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Historical Walks of London

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

London, at first glance, appears to be a vast impersonal city. Yet if you take a closer look at it you discover that it is a city of distinctive neighbourhoods.

Of villages and districts that have, over time, been absorbed into the fabric of the modern metropolis.

Only by walking through its streets can you begin to appreciate the eclectic mix of neighbourhoods to be found in the capital, and our London walks make the perfect way to discover this hidden side of London.

We offer a wide variety of London walks that cover the City and Westminster and today we thought we’d introduce you to the history of these two distinctive parts of London and explain what differentiates them

History of on Our London walks.

The visitor to London, brought up in a town or city planned and designed according to some logical scheme, may at first find the apparent lack of order or planning in London’s street pattern perplexing.

Instead of being numbered and running east-west or north-south, the streets here have names, and to add to the confusion the name of a street will often change part way along. The streets curve, wind, nearly double back on themselves.

London’s street plan would appear to have been developed by anarchists, drunks or surrealists. Yet there is a logic behind the apparent disorder: it is an historical one covering nearly two thousand years of development and redevelopment.

The area we today call Greater London covers 680 square miles and is controlled by more than thirty local government authorities, but the original London was a minuscule area covering only one square mile.

The City of London founded by the Romans in AD 43 was until 1760 surrounded by an imposing wall on three sides and by the River Thames on the fourth. Even today the City is an independent territory governing itself almost in isolation from national government. We explore and explain this our our City of London walks.

Beyond the walls of the city were villages and hamlets — Kensington, Chelsea, Bermondsey, Tower Hamlets, etc. — and these eventually grew to become the suburbs of the city itself. The fields between disappeared under a sea of brick and concrete. The winding roads and the innumerable ‘High Streets’ in London, are reminders of, on the one hand, the country lanes that connected the villages, and on the other, that each hamlet looked inward and so towards its own principal street.

To add to the confusion there is also the fact that Greater London contains within its area not one but two cities which developed quite independently of each other — the Cities of London and of Westminster. It is the district in which these two cities border each other that this chapter will examine, the district flanking the double-named street Strand/Fleet Street, the area of the Inns of Court, the Royal Courts of Justice, of the Temple, Lincoln’s Inn and Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

In 1060 King Edward the Confessor moved his residence from the ancient City of London westward along the riverbank to a location next to a monastic settlement that would eventually become Westminster Abbey. As we explain on our Westminster London walks, this was to have a profound effect on the development of London, separating the City of London, which would continue to develop as a commercial and financial centre, from the City of Westminster, which would become the seat of royal and later parliamentary government.

In Edward’s day the City was connected to Westminster by a sandy bridle path along the north bank of the Thames. This path was later replaced by a road which in Westminster was called the Strand (as in beach) and in the City was called Fleet Street (after the River Fleet which flowed at its eastern end).

At a point on the road that was originally unoccupied land a chain had been stretched as one of the outer defences of the City of London. This place was described in 1301 as ‘a void place extra Barram Novi Templi’ (outside Temple Bar).

Temple Bar derived its name from the Knights Templar who in 1162 had founded their English headquarters about halfway along this road. By 1351 the chain had been replaced by a permanent gateway with a prison above it and was now the administrative boundary of the two cities.

In those days merchants, noblemen and the general populace still lived largely within the walls of the City and there were open fields between the City and Westminster.

By the time of Queen Elizabeth I the noblemen, in order to be closer to the royal court, had built houses along the riverbank south of the Strand. In 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed some nine-tenths of the City and now many wealthy men and aristocrats took the opportunity to settle outside of the City itself.

They built in the area north of the Strand, the part of Westminster known today as the West End. Here they created spacious and well ordered squares in deliberate contrast to the narrow, treeless streets and winding alleyways of the older City.

The latter part of the seventeenth century saw intense speculative development, and stylish Palladian townhouses were built, in marked contrast to the less sophisticated pomp of the merchants’ houses and the public buildings of the City.

Each city represented a different ethos; one a city of aristocratic fops seeking preference at court as a means of supporting their elegant but vacuous lifestyles, the other a city of Puritans, Presbyterians and Calvinists ruthlessly dedicated to the pursuit of profit through shipping, insurance, financial speculation and general trade. The City merchants deeply disapproved of the fripperies of the West End with its expense on fine clothing, carriages, the theatre, literature and art. In turn the West End found the moneymakers boorish.

All this history is featured on our West End and City of London walks on which you can walk through the very streets where the history was made and where the two distinctive cities evolved.