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.
Of all the Wren churches in London, this is my favourite. If churches were a selection of cakes, this would be the Fondant Fancy, a small, light, pastel gem that is easy to miss as you wander around the City. You really need to ensure that you step back from this church to admire it. It is easy to miss its best asset if you stand too close. It has the most darling of domes – a small, perfectly formed verdigris cupola. The walls are high and fortress-like with high oval windows that provide both privacy and security.
It is sad and rather strange to think that, up until the late Victorian age, ordinary working people were never formally recognised if they gave their lives to save others. It was the aristocracy or officers in the armed forces who were commended for acts of heroic self-sacrifice. It is also quite unusual for an artist to create a commemorative wall of glazed tiles to recognise these everyday acts of heroism. George Frederick Watts, a recognised artist of the time, devised the idea of individual tiles to immortalise the bravery of ordinary men and women for future generations to see. Each tile was hand painted using their name and a brief description of their sad sacrifice.
Just south of Tower Bridge there is a little piece of secret London – a hidden market. There are no signposts and there are few visual clues. Look closer and you will see a trail of people wandering away into small back roads that lead you towards Bermondsey and into a street market called Maltby Street. You will also recognize the happy faces of people who have sampled the delights of the market and are heading off elsewhere, charmed and satisfied.
London has so many exciting secrets to reveal; some are easy to find and some seem more exciting as they take a little bit more effort. To arrive in this metropolis is like opening the door to one of the world’s most fascinating museums, a veritable cabinet of curiosities. Alleyways can lead to the most amazing discoveries and squares are the keepers of secrets. Even when you think you are in a relatively bland part of town, something jumps out at you. For example, most Londoners avoid walking through Leicester Square, a I forum filled with crowds and slow walkers. However, if you walk a few steps north of the square and into Leicester Place, you will come across a surprising but small post war church. Behind the rather plain doors of the Notre Dame de France, there is a hushed and darkened church with an amazing piece of public art.
Deep in the depths of an old wood stands an enormous tree. Its girth is such that it takes six people with arms at full stretch to hug it. It is Amazonian in size and yet this is not the Amazon; this is the lovely, leafy locale of Barnes, London
and this is Barney. I was first introduced to Barney at the launch of The Woodland Trust’s ‘Ancient Tree Hunt’, an initiative for people to go out into their local parks, woods and forests to measure trees. The idea was to get people to enjoy these ‘testaments to time’ and also to see if they could find any undiscovered ancient or notable trees. You would need several tape measures and some help to gauge Barney’s girth. So, what is Barney and why is he here?Barney is the largest and oldest London Plane tree and possibly also the most hidden tree in London which is quite an achievement considering his size.
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.
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.