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A New Look At London

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

There are many ways to see the sights of London. Coach and bus tours are extremely popular and get you round the siihts, such as Big Ben and The Tower of London. But with coach tours you’re stuck behind glass and at the mercy of the itinerary set by the tour company itself.

Likewise, you can join one of the many guided London walks that take in the well known as well as the more hidden aspects of London.

Whereas this is a far more preferrable way to see London you’re still at the mercy of the guide and the itinerary set by the walkining tour company. In addition with guided London walks you often find yourself crammed on to a tour with 20, 30 or even 50 other people. As with a coach tour you might see something that attracts your attention or tweaks your interest and want to stop and look at it. But if it’s not on the intinerary then you have no choice but to carry on with the tour and make a mental note to, hopefully, come back and take a closer look at it the next time you’re in London.

The best way to see London is to do it under your own steam and in your own time. With our free Harry Potter London Tour you can do just that. You choose when to do the tour (so you don’t have to be at a sesignated start point for a specific time), you set the pace and spend as much or as little time as you like at a particular site.

But, becasue the walk included step by step directions you are never truly on your own.  Thousands of people have now discovered this great tour and many of them have written to say how much they enjoyed it and how easy it was to follow.

So why not become one of the free-spirits who venture out on their own (or at least as a family) and see London at your own pace and when you want to see it? Head on over to our Harry Potter London Tour.

London Characters On Our Walks

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

On our City of London walks we wander along Cheapside and turn into Ironmonger Lane. On the wall of the building on the corner is an image of one of the most famous Londoners ever St Thomas Becket.

It marks the site of the birthplace of the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury and is an important part of the history that we cover on our London walks since it gives the opportunity to tell our walkers about the office of England’s chief prelate.

In the spring of  AD597 St Augustine landed in England with instructions from Pope Gregory to convert its inhabitants to Christianity.

As a deacon in Rome, Gregory had been much taken with a group of fair haired slaves he had seen for sale in the market place. When he asked their nationality he was told that they were Angles, to which he made the famous, punning riposte that they were “not Angles but Angles.”

The story is probably apocryphal and its veracity is difficult to ascertain today, but certainly something persuaded Gregory that the Angles were worth converting to Christianity, and so he persuaded St Augustine and a band of fellow monks to set sail as missionaries and so it was that in the Spring of AD597, Augustine arrived in Kent and set about his duty of bringing the Good News of Christ to its pagan inhabitants.

The missionaries were received with courtesy by Ethelbert of Kent, a pagan King who was married to a Christian wife. The King agreed to grant Augustine an audience and so the two men met at Thanet, with Ethelbert seated in the open and Augustine and his fellow monks standing before him with their standards, a silver cross and a portrait of Christ, placed where the King could see them.

Having listened to Augustine’s message, Ethelbert told the missionary that he and his people could not be expected to abandon the religion that they had always followed, but he granted permission for the monks to go to Canterbury and preach their message to anyone who would listen.

Eventually, however, Ethelbert did find himself moved by Augustine’s message and on the following Whit Sunday, the King was baptised at Canterbury and within a few years most of his subjects had followed suit.

Thus began the conversion of  England to the Christian religion, as gradually its message spread throughout the other Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. Augustine was made Archbishop of the English and, having established his See at Canterbury, he founded a monastery there. From this foundation eventually grew Christ Church Cathedral, which today is an awe-inspiring mix of Romanesque and Perpendicular Gothic architecture.

Of course on our London walks we tell the story of the murder of Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.

At a little after 4pm on December 29th 1170, four Norman knights – who were responding to an outburst against the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket, by King Henry 2nd, “What Miserable drones and traitors have I nourished…who allow their lord to be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric,” arrived at Canterbury Cathedral and murdered Becket.

In so doing they sparked off one of the greatest saint-hero cults of the Middle Ages and turned the unappealingly arrogant, haughty and self-centred Becket into a posthumous international icon.

Within three years the dead arch-bishop had been canonised and the shrine of St Thomas at Canterbury soon became one of the Christian world’s greatest places of pilgrimage, and countless miracles were said to have taken place there.

Shakespearean Wanderings

Friday, May 15th, 2009

Shakespeare’s London

As our Shakespeare’s London walks make their way along Park Street – on the south side of the River Thames from St. Paul’s Cathedral – we pass an alley called Rose Alley. On an office building nearby there is a blue plaque marking the site of the Rose Playhouse “The first Elizabethan Theatre on Bankside.”

In 1587 Philip Henslow,a carpenter turned theatrical impresario,purchased a plot of land on this site. Today just the aforementioned nondescript alleyway and blue plaque commemorate it, although its remains were re-discovered in 1989 and are now preserved under the unsightly office block.

Indeed, there is little on the site today to suggest that this is perhaps one of the most important theatrical sites in the world. Why? Because it was on this spot in 1592 that Shakespeare emerged from his so-called “lost years” and stepped into the spotlight of documented history as a playwright whose plays were beginning to pull in the audiences as well as if not better than the more established University educated playwrights such as Robert Greene, of whom more later.

Philip Henslowe was a business man to whom the takings of the various plays he staged were important. In early 1592 he had spent the considerable sum of £105 (almost £50,000 by today’s values) renovating the Rose Playhouse. We know this because he kept detailed records of his income and expenditure.

According to his diary, now preserved at Dulwich College, his newly refurbished theatre re-opened on 19th February 1592 with Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. The attendance was poor and Henslowe’s share of the takings was a measly 17 shillings and thrupence, the equivalent of 86 pence today.

Two days later another Robert Greene play Orlando fared even worse and brought in just 16 shillings and 6 pence. Things improved slightly on the 26th February when Marlowes The Jew of Malta brought in 50 shillings.

But then, on the 3rd March 1592, Henslowe records that he staged a play called Harry the sixth.

This play broke box office records and netted him 3 pounds 16 shillings and 8 pence, close to £2,000 in today’s money. Three days later another performance of the same play brought in £3, whereas another Robert Greene play A Looking Glass For London and England made just 7 shillings.

In all Henslowe would stage Henry V1 fourteen times in the next three months and would make some £30 in the process.

And we know today, although the audience then probably didn’t know – and to be honest even if they had of known they probably wouldn’t have cared much – that the plays author was William Shakespeare.

So by 1592 Shakespeare’s talent as a writer had seen him trounce some of the more established playwrights at the box office, and for Robert Greene at least the prospect of a man who he apparently considered to be an ill educated country bumpkin daring to win better audiences than him was, quite simply, too much.

Robert Greene’s is a sad story. He was an educated man who had attained a Masters degree from Cambridge University. He had a wife and a son, but he spent her inheritance and then abandoned both of them.

By 1592 he had sunk as low as any man of letters could. He was eeking out an existence churning out pamphlets on the cardsharps, the bawdy houses and the brothels of low-life London, the London that he knew only too well. He had a mistress who bore him another son and without any apparent sense of irony the destitute Greene named the infant Fortunatus.

By August 1592 Greene health was failing rapidly and he would have found himself dying in the gutter had it not been for the charity of Mr and Mrs Isam, a poverty stricken shoemaker and his wife, who took Greene together with his mistress and infant son into their lice ridden hovel here on Dowgate – a stones throw from St Paul’s Catehdral- and a thoroughfare that we cover on several of our historical City of London walks.

On June 11th 1592, following a riot of the apprentices at one of the Southwark theatres. The authorities reacted by ordering the closure of the theatres. The actors left London and went on tour around the country.

Greene though lay dying on his lice-ridden bed of straw. His thoughts turned bitterly to those actors who were off in the provinces performing his plays and profiting from his creations.

As the resentment boiled within him he focussed it on one man in particular. The young upstart who, without the benefit of a university education, had dared to trounce him at the box office.

Greene penned a letter, which was intended for Christopher Marlow, Thomas Nash and George Peel, fellow playwrights. In that letter he made a blistering attack on William Shakespeare. It read:-

Base minded men all three of you, if by my misery you be not warned. For unto non of you sought those burrs to cleave those puppets that spake from our mouths. Those antics garnished in our colours. Yes. Trust them not, for there is an upstart crow beautified with our feathers,that with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide, supposes that he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you. And being an absolute Johannes Factotum is in his conceipt the only Shakescene in the country.

This is just one of the many anecdotes about the immortal Bard that you will hear on our Shakespeare in London walks.

The Murder of Kit Marlow

Monday, April 20th, 2009

On our walks of London that take us down to Greenwich we cover several intriguing stories.However, with the birthday of William Shakespeare on 23rd April drawing ever closer, we thought we would take you back to the intriguing world of 16th century London.

Walks that cover this exciting era include, Shakespeare’s London and, an occasional tour that we do for groups entitles Deadly Doings in Deptford. On that London walk we cover the murder of Christopher Marlow, the leading dramatist of his age, who career came to an abrupt halt when he was cut down in a tavern in Depfort.

Those of you who take a riverboat from Central London down to Greenwich, will pass on the right, shortly before arriving at Greenwich Pier a line of warehouses that gaze out across the river.

In the 1590′s the site now occupied by these warehouses was occupied by the house of a widow by the name of Elizabeth Bull.

Deptford  was then a busy naval dockyard and port from which ships voyaged back and forth to the Continent, and Elizabeth Bull’s house was not, as is often alleged, a low-life tavern.

Dame Bull was not your average London landlady but a lady of some standing whon  had important  Court connections. Her sister, Blanche, was the god-daughter of Blanche Parry, who had been the much loved nanny of the infant Elizabeth 1st and was a “cousin” of Lord Burghley, one of Elizabeth 1st’s most powerful Statesmen.

Now widowed, Dame Bull hired out rooms and served meals. It is highly likely that her home was a safe house for Government Agents or spies.

On 30th May 1593 a murder was committed in that house, in a room that had been hired for a private meeting by four men:- Robert Poley, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Christopher Marlow.

All of them had dealings on the shady side of the Elizabethan spy world. One of them, Christopher Marlow, was acknowledged as the greatest poet and playwright of his generation. If he is known at all today, it is vaguely that he is remembered as a playwright who wrote the immortal lines about Helen of Troy: “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?”

But Marlow was also a braggart and a drunkard, a man of fiery temperament who loved to shock and who, as he arrived for his fateful meeting on that long ago May day, was about to be arraigned on charges of atheism, the ultimate punishment for which was burning at the stake.

At around 6pm on the evening of May 30th Frizer, Ingram and Poley were seated on a bench, “cheek by jowl,” as one of them later reported, in front of a trestle table. They were playing an Elizabethan version of backgammon. The only other furniture in the beamed, dark, low-ceiling room was a bed, upon which Marlow was recovering from too much wine.

Ingram Frizer, sitting in the middle of the three, said over his shoulder, that the bill for their day’s food and drink must be paid to their hostess. Marlow protested loudly.  His share of the reckoning is too large, he slurred. Frizer  replied that the share was only right.

Suddenly Marlow lurched to his feet and seized Frizer’s dagger — kept in his belt at the small of his back, “Spanish style” — and struck him on the head, a superficial gash that bled profusely. He struck him again, opening a second wound. Frizer struggled to his feet, grabbed Marlow by the wrist, and forced the dagger into his eye. Marlow fell to the floor, instantly dead.

Frizer claimed that he had had no choice and had acted purely in self defence. At least that is what he insisted to the coroner the next day, June 1, 1593, as the coroner and his jury of 16 men viewed the room and the body.

On June 2, in the  churchyard of St. Mary’s, Deptford, Christopher Marlow was buried in an unmarked grave. Two weeks later, Frizer  was pardoned by Queen Elizabeth I.

There is something very suspicious about the death of Marlow and the haste of the burial coupled with the Royal pardon meted out to Frizer have the whiff of a government cover up about them.

It seems highly likely that during and immediately after his studies at Cambridge University, Marlow had been employed abroad as an anti Catholic spy. He knew an awful lot about the seedier side of the Elizabethan police state. The day before his death an informer had supplied the Privy Council with concrete evidence of his blasphemies. Is possible that Marlow panicked and made for Deptford intending to take ship and flee abroad?  Did the Privy Council set the spies Frizer, Skeres and Poley on his trail and, fearful of the embarrassment his testimony might cause the government, instruct them to assassinate him? Did the men waylay him in Deptford and invite him to join them for a days carousing before he set sail? And as the day wore on, did Marlow suddenly realise that the smiles and ribaldry of his companions were false and that they were in fact his gaolers and executioners? Was it this sudden realisation that caused him to grab Frizer’s dagger in a desperate attempt at self preservation?

The truth is, we’ll never know for sure, just as we’ll never know what literary treasures Marlowe’s untimely death robbed us of. For, as he himself wrote, almost prophetically, in Dr Faustus, “Cut is the branch that might have grown full strength.”

There’s More To London on our Walks.

Monday, April 13th, 2009

Many people who visit London miss out on some of the great treasures that this wonderful City has to offer.

It has always been important to us that we show people the best that London has to offer on our Walks. To that end we are very careful to ensure that our London Walking Tour routes are both fact-filled and location led.

What we mean by location led is that we want you to have lots to look at in the course of your London walk with us. We want to take you past places that have the “wow” factor, make you look at London through new eyes and have you longing to know what a particular building  or location actually is.

Of course are guides, who include experts on particular topics as well as top flight blue badge London guides, will be able to answer any questions you might have and will be able to tell you what any location passed on our tour is. But there’s something very special about noticing something yourself, having your curiosity aroused by something you see as you walk London with us.

That is why our London walks are structured the way that they are. We pay as much attention to what you pass en route as to the actual locations featured on a particular walking tour.

And that is why when it comes to walks of London we really are in a league of our own.