To follow are a series of blogs created by Coutours. These help stitch together the fascinating fabric of London into a series of interesting tales and stories to showcase London in all its glory.
As you walk along New Bond Street you will reach a pedestrianized section. Continue past Pete’s flower stall and you will encounter a park bench on which two amiable characters are sat, holding a conversation and on the verge of a laugh. Look closer and they have been caught in animation – bronze characters captured mid conversation. These are no ordinary people, they are the two main protagonists of the allied forces in WWII. Named “Allies”, this is a sculpture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
Mention Brutalism to your average Brit and most will think of ugly, concrete buildings that seem to sap England of joy! Concrete, which partners drizzle in such a bleak union in the way that cheery red brick has never achieved. It doesn’t help that this branch of the modernist movement is called “Brutalism.” Brutalism gave us The Barbican, The Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Trellick Tower alongside other iconic buildings of the 1950’s to 1970’s. We didn’t like it; we considered it brutal and aggressive as well as new and totalitarian. Hang on a minute, Brutalism doesn’t actually mean brutal. The word comes from the French ‘brut’ which means ‘raw’ or ‘unprocessed’ or in my case ‘dry’ as in Champagne! “What!” I hear you cry. “So these towering monoliths weren’t the product of dystopian monsters bent on revenge for human destruction of the earth?” *
Welcome to East London’s French Quarter; an area of genteel 18th Century houses sitting rather primly amongst the pubs, the markets and the hipsters.
Spitalfields was the favoured spot in East London where thousands of French Huguenot silk weavers settled from 1685. They were attracted here by its weaving heritage and liberal attitude to religious immigrants. These Huguenots, also known as French Calvinists, emigrated in their thousands to London and to other parts of the world after the 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The Edict was a piece of legislation that dated back to 1598 to protect the Protestants and inspire tolerance. However, Louis XIV had other ideas. He didn’t think this liberal stance sat with his desire for autocracy and so in 1685 dispensed with it.
It was the Romans who saw the potential of the Thames and created our first Docklands. They built wharves and docks by the first London Bridge which grew into the biggest docks in the world. By the late 1960's they could not cope with the massive container ships and rapidly went into decline and inevitably closed. They remained derelict until the 1980's which marked the start of their amazing redevelopment. A walk around the old docks of Wapping, Shad Thames, Rotherhithe, Limehouse and The Isle of Dogs reveals the docks' salty sea-dog past!
The docks have some of the best pubs in London; the oldest in the area is The Prospect of Whitby dating back to 1520. There is a noose hanging outside the river side of the pub - not a warning to settle your lunch bill before leaving but a reminder of the area's notoriety. Smugglers and pirates were rife in this area, perhaps the most famous being Captain Kidd who is immortalised in a nearby pub and allegedly the inspiration for Daniel Dafoe's Treasure Island.
Forget Old Street or the IMAX at Waterloo, London’s most magical roundabout is surely Arnold Circus. Hidden just a stone’s throw away from the hipsters, between Columbia Road, Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road, it’s surrounded by impressive Victorian redbrick buildings, complete with a peaceful garden and bandstand. This is not your average roundabout – it’s worth a visit for its beauty and also for its history. It just so happens to be the home of the very first council estate in the world.
Constructed in the 1890s from the rubble of the notorious Old Nichol slum that had stood here for decades previously, today Arnold Circus is a people-watching paradise. From families dropping their kids off at The Virginia Primary School to fashion designers heading to their studio at The Rochelle creative hub, the local community is a diverse bunch indeed. The imposing architecture that surrounds them holds a times-gone-by atmosphere, meaning you may even spot a film crew recreating Victorian or Edwardian London.
We got our heads together and decided on London’s top five, must see attractions.
St Paul’s has one curious and charming phenomenon that should never be missed- the Whispering Gallery. Climb 259 steps up the dome and you will find it. It’s a circular walkway which hugs the dome structure, offering a vertigo inducing view of the cathedral floor far below.
Whisper along the curving wall, and someone on the other side of the circular walkway, more than 33m away, will be able to hear you- clear as if you were standing right next to them. Whilst you’re doing it, imagine the secrets and sweet nothings, that the dome has heard over the past three centuries!
“When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England."
Pubs are one of London’s most unique and historic institutions that have provided a meeting place for people to gather, drink and shoot the breeze throughout the centuries. The capital has plenty of pubs to choose from - almost 4,000 in fact. Hidden within this crowd of watering holes are pubs that have quite a story to tell, some playing pivotal roles in history. Our selection below celebrates some of these historic pubs and the stories they have to tell.
Surely one of the world’s most well-known brands is Guinness. With its iconic posters and unique tick-follows-tock TV advertising, it’s really taken the world by storm. Famed all over the globe for its clean, bitter taste and smooth black appearance with a creamy white head, it’s a beer that is as Irish as a leprechaun doing a jig to a Boyzone classic, right? Well… not quite. Many people don’t know that Guinness has an older brother, which goes by the name of Porter. This London stout never got the same snazzy marketing campaigns or international acclaim. No, Porter is like the older sibling that stayed at home with mum (and, you know, with all the true stout connoisseurs) whilst baby brother went gallivanting off on a gap year and never came back.
If you are ever stuck waiting for a delayed train at Liverpool Street, head off Bishopsgate into St Botolph’s churchyard and you’ll discover a very Victorian Turkish delight. Once a well-known name amongst wealthy Londoners, Nevill’s Turkish baths were theplace for any discerning City worker to take some respite from their hectic schedules. Relaxing in one of London’s bathhouses was a very popular pastime and Nevill’s was a particularly respected establishment. St Botoloph’s is the home to one of this popular chain’s most opulent buildings, and it remains beautifully intact, 120 years after it first opened.
As soon as you turn off Bishopsgate, you spot some intricate mosaic patterns glinting in the distance. If you didn’t know better, you might mistake this small kiosk-like churchyard building or the most elaborate gardener’s shed you’ve ever seen. Exotic Arabic patterns, colourful stained glass windows and an Ottoman minaret, complete with dome and crescent moon makes an incongruous sight. In fact, this fascinating building was the decorative grand entrance hall to a subterranean gentleman’s spa, opened here in 1895 as the fifth in Nevill’s chain of Turkish baths.
Hidden down a small alleyway just off Cable Street in Shadwell sits a building that is something of a time capsule, ready to transport you to the London of days gone by. Indeed, the magical Wilton’s Music Hall is something you really have to see to believe. This atmospheric slice of Victoriana is an authentic celebration of the East End’s musical heritage. This building once housed one of London’s most popular music halls over 150 years ago and has been re-opened today to host many a modern, and many a good old-fashioned, London knees-up.
As a tour guide and a lover of London, I will be writing a series of interesting stories about London; tales I have heard, places I have visited, tasty food I have eaten and delicious drinks I have enjoyed. Watch out for this every week or so.