I was at a loose end on Sunday, hadn’t planned anything, but it was a beautiful day, if a bit chilly (first thing, anyway) so I thought I’d get myself off on one of my London walks. I usually plan and book in advance, but I just hadn’t organised myself that much this time. I did a little search online and came across a free walking tour of Royal London. I’ll be honest, I didn’t even notice the name of the company, I liked the look of it and so I booked it. I can tell you now though, it’s
The meeting place was Green Park Station, by the statue of Diana, the huntress. I must have been walking around with my eyes closed for the last however many years because I didn’t even know where this statue was! Of course I do now. It’s not my favourite piece of art work, so maybe that’s why I didn’t notice it before.
Diana is the Roman name for this goddess, daughter of Jupiter and Latona, twin sister of Apollo. Her Greek name is Artemis, parents Zeus and Leto. Interestingly, her brother is called Apollo in Greek mythology too.
Anyway, I was there early and did a bit of people watching whilst I waited for the tour to start. Then I saw the orange umbrella referred to in my booking email so checked in for the tour and had a little chat to the company rep and tour guide while we were waiting for other tour visitors. I found out quite a lot about the tour company and liked what I heard. It seems a very friendly company.
When we were all assembled, our guide introduced herself to us as Morgane (bit of Arthurian legend going on there methinks…) and took us off to a less crowded area of the park. As there were only ten of us, Morgane got us all to do a quick intro – we were quite a varied group, we had a Japanese lady, a couple from San Francisco who were over here for a year to work, a Spanish-Indian lady who is married to a South African, to name but a few.
I’m not going to pretend that everything I was told on this tour was new to me, but even if you’ve read it here before, it’s worth repeating. I’m guessing that the non-natives didn’t know it all anyway and I can honestly say that I never come away from a tour without learning something new.
Morgane told us that London was founded about 2000 years ago by the Romans, but further east, over in what we now call the City, and it was called Londinium in those days. Green Park used to be a swamp (most of Central London was little more than a swamp, or at the very least, marshland, back then) and the bodies of lepers were thrown in it… What is now the site of St James’ Palace used to be a hospital for lepers so that makes perfect sense. Who wants to be dragging those dead bodies too far? I rather think those few hundred yards were far enough.
Sometime later, the land became a private park for the King, Charles II, and subsequently a public park. Back in the 18th century, when it first became a public park, it was actually on the outskirts of London, and was home to robbers and ne’er do wells, so the rich chaps who walked along here, perhaps on their way back from their liaisons with the ladies of the night down the road in St James’ Park (which was a red light region before it all went up market) were often robbed. It was ever thus: one part of London goes up, another down, and you just have to have your wits about you and get your horse-drawn carriage to pick you up to get you home safely.
From here, we walked down to Buckingham Palace, built in 1705 by the Duke of Buckingham. If you’ve never taken a good look at the Palace, I’d urge you to do so. It’s a stunning building and there is way more to it than the frontage that we all see in the photographs. This is a newer addition to the building, the rear being built in sandstone. Better still, go on one of the tours. The time is nearly up for this year, but it’s open annually from the end of July to the end of September, and the state rooms are a sight to behold.
Opposite the palace, at the bottom of Green Park is the beautiful Canada Gate, a memorial to the one million Canadians who served with the British Forces during the first and second World Wars.
Next we walked along the Mall. As you walk along this road, take a look at the street lights – they are gas operated on the side of St James’ Palace, which was the original road, and electric on the other side. There are other gas-lit lamps in London, too.
We stopped off outside Clarence House, which is another place that is well worth a visit. It was built 200 years ago by John Nash and is now home to the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles. There were a couple of guardsmen on duty outside but they were too far away for me to see which regiment they were. Morgane told us a bit about the guards too, while we were on our walk.
Then we turned off and stopped outside St James’ Palace, built by Henry VIII. Morgane went into full theatrical mode here, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. These tour guides have to cater for all tastes so by involving their attendees, it makes it more interesting. She chose her actors well, too, going through Henry’s wives and assigning individuals a role. There were only a couple of men in the group but Morgane got one to play the part of Anne of Cleves, who reputedly looked like a man! This was a really fun history lesson about how Henry became king, right through to a potted history of his offspring. And then, Morgane threw in a fact that I rather think I ought to have known but didn’t – all the bricks used to build St James’ Palace came from Brick Lane, in East London.
We made our way along Pall Mall and stopped off at the site of a house where Nell Gwynne used to live, and then at the RAC Club, to have a peer in to see the latest car. Apparently, they have a different car in there every week. Being a Sunday, it was a bit difficult for us to see it as the doors were closed, but it we got a bit of a look. Then up to Waterloo Place to gaze upon the beauty that is the Athenaum Club, designed by Decimus Burton when he was only 24 years old. The club, a private members club, houses one of the largest private libraries in London.
From here we went to Trafalgar Square, and who can fail to notice Nelson’s Column, erected to celebrate the English victory at the Battle of Trafalgar? Morgane told us a lot about Nelson’s victory over the French and Spanish at Trafalgar in 1805. Trafalgar was the most important Naval Battle in the Napoleonic Wars, with 22 of the Franco-Spanish fleet of 33 ships being lost. England lost none of her ships. Morgane went on to tell us about the National Gallery and St Martins in the Fields, where classical music concerts are held daily. There is also a lovely little cafeteria in the basement, very reasonably priced and worth a visit.
Then along to Admiralty Arch, which was the home to the administration of Britain’s armed forces until 2012, when, in it’s bid to make a bit of money, the government leased it to a property developer for 120 years, so that it can become a luxury hotel. At least they didn’t sell it…. Next stop was just around the corner, to the Admiralty Citadel which was built in 1940 as the bomb proof operations centre for the admiralty. Right opposite this is the National Police Memorial, where there is a roll of honour in memory of about 1600 police officers killed in the line of duty.
We moved a little further on to Horse Guards Parade, and the site of Whitehall Palace, which was largely destroyed by fire in 1698 (the Banqueting House on the opposite side of Whitehall still remains). I believe that below the government buildings that now stand along Whitehall, there are still Henry VIII’s original tennis courts and some other historical remains, but most of us will never get to see them.
We stopped off to take some photographs of the Lifeguards on duty, and then walked past Downing Street. I remember actually being outside number 10 as a child on a school trip, but unfortunately, since the IRA bombings of the late 1980’s, that doesn’t happen anymore.
Morgane pointed out Churchill’s favourite pub – The Red Lion, which is not a bad little boozer, although I’ve not been in there for a few years. She recounted the tale of an encounter he is reputed to have had with Labour MP Bessie Braddock. The exchange went something like this:
“Winston, you are drunk and what’s more you are disgustingly drunk.”
“Madam, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.”
There are variations on what was said, and I suppose we will never know for sure, but it’s an oft repeated story, and always makes me smile.
From here we moved down to Westminster Abbey where Morgane told us about some of the famous people buried there. The tour ended between the Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, with Morgane telling us about Guy Fawkes and the lovely process of execution we English used to employ back then in the 13th to 17thcenturies.
All in all, a lovely tour, I really enjoyed it. Thank you all atand thank you Morgane.
© Susan Shirley 2015