London's Alternative History Tour
The Start - Covent Garden Piazza
Welcome to the alternative history walking tour of central London. My name is Joey and I'm going to be your guide.
You should be just outside the Apple Store, facing Chanel and Burberry shops in Covent Garden Piazza.
On this route we're going to walk a well-trodden part of London, but we're going to look at it from a different perspective. I'm going to show you the things you don't normally see. I've lived in London all my life and what lies beneath the city's conventional history fascinates me. Everything I'm going to tell you is completely factual, but it's not the stuff you learnt at school. We're going to talk about religion, drinking and, even, prostitution.
Have a look around. As you absorb the classical, Italian-style architecture, let me tell you about Covent Garden. Do you know where the name came from? Well, quite simply, in the 1500s what you see in front of you used to be a garden and it was full of convents. I know what you're thinking – where did the N go? Interestingly, Londoners weren't always as well-spoken and well-educated as I am. In the 1500s saying two consonants like N and V next to each other was far too complex.
Therefore, the name was shortened to "covent" and nobody could really read or write, so this is the name that stuck.
Now, for the first half of the 1500s, England was ruled by King Henry VIII. However, in the late 1520s, he had a bit of a problem: he wanted to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, but in those days the catholic church didn't allow that. So what happens when you want to get a divorce and your church doesn't let you? You start your own church. That's right, Henry VIII started The Church of England – converting to Protestant Christianity – so he could get a divorce from his wife. This had two consequences: first the obvious, he got rid of his wife and, second, he seized all the land previously owned by the catholic church and sold it. Covent Garden was purchased by the Earls of Bedford. Around a hundred years after Henry VIII died, the fourth Earl had a very close friend. His name was Inigo Jones. He was England's premier architect at the time and was commissioned to design the Covent Garden Piazza. I'll tell you more about him in a bit.
Let's head to St. Paul's Church.
If you've got your back to the Apple Store, turn to your right and walk up the piazza a bit. You will see some small brown pillars where the piazza turns to road - head just to the left of them so you are standing directly in front of the Oakley store. Let's go.
VoiceMap uses your location to play commentary automatically, so you can just put your phone away and focus on your surroundings. I'll give you directions to keep you on track. There might be a bit of silence now and again, but you can just keep walking and my voice will kick in at each location.
Keep Walking towards St. Paul's Church
Veer left, past the Godiva and Laduree shops, and you'll end up next to the small black pillars that separate the piazza from the road. Facing the open piazza, St Paul's Church is the huge church right in front of you, slightly to the right.
St. Paul's Church
You should be facing St. Paul's Church now. There might be a street performance happening on the square, right in front of you and the church. Don't worry about it, but feel free to press pause and watch it if you need a break from alternative history. I used to come and watch these as a kid – they can often be very entertaining!
Stand here and admire the church for a bit. This was the jewel in the crown for Inigo Jones, after he had designed the whole piazza. His St. Paul's was the same as the church we see today, but when church officials decided to inspect it, there was a problem. The interior was the wrong way around.
They reminded him that all altars must be at the east of the church. If you look at your map, you'll realise that east is over to your left. And so the altar would have had to be right in front of you, in the same place as the entrance. But if the altar is at the entrance, you'd come in to find yourself on stage with the priest. So they had to change the church around.
If you look closely, you'll see a black rectangle behind the pillars, on the wall of the church. Most people think that's the door. But it's just a commemorative plaque to all the people who have helped with the church's upkeep. You are, in fact, at the back of the church, and there is no door here. The entrance is on the other side! Even friends of mine who have lived in London all their life still think that the plaque is a door.
So here's some food for thought for everyone enjoying the square today: Covent Garden is a glorified church yard. It's the nicest back of a church I've ever seen.
Turn around now, with your back to the church, facing the large marketplace. You should see "Covent Garden Market" and "Punch & Judy" written just above the balcony of the market, high up and slightly to the left. Start walking straight on, under the roof, towards the Apple Market sign. Let's go.
We're going to move forward in time a bit now. We're in the late 1600s and there are a few skirmishes in London – a minor civil war you might say. Most of the rich land owners who lived around here have moved westwards and this area became largely deserted. Except for actors and so-called "orange girls".
Have a guess as to who "orange girls" were, and I'll reveal the answers in a bit. Keep walking.
The Theatre District
We're going to walk all the way through the covered Covent Garden Market now.
As you walk, I'll tell you about the orange girls. They haven't used too much fake tan. No, these girls sold oranges – not for their Vitamin C though. This was the theatre district, so in the 17th and 18th Centuries people used to gather outside to watch a show. But London was, to put it mildly, a very smelly city. There were no sewers. A lot of people, and horses for that matter, didn't have the best manners either. The whole place stank. If you stood around for a couple of hours, the smell could get unbearable. So Londoners would buy oranges and literally put their noses into them, so that is all they could smell! Sometimes they might throw them at actors too if they didn't like what they were saying.
Continue walking straight on through the market. You'll hear my voice again when you get out on the other side. Feel free to peruse a couple of shops and take in the atmosphere!
Leaving Covent Garden Market
You have emerged out of the other side of the market now. Probably into the sunshine, or well, let's get real, probably into the rain – it's London after all. In front of you are big white pillars. To the right, just ahead of you, is a restaurant called Tutton's.
Walk straight, heading towards the pillars. You'll see the Covent Garden road sign just above eye-level where the pillars end. Let's head towards that and stand just underneath the pillars.
The Shakespeare Tavern
You should be standing under the pillars with a row of shops in front of you. We’re right in between what were the richest areas as well the very poorest areas of town. Therefore, this area became London’s red light district for pretty much the entirety of the 1700s. Where you’re standing now was the location of one of the most famous brothels: The Shakespear Tavern. It was owned by a landlord and pimp called Jack Harris. He realised there was a lot of choice in this area and decided to create Harris’s list of Covent Garden ladies. This was a catalogue of the three or four-hundred women who worked in the area. It detailed their price, size, looks as well as anything interesting they could do. It was published every year for around four decades, but in the 1790s the authorities finally clamped down.
Turn around now and face the Covent Garden Market you just walked through. Remember the Apple Market sign? This is what happened next. It turned into a fruit and vegetable market for the entirety of the 1800s. This closed down in the 1970s. Since then Covent Garden has turned into what it is now: a high-end shopping area popular with tourists.
If you're facing the market, turn to your left and the take an immediate left, on Russell Street. You will see the Russell Street road sign about 20 metres ahead of you.
Theatre Royal Drury Lane
You're at the corner of Russell and Bow Streets now. In front of you is the Marquess of Anglesey pub. Just behind it, you can see the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. It's a massive white building with brown bricks and a sign high-up on top. It's one of London's oldest theatres, built in 1663. Are you thinking it doesn't look like it's 350 years old? That's because it's not the original. It's also not the one after the original. In fact, it's not the one after the one after the original. It's the one after the one after the one after the original. Let's see if you're keeping up. It's the fourth incarnation of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
The first three were all plagued by the same fate: they burned down. When the third theatre was built, it was one of the biggest theatres in London with a capacity of over 3500. Without electricity, lighting a theatre of that size was challenging to say the least. So a new style of lighting was pioneered. It came in the form of a gun that provided a jet of oxygen, a jet of hydrogen, a flame and, most importantly, a block of lime. All of these burnt the lime white-hot. It would then be pointed through a magnifying glass, which created a spotlight on stage. The audience would literally see people in the 'limelight'. That's where the phrase comes from! As you can imagine, however, this was quite the fire hazard and contributed to the burning down of the building. The current version you see in front of you, was built in 1812. It remains one of the biggest theatres capacity-wise and one of the most popular in London.
Turn left now and walk up Bow Street.
As you walk, I'll tell you about chaos in London. If you think London is chaotic now, think again. In the 1600s and 1700s there was a lot of crime, prostitution and drinking. Since there was no police force back then, some sort of control was needed. It came in the form of so-called "thief-takers". They were kind of like bounty hunters. If someone wronged you, you would hire a private thief-taker to bring that person to justice – only then could you get a court case. Jonathan Wild was the most notorious. He made a lot of money as a thief-taker. Many years into his career, however, it was discovered that he also controlled a lot of the gangs in London. He solved a lot of the crimes by selling out people in his own gang or thief-taker group.
Keep on walking up Bow Street.
Bow Street Magistrates Court
You should now have reached Floral Street on your left. If you turn your back to it, you'll see a grand, white – well, it used to be white – now slightly brown building. Slightly to the left of the building, you'll see a sign saying Bow Street Magistrate's Court.
The court was set up in response to the thief taker Jonathan Wild's double dealings. Although Wild was in fact tried in a different court, the British establishment realised there had to be a more organised way to solve crimes. The city was descending into chaos, with prostitution, gang crime and heavy alcoholism plaguing society. London's first official police force was set up. They were known as the Bow Street Runners and from their based here, in the court, they were given the difficult task of cleaning London up. Today's police force, the London Metropolitan Police, wasn't set up until the 1820s.
Again, this is not the original building. That was built in the 1740s. This one is from 1881, and has been out of use since 2006. A lot of people have been tried here. General Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, Oscar Wilde for being homosexual, and the Pankhurst sisters, the leaders of the suffragette movement in the 1910s.
Cross over Bow Street now, so you are on the same side as the court. Then, head back down the way you came, just on the opposite side of the road.
Back down Bow Street
The Royal Opera House is on your right. Just keep walking from here, all the way past the Marquess of Anglesey pub down to the crossing with Tavistock Street.
I love this part of London. Every road and building has a little story that contributes to how London has developed over the centuries, and it's always been my hobby to find out what they are. It makes the city make more sense.
I am a born and bred Londoner and I am really proud of my city - that's what lead me to be a tour guide. I want to make sure visitors get the most out of being here.
I go abroad a lot but I always come back - I find nowhere else has the unique combination of history, tradition and modernity that London has. And everything that has happened in history, is somehow linked to something else that has happened - like a complex tapestry. The stuff we learn at school is just the mainstream narrative, but alongside it all the other stuff actually had a big effect on that.
It makes me wonder in 100 years what narrative will be told about London today, and what will be pushed to the side. But the more I look into London's history, the more I realise - everything will be relevant.
Charles Dickens Coffee House
Stop here for a moment. We have now reached Tavistock Street. You should see Charles Dickens Coffee House on the corner in front of you. It's the building with very ugly blue writing. Unlike a lot of famous-but-mistaken name-drops around London, Charles Dickens did actually come for coffee here. It was quite an easy journey for him. He lived right above. Can you see the blue plaque right above the coffee house? It states that he lived here between 1859 and 1870 – the last 11 years of his life.
I assume you've heard of Charles Dickens. Unlike a lot of other authors historically, he was very famous in his own time. This is about an alternative narrative in London though. Dickens is very important, but he's a little too conventional for this tour. So let's talk about the other thing in front of us: coffee.
If you think of typical British drinks three things spring to mind: beer, gin and, of course, tea. Coffee not so much. But coffee actually has a very rich history here in London. When coffee was first brought over to London in the late 1600s, the women of London issued a petition trying to ban the new substance.
They saw it as more dangerous than opium. Why you're thinking? It was causing chaos in the pubs. Men would drink a lot of alcohol at pubs in those days but with the addition of caffeine, they would stay at the pub for longer than they normally would. This would annoy their wives even more. They were unable to get it banned though and coffee became more and more popular.
Let's continue down the street now in the direction we have been going. I'll tell you more as we walk.
Coffee then turned into a bit of a business tool in the 18th century. Two cafés arose in the financial district of London. Jonathan's coffee house and Lloyd's coffee house. They were the birthplaces, respectively, of the London stock exchange and the concept of insurance. That's right, two of today's most lucrative corporate sectors were birthed in London in the 1700s over a cup of coffee.
In Dickens' time, the café is where people would go to discuss literature, philosophy and high culture. In the 1900s, coffee became Americanised. Coffee houses turned into places for socialising. But today it's largely a place of solitude as people sit alone and stare at laptop screens. London's cafés have gone from a place of social connections, business connections, and cultural connections to simply WiFi connections. And my preference? I'll stick to a nice cup of tea, thank you very much.
The Lyceum Theatre
Ok, stop here, right opposite the huge white pillars of the Lyceum Theatre.
This is where the Lion King is hosted, as you can see. If you fancy a musical, I can highly recommend this one - I think it is my favourite in London! You can get good discounts from the ticket booths in Leicester Square, by the way - an insider tip for you!
Stop for a moment and look at the theatre. Can you imagine that this was once home to one of London's largest freak shows? I'm not talking about the Lion King of course. Freak shows were very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Spectators would flock here to see the Porcupine Man, for instance. It was quite cruel, he had actual porcupine spikes coming out of his flesh. I think you'll agree with me, it's good that we moved on from physical deformations to elaborate costumes.
Here's another interesting fact about the theatre. Before Madame Tussaud moved her wax-figures to the world-famous wax gallery in Baker Street, she kept them at the Lyceum.
Some say they've seen the ghost of Madame Tussaud walking around the theatre holding a wax head under her arm. Others say it's a real person's head, from a model that was killed. It's up to you which you believe!
Now keep on walking the last little bit down Wellington Street, when the road turns into pavement and then meets the big road, The Strand. Head to the traffic light crossing right in front of you.
Crossing the Strand
This is The Strand. We're going to go over it using the crossing just to your left.
While you wait for the lights to change, turn around and have a look behind you. You'll see something that looks like a big glass portal with stairs leading down. This used to be one of London's public toilets, but now it's been converted into a little cabaret bar. It never ceases to amaze me how resourceful Londoners are with combining our history with modernity!
The Other Side of the Strand
Turn left here and walk for about one minute, until we get to Somerset House. I'll tell you when we get there.
Entering Somerset House
The entrance of Somerset House is on your right. It's a huge stone archway.
Somerset House Courtyard is open from 8am to 11pm, and we're going to go inside. Go through the big blue gates and proceed through the archway into the courtyard.
If you're outside of these times, you're clearly quite the night owl! You can carry on with the walk, but you'll have to follow the map to Waterloo Bridge, where you can pick up again by using the manual controls.
Somerset House Courtyard
This Square is the Somerset House Courtyard. In my opinion it's London's finest square. Stand here for a moment and take in its grandeur. Most Londoners don't even know that this exists – a huge courtyard, right in the centre of the city.
Somerset House was originally owned by – you guessed it – the Duke of Somerset. This harks back to our old friend Henry VIII. In his day, there were a lot of Catholic religious buildings along the Thames. He dissolved them and sold them to new landowners when he founded his new church. The new landowners built mansions and townhouses along the Thames. The Duke of Somerset waited until all the others had been built and then made sure that his was the biggest. Wonder if he had a big ego? Somerset House is also the only one that fully remains.
In front of you, there is a triangular pediment with a green dome underneath it. Can you see it?
Well, the house was initially designed by Inigo Jones in 1630 and later refurbished in 1685 by Sir Christopher Wren. It was then refurbished again by Sir William Chambers about 100 years later, partially using Jones' design. Confused yet? So, the mixture of different design styles is apparent. The architects were inspired by pillars, domes and pediments they saw in France and Italy. It was quite unusual in London the 1600s and 1700s.
The building hosted many intellectual societies over the years but for 150 years, Somerset House was home to one of the most glamorous professions. The Inland Revenue , which is the British tax service, was housed here until 2009.
Let's start walking straight-on, through the square now. As you have a look around, I'll tell you more about the architecture. The stone is taken from the Isle of Portland, which is just south of Dorset in the south of the UK. It has a very interesting chemical property: when it rains, it tends to self-clean. You'll notice that some stones are cleaner than others. That's because they're in the direct line of the rain.
Keep walking straight all the way through to the door. Above the door you'll see a sign saying "Seamen's Hall". Go inside and walk straight through the middle and out onto the veranda at the front.
The Victoria Embankment
This is the impressive Somerset House Terrace. You'll see tables and chairs on either side of you.
If you want some real alternative London facts, these tables and chairs are totally free to sit on. You can bring your own picnic and own drink without having to buy anything from Somerset House. Why is this so alternative? It's the only free seating in London I can think of.
Feel free to have a sit down if you need a quick rest! Then, walk straight to the edge of the terrace, and I'll meet you there.
Edge of the terrace
You should be at the edge of the terrace, overlooking quite an ugly dual carriageway. Just past it is the river Thames. This is the north embankment of the river. When Somerset House was built, this road wasn't here. In fact, none of what you see in front of you was here until 1870. The Thames used to come all the way out to Somerset House. The Duke of Somerset wouldn't have built a house next to a road that obstructed his view of the river.
There's something very interesting about this particular embankment. It was built for three purposes. The first, and most important, was to put sewage lines underneath it. London was clearly getting sick and tired of smelling oranges the whole time – and getting terrible diseases. The second was for electricity. Electricity had recently been pioneered and this was a very convenient, central spot to for cables.
And lastly, it was for the London Underground, also called the Tube. The district railway was one of the first to be set up. The district and circle line runs underneath here.
If your train ever breaks down between Embankment and Temple stations, you'll have solace knowing you're right next to some of London's oldest sewage pipes.
Anyhow, let's start walking along the Somerset House terrace. If you're still facing the Thames, head right.
When the Thames still came all the way up to Somerset House, it had two different physical properties. Back then, the Thames was wider and thus shallower and flowed more slowly. This meant that, when temperatures got below freezing, the Thames was able to freeze over. Therefore, all throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, London was known to hold frost fairs on the Thames. Occasionally, the ice wasn't quite thick enough and people and stalls floated down the river – no insurance policy for that.
Up the ramp
You're at the exit of the terrace now. A slight slope leads up to the bridge. Let's walk up.
Turn left onto Waterloo Bridge
Turn left here onto Waterloo Bridge. As you get closer to the water, let me tell you that the Thames cannot freeze over any longer. The river is simply too deep and flows too fast. So no more frost fairs – but less for the insurance companies to worry about! Walk about a 100 metres along the bridge until you get to where the water actually starts. You'll pass some stairs on your left, we're going to walk past them onto the bridge to admire the view, but remember them for your way back.
This is my favourite bridge in London, and we're about to see one of the best views in the city – by day or by night!
100 metres down the bridge
Stop here. You should see the orange RNLI lifeboats building just below you. Let's look up and into the distance. From here we can admire all of London's most impressive buildings.
Start on the left with St. Paul's cathedral. You'll see its dome and spire reaching up into the sky. For a long time this was the tallest building in London. In fact, until the 1950s, you weren't allowed to build higher than St. Paul's. Londoners realised, however, that it might be necessary in order to stop London's urban expansion outwards – as you might have realised by now, London is almost too big! And so, all the buildings to the right of St. Paul's sprung up between 1981 and now.
To the right, next to St. Paul's you've got the Heron Tower. It's got a spike reaching up into the sky, and a couple of very tasty restaurants at the top. Next to it is Tower 42. It looks like it's wearing a top hat. NatWest Bank HQ used to be in that building until they moved out in the 90s. But the building was designed so that it looks like the NatWest logo from a bird's eye view. Pretty sneaky if you ask me.
To the right of it, you'll see the iconic gherkin building. Then further to the right, you've got the walky talky or – for the beer lovers out there – the pint glass. Us Londoners love to name our buildings after other things. If you keep letting your eyes wander to the right, you'll see three huge buildings in the far distance. Those are the canary wharf buildings on Canada Square. The tallest one in the middle with the flashing pyramid on top is the second tallest building in London.
To the right, but much closer to us, is the Oxo Tower. It's the smaller grey building with a green bell tower, on top of the orange building at the very left of the long tree line in front of you. It has Oxo appearing to be written down it.
However, Oxo were told that they weren't allowed to advertise on the bank of the Thames, so they simply commissioned some decorations – a circle, cross, circle pattern. Convenient, no? This is probably London's best known example of very effective subliminal messaging.
Just to the right of the Oxo Tower, in the distance, is London's Shard. The Shard is in fact the tallest building in London at 1016 feet.
Let's start walking back to where we came from now. We're not going to cross the Thames today. When you walk back, watch out for the stairs on your right, just before you get to the Somerset House Terrace. Take them to get down to the Victoria Embankment.
As we walk, I'll tell you about the Shard. At 1016 feet, it's the tallest building in London. Interestingly, the civil aviation authority in London says that no building can stretch more than a 1000 feet into the air. So, how is the Shard getting around that? It's built on reclaimed railway land, which is in a depression of – you guessed it – 16 feet. No known land in London in a depression that deep is strong or wide enough to support a building of that height. So unless the civil aviation authority change their rules – which is very unlikely – the Shard will always be the tallest building in London. Quite the legacy.
Turn right at the bottom of the stairs
Here, at the bottom of the stairs, turn right and pass under the bridge.
Directions to the Savoy
Cross the small road here and continue straight. You’ll see a small green park in front of you with a statue of Michael Faraday on your right. Keep walking along this smaller road, Savoy Place, with the small park on your left. Walk along Savoy Place past the back entrance of The Savoy, until you get to Carting Lane.
As we get closer to the Savoy, I'll give you bit of info. It's known as one of the most grand hotels in London. It's been host to Oscar Wilde, Monet, Frank Sinatra, and Marilyn Monroe amongst others. Monet even painted the Thames from his window in the Savoy.
Let’s turn right into Carting Lane. Try and walk on the left side of the road.
Look at the big black Victorian Lamp on your left. This is the last sewage gas destructor lamp in London. As you can see, the light is on right now. It's always on because the Lamp is gas-powered.
Take a closer look at it. Try using all of your senses when you inspect the lamp. Do you want to know what gas this lamp runs on? The Victorians actually had a bit of environmental awareness. They realised – since the sewage lines are so close – they could burn some of it, turn it into methane gas, and create gas power. There’s a small black plaque at the bottom. It says the lantern continues to burn off residual bio gas. That’s right. This lamp runs on human excrement. So, the less time we stand here, the better. Let’s head further up Carting Lane.
Many find it interesting that this lamp is always lit. But to me, if it were to ever stop burning, it would mean that all the people in the surrounding area have some serious constipation.
The Savoy Theatre
As you walk up Carting Lane, the building on your right is the Savoy Theatre. Have a look at the circular dark green plaque on it. It says that this is the first public building – not just in London but in the whole world – to use electricity throughout for lighting. It was also home to many a Gilbert and Sullivan performance. They were extremely popular in the late 1800s. Enormous crowds would gather here to enter those performances every night, causing a big crush. The producer of these shows, Richard D'Oyly Carte – this is a real name – decided he needed a new system to get people into the theatre, and made people stand in a line to enter one by one. Turned out it worked, and – to the best of my knowledge – the queue was born.
Now keep walking straight on, you should be seeing Coal Hole Pub and some steps in front of you. Leave the pub for later and walk up the steps. We're going to get back onto the Strand. Turn right when you get there.
Turn right here and walk a few metres until you get to the entrance drive-way of the Savoy Hotel.
The Savoy Entrance
Look to your right. You're now standing at the entrance drive-way to the Savoy. It's got a massive silver sign and a gold ornate statue just above it.
It might not look like it at first glance, but there's something quite unique about this drive-way. Head a few steps down it. Look carefully at the cars, taxis and round-about. Do you notice anything strange?
They're going around the round-about anti-clockwise and driving on the right-hand side of the road. This is the only road in London that the cars drive down on the wrong side of the road.
Do you want to know why? As with many things in London, it all comes down to tradition. In the early days, women would always sit behind the driver in a carriage or cart. This was so that the driver could get out of the car quickly and open the door for his female passenger at their destination. However, if they were on the left side of the road -- which is the way we drive in the UK -- women with long ball gowns would be getting out on the driver's side. This meant the women had to walk all the way around the car or carriage. This was quite a lot of effort for women in a long gown, so they inverted the road rules to be the other way around.
Interestingly, when they retro-fitted and renovated the Savoy in 2011, they decided to keep it this way. Probably to the pain of all the taxi drivers.
We’ve now reached the end of our route. We’ve seen many world-famous sites in London and spoken about its rich and varied history. We talked about religion, landowners, the class system, the first police force, coffee and prostitution. We also smelt the last Victorian Gas Lamp in London. This kind of encompasses what London has to offer in a way. Well, maybe not so much the prostitution.
I hope you enjoyed walking with me. For lots of ideas and recommendations of cool things to do in London, you should head to my website at www.ctrlaltdeletelondon.com . And feel free to get in touch with me on it, too! I'm a real person, enjoying the city just like you are today, and always happy to help.
This is currently my only VoiceMap tour. By the time you listen to this, there may be another. It will start outside Charing Cross train station and will cover the some current highlights of this central London area, along with some more of London's quirkiest secrets. I hope you'll take it, and delve deeper into the alternative history of London.