With thousands of people choosing to visit the UK each year to explore the history of such a small nation it is understandable that when people descend upon the city of London they flock to the historical attractions. Visiting Buckingham Palace, retracing the footsteps of Kings and Queens from bygone years, sauntering around Westminster Abbey taking in the famous gravestones and wonderful architecture and taking a walk around the Tower of London, without being locked up for treason, are all must-sees sights — but what about the lesser known places? London has much more to offer, you just need to know where to look.
A great resource, for anyone willing to spend a couple of hours with someone knowledgeable, is Matt Gedge of Fun London Tours. Even on overcast days filled with drizzle Matt will entertain you with stories about locations you have probably walked pass hundreds of times without even considering the historical significance.
What Tour should you take?
We joined him recently on his Secret London Tour, which is popular with both tourists and Londoners alike, to see what we had missed on our numerous visits into the capital over the years.
Starting in Trafalgar Square, under the rather unusual bright Persian blue cockerel statue, we met up with Matt and our group, expecting to learn more about London whilst taking in both the quirky sights and the grandeur of the city.
When visitors flock to Trafalgar Square it is often to see the hordes of pigeons grappling for scraps or the large lions protecting the fountain. I am convinced however, that few who visit know that it also home to, what was at one time, the world’s smallest police station.
Immovable on the corner of the Square, standing guard to both the sights inside and overseeing the buzzing traffic outside, this one-man post was converted during World War II for the purpose of providing a guard station for police officers. Definitely not as comfortable as police stations today; you would have difficulty doing paperwork whilst boiling the kettle but at a time of need this was an ideal location.
At this point, Matt also shared with us a few peculiar facts about Trafalgar Square that you may or may not know.
Did you know that it is illegal to climb on the lions surrounding the fountain, although, even as he said it, there was a large crowd taking selfies with the creatures, perching precariously high up on their manes or standing on their backs, highlighting that this law is clearly a struggle to reinforce.
It is also illegal to fly a kite in the Square, do your washing (why would you?) or use a canoe (not sure how you would achieve this?).
Heading up towards Leicester Square we then stumble upon the site of the former Sublime Society of Beefsteaks, now known simply as the Beefsteak Club. A gentleman’s club that would prefer to remain anonymous and the doors of which stay firmly closed to the masses. Set up in 1735, many famous men would have wandered through the door wearing a blue blazer with brass buttons to spend an evening drinking copious amounts of alcohol and discussing politics and literature over a steak dinner. Some of its most famous residents included the poet Samuel Johnson and writer Bram Stoker. It is believed that it was here in 1890 that a Romanian spoke about Vlad the Impaler; the same Vlad that later became a loose inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Today’s famous inhabitants include Stephen Fry.
I guarantee this is an unimposing building that you would wander by, assuming it was a window to someone’s apartment; you would not consider it to be a meeting place for some of the world’s most influential men.
Following in the footsteps of T.S. Elliot and Mozart we then wandered through Cecil Court, home to first edition and rare collection books since the 1700’s. For all Harry Potter fans, this street is also believed to be the inspiration behind Diagon Alley, and wandering down you can see why – it does have an enchanted feel about it.
The Harry Potter theme continues as we stroll down Goodwins Court which, unless on a tour, you would never know existed. It features on no map and looks more like an alleyway leading to someone’s back garden. With eccentric well-polished door knockers, old gas lamps and charming bay windows, J.K. Rowling sent her set designers down this delightful little street to help spark creative thoughts.
This part of the tour is not only for literature buffs though, history is still a predominate theme of the tour, and this alleyway is no exception. At the entrance way, high up on the wall, is a gold and dark red plaque, also known as a fire mark. These were placed on buildings after the Great Fire of 1666 to indicate that it had been insured against any further fire damage. There was just one problem – it would take nearly 15 years before any fire service would be set up to control such events.
As the skies begin to grey, we headed further round into Theatre Land to hear about the ghost of William Terriss at the Adelphi Theatre and the famed Black Cat at the Savoy hotel. Wander behind the Savoy, down Carting Lane, and you will stumble across the only gas lamp remaining in London that is still partly run on sewage – what a lovely thought!
Whilst sewage seems to be beneficial for this particular light source, back in 1858 it was becoming a menace on the city. Years later, this year would become known as the year of the ‘great stink’, and where we now wander would have at one time been part of the river itself, except, back then, the unsavoury smells and unclean water would have been unbearable. To protect the city drastic measures were taken, with Joseph Bazalgette, an engineer, pumping the waste out, relieving the city of further cholera outbreaks and cleansing its waterways. As we stroll back along the river, we stop at the York Water Gate which marks the edge of the River Thames during this time, highlighting that the Thames was, at one time, significantly wider than it is today.
Further into the tour and we pass by Benjamin’s Franklin’s home, hearing about his naked air baths and the 2000 bone fragments that were found here after his death; we wander down Craven Passage towards the Sherlock Holmes pub and then pass under the Admiralty Arches in search of the Duke of Wellington’s nose.
As a history and literature geek, I love finding out more about my own city. Any guide book you read will be filled with interesting facts about the capital city but few will provide an in-depth knowledge of the streets. Having spent years working in the city I believed I knew more than the average visitor about this wonderful place however, Matt shared new stories with us whilst we sauntered around side streets that I never knew existed.
When visiting London, yes, take time to explore the many attractions – we would have to question if you never visited the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben or London Bridge but we would also urge you to spend an afternoon exploring with Matt. You will walk away knowing more about this fascinating city and will walk streets that you could never find on your own.
So, who is Matt?
I’m Matt, a full time London Tour guide. I’m fascinated by this great city, its enormous history filled with extraordinary stories. Five years ago I decided to take the plunge, leave an office job and talk about the streets of London for a living, and after plenty of hard work, enthusiasm and a bit of luck I now am a fully independent qualified guide.
Every day is different. I constantly witness changes to London’s landscape and learn not only from the rather excessive number of books and lectures at my fingertips, but also from the huge variety of people who enjoy my walks.
Next year I will be introducing several more unique and unusual tours, hoping to capture the wonder and excitement I feel on this journey through the past and present of our capital city!
If you want to go beyond the guide book Matt has several tours, across the course of a week, that may be suitable for you. Check out the Fun London Tours website for more details.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank Matt for inviting us to join him on his Secret London Tour. All views are our own and we would wholeheartedly recommend Fun London Tours.