“No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Since Dr Samuel Johnson uttered these words to James Boswell in 1777 opinions have differed on whether being tired of London is just that for obviously there is plenty of life elsewhere.
What is evident is a first time visitor can become very tired of London in just one day so here is a suggested RLT (Reduced London Tour) which will keep you away from tired, tacky and amazingly expensive tourist traps, will cover a great deal of ground and give you a real insight into the long history and dynamic present of a great world city. So let’s start our day long RLT!
Whether you are already in central London or coming into its many stations your first stop is the British Museum on Great Russell Street. This is close to Holborn Underground Station (Central & Piccadilly Lines) and Russell Square (Piccadilly Line) but I suggest also take a London Taxi for the short trip to take in London at street level but make sure you have your Oyster Card which will be the cheapest way to cover the extensive ground and transport modes on your RLT.
09.30 British Museum
The Museum celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2003 and as you approach it you will notice its great portico. This is based on the portico of the Bank of Ireland (Originally the Houses of Parliament) in Dublin. The architect’s Robert Smirke’s father (Robert Smirke, The Elder) was an illustrator who painted in people on prints and had worked on prints of the Dublin building.
The origins of the British Museum lie in the will of the physician, naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). Sloane wanted his collection of more than 71,000 objects, library and herbarium to be preserved intact after his death. He bequeathed it to King George II for the nation in return for payment of £20,000 to his heirs. Today your entrance is free, which is an attractive price.
Stride boldly into the front entrance and keep going and before you know it you will emerge into a space of wonder; The Great Court and Reading Room. Designed by Norman Foster Partners to cover what was a hidden courtyard the lightness and elegance of the parabolic glass roof design is a spectacle. At the centre is the Reading Room where Karl Marx and many others studied and researched. This has been wonderfully restored and is a confident Victorian building constructed with cast iron ribs and with an interesting exhibition on its “ticket holders” who cover the great and good of science & literature.
Off to your left of the Great Court follow the signs to the Egyptian Room to view an almost overpowering collection of sarcophagi and mummies from the Egyptian dynasties. First on the way in stop at the Rosetta Stone, a stellae proclaiming the good works and divinity of the Pharaoh Ptolemy VI Ephiphanieas written in hieroglyph, demotic and Greek which was the key to deciphering the language of ancient Egypt and understanding its great civilisation.
After this follow the signs to the front of the building to view the marbles from the Parthenon of Athens. These realistic carvings attributed to Periciles and they depict the triumphal procession of the Athenians and offerings to their god, Athena in thanks for victory. The Elgin Collection in fact contains other artefacts from the Acropolis and is displayed in a special gallery. The arrival of this collection in London in 1816 was controversial at the time with Lord Byron condemning it being taken from Greece in “Childe Harold” and John Keats praising it in an ode. This debate has been reinforced by revelations of botched cleaning in the 30’s. It should be remembered however that in the museum they can be viewed in the context of the works of other civilisations and greatest damage to the Acropolis of Athens was caused by the conversion of the Parthenon to a Christian church in 450 A.D., the explosion in 1687 when the Parthenon was ruined and the botched restoration of 1923. You could spend a week here and not see all the collections, with your appetite teased head out, across Museum Street towards Covent Garden as you can’t waste time on your RLT!
11.00 walk down to Covent Garden by Endell St. and 7 Dials.
The modern story of Covent Garden began in the 1630s when land formerly belonging to Westminster Abbey, ‘the Convent Garden’ was redeveloped by the 4th Earl of Bedford. Today overlooked by the Royal Opera House the former vegetable & produce market has been restored to a thriving urban hub with numerous shops and street theatre, particularly on the Piazza in front of Inigo Jone’s St. Paul’s Church at the western end. At the other end of the piazza you come to the London Transport Museum.
11.30 Transport Museum, Covent Garden Piazza.
The first section of the London Underground opened from Paddington to Farringdon on 10 January 1863. A second underground line, the District, began operating five years later. The two were eventually linked to create the Circle line in 1884. The early underground was a huge engineering achievement and very well used, but had one big disadvantage. Its steam locomotives created a permanent sulphurous fug in the stations and tunnels.
This museum is child friendly with the opportunity to “drive” a tube train and speak to the “tunnelers”. It tells the story of how the Tube, trams and Buses made the world’s first mega-city possible (Reduction on your entrance with your Oyster Card). It also has a good shop and café but ignore the latter for the RLT is heading to its lunch time pit stop for refuelling.
Walk back towards St. Paul’s, continue down Henrietta Street and pedestrianised New Row until you come to one of London’s great squares, Trafalgar Square. Turn left and go to the fine church with the attractive steeple, St Martin’s in the Fields.
13.00 Lunch, crypt St Martin’s in the Fields, Trafalgar Square
This handsome church designed by James Gibbs, and consecrated in 1726 has a famous musical tradition and a tradition of reaching out to the underprivileged. It has served as a design template for many churches elsewhere including St. George’s in Dublin and numerous churches in the Americas. It is well worth seeing the interior and there is a market to the side. Downstairs you will find the excellent Café in the Crypt where you can have lunch, relax and soak in the atmosphere.
14.00 No 11 bus from Trafalgar Sq. To City via Strand, Fleet Street & St. Paul’s.
Refreshed take this bus towards the City of London from the side of St. Martin’s. This bus goes the length of London from the City to Fulham and is the best “free tour” covering many of the sites including Parliament Square, remember to use your Oyster Card! In this direction you will head down the Strand (originally the edge of the Thames) and on the right you will see the Savoy Hotel and Theatre and ahead of you the you will see the Church of St Clement Danes, the only church outside the City of London rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren and adopted as its church by the RAF after being destroyed in the blitz of 1941. On the right is Somerset House, former home of the British Admiralty and a huge renaissance palazzo on the Thames designed by William Chambers, home to the Courtauld Art Collection and much more.
The pillar topped by a Griffin marks the boundary of the City of London and soon up Ludgate Hill the impressive sight of Wren’s masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral comes into sight. The first stones of the new Church were laid on 17th December, 1672, by the Lord Mayor of London. Continue past St Paul’s (keep it for another day) and alight at Cannon Street station. Look back towards St Paul’s and you’ll realise the truth of Wren’s epitaph “If you seek his monument, look around you”. Go up Walbrook (originally a stream by the city walls, it still flows underneath) and you come to St Stephen Walbrook. Go inside to see the best (and only symmetrical) Wren church interior. There are 37 Wren churches of the 49 he built still extant and a number are a short walk from here including St Mary Abchurch and St Botolph’s. There is also London’s oldest synagogue, Bevis Marks, which is built in the same style and presumed to be by Wren or one of his pupils.
At the top of Walbrook turn left and in the front of a 60’s office block you will find the Temple of Mithras. This is a Roman temple dating from the 3rd Century, The cult of Mithras was a Persian cult with adherents in the Roman Army who were attracted to it being an all male cult. It has many similarities with the later Christian worship including redemption through a blood sacrifice and its temples were the model for the Christian basilicas.
Across the road the modern building on the Apex is No. 1 Poultry designed by James Stirling. In front of you at the apex of this building is the Mansion House and the Bank of England, “The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street”. Walk down King William Street to Monument and ahead of you behind the underground station is the Monument built to commemorate the Great Fire which devastated the City of London in 1666. Standing 202 feet high, the Monument is the tallest isolated stone column in the world. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke and constructed of Portland stone in 1671-7, the simple Doric column is topped by a flaming urn of copper symbolising the Great Fire. Climb the spiral staircase of 311 steps to the balcony at the top and you are rewarded with breathtaking views over the city in all directions, as well as a certificate of achievement.
15.00 Docklands Light Railway (DLR) – Bank to Island Gardens via Canary Wharf. Go into Monument Station (which is joined to Bank) and find the DLR and get into the front seats and you will enjoy “driving” these driverless trains through the tunnel before you emerge for a tour of London’s Docklands taking in the impressive new financial district of Canary Wharf and alighting at the station before Greenwich, Island Gardens.
Go into the park across from the station because now you are going to walk under the River Thames to Greenwich under the Thames through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel!
The riverside at Island Gardens gives a splendid view of Maritime Greenwich and in front of you (go to the left of the tunnel entrance)the Royal Naval College is across the river framing Inigo Jones Queens House. Begun for Charles II by architect John Webb, it was completed by Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Vanburgh as the Royal Hospital charity, founded by William and Mary in 1694 to care for disabled and veteran sailors and behind it on the hill is Greenwich Observatory and Park. This vista and these buildings form a UNESCO World Heritage site which can only be properly seen from this view point.
Designed by Sir Alexander Binnie, the Greenwich Foot Tunnel opened in August 1902 so that south London residents could go to work in the docks on the Isle of Dogs and is my favourite price, free! So take the atmospheric lift and walk under the river and emerge at Greenwich to briefly enjoy Greenwich waterfront & Cutty Sark clipper ship –which is being restored before going down to Greenwich Pier.
16.20 boat from Greenwich (City Cruises) to Waterloo Pier.
Remember you get a third off the fare with your Oyster card as they don’t go out of their way to tell you. Enjoy London the way it should be seen from the river as you go past Canary Wharf, Tower Bridge, Tower of London and head up past St. Paul’s and the Tate Modern to Westminster alighting at Waterloo Pier.
18.30 London Eye
The London Eye is the world’s tallest observation wheel at 135m high. Located on the banks of the River Thames it offers unrivalled views over London. It is a dramatic work of sculpture in its own right by Bayfield and Marks, Architects, is like a bicycle wheel supported on one side as it dramatically hangs over the River Thames. Book tickets online beforehand and collect them in the automatic machines when you arrive.
19.00 On foot across Westminster Bridge taking in the famous vista which the poet Wordsworth immortalised.
COMPOSED UPON WESTMINSTER BRIDGE, SEPT. 3, 1802
EARTH has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
Past the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, up Toothill Street and turn right at 55 Broadway (London Underground’s headquarters above St. James Park Station adorned with sculptures by Moore, Epstein, Gill and others)thru Queen Anne’s Gate to St James Park.
View Buckingham & St James Palaces, Horseguard’s Parade and Churchill’s War Bunker. Up the Carlton Steps to Piccadilly, onto Leicester Square and to Chinatown which is in a block off Shaftsbury Avenue bounded by Lisle Street and Gerrard Street.
20.00 Chinese Meal in Chinatown and afterwards home for a well earned rest. The restaurant I’d recommend for cheap eats and atmosphere here is Wong Kei in Wardour Street. Spread over 4 floors it has over 600 hundred seats and plenty of authentic Chinese atmosphere (cash only, no cards or cheques). For authentic Cantonese food order the noodle or rice dishes from the back of the menu, Fried Quaedu, Beef Ho Fun, Singapore Noodle, Soup Noodle, Foo Yung Fried Rice etc; These and a bowl of soup and free Chinese tea will be under five pounds but you may well feel hungry two days later!
Congratulations! You have now completed the RLT successfully. More importantly you have seen some wonderful panoramas and sights and got wonderful value out of London’s great public transport system whilst avoiding tacky overpriced (mostly you have paid FREE!) tourist sites and restaurants all the time drinking deeply of this unique city’s sight and sounds. Keep London real, do the Reduced London Tour!