West End Tour
WEST END, LONDON, ENGLAND June 30th – Sometimes the best laid plans are nought when Mother Nature takes her way. The longest of the www.AudioSteps.com London walking tours was of the West End, which is 4.9 miles long and has 30 point-of-interest stops. It is a grueling walk to tackle in the three or four hours as I had planned, even in good weather. Following lunch on Saturday, after getting a bit of rest from the morning’s walking tour of the Tower and City, I head out into what became a very rainy afternoon’s exploration of the West End of London. I must emphasize that, when I say rain, I don’t mean a light drizzle such as we get in West Texas, I mean that steady drum of heavy drops and slashing wind that washes London so frequently. This is the land of rain gear: umbrellas, rubbers and oil skins! Though the record of this part of the tour might be abbreviated due to quality and quantity of photographs, a direct impact of the heavy weather, the excitement of the adventure was no less diminished.
The tour begins at the Westminster Tube Station (Exit 4) on the Embankment at Bridge Street. The huge ferris wheel built for the Millennium Celebration dominates the riverscape. It was opened in March 2000, originally called “The Millennium Wheel“, and was sponsored and partially funded by British Airways. The project was the vision of David Marks and Julia Barfield, a husband and wife architect team. The wheel design was used as a metaphor for the end of the 20th century, and time turning into the new millennium. Since then, it has morphed into “The London Eye” and is the United Kingdom’s most popular paid visitor attraction with some 3.5 million riders per year. Thirty-two pods, each weighing some 20,000 pounds hold approximately 25 passengers each and travel at a pace of 26 centimeters per second, allowing passengers to step on and off without the wheel stopping on the 30-minute ride. I have to admit, I was never inclined to wait in the long lines and put up with the crush of passengers in each of the bus-sized pods on the huge wheel!
Click to see a map of this walking tour: London-West End Walking Tour Map
Right off the bat, a real surprise: At the very beginning of the walking tour, we find Brian William Haw (born 1949) who is an English protestor famous for living in a “war protest peace camp” in London’s Parliament Square. Although he had begun his protest before the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Haw became a symbol of the general anti-war protest movement over the policies of both Britain and the United States in Afghanistan and later in Iraq. He was voted “Most Inspiring Political Figure” at the 2007 Channel 4 Political Awards (London). On June 2nd 2001, he began his quiet, peaceful one-man political protest. Now, he is often joined by other volunteers. By his own account, he was first inspired to take up his vigil after seeing the images and information produced in England by the Mariam Appeal, an anti-sanctions campaign. Haw justifies his protest on a need to improve his children’s future. He only leaves his makeshift campsite in order to attend court hearings, surviving on food and donations brought by supporters.
The juxtaposition of the statues of both Churchill and Cromwell with the peace protesters camped at their feet in front of Parliament was an ironic image. I gave them some spare change out of some spark of empathy from the days of my youth. Churchill’s scowl, looking down on the motley crew huddled in the rain, couldn’t have seemed more appropriate!
Westminster Abbey is one of the great benchmark sights in London. Built at the site of an ancient monastery by King Edward the Confessor (last king from the House of Wessex, who ruled from 1042-1066) and dedicated to the memory of Saint Peter the Apostle, the correct title of this famous abbey is “The Collegiate Church of St. Peter in Westminster“. This is the “West-minster”, in contrast with the “East-minster” which is St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is peculiar in that it is a place of worship under the direct control of the monarch, and operates without the supervision of a Bishop. The original abbey was consecrated 28 December 1065, just in time for the Norman invader William the Conqueror to be crowned there in 1066. With only two exceptions, every British monarch since then has been crowned in it’s hallowed Sanctuary. Those exceptions, Edward V (murdered in the Tower of London in 1483) and Edward VIII (who abdicated his throne in 1936), were never crowned.
Little of Edward the Confessor’s original church remains, but in his shrine is the original “Coronation Chair”, sometimes known as St. Edwards Chair after the fact that he was England’s only canonised king. However, Edward the Confessor never sat on this chair for it was actually commissioned by King Edward I in 1296, long after the Saint King’s death. The less confusing, and more common name is “King Edward’s Chair”, which would actually cover the connection to both monarchs. The seven hundred year old carved oak chair was designed to hold the historic Coronation Stone of Scotland, known as the “Stone of Scone“, after it was captured and brought to London by King Edward I. Though the stone was returned to it resting place in 1996 – Scone Abbey near Perth, Scotland – it is brought from Scotland and still used in British coronation ceremonies.
Much of what we see today was built in the Gothic style from the 13th to the 16th Centuries, and the Chapter House inside looks almost exactly as it did when completed in the early 13th Century. There are over 600 monuments and 3,000 people buried inside the abbey, including Kings and Queens of England. The tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer, the first great English poet, was the inspiration for the famous “Poet’s Corner” located in the South transept of the Sanctuary.
Today would not be the day to tour Westminster Abbey, I would try to get back here tomorrow and attend Sunday services in this glorious church. For now, on with the walking tour up Parliament Street to Whitehall Place, past 10 Downing Street and the Horse Guards, to Trafalgar Square.
Covent Garden, on the eastern fringes of the West End, once was a real garden owned by Westminster Abbey and was originally called “Convent Garden“. It was confiscated in 1540 by King Henry VIII, along with the rest of the Westminster Abbey Estate, when all monasteries and convents were taken by the crown.
After the Reformation, the 1st Earl of Bedford acquired the Covent Garden land from King Edward VI in 1552. Not much happened to the area, other than the construction of a manor house and gardens, until the 4th Earl of Bedford hired London’s first significant architect of the modern period, Inigo Jones (1573 – 1652), to design what is considered to be London’s first residential project developed around a central square. The central buildings you see today were added in the mid-1800’s by architect Charles Fowler to replace the less substantial and fire-prone stalls and carts. The Bedford Family succeeded in controlling this area of London for over 350 years, from its acquisition in 1552 to its disposition in 1918 by Herbrand Russell, the 11th Duke of Bedford, for a sum in excess of £2,000,000. The strategic location, on the east end of the West End, close to The City of London, is adjacent to or contains the Royal Opera House, Drury Lane, the Theatre Museum, the Theatre Royal and the London Transport Museum.
In 1631, the 4th Earl of Bedford commissioned Inigo Jones to also construct a church while his work was proceeding on the adjacent piazza at Covent Garden. It is said that, in order to save some money, the Earl instructed his architect to make the church no more remarkable than a barn. To that, Mr. Jones is said to have replied to his benefactor, “Well, then, you shall have the handsomest barn in England!” So began St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden.
St. Paul’s Church off King street (not to be confused with St. Paul’s Cathedral) came to be known as “The Actors’ Church“, serving the needs of the new neighborhood developed by the Earl of Bedford on this 16th Century real estate land play. In keeping with its theatre tradition, Professor Higgins meets Liza Doolittle here in the play “My Fair Lady”, and several notable actors are remembered within its walls: Boris Karloff, Vivien Leigh, and Charlie Chaplin, among others. The gardens host an annual Mayfair and Puppet Festival, harking to the story of Samuel Pepys seeing a Punch & Judy puppet show here in 1662.
About a quarter mile west of Covent Garden is Leicester Square, which got its name from the adjacent mansion owned by the Earl of Leicester. Built after the Great Fire of 1666, this public square is now home to the Empire and Odeon Theaters, venues for major cinema premier events. It is a pleasant and popular place to visit and rest in the middle of this huge urban landscape.
A live interactive webcam showing scenes from Leicester Square is available at the following link:
Marked by the iconic statue located in the middle of the fountain, which is said to be the first aluminum statue in the world, Piccadilly Circus got its name from an Elizabethan tailor, Robert Baker, who made and sold shirt collars called “piccadills” nearby. He bought land near here and his house came to be known as Piccadill Hall.
The famous statue is actually not of Eros, as it is commonly described, it was a memorial designed to honor the Seventh Earl of Shaftsbury and the statue actually depicts “The Angel of Christian Charity”, to recognize the charitable work of the Earl. “Eros” was spirited away from its original location in the center of the circus during World War II for safekeeping and, when returned, was relocated to the side of the circus in its present location.
Passing down Piccadilly, crossing Regent Street, the rain gets heavier and the skies darken. Quickly turning into The Ritz Hotel from the broad covered sidewalk in front, I shake off the water, fold my umbrella and pause for a cup of tea in the parlor. The warm liquid soothes the bite of the weather outside and the aroma of the Earl Grey tea leaves my head refreshed.
But, it is getting late and I cannot tarry, so out I stride into the late Saturday afternoon squall and hang a left before the Green Park tube station, along the “diagonal path” into Green Park. Here, during good weather, you can sit in one of the many deck chairs spread out on the lawn and an attendant will appear out of nowhere to serve you. Green Park was named such due to the absence of flowers, and was a preferred location for both duels and balloon ascents in years gone by. Nearby is Spencer House, once the ancestral home of the House of Spencer – the late Diana Princess of Wales’ family. You will notice several beautiful markers indicating the “Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk” set into the diagonal path you are following toward Buckingham Palace.
The Victoria Memorial was built in 1911, ten years after Queen Victoria’s death, at this westernmost end of The Mall facing the most recognized façade of Buckingham Palace. The gold figure on the top is the image of “Victory”. Queen Victoria’s likeness on the east side of the monument has overlooked many historical events which have occurred on The Mall, the ceremonial approach to Buckingham Palace. This is also the most popular location to view the famous “Changing of the Guard” at Buckingham Palace, when (during good weather) the area is packed with thousands of spectators.
The official residence of Her Majesty the Queen in London, Buckingham Palace, has not always been a royal residence. It was owned by the Dukes of Buckingham before it was bought by King George III in 1761. Queen Victoria was the first regent to actually take up residence here in 1837. By 1914 a series of major remodeling projects came to an end and left the Palace in it’s present configuration. The view from the Victoria Memorial is of the “back” of the Palace, which actually was designed to face the wonderful Gardens to the west.