Our guide was loud and theatrical, and he had no problem making himself heard by the crowd of people clustered hopefully around him. “It had to happen sometime,” he boomed. “A North American telling you about those two icons of English literature, Dickens and Shakespeare!” I was on a tour organised by London Walks, an exploration of the City of London and its literary icons.
A London Walks Tour
David, our guide, knew his stuff. Snippets from the whole history of London, from the layers of Saxon society to Victorian prisons and street urchins. He told us how Shakespeare’s London was dominated by three buildings: St Paul’s Cathedral and London Bridge (both now rebuilt), and the Tower of London. As he spoke, he brought the old city to life, even where there was very little still to be seen.
Even for someone like me, who has been visiting London, on and off, for more decades than I care to remember, there was something new to be learnt. We passed St Paul’s, where I pondered the contrast between the old cathedral and the tall and ultra-modern buildings around it, and David stopped to show us the place where public proclamations would have been made in Shakespeare’s time, a sort of 16th century equivalent of the daily TV news broadcast.
Pearly Kings and Queens
As we walked, David talked about the names of the streets, linking them with the origins of the city and the mediaeval guilds. We saw the house in which Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit lived, and the site where Pip in Great Expectations stopped when he first came to London, before arriving at the Guildhall, scene of Pickwick’s famous legal case.
Here I was reminded of one of the joys of walking round London: you so often come across something you were not expecting. Approaching the Guildhall, we spotted the tail end of the annual Pearly Kings and Queens procession. This is an annual tradition that first arose among London costermongers (apple sellers) in the 19th century. A Pearly King and Queen (so called because of their elaborate costumes covered with pearl buttons) are elected, and parade through the streets with a train of decorated vehicles collecting money for charity.
Conjuring the Past
London would not just have looked different in Shakespeare’s time, David told us, it would have smelt and sounded different, too. He conjured up the smells of the tanneries and the meat market, and the screams of patients undergoing primitive surgery, so vividly that we were momentarily transported back in time. He drew the contrast with the “rich” end of the city, where the goldsmiths and the embroiders plied their more genteel trades. Even in places where the city has been swallowed up in concrete, he found evidence of that hidden past, in old guild plaques, or windows barred up to prevent entry by child thieves.
We visited the Shakespeare memorial at St Mary Aldermanbury, and stopped at the church of St Bartholomew the Great, which has featured in several films, including Shakespeare in Love and Four Weddings and a Funeral, before finishing at the old Smithfield Market. Here we saw the Pearly King and his retinue again, stopping for well deserved drinks at a local hostelry now that their procession had ended.
The walk was over, and people clustered around David, seeking recommendations for local pubs and restaurants. For myself, I went away determined to dig out some of my unread Dickens novels.
A few practicalities
- London Walks cover a variety of subjects, from Dickens and Shakespeare, to Jack the Ripper or The Beatles. Walks are conducted by professionally qualified guides.
- All walks start and end near to tube stations, and take place as advertised, regardless of rain or other weather conditions! They last for approximately two hours.
- There is no need to book in advance, just turn up a few minutes before the start of the walk. However it is possible to pre-book private walks for large groups.