London through fresh eyes
I’ve been really looking forward to this walk. It felt as though it was a milestone for lots of reasons; not just being three quarters of the way through the challenge, but also that we were venturing back towards normality. I hadn’t been to London since Walk 3 (8th March), and that was also the last time I’d got on a train.
This walk had also been planned by our good friend, Ian. His knowledge of London history is exceptional and he shares so many fascinating facts.
We decided not to bring Ruby as she much prefers running free than being on a lead in a busy city – especially for 20 miles. We therefore arranged to meet our daughter Hazel at London Bridge who was going to dog sit for the day and meet us at the end of the walk.
Ruby was a little bit confused at us putting on face masks for the journey, but she was happy enough although clearly slightly embarrassed at my accidental over coordinated ensemble.
A swift handover at London Bridge and we jumped back on the train to make our connection over to the start point at Vauxhall station. The grey clouds were clearing and the sun making an effort to come through.
We met Ian at 10.30 and set off across Vauxhall Bridge towards Pimlico. The view from the bridge showed us the new American embassy and the background of Battersea Power Station. We turned off the main road to quieter streets heading towards Lambeth Bridge. However, none of this walk was going to be a straight route, this was all about short diversions to show us parts of London that are easily missed and full of history. Walking past quite unassuming buildings, Ian was sharing so much information about the area, and the history of the buildings. Once you knew this, you could see clues everywhere – from the Blue Plaques, to street and building names.
I couldn’t possibly share all this detail in a blog – you’ll have to join one of Ian’s walks for yourself, but I’m going to pick up and share some highlights with you.
Here’s the first, Vincent Square.
This is part of Westminster School’s sports grounds. Look at that view across to the Cricket Pavilion. This was a real surprise find, made even more surprising as we headed off around the corner and the area suddenly felt familiar. I was getting some deja vu and realised our accountants office was right in front of us. We had walked so close to this before but coming from Victoria or St James’s had managed to miss this gem in all its glory. This was about to become the theme for this walk – all the bits of London I’d missed before.
You can’t visit this area without mentioning the Regency Cafe. Its legendary and has been used for settings in many movies and TV series including Layer Cake and Rocket Man. Its kept its interior styling and whilst a peek through the windows saw that this now included perspex divider screens, it still has lots of charm ( and usually a very long queue).
So now we were moving from Pimlico to Westminster, along Horseferry Road, which now after walking with Ian I realise takes its name from an obvious historic purpose. Again an alternative route now through Smiths Square, where the buildings were beautiful, and with a keen eye – you can spot some hidden history – such as this ghost sign from the second world war:
Another quick detour now, and rather aptly for a walk seeing secret London, we were going to visit the MI5 building. Only from the outside and just to see the incredible entrance, whilst ignoring all the security cameras looking at us. Definitely worth a view if you are in the area, best not to stop too long though..
Now we headed out and across Lambeth Bridge. Ian here pointed out arches on the banks that were used to transport clay to the Doulton factory that used to be sited here. This small area was a plethora of history and if you walk on this part of the river you will uncover a lot of other history from the plaques here too – I’ll leave you to explore those.
A street back from the river and Ian showed us the old Doulton offices. The showcasing of the craftmanship was incredible. Its there to be found, just tucked a bit out of sight.
So now whilst we’d walked further, we were only really half a mile from our starting point. We headed back towards the river and the iconic landmarks ahead of us – Lambeth Palace and the Palace of Westminster opposite.
Before we headed back over Lambeth Bridge towards Westminster, Ian pointed out a detail on the two bridges we could see. I’m not going to spoil this in case you walk with Ian in the future, but if you walk with me I will definitely pass this on!
We headed through the gardens towards Westminster. Whilst I had been here before a few years ago with my sister, I hadn’t approached them from this direction before. It had a totally different feel and sense of perspective. The gardens have lots of interesting features including a Rodin statue. All there for discovering. Great vistas making for some great photos. Ian’s story of his school project on the Sufragettes, which he’d recently rediscovered in his loft , was perfectly timed for the arrival at Emmeline Pankhurst’s statue.
Out now skirting Parliament square towards Westminster Abbey. Here our attention was caught not by the obvious , but by the trees by the Abbey. Ian, again impressed us with his knowledge – Indian Bean Trees ‘I think’ .
Here we really are in tourist central – touching distance of a lot of the big sights and it was definitely busier around here. Ian though takes us straight out onto less walked paths. Out along Birdcage Walk and up through a small flight of steps, Ian answering my question easily on why its called Birdcage Walk. Again, obvious really!
This diversion took us to the Guards Chapel. A place I had passed but never visited. Its modern style has a history behind it and it was very moving to understand this.
We returned back to Birdcage Walk and down towards Buckingham Palace – now we were ticking off the iconic London sights at a pace. Approaching from Bird Cage Walk again gave a different perspective – and my attention was not for the Palace itself but the view down through St James Park.
Down the Mall now, past Clarence House , St James’s Palace and a stop at the Police Officers Memorial – again easily passed but the memorial book is definitely worth a pause and read, then into Horseguards Parade.
Ian here is telling me how he used to cycle through Downing Street as a lad as a shortcut – would not be possible now, but perhaps this is why these signs below are here!
Now we headed back towards the Thames, learning again obvious history, such as why the Embankment got its name and the signs of this that are easily missed. We were walking back towards Westminster Bridge where we crossed and headed off along a very busy South Bank.
More snippets from Ian that sparked discussions as we turned off of Westminster Bridge, and we navigated through this busy section out towards the Millennium Bridge.
Here we took a small diversion to avoid the crowds where Ian knew of some great street art and then came across Egyptian geese right outside the Tate Modern. As you do – never seen either of them before and yet walked here loads..
From here towards Wapping, the paths and passages are full of more and more interesting names. Also though, we were keeping an eye on the tide. If the tide was out we hoped to mudlark.
Ian shared some secret pub locations – unfortunately most still closed as reliant on office trade, and then more detailed history on this stretch of the Thames and its surroundings. Along this stretch there are plenty more plaques and even mosaics detailing the history of the area.
We took an impromptu diversion to St Magnus the Martyr which used to stand at the old entrance to London Bridge. Inside the Church hosts a model of how London Bridge used to look. No pictures as they were eager to close!
Not far from Tower of London here, and the riverside had the perfect Coronavirus dining capsules from the Coppa Club.
Despite our attempts to bypass the ticket people we were not able to walk riverside past the Tower of London through to St Katherines Dock. Still walking around Tower of London adds a few more towards the miles..
So through St Katherines Dock and the iconic Dickens Inn and out towards Wapping.
Now the river noticeably widens and there is no escaping the original use of the area as you pass warehouses and old docks. This includes some of the old Dutch barges that now form a community of houseboats.
These areas also show their history through street names and buildings ; whether its historic toll signs or acknowledgement to the benefactors that supported the communities here, if you keep looking around you you spot something of interest.
Now we planned a refreshment break in Wapping. It wasn’t easy to get in to any of the pubs, despite them having outside space, but we did eventually get in to the Prospect of Whitby. Social distancing and hygiene rules meant we could only stand at a table in the garden as the others were undergoing ‘cleansing’ and had to be kept clear for an allotted amount of time. It was particularly cruel after 14 miles of walking to have to stand and miss lunch in exchange of a packet of crisps, but these are strange times. However, I did gain an interesting fact from the pub which I’d have missed if Id been sitting down..
We were now in mudlark territory and exciting news – the tide was going out. Ian knew just the spot and we headed there ready to be ‘eyes only’ larkers.
We were met by some unexpected guardians – a bevy of swans. That is what you call a group of swans – I checked google. One decided it was his job to check us out – we let Ian handle that as it was quite initimidating and Ian seemed more experienced.
Anyway the swan soon backed down and Ian guided us through all the things you can find washed up here, along with the history of why and how they came to be here.
From animal bones, to bricks, crockery, clay pipes, oyster shells and buttons: we had quite an impressive selection in the short time we searched. All left behind of course and a swift departure as the river police cruised past checking closely on what we were up to. (You need an official licence to Mudlark)
Now we headed towards the Rotherhithe tunnel. The plan had been to take the short journey under the river by train to Rotherhithe from Wapping – but there were no trains today. We walked down to the Grapes at Lime House Basin (remember this from Walk 1 ?), only to be turned away as it was full. So we started to retrace our steps back to Tower Bridge to cross the river and explore Rotherhithe.
So back now up towards St Katherines Dock and those wonderful views up to Tower Bridge:
Across Tower Bridge and a left turn down towards Rotherhithe now. We were heading towards the Mayflower pub and capturing some important history here as well as the superb views back up towards central London.
In the photo above I was convinced these doors were green, and have spent 10 minutes checking my camera settings before I remembered I took this wearing my light blocking glasses. They apply a yellow filter to my vision to remove glare and so colours change – it can be quite disorientating! Anyway what beautiful BLUE doors!
There were more signs of schools set up by benefactors this side of the river too – this one attached to a ‘Watch house’ next to the graveyard. Ian explained that was for the watchman to keep an eye out for graverobbers.
One thing you haven’t heard me mention much in this blog is mileage. We were of course tracking the miles, and it was only now that we started to plan in detail. We had about 2.5 miles to go to get to the 20 miles, and we needed to be back at London Bridge to meet Hazel & Ruby. We needed to work out how far back it would be and adapt the last part of the route – luckily there was a sign. Literally, a historic one right in front of us, you may need to zoom in!
Decision was made, we would be walking through Southwark Park and Bermondsey to add the extra half mile. As we walked , Ian explained so much about this area – pointing out Scandanavian Churches that had been built for all the international sailors and also how this was also known as London’s larder due to the number of food factories that were located around here.
Ian also knows where you can find lots of Street Art – I’ve not shared much of it, so you can discover this on your walks for yourself!
This area of London, has close connections for my family. My maternal grandfather was born and raised here and it is so fascinating to discover all these details about the area I did not know.
Ian explained that historically Bermondsey was referred to as ‘Area G’ from its zone reference on the Luftwaffe maps. It was a big target suffering significant damage during the blitz. The residents, proud of their resilience, took the name of ‘Area G’ and used it as a symbol of pride, often using it to name their businesses , some of which you may still spot. Again, with a knowledgeable guide, you can see many reminders of this history that are easily overlooked. This plaque is on the road now known as the Bermondsey Beer Mile. Many of the railways arches along this stretch are now home to craft breweries, hence its new nickname.
So now the end was in sight – 20 miles about to bleep on the walking app, and a day spent in the company of a good friend who had given his time not just to walk with us on this challenge, but to make it an incredibly fascinating and interesting day.
Thank you Ian.
So walk 15 completed. I must admit that walking on tarmac is rather unforgiving – especially as all my walking footwear is specifically designed for the country trails. As a result I’m a bit clunkier than normal today.
I am now three quarters of the way through this challenge – and with walk 15 out of 20 done, I should be feeling really optimistic that the challenge is almost completed. Yet there was a real nip in the air on the way home yesterday. Its getting darker earlier, and summer is definitely disappearing.
The next 5 walks will be autumnal and even wintery. No doubt there will be challenging conditions underfoot – the return of the mud and puddles and time pressure with shorter daylight hours. Each walk, as you’ve realised brings its own story. There’s always a story.
If you would like to support me on this final part of the challenge, the simplest way to do so is by making a donation to the Macular Society through the link below.
The Macular Society is unusual in that it directly funds research, and with resources and funding stretched at the moment, donations help keep that vital research going to find a cure for Macular Diseases.
Thank you for following this challenge, and all your support and encouragement is gratefully received.