This week, I read a post by my blogging friend Jude. She had just been on a trip to London, and had written about the visit, with some nice accompanying photos. http://smallbluegreenwords.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/just-back-from-london/
This got me thinking about the power of the blog to advise and inform, so I thought I would make some suggestions in this post, to help those who might want to get some more out of a trip to the capital of the UK. As a Londoner, albeit transplanted recently to Norfolk, I should have a different view of the city, and some ideas outside of the usual expensive tourist destinations. I do, and here they are. They are not the best things to take children to though, and are of more interest to keen photographers.
Blackheath, Greenwich, and the Thames Foot Tunnel.
Many visitors to London make the trip to Greenwich, in the south-east of the city. It is home to the National Maritime Museum, and The Cutty Sark tea clipper, as well as a busy market. I would suggest that to save a lot of climbing, you approach the trip in this way. Take an overground train from London Bridge Station, to Blackheath Station. When you exit the station, walk up towards the shops, and you will see the heath before you, a large area of grassland. You will notice the distinctive needle spire of All Saints Church to your right. Continue across the heath and cross the busy main road (the A2) before walking towards the gates of Greenwich Park. Once inside, you will be on a long avenue, with car parks. A short walk will bring you to the Royal Observatory on the left. This small building is a museum of astronomy, and is also home to the world-famous Prime Meridian. marked by a metal strip and globe, where you will be able to place one foot on each hemisphere of the earth. This is a popular photo opportunity, so you will likely have to queue for the shot.
Next to this is the statue of General Wolfe. From this high vantage point, there are great vistas across London to be enjoyed, and it is one of the best places from which to photograph the City of London, and the refurbished docklands opposite. Lower down, the grounds and magnificent buildings of the Maritime Museum and The Queen’s House can be seen, with the Old Naval College behind. And of course, the River Thames, with the pier where the river boats will be landing. To the left, a steep path winds down towards the town. The benefit from this starting point is that you will be walking downhill, rather than up. At the end of this path, you emerge into the small town, with its market area, shops, cafes, and some pubs. Beyond these, you will see the masts of The Cutty Sark, recently renovated after a fire, and next to it, the smaller craft Gipsy Moth, used by Sir Francis Chichester for his solo circumnavigation of the globe. From here, you can get fine views, and photos of the Canary Wharf complex on the northern bank.
Nearby, you will see a small building with a thick glass cupola. This is the entrance to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, a pedestrian crossing under the Thames. The deep tunnel can be accessed by spiral staircase, or lifts, and is worth the trip for two reasons. The first is for the sheer novelty of walking under the river, in this 112 year old tunnel. The second is for the photo opportunities from the north bank, looking back across at Greenwich. Next to this northern exit is the large Island Gardens open space, where you can relax and enjoy the river views after your sightseeing. A short walk north takes you to the well-signposted Island Gardens Station, on the Docklands Light Railway, from where you can return to where you are staying, or continue on to more sights. I would allow at least 4-6 hours for this trip, especially if you intend to spend any time in the museums.
The Barbican, and Museum of London.
As a tourist or weekend visitor, you may well consider this area to not be worth the effort of your time; unless you had decided to attend a concert at the excellent Barbican Centre complex. If you looked at photos beforehand, the three tower blocks and assorted shops and offices you would see might put you off completely. I hope to present the area to you in a different light, and to tell you why I think it is well-worth a half-day away from the usual sights. This is one of the oldest parts of London. It is the site of the first Roman fortress and extended settlement, dating from between 50 and 200AD. Some of the original Roman walls remain to be seen, as they were later incorporated into other buildings. When the area was extensively re-developed in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, the City of London Corporation was careful to retain many of the remaining original features, including the interesting church of St Giles Cripplegate. This is one of the few churches in London to survive both the Great Fire, and the later Blitz. Some of the old gravestones are incorporated in the paving around the church, and the juxtaposition of the ancient building and the modern architecture is a real delight.
The heavy architecture in the aptly-named ‘Brutalist’ style, is a matter of taste perhaps. When I first saw it, I considered it to be futuristic and overwhelming, Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ made real. It is now listed, and regarded as a magnificent example of this modern style. Inside, there are small planted areas and water features, including the man-made Barbican Lake. It is home to the City of London School for Girls, and the Guildhall School of Music and Dance. There are some cafes around, where you can relax after your walk, and a good pizza restaurant overlooking the busy London Wall tunnel, if you need a meal. At the end of London Wall, built above ground on the roundabout is The Museum of London. This is open every day, from 10-1800, and admission is completely free. As one of the oldest cities in the world, the history of London has so much to offer, and this museum is an ideal place to see it. It is not too large, but big enough to enjoy a couple of hours viewing the exhibits.
What makes this area an ideal place to visit is also the proximity to St Paul’s Cathedral. A short walk to the south, along St Martins Le Grand, well-signed from the museum, you will find this magnificent example of Wren architecture. Despite always being busy, and often full of tourists, it is still worth the effort. There is no finer church to see in London, and though it may not be as large as St Peter’s in Rome, or as exotic as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, any visit to London would be enhanced by a trip to this cathedral. If you make the diversion to here, you can get a tube train from St Paul’s Station, to return to your accommodation, or move on to your next destination. Or you could catch a number 15 bus outside towards Charing Cross, and use this public transport to see many sights from the comfort of a bus seat.
The Globe Theatre to Tower Bridge.
Both of these are well-known landmarks, and popular with tourists. I am suggesting an easy walk between the two, easily done in half a day, and offering a lot more than you might expect. From Blackfriars Station, walk south over Blackfriars Bridge. At the traffic lights, turn left into Stamford Street, and continue for the short walk to Hopton Street on the left, following the signs for the Tate Modern. At the end of this street, you will arrive at the open area around the Tate Modern Gallery. Unless you really want to, I would avoid going in. The exhibits are usually avant-garde, and an acquired taste. Continue along the riverside to The Globe Theatre. This is a marvellous recreation of the original Globe, famous in the time of Shakespeare, and evokes a real feel of Elizabethan London on the South Bank. Nearby, you can see the house where Wren lived during the time he designed and built St Paul’s on the opposite bank, and the footbridge known as The Millennium Bridge, which connects the two areas. Continuing east, you will notice the ancient riverside inn, The Anchor. Walking along Clink Street, there is the museum of the famous Clink Prison, that gave its name to the common English expression, ‘being in Clink’, still used today, to refer to a stay in prison. A little further on will bring you to the recreation of the famous sailing ship, The Golden Hinde ll, a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship from the 16th Century.
Many of the former riverside wharves and dock buildings have been modernised in this area, but you can still get a real feel of the time from Dickens to the 1950’s, just by wandering around. Approaching London Bridge, you will see the stately Southwark Cathedral on your right. A church has stood here since before Norman times, and the present building dates from 1106, though later alterations were frequent. Crossing the bridge heading east, the area is dominated by the recent addition of The Shard, the tallest building in Europe. The viewing gallery affords some of the best views in the capital, but it is very expensive to buy a ticket. On your right, there is the messy frontage of London Bridge Station, on the traffic-clogged Tooley Street. Turn left through Hays Galleria shopping centre, and head for the river again. Here is the floating museum of HMS Belfast, a Royal Navy cruiser. Launched in 1938, this vessel saw extensive service during World War ll. You can go aboard for a fee, but I would suggest just getting a good photo, with Tower Bridge in the background. Continue east towards Potters Fields open space, and there you will find the unusual building of City Hall. This is the home of the London Assembly, and Office of The Mayor, and was opened in 2002. It looks as if it is falling over, and is a clever design which is also a matter of taste; though I personally think it works. Access is allowed, and there is a cafe inside, though visitors will be searched.
You will not fail to realise that you are now almost directly under Tower Bridge. As I was brought up in this very area, I am understandably biased, but I believe Tower Bridge to be the best thing in London, the jewel in the crown of the city. You will not see its like anywhere else in the world. The design and function is near-perfect, and the huge main towers, colourful decoration, and sheer majesty of the way it strides across the river never fail to inspire me. For me, as a Londoner, it is the symbol of my city, and by far the most enduring vision of London to take away with you. When I was young, it opened frequently, causing traffic chaos in the surrounding area, as slow-moving ships passed below. These days, openings are less regular, but if you look on the website, you can make the trip when the bridge is opening, and enjoy the full effect as the roadway ‘splits’ in the middle, and the vessel passes through. It is opening three times today, for example, and it really is a wonderful sight. The bridge houses a permanent exhibition, and is well-worth the fee, and your time, to view it. As well as being able to walk across the high walkways between the towers, you get a full history of the construction, and a chance to view the enormous engine room below ground, with the counterweights that still move the bridge when it opens.
Walk north across the bridge, and you will see the famous Tower of London on your left. This is always full of tourists, so best to carry on to Tower Hill station, and continue your journey.
I hope that these few examples have given you food for thought, and provided you with some alternatives to staring at Buckingham Palace, or wasting your money in Madame Tussauds. As for the popular London Eye, be warned that it is in the wrong place entirely. It faces west and south west, so will not provide you with any interesting views of anything except The Houses of Parliament, Parliament Square, and Vauxhall Station. There are views west along The Thames, but unless you especially desire to pay a lot of money to be up reasonably high in the air, it will prove to be a great disappointment. I have listed a set of links below, which you can use to look at some of the things I have mentioned that might interest you.