London - Feel the magic by walking

Wine Rack

Original photo by Batrace

by Gareth Powell

Walking takes me around the great cities of the world in style, and it saves me a lot of money as well. Consider London. There you can walk and be guided at the same time.

When I was young and ran a publishing company in London my offices were in Barnard's Inn. This is where Mr Pocket lived in 'Great Expectations'. Around the corner was a group of buildings which had survived the Great Fire of London.

I mention this not to boast, but to show that in London you cannot avoid history as long as you walk. Almost anywhere you care to stand you are near a major historical site. For London, more than any other city, is history. Noel Coward sang: ‘Cockney feet, Mark the beat of history. Every street, Pins a memory down. True. A lifetime is not enough to explore all of the facets of this great and historic city. A traveller needs to be selective. My own way of seeing London - and I am still a tourist and explorer after all these years - is on foot with a guided tour.

I am not, I must confess, that interested in modern London. Most modern architecture I find a blot and an excrescence (do architects’ mothers know what their sons do for a living?) Most modern pleasures pass me by. For me London, my London, is a wallow in history, not all of it sunshine and light.

For the first-time tourist, one of the quickest ways of getting your bearings is to go on one of the many guided walking tours. Here it pays to specialise.

The general bus tours basically consist of being stuck in a traffic jam in an open-topped bus while a guide makes fatuous remarks and juvenile jokes. The walking tours are something else again. They are normally led by knowledgeable types who are both eccentrics and fanatics - England breeds these people in abundance. You will learn more about London on one of these strolls through history than you ever will through reading a history book.

For the full flavour, I recommend you do both - walk and tour first, read second.

One of the better collection of walks comes from London Walks www.walks.com/ with whom I have absolutely no connection except as a satisfied customer. This is arguably the best walk organization in the world. I speak from reasonably extensive experience. It has walks on Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and so on. The typical price of a walk is around five quid or so, but there are season tickets which let you take as many walks as often as you want at about four times that.

My own favourite is the Dickens and Shakespeare walk which normally starts on Sundays at 2 pm and takes you back through history and fiction until you end up at the site of the old Globe Theatre. Then you have a quiet jar at the famous waterside pub, the Prospect of Whitby. Both civilised and educational. Leading this tour, sadly, is a journalist who is also an university lecturer which, in class, puts him at the bottom of the totem pole. But one should not be snobbish about such matters.

There are dozens of these walking tours from this group alone and it is my ambition to go on every one.

A word of advice. All such walking tours take from one to three hours and they are never cancelled because of inclement weather. Forget fashion. Wear comfortable shoes. Always carry a small collapsible umbrella. I also carry a small hip flask in case of dire medical emergencies.

Now that I am an Australian, on my last trip I decided I would try to discover what Australian connections could be found in London. I found there were far more than I had ever imagined.

James Cook lived at 88 Mile End Road in the East End and was married at St Margaret's Church in Barking. Captain Arthur Phillip was born in Bread Street, EC4. Sir Joseph Banks was born in Argyle Street in the West End and his house at 32 Soho Square was a centre for scientific research.

Just behind the square is a pub confusingly called The Coffee House which was one of the favourite Australian watering holes, 20 years ago. Germaine Greer (who is an Australian whatever Australians may say) drank there. Now the pubs of choice, although this will have changed by the time you read this, are The King's Head in the Fulham Road, the Prince of Teck in Earls Court Road and The Greyhound in Fulham Palace Road.

For me the essential handbook of London is Everybody's Historic London by Jonathan Kiek (Quiller Press) which has 20 tours described in loving detail. It seems now to be out of print but is widely available through the Internet. Worth getting.

The tenth tour suggests you visit places with names which give the wondrous flavour of London to perfection: Thomas More Street, Wapping Old Stairs, The Ratcliff Highway, Limehouse Causeway, St George-in-the-East and The Royal Mint. Walk these streets and visit with history.

I was totally at ease with Dr Samuel Johnson when he wrote, "When a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." There is, to be honest, a nasty air of parochial smugness there. (Johnson was also wrong on the subject of Scotland). But it is also true that no matter how often you visit London there is always something to explore, to visit, to enjoy.

About the author: Gareth Powell is a writer and publisher and lives in both Australia and England. He has a travel website at www.travelhopefully.com and a general one at www.bloggeroff.com