are also splendid.  Admittance to evensong is free.  If you choose to attend the entire service, you can sit near the front past the ushers.  If you only have time to listen for a few minutes, you have the option of staying near the back of the cathedral.  I believe the service lasts about one hour.

I highly recommend London Walks, a tour company that employs certified Blue Badge guides to take you on a myriad of different themed walks for only 7 pounds each.  This company has specialized tours by neighborhood and theme, from the Beatles to Literary Bloomsbury to Old London history to Jack the Ripper night tours.  They even have wallet friendly Explorer Days that take you on day trips outside the city, supplying you with guides but saving money by using public transportation and trains.  We took two of these walking tours, and they were both great.  We thought Hilary was the best tourguide for our entire trip.




2 responses

19 01 2009

I’m so loving the KFC booth!!

21 01 2009

wah after reading your guide, i wish i’d taken the london tour too!

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