I've finished today's walk with a pain in the base of my neck, just above my left shoulder. It's a familiar pain that I tend to get after long hikes, but today's trek through central London was under ten miles long, which normally isn't enough to trigger this particular niggle. I think I know the cause, though: it's the constant stopping and starting.
This isn't so much because of traffic lights or problems walking through a cityscape; actually, I've found (much to my surprise) that I can get up quite a speed walking through the city, particularly on the backstreets where there are fewer people and the traffic isn't so heavy. But even when I've got some speed up, I keep having to stop to take photographs, and I don't think my body is used to it. Sure, the countryside is photogenic, but if you go for a walk through the English countryside and take a picture every couple of minutes, you'll end up with hundreds of photographs that look almost exactly the same, with the top half blue and the bottom half green. In a city like London, though, every corner reveals a unique and often stunning building that I just have to photograph (particularly as I'm using a digital camera and I'm downloading the photos every night, so I don't have to exercise the restraint I have to when carrying film or a restricted number of memory cards). The result? I'm not getting into my normal, natural walking flow; I tend to look up most of the time, rather than watching where I'm putting my feet; and every few minutes I'm stopping to snap another landmark. Put it all together, and it's straining my neck muscles.
Add in the fact that in some locations – particularly Tube stations on busy junctions – the traffic is so constant and so laden with double-decker buses and tall, white vans, that waiting for a clear shot of the station is a fool's game. I've learned to be quick on the shutter and to accept that traffic-free photography is something only the insanely early riser can enjoy, but it all adds to the delay. Luckily, the resulting photographic storyboard of each walk is well worth the effort, especially when paired with the readings from my GPS... and hey, isn't that what massage oil is for? Exactly.
Victoria to St James's Park
Compared to the to-die-for buildings of Belgravia that I passed through on the way to Victoria, life heading east of the station is much more businesslike, quite literally. Turn right along Victoria Street, and it's one huge office complex after another, whether it's the graceful curves of Cardinal Place (where Microsoft has its London headquarters), the sky-scraping Portland House, the 'stack of glass cubes' that is the headquarters of John Lewis, or the rather more traditional windowed office block of Westminster City Hall. The designs are not as cutting edge as in the City or Docklands – perhaps not surprisingly, given the deep pockets of the City's tenants – but it makes for an interesting walk.
Tucked into a small nook on the south side of Victoria Street is Westminster Cathedral, the mother church of the Roman Catholics in England and Wales. It's an impressive building, dating from 1903, with a huge tower reaching 274 ft into the sky and an instantly recognisable Byzantine design; however, if you're walking along Victoria Street on a clear summer morning, you'll have to squint into the sun to see the red and white stripes all up the tower and on the church front, so make sure you pack your sunglasses.
St James's Park station is not far from Victoria Street; just turn left up Palmer Street to find the station's side entrance, but for a far more impressive sight, turn right along Petty France to 55 Broadway, where you can find the main entrance.
St James's Park to Westminster
The Broadway entrance to St James's Park station doubles up as the entrance to London Underground Headquarters, which you can see just inside the entrance. Step back from the station entrance, though, to take in the bigger picture, because 55 Broadway is quite a building. Designed by the ubiquitous Charles Holden and built between 1927 and 1929, the building is clad in Portland stone and has an Art Deco feel to it, and dotted all over the building are sculptures, ten in all, that denote the winds (north, south, east and west, each represented twice) and day and night. At the time these sculptures caused quite a stir in conservative London, particularly Jacob Epstein's Day and Night, which eventually had to have a couple of inches removed from the penis of the smaller figure. (If you're visiting, Day can be seen on the southeast flank of the building, while Night is on the northern flank.)
Heading north from 55 Broadway along Carteret Street quietens things down quite a bit. Queen Anne's Gate and Old Queen Street are lovely streets, full of 18th century townhouses and olde worlde pubs, but as soon as you duck out the eastern end and turn right, it's back into the chaos, because this is prime tourist-ville. On your right is the imposing Methodist Central Hall, and opposite is the rather less attractive Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, but that's not why the tourists gather in gaggles outside these two buildings; the reason is the excellent view of Westminster Abbey, the imposing Gothic church where the kings and queens of England are crowned and buried. If you move around a bit, you can even get a view of the abbey with the Houses of Parliament poking out from behind; for the first time on this tubewalk, I'm exploring areas of London that are world famous, rather than locally notable.
Just south of Westminster Abbey is Dean's Yard, a pretty space that leads to Westminster School to the east. Most tourists don't venture in here, which is surprising given that it's just off the manic forecourt of the cathedral, but perhaps that's because it feels like a spot for quiet contemplation rather than umbrella-following. Pass through the yard to Great College Street and walk to the east, and the Houses of Parliament leap out at you from behind a hoarding, Victoria Tower dominating the skyline. This is where TV journalists stand when they're reporting the day's events in Westminster, but familiarity doesn't make it any less impressive. From here it's a short walk past the intricate eastern end of Westminster Abbey and statues of George V and Richard I, and Westminster station is along Bridge Street, just after Parliament Square.
Westminster to Embankment
From Westminster station, the initial views are dominated by the Clock Tower (which everyone knows as Big Ben, even though that's strictly the name of the bell), but walk to Westminster Bridge and look to your left, and it's difficult to know which view is more impressive: the Victorian intricacy of Charles Barry's home of democracy, or the ultra-modern and breathtakingly large hoop of the London Eye on the other side of the river. The Eye is a beautiful piece of sculpture, and I challenge anyone to walk north along this part of the Embankment without missing everything to their left. Did I check out the Norman Shaw buildings, or the Territorial Policing Headquarters, or even the Ministry of Defence? Hell, no, I was too busy admiring the Eye to worry about minor things like government...
Strolling along the Victoria Embankment is always a delight, despite the heavy traffic that pounds along there all day – but then, you don't look at the traffic, you look at the river. What you probably don't do is look at the Embankment itself, but when it was built between 1865 and 1870, it was an impressive feat of engineering. The original 1868 District line started at South Kensington and went as far as Westminster, but the Embankment carries an extension all the way from Westminster to Blackfriars, with the lines running underneath the road; it also carries a major sewer east towards the Thames estuary, one of the six main sewers created by Joseph Bazalgette, Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, who was responsible for the project. Add in the major traffic thoroughfare, a pleasant riverside pavement and some lovely gardens on the other side of the road, and you've got one of the major achievements of Victorian engineering, right there under your feet.
Embankment station is just the other side of Hungerford Bridge, and was opened on as part of the District line's extension to Blackfriars. The station was originally known as Charing Cross, and was also known as Charing Cross (Embankment) before becoming plain old Embankment in 1976. Oh, and the station we now know as Charing Cross was originally called Trafalgar Square, and was also known as Charing Cross (Strand) before becoming Charing Cross in 1979. I bet you're glad you asked!
Embankment to Temple
Next to Embankment station is one of the public gardens created at the same time as the Victoria Embankment, and a pretty little garden it is too. South-facing Victoria Embankment Gardens, as it is imaginatively known, soaks up the sun, while the lovely buildings of the Adelphi and the Savoy loom over the north side (well, the Savoy is currently wrapped in plastic, so it doesn't so much loom as squat at the moment, but you can see the idea). Just watch out for thieves, as they operate in this area, so if you stop for lunch here, as I did, keep an eye on your stuff.
You have to rejoin the main road at Waterloo Bridge, but it's still a pleasant stroll along the river to Temple, passing Somerset House and King's College on your left (though they're far too high to see from down here, so you'll just have to take my word for it). Across the river is the Royal National Theatre and IBM South Bank, and suddenly, there on your left, is a small courtyard with a couple of market stalls and the entrance to Temple station (which, interestingly, is the only Tube station to share its name with a Paris Métro station).
Temple to Blackfriars
Right next to Temple station, and the inspiration for the station's name, are the Inns of Court. Every barrister in England and Wales has to belong to one of the Inns, which act as supervisory and disciplinary bodies for the profession, and although most barristers have their chambers elsewhere, the Inns are still the spiritual home of the Bar. There are four active Inns of Court – Lincoln's Inn, Gray's Inn, Inner Temple and Middle Temple – with only the last two being in the complex next to the Tube station (Lincoln's Inn and Gray's Inn are a little further north).
Each Inn is based on the layout of an Oxford or Cambridge college, with quadrangles surrounded by chambers, as well as a hall, a chapel, libraries and gardens. This makes for an enjoyable stroll, as you can explore most of the Inns and a lot of the gardens without needing a permit. Some areas are more beautiful than others – Temple Gardens, for example, is lovely, though it was smothered in a huge marquee when I visited – but because the barristers can park their expensive cars outside their chambers, a lot of the quads do end up feeling more like exclusive car parks than Oxford colleges. Still, those that don't allow car access are charming, and it's a peaceful spot after the traffic along the Embankment.
Heading out onto Fleet Street, I struck east, ready to explore the backstreets of the City. In designing the route for this and the next leg, I thought I'd stick to the smaller backstreets, in the hope that they would reveal secrets that the tourists along the main drag miss out on; certainly, the smaller streets in the suburbs are often more charming than their busier, more arterial siblings. However, I must have plotted the least imaginative route possible through old London Town, as I wove through street after street of the backs of offices and people catching a smoke break, without really unveiling any treasures. OK, I did manage to squeeze past St Bride's Church, but it was too cramped to get a good view of the church, and I was quite relieved to reach New Bridge Street, under which the River Fleet runs.
This river, after which Fleet Street is named, flows underground all the way from its northern source on Hampstead Heath, through Camden Town, King's Cross, Clerkenwell and Farringdon, before reaching the Thames just south of here, under the spans of Blackfriars Bridge. Well, I say the river 'flows', but that's being kind, for the River Fleet has long been known as one of the dirtiest and smelliest rivers in the fragrant history of London. As long ago as 1290 the River Fleet was cause for complaint, when the monks of the nearby White Friars Monastery complained to the king that even their incense couldn't cover up the river's stench. By the 14th century the river had turned red with the blood from Smithfield's slaughterhouses and tanneries, and if you fell into the river in the 1600s, the chances are you'd suffocate rather than drown, as back then the Fleet was more rotting rubbish than river (though this didn't stop oysters being sold to passers-by on the Fleet Bridge). Things got so bad that in 1765 the city planners decided to cover up the southern stretches of the Fleet, and in 1863 the construction of the Metropolitan line covered up the section along Farrindgon Road, so today the river is invisible as is slowly ekes its way towards the Thames.
Londoners might have conveniently hidden their smelliest river under roads, bridges and buildings, but the Fleet had the last laugh. Victorian London still used the underground river as a sewer, but unknown to those living above the Fleet, a dangerous amount of toxic gas was gradually building up underground, until one day in 1846 the river literally exploded in three places. In Clerkenwell, not far north of here, three houses for the poor were totally destroyed by a huge torrent of raw sewage as the Fleet burst out of its subterranean tunnel. The main road through King's Cross, some way north of here, blew up and stopped traffic dead in its tracks. And if you were lucky enough to be on the steamboat that was chugging its way under Blackfriars Bridge on that fateful day, you'd have been blinded by a massive explosion under the bridge on the northern bank, deafened by a huge bang, suffocated by a cloud of the foulest fumes known to man, and your boat would have been smashed against the bridge.
Blackfriars station lies just east of the bridge, hidden behind busy traffic; it's a pig to reach overground, so it's best to use the subway.
Blackfriars to Mansion House
Again, I chose the backstreets to take me through the City, and again, it wasn't as thrilling as I'd hoped it would be. This whole area pulsates with history, and the way to get the best out of it is to explore the area slowly in the company of a knowledgeable guide or a decent guidebook. Shooting through on a tubewalk probably isn't the best way to appreciate the subtleties of the City, unless you know what you're doing, which I have to admit, I don't particularly.
It also doesn't help that this area is currently being dug up. I know that Shakespeare trod the boards in and around Playhouse Yard, but the street itself isn't that unusual, as the best stuff can be found by turning into Church Entry and poking around the maze of alleys, which would have been very familiar to Shakespeare when he lived and worked here at the end of the 16th century. But I couldn't find my way in, as the little lanes north from Ireland Yard were blocked off, so instead I shot through to Carter Lane and past a Youth Hostel based in what used to be the Choir Boys School for St Paul's Cathedral. I soon ended up popping out to the south of St Paul's Cathedral, which easily provided the best view of this leg, particularly from the northern end of the Millennium Bridge, a little further south on Queen Victoria Street.
Mansion House station is a bit further east along the main road, and it's very modest on the outside, being little more than a couple of small doors in the corner of a building on Cannon Street. This is, not surprisingly, the theme for a few stops, as the value of prime above-ground real estate forced the Tube stations below ground, and forced any architectural statements well out of reach of the Metropolitan District Railway.
Mansion House to Cannon Street
The most famous landmark on the short walk to Cannon Street is probably the house of Richard Whittington on College Hill, though all that remains of the house is a plaque, as it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Richard Whittington, who inspired the pantomime tale of Dick Whittington, was a very successful London merchant who was appointed Lord Mayor in 1397 (and who would go on to be appointed Mayor three times in total). He financed quite a few public works, but almost all of them disappeared in the fire, and all that is left is a plaque in College Hill and the story of Dick Whittington, his cat, and his rags to riches story of walking to London and becoming mayor. I guess it's a legacy, though perhaps not the one he would have chosen.
Down College Hill and along College Street, you go past the Church of St Michael Paternoster Royal (another Christopher Wren church), and Cannon Street station is just up Dowgate Hill, opposite a huge construction site.
Cannon Street to Monument
I don't have anything particularly interesting to say about this leg, to be perfectly honest. Tired of wandering along the backstreets, I simply walked along Cannon Street, leaving the rather ugly 1965 Cannon Street station building behind and strolling past the large shops and office blocks of Cannon Street to the junction of King William Street and Gracechurch Street.
Monument station is mainly underneath this junction, only poking its head above ground via a group of subways dotted around the junction. However, the main entrance can be found just round the corner in Fish Street Hill, a stone's throw from the Monument from which the station takes its name.
Monument to Tower Hill
The Monument is currently clad in scaffolding and plastic sheeting, with the base cordoned off by barricades, and this does tend to detract from the charm of this area. The Monument, designed by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, was built to mark the spot where the Great Fire of London started in 1666, though the fire actually started 202 ft away in Pudding Lane, which is why the Monument is 202 ft high. When the Monument is unwrapped, this area is well worth a visit; sadly, it's less interesting when it looks for all the world like a giant prophylactic.
Luckily it isn't far from here to the Tower of London, which most definitely isn't under wraps; far from it, as the recent development of the forecourt to the west of the Tower is designed to give a good view of proceedings while giving the throng of tourists plenty of space to mill about while soaking up the atmosphere. There's no doubt that the Tower is a well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site, and even when shooting through on a tubewalk, the atmosphere is deeply historic.
Of particular note to tubewalkers is the round brick booth just south of the main ticket office, which marks the entrance to the Tower Subway. This tunnel under the Thames dates from 1869, and it's important because its construction saw the first use of the Barlow-Greathead Shield, the system that would go on to be used to build all of London's deep-level Tube lines, starting with what we now know as the Northern line. The paying public were towed along the subway in a horizontal lift, but it went out of business when Tower Bridge was opened. It is now used to house telecommunications cables, but without the Tower Subway, we wouldn't have the Tube system we have today.
The most interesting thing about Tower Hill station is the section of the original Roman city wall right next door. The original station on this site, called Tower of London, was opened in 1882 as part of the Metropolitan line, but only two years later the Metropolitan and District lines were joined up to form what we now know as the Circle line, and a new station, Mark Lane, was built to the west of the Tower, and Tower of London station was shut. However, there simply wasn't enough space at Mark Lane to cope with visitor numbers, so the current Tower Hill station was opened in 1967, on top of the original Tower of London station; round here, even the Tube stations have archaeology.
Tower Hill to Aldgate East
It doesn't take long to leave tourist London behind, and to be honest, I was quite relieved to be heading out into a slightly more real version of London: tourism is fine, but I've lived here for a while and the sights and sounds of the camera shutter are probably less intriguing to me than the clash of cultures in the suburbs.
This section between Tower Hill and Aldgate East is a transitional walk, going from the history of the Tower, past some fairly uninspiring office blocks, through an area of housing along St Mark Street, and through to the busy redevelopment around Aldgate East station, which has a newly built entrance on the south side of Whitechapel High Street. The station itself was designed to be completely subterranean, so again there's not a lot to see for the walker, particularly as the whole area is hidden behind a latticework of scaffolding.
Aldgate East to Whitechapel
At last, some real London to explore! Gone are the clean streets and slick tourist operations of the City, and the difference is obvious from the second you step out of Aldgate East and head east. Sure, look back and there's the Gherkin in the near distance, but this is Whitechapel Road, and it sure ain't tourist central; it's a lot more interesting than that.
My first point of call was Altab Ali Park, where the drunks of east London come for a sunbathe, presumably after being ousted from the City so they don't pester the tourists. Merrily lining up my camera to take a shot of the park, a man shouted over to me to take his picture, and afraid that he was high on the local juice, I smiled at him but politely ignored him; but he called over again and I realised he was sober, and simply wanted to talk to me about my camera. We chatted for a few minutes about memory sticks and shutter speeds, while around us the drunks snored and, in the case of the neighbouring bench, shouted toothless threats at each other in the slurred language of the terminally fried. 'This is more like it!' I thought as I said goodbye to my new-found friend and headed off to Fieldgate Street.
This is not a terribly white area, and it's great; this is the borough of Tower Hamlets, whose name most people only know from the news (and often bad news at that), but that makes it far more interesting to me than the clinical tourism of the City. The population of Tower Hamlets is 51 per cent white and 33 per cent Bangladeshi, and the way the different cultures mix is fascinating. For example, Fieldgate Street is home to the East London Mosque and the London Muslim Centre, and right next door is the Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue, surrounded on three sides by the Islamic centre. The streets are full of Asian faces and burqas, and having fallen in love with the Indian subcontinent and being a big fan of Islamic architecture and culture, I felt right at home, despite being one of very few white faces around.
On the other side of New Road, opposite Whitechapel station is the Royal London Hospital, which is probably best known to non-medicinal people as the hospital where Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, was given lodgings. The story goes that Merrick was being exhibited in an empty shop in Mile End Road opposite the hospital, and a physician called Frederick Treves saw him and offered him his business card, hoping that he would submit for a medical examination. Some time later Merrick was caught up in a disturbance in Liverpool Street station, and unable to speak intelligibly, he handed the business card to police; Treves picked him up and arranged accommodation for him in the hospital, where he thrived and became quite the celebrity in Victorian society, until his death in 1890.
Whitechapel to Stepney Green
Just along from Whitechapel station is the Blind Beggar, a pub that is home to two very conflicting events. It was outside this pub in 1865 that William Booth preached his first sermon, which would lead to the formation of the Salvation Army (an event celebrated by two statues of Booth in the park a little way along the road). In contrast, it was in this pub on that Ronnie Kray murdered George Cornell, a rival gangster.
But Whitechapel Road isn't a morbid place, despite its history; it's host to a colourful street market that stretches from west of the Tube station all the way to the Blind Beggar, and the range of shops is a long way from the bland brands of most high streets. And when the shops end and a long, thin garden starts, there are some beautiful almshouses back from the main road at Trinity Green that date from 1695, and which were built for mariners' widows whose husbands had not returned. One of the almshouses even has a model sailing ship on its roof, while there's a lovely chapel at the end of the green to complete the symmetry.
The nautical connection continues at 88 Mile End Road, on the other side of the road, where Captain James Cook, the famous sea explorer, used to live. It's now an empty block between a mini-mart and a Chinese restaurant, but it is at least marked with a plaque. To say this part of the world is steeped in history is an understatement...
Stepney Green to Mile End
After Stepney Green station, which dates from 1902, there's a small turn left into Mile End Place, which is worth a detour, as it's home to some gorgeous 19th century workman's cottages, quite a surprise when compared to the surrounding area. Soon after is 253 Mile End Road, which was built as a home for elderly Sephardi Jews, and behind which is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Britain; it is now used as accommodation for the nearby Queen Mary College, which is part of the University of London.
Just before the main college buildings, look up at the sculptures on the front wall of what used to be the People's Palace. The original building, which dated from 1887, burned down in 1931, and the replacement you see is now part of the college, but five sculptures along the front of the building by Eric Gill (who also provided three of the wind sculptures on the London Underground headquarters at 55 Broadway) denote drama, music, dance, brotherhood and sport, in celebration of the original Palace.
Queen Mary College itself is further down the road, opposite a large estate, and its main entrance, the Queen's building, is an impressive sight from the road. At the end of the college is the Regent's Canal, which flows through Mile End Park, though you can hardly see any of this from the road. Instead, there's a large yellow bridge over the road with grass growing on the top, linking the two parts of the park on either side of the road. This is the Green Bridge, and I'll be exploring this part of the world in more depth when I walk the Central line from Liverpool Street to Leytonstone. I just hope the weather is as good then as it was today.
Mile End to Bow Road
The final leg from Mile End to Bow Road is lovely if you take the scenic route (otherwise it's just another hoof along the A11, which is slightly less interesting). The terraced houses along Aberavon Road, Morgan Street and Lichfield Road are neat and attractive, and Tredegar Square is a pleasant Georgian square, the southern and western sides of the square dating from the 1830s, with the rest of the square being completed by 1847.
Back on the main road, now known as Bow Road, it's not far to Bow Road station, whose ticket hall is a Grade II listed building. That could explain why the ticket hall is so cramped, but it does have a certain charm to it, and it still manages to evoke the spirit of 1902, when the station was opened. It makes for a fitting end to my first tubewalk through the East End of London; I'm certainly looking forward to continuing further east on the next District line leg.