Trafalgar Square is one of London’s biggest tourist traps but despite this it’s still worth having a look around and it’s from where my wandering starts. The original design for the square was drawn up by the great Regency architect John Nash. The site was the former home of the royal stables and although he cleared the area of the old buildings, he died before construction really began. The project was completed in 1845 by Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Palace of Westminster, it was originally to have been called King William the Fourth’s Square.
The lions at the base of Nelson’s Column were designed by Edwin Landseer and installed in 1867. Landseer was better known as a painter of animals and struggled with the commission because of mental health problems. His designs were based on a dead lion from Regent’s Park Zoo, which was delivered to his studio by taxi.
Underneath the square is the Whitehall Telephone Exchange, built in the 1950’s at the height of the Cold War, and connected through a network of tunnels to other key command posts in central London. Hidden away in a lamp post on the south east corner of the square is a tiny former police post, the smallest in the capital.
Just south of the square is a statue of Charles I. The King was executed outside the nearby Banqueting House in 1649 and the statue removed under Cromwell. It was sold for scrap but kept hidden until after the Restoration when it was sold back to Charles II. It was re-errected in 1665 and symbolically looks down to Parliament and Banqueting House. Some of the men who signed the death warrant were executed on this spot by order of Charles II. The statue is also situated where the medieval Charing Cross memorial once stood. This is also the place where traditionally all distances within London are measured from so it is actually the centre of the capital.
On the north side of the square and sitting just on the Strand is South Africa House. The facade of the building dates from the early 1920’s and features unusual sculptures of African animals, including the famous springbok.
Coutts Bank is on the north side of the Strand and has looked after wealthy clients since it was founded in 1692. Every monarch since George III has held an account here.
A little further along the Strand is number 429, Zimbabwe House, formerly Rhodesia House. Originally it was home to the British Medical Association who sponsored its construction in 1902. The architect Charles Holden is best known for his work on the many London underground stations he built.
Across the road is Charing Cross Station, named both after the medieval village of Charing and the memorial cross Edward I erected here to mark it as one of the places where the funeral procession of his wife Eleanor of Castile stopped on its way to Westminster Abbey in 1290. The original cross was located where the statue of Charles I now stands, and was destroyed on the orders of Parliament in 1647. The replica outside the station dates from 1863. The station stands on the site of what was once Hungerford Market.
The quiet Craven Street lies between the station and Trafalgar Square and contains a number of fine 18th century townhouses. It was at lodgings here that Mr Brownlow interviewed Rose Maylie in Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Number 36 is one of London’s smallest and most unusual museums. Benjamin Franklin House. The museum is dedicated to the American statesman, scientist, printer, and inventor Benjamin Franklin who lodged here at various times between 1757 and 1775. The house, because of his diplomatic status is regarded as the USA’s first de facto foreign embassy.
Just past the Franklin museum is Craven Passage, on both sides of the passageway are the two halves of the Ship & Shovell public house, the only pub in London that is split this way.
Carrying on into the arches that lie behind Charing Cross station is where a popular music hall was founded in the 1860’s by the Gatti Brothers, today it is home to the well known gay club Heaven and the New Players Theatre.
At the end of the arches is Villiers Street, the street is named after the first and second Dukes of Buckingham, both named George Villiers. The first Duke was a flamboyant character and was a reputed lover of James I in the early 17th century. He owned York House which once stood here. The second Duke sold York House to developers in the 1670’s and insisted his family name be remembered in a street name.
On the left hand side of Villiers Street at number 42 there is a blue plaque stating that Rudyard Kipling lived here between 1889 and 1891.
Next to Kipling’s house is Gordon’s, London’s oldest and most atmospheric wine bar. Founded in 1890, its wood panelled interior is situated within the cellars of the 17th century building that once stood on the site, and has hardly changed since the days when Kipling drank here.
Just after Gordon’s on the left is Watergate Walk, which runs along the side of Victoria Embankment Gardens. On the left there are some stairs that lead into Buckingham Street, on the left hand corner building at number 12 is a plaque remembering former resident, and London’s most famous diarist, Samuel Pepys. He lived here and also at number 14 – since rebuilt – between 1679 and 1688 after being released from the Tower of London. Peter the Great – Tsar of Russia – lived at number 15 in 1698 during his incognito stay in London.
Straight ahead as you enter Embankment Gardens is York Gate, this originally served as a watergate at the rear of York House, the huge mansion on the Strand that was once owned by the Dukes of Buckingham. The first Duke of Buckingham who acquired the house from philosopher and writer Francis Bacon, commissioned Nicholas Stone to build the gate in 1626 so the Duke could easily reach boats waiting on the Thames. The rest of York House was demolished in the 1670’s and, as a result of the creation of Victoria Embankment by Sir Joseph Bazalgette in the 1860’s, the gate now stands marooned 150 yards north of the river.
Victoria Embankment Gardens was built on land reclaimed from the Thames and is a pretty place to take some time out away from the crowds. Through the trees on the riverbank stands Cleopatra’s Needle, originally erected in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis in 1450BC and much older than the Egyptian queen who gave it its name.
Just along from the park is the art deco Shell Mex House building which was completed in 1931.
At the exit to the park on the far left hand side is the statue of Robert Raikes, the founder of Sunday Schools.
The exit leads into Savoy Place where opposite is Carting Lane, a short way up on the left is an old lamp post. This is a rare example of a Patent Sewer Ventilating Lamp and dates from the 1880’s. London used to have hundreds of these lamps all supplied by the methane gas being emitted from the sewers below.
On Savoy Hill sits the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy, the only remaining part of the Savoy Palace, built by Peter, Count of Savoy. The chapel remains the only pre-Reformation building in this part of London. It is home to the Royal Victorian Order and Order of Chivalry, and is also officially a private chapel of the Queen.
Back on the Strand is one of London’s oldest restaurants, Simpsons in the Strand, originally founded in 1828 as a cigar and chess house. During its heyday regular diners included Dickens, William Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli, Vincent Van Gogh, George Bernard Shaw and the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.
A little further along is the entrance to the Savoy Hotel, named after the medieval palace. The short road outside the hotel is the only place in Britain where cars are required to drive on the right.
Going back along the Strand eastwards is the entrance to the vast Somerset House, the only substantial survivor of the great mansions that once dominated this route. The original building was the first Renaissance style palace in England when it was constructed in around 1550 for the Lord Protector Somerset.
The house had a variety of owners over the following centuries, including Elizabeth I who stayed here before becoming Queen. Oliver Cromwell’s body lay in state here after his death in 1658. Around 100 years later around 1776 the Tudor mansion was rebuilt by Sir William Chambers into the grand Palladian design we know today. It is now open to the public and is home to a number of institutions.
Across from Somerset House and standing in the middle of the road is the church of St Mary le Strand. Built in the 1720’s as one of the “Queen Anne Churches” it was designed by James Gibbs in an extravagant Baroque style. Legend has it that Bonnie Prince Charlie renounced his Roman Catholic faith here during a clandestine visit to London in 1750. Charles Dickens parents were married here in 1809.
Next to Somerset House is King’s College. Founded by George IV and the Duke of Wellington in 1829 as a reaction against the free thinking non conformists and the radicals who founded University College London in 1826.
Aldwych underground station was formerly part of the Piccadilly Line and was closed in 1994. It originally opened as Strand station in 1907 and was renamed Aldwych in 1917. During WWII it served as a public air raid shelter and treasures from the British Museum including the Elgin Marbles were stored here.
On Surrey Street named for the Dukes of Norfolk, who also hold the titles Earl of Arundel and Earl of Surrey, is the ornate signage of the former Norfolk Hotel, now part of King’s College. This was one of the meeting places used by politician John Profumo and call girl Christine Keeler in 1961 during their affair. The ensuing scandal helped bring down the Macmillan government.
Next to the former hotel is a small entrance which leads on to Strand Lane. Here is one of London’s most mysterious treasures, the red brick Roman Bath. Whether it is actually Roman is disputed, it is more likely to be from the demolished Arundel House that stood here in Tudor times. The bath can be seen through a viewing window.
The Old Watch House, also on Strand Lane is an elegant building that once served as a lookout post in the early 19th century for those trying to stop body snatchers plying their trade in the graveyard that once stood on the site of King’s College.
The crescent shaped Aldwych is the location of the Indian High Commission, the Australian High Commission at Australia House and the BBC’s Bush House. The Australian High Commission moved here in 1918, making this the oldest continually occupied mission in London.
St Clement Danes is another island church and claims to be the church referred to in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons. The church bells play the tune of Oranges and Lemons four times daily. It is the Central Church of the Royal Air Force and William Webb Ellis inventor of rugby football was rector here between 1843 and 1855.
Twinning Tea Shop is at number 216 the Strand and is one of the oldest shops in London. It is still owned by the Twinings Tea Company, which opened its first shop in this street in 1706. The original figures above the shop portray Chinese tea merchants.
At numbers 229 – 230 is the former home of the Wig and Pen Club, once a prominent private club for journalists and lawyers that closed in 2003. It occupied two narrow timbered houses, one dating from the early 17th century, and is the only complete house in the street to pre-date the Great Fire.
In the middle of the road is a dragon statue which marks the former site of Temple Bar and the beginning of Fleet Street.
Opposite Chancery Lane at 17 Fleet Street is the half timbered frontage of Prince Henry’s Room. Part of the structure survives from a tavern called the Prince’s Arms, built in 1610. On the first floor there is a Jacobean plaster ceiling displaying the Prince of Wales’s coat of arms. This was probably put there to mark the investiture of James I’s eldest son Prince Henry as the Prince of Wales in 1610.
Next to Prince Henry’s Room look up to see an old fashioned sign with three squirrels on it. This recalls Goslings Bank, which was founded in 1650 and was based at this location from 1743.
A little way along Fleet Street is number 22, the Ye Olde Cock Tavern, the building dates from the 19th century. The original founded in the mid 16th century was on the opposite side of Fleet Street and was popular with the likes of Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys and Alfred Tennyson.
Across the road is the church of St Dunstan in the West. This medieval church narrowly escaped the Great Fire. The current building dates from the 1830’s.
The famous clock hanging over the street dates from 1671 and features Gog and Magog, the traditional guardians of London who strike each hour and quarter hour. This was the first clock in London to have a minute hand.
Beside the church there is a red brick building which still carries the names of the Evening Telegraph, People’s Friend, People’s Journal and the Dundee Courier. These titles are still published today by DC Thompson, a Scottish family run business more famous for creating The Beano. They continue to have a small London office here, making this the only traditional publisher to still have a presence on Fleet Street.
A few doors down is Hen and Chicken Court, the fictional site of Sweeney Todd’s barber shop.
Opposite St Dunstan’s is C. Hoare and Co., the only one of the great 17th century private deposit banks to remain family owned. Hoare’s has been based here since 1690 with customers including Catherine of Braganza (wife of Charles II), Samuel Pepys, Thomas Gainsborough, Lord Byron, Jane Austen and Lord Palmerston.
El Vinos is a legendary Fleet Street watering hole that was once dominated by newspaper men and barristers. It was famous for its strict dress code, and until a court case in 1982 it refused to allow women to be served at the bar.
Red Lion Court which is a good example of the maze of old fashioned lanes that lie behind Fleet Street. High up on the wall is a distinctive sign showing a hand pouring oil into a Greek lamp bearing the motto “Alere Flamman” (Feed the flame). This dates from the 1820’s and was the sign for a printer and publisher named Abraham Valpy who founded the Classical Journal in 1810.
At the top of the alley there’s a sign for Dr Johnson’s House in Gough Square. Samuel Johnson rented 17 Gough Square in 1746, and with the help of his six Scottish assistants spent the next nine years compiling the first English dictionary.
A statue of Johnson’s cat Hodge sits in the square.
In Wine Office Court is the Old Cheshire Cheese. The original tavern was rebuilt in 1667 and it retains the atmosphere of an old London chop house with wood panelled rooms and maze like corridors. Charles Dickens spent a lot of time here, sitting at the table to the right of the fireplace by the ground floor bar.
Back on Fleet Street is the distinctive art deco facade of the old Telegraph with its distinctive clock over hanging the street. Further down is another art deco gem, the Daily Express Building, both reminders that until recently Fleet Street was dominated by the newspaper industry.
On Ashentree Court there are some information boards that describe how The Daily Mail was printed nearby for many years until it moved to Kensington in 1988.
The Bridewell Theatre on Bride Lane offers lunchtime performances which start at 1pm prompt and last about 45 minutes, seats are unreserved and tickets can bought on the door.
The stairs beside the theatre bring you out into an open courtyard where there’s a good view of the back of St Bride’s Church. It was one of the many churches destroyed during the Great Fire and was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. The famous steeple stands 226 feet high and is said to have inspired the creation of the original multi tiered wedding cake by a local baker. The church is also known as the “Journalists church”.
Salisbury Court just off St Bride’s Passage has a plaque on the left hand side which records the site where the first edition of the Sunday Times was edited in 1822.
Just after this on the right hand side is a plaque marking where the diarist Samuel Pepys was born in 1633.
At number 95 Fleet Street is The Old Bell Tavern a fantastic old Victorian pub, originally founded by Wren as a hostel for his workers who were re-contstructing St Brides after the Great Fire.
Number 99 is another ornate Victorian pub, the Punch Tavern, named after the magazine Punch (1841 – 2002) that was founded here.
Paternoster Square right next to St Paul’s Cathedral is where the 17th century Temple Bar Gate House is now situated. The spikes that can still be seen were used for displaying the severed heads and limbs of executed prisoners.
From here there are some fantastic views of St Paul’s Cathedral, as shown below.