Walking through English History

I am addicted to London Walks.  There is simply no better way to “see” London than engage in a theme-centered two-hour walk through London (and other UK locations) with an informed guide.

Choose a themed walk from their extensive daily schedule.  Then show-up at the appointed time at the proper exit of a London underground station.  Assemble with others around an easily identifiable guide.  Pay the £10 fee (£ 8 for seniors) and off you go.

No need to make a reservation.  If you are in reasonable shape and plan carefully, you can manage two walks in a day with plenty of time for a pub lunch break.

These walks keep the “little gray cells” active and also provide a motivating reason to engage your legs rather than the gears of your automobile.   Also, be prepared for some wonderful surprises on your journey through history.

Found below are some of our recent walks on this year’s walk-about in London:

Brunel’s London

Frankly, I knew very little about Marc Brunel who designed and constructed the first underwater tunnel (under the Thames) in 1852.   Originally designed as an underwater pedestrian shopping arcade connecting, the tunnel has given way to a subway that moves people from south of the Thames toward the City of London.

Brunel's Thames Tunnel

Actually, it is called the “London Overground” even though most of trains run underground.  As the guide said, “Americans may find this a bit confusing, but the fact that the overground actually runs underground is perfectly understandable for those who live in London.”

Marc Brunel’s Thames tunnel is considered to be the 8th engineering marvel in the world.  In addition to the tunnel, Marc Brunel built several wonderful bridges and his son, Isambard, built the Great Western Railway and was a far more successful businessman than his father.

I will spare you details of this most informative walk, which also includes a boat trip up the Thames toward Greenwich (minor surcharge) and a visit to the Brunel museum, which is housed in the shaft of the Thames tunnel near Rotherhithe.

The Old Jewish Quarter

This is a superb tour of the now fashionable “East London”  and the footprints left by Jewish settlers on the City of London.  The highlight of the tour for me was a short but fascinating history lesson of life of Moses Montefiore, one of the world’s truly great philanthropists.

This is a most special walk and I would encourage all to give it a try.  Found below is what your will discover on this walk:

Traces the history of London’s Jewish community in the East End. A tale that embraces the poverty of the pogrom refugees and the glittering success of the Rothschilds; the eloquence of Prime Minister Disraeli and the spiel of the Petticoat Lane stall-holder; the poetry of Isaac Rosenberg and the poetry-in-motion of Abe Saperstein’s Harlem Globetrotters. Set amid the alleys and back streets of colorful Spitalfields and Whitechapel, it’s a tale of synagogues and sweatshops, Sephardim and soup kitchens. Whenever possible we visit the historic Bevis Marks synagogue (for which there’s a small entrance fee).

Behind Closed Doors

A most interesting walk which ends up at the Royal Courts on Fleet Street, just across the street from the Twinings Tea (Shop/Museum):

Entrance to Twinings Tea

This lively walk is summarized below:

For a walk that shakes you gently, like a sieve, and drops you into places of long ago – places you probably wouldn’t get into off your own bat. Into’s the mot juste. We’re going into these places. Into the venerable – and passing strange – RAF church. Into the Royal Courts of Justice to watch a trial (when the Royal Courts are in session). Into an ancient institution shrouded in secrecy.

After a long walk, there is nothing better than a refreshing pint of bitter.  Personally, we prefer the nearby majestic Old Bank of England (Fullers pub) over the more touristy but popular Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.  The steak and ale and fish pies at the Old Bank of England are among the best we have tasted in England.  Ditto for the fish and chips (with mushy peas) and the warm chocolate brownie.

London’s Secret Village

In my opinion, this is one of the most interesting walks of unexplored London.   Gosh, there is so much to see and learn.  From the grisly public executions in Smithfield market to St. John of Jerusalem and the Charterhouse, this is a delightful and educational tour.

If ends at Farmington Station where the world’s first underground ends (from Paddington Station) near Smithfield in 1863.  In fact, for 5 years you could take a picnic hamper on the Tube and watch a public execution, which only ended in 1868.

This is a gem of walk, particularly if you want to stump friends and family with interesting trivia questions:

The ancient, hidden village of Clerkenwell clings to a hillside barely a stone’s throw away from St. Paul’s Cathedral. Its very name – the clerks’ or students’ spring – is redolent of antiquity. And this tiny hamlet serves up brimming draughts from the deep well of its history. Mystery plays and plague pits; riots and rookeries; bodysnatching and bombing; jousting and jesters; bloodshed and burnings; monks, murder, and medicine: Clerkenwell has a tale or two to tell. Tracing its narrow alleyways and ancient squares, we take in here a Norman church; there a magnificent Tudor gateway; round that corner venerable Charterhouse, London’s only surviving mediaeval monastic complex; let alone Hercule Poirot’s London flat and the trendiest house in town.

David Suchet, aka Hercule Poirot, apparently mastered his distinctive walk by holding a coin between his “cheeks.”  The guide suggests that it was a 50 pence coin.  Personally, I think the coin was a Euro since Poirot would have voted to remain in Europe.

Past the Palace

This walk is for those who speed-read The National Enquirer and Tabloids in the checkout line at grocery stores.  I loved it!

This one isn’t on the balcony – it’s through the keyhole. It’s hideaways and nooks and crannies and boltholes with a difference: they’re royal hideaways, boltholes, nooks and crannies. It’s where the goings on went down. It’s kings who were queens. It’s 16 coffin bearers, beheaded lovers and a questionable birthright. It’s a square coffin, a fake lesbian wedding and “a bat instead of a woman”. It’s curses and betrayals, heartaches and hearth-aches and unhealthy habits. It’s ugly sisters and poisonous makeup and war and head lice. It’s between the kings’ sheets and a cabinet particulaire and a royal brothel. It’s £40 million of debt, swinging parties, debauchery and treachery. It’s unofficial history, real history.

In Summary

I realize that it is easy to get caught up in the hysteria of the moment, but if we reflect a moment on the history of past generations, one must certainly come to the conclusion that our forefathers were dealing with equally disturbing problems.

Walking through the rich and fascinating history of London helps to restore a sense of equanimity and balance to our lives.  Good Lord, I sound like a bloody Stoic!

Revisionist History for Richard III and a Visit to York

Richard III is considered to be one of the most reviled Kings in British history.  His infamy derives from one of Shakespeare’s finest plays, Richard III, which alleges that Richard was responsible for the murder of the Two Princes in the Tower of London.

I will spare you the disturbing details of the Wars of Roses – often referred to as the “Cousins War” – but the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 paved the way for an even more disturbing reign of Henry VIII.

Fresh from riveting performances of Henry VI (parts 1 and 2) and Richard III from the BBC, I wanted to learn more about the Wars of the Roses:

It is clear that Shakespeare’s plays about the Kings during the Wars of the Roses were crafted to cater to the legitimacy of Elizabeth I’s reign. To use President Obama’s expression, Shakespeare wanted to “Be on the right side of history.” Clearly this was a wise decision, since many great plays would have remained unwritten if Shakespeare had lost his head by being politically incorrect.

If you have no idea about the Royal family politics of that period, it is useful to walk around with a book like “A Companion and Guide to The Wars of the Roses” under your arm. People – even in York – will think that you know more than you actually do.  Worked for me!

Probably the most famous lines for Richard III in Shakespeare’s play are “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” as the unhorsed Richard faces death at Bosworth.   A London guide suggested that Richard’s slain body was carried naked over the back of a horse and beaten with sticks by angry bystanders.  I am wondering if the phrase “Don’t beat a dead horse,” arises from this vivid image.

With irony that Shakespeare would have most certainly have appreciated, Richard III’s body was recently discovered in a Leicester parking lot.  After conclusive DNA analysis, the city of York demanded that Richard’s bones be returned for a proper burial in York Minster (rather than Westminster).  Nevertheless, the Mayor of Leicester refused stating that the remains will be returned “over my dead body.”

Clearly, “good bones” do matter when it come to tourism.

Beverley Minster and Pipe & Glass

We started our journey to Yorkshire in Beverley. We arrived one hour late to Beverley Minster to hear their acclaimed choir sing hymns.  Fortunately for us, the service was two hours long.

Beverley Minster

Beverly Minster is a stunning cathedral and was used as a substitute for Westminster in the filming of Victoria.  I was quite amused when one of the London Walks guides said that “Victoria was even shorter than Tom Cruise” – a compelling argument that there is still a role for short people in this world.

After our visit, we dashed up to Pipe and Glass Inn, an award-winning “gastro” pub nearby.  I will spare the reader the details of our gluttony, but I had a delightful piece of pork.  Found below is a small appetizer consisting of a Scotch Egg and salmon tartare:

On a beautiful spring day, we wound our way up the road to nearby York

The Walls of York

Getting into and out of the city of York in an automobile is a bit of a hassle.  Get to your destination and park.  Most everything worth seeing is within walking distance.

American Vagrants on York Walls Overlooking Minster

Taking advantage of the wonderful weather – the last we were to see for a few days – we decided to check out the acclaimed Walls of York.  They are still in remarkable condition, but we decided to forego visiting Micklegate where the heads and bodies of nobles who did not manage to get to the top of the political food chain were often displayed to deter others from trying.

York Minster

Sheila and Alison explored York Minster on their own.  I realize that this is one of the most beautiful churches in England, but I had found a superb antiquarian book store nearby.  I managed to pickup a delightful book called “Making Haste from Babylon:  The Mayflower Pilgrims.”  The book had been heavily discounted suggesting that few were interested in the Pilgrims, Puritans or the Mayflower.

The book is quite interesting, particularly for those who want to understand why Puritans from a relatively small area in southern Yorkshire decided to travel to the New World during the reign of James I.

York Castle Museum

The York Castle Museum is considered to be a must see destination, but I was a bit offended discovering that the “Roaring 60s” are now considered ancient history.  Nevertheless, the prison, World War I Museum and life-size replica of a Victorian Village (see below) were quite interesting:

I was surprised to learn that some of the great English chocolate fortunes originated in York as Puritans tried to reduce the level of drunkenness by substituting chocolates for ale.   It didn’t work quite the way they expected as most pubs now serve a pint of Yorkshire’s finest with a small box of chocolates.

The Shambles

The Shambles is – in my opinion – a bit overhyped.  It is a short and narrow street featuring many cute shops.  The fish mongers and vegetable and meat stalls that used to crowd this street have given way to far more fashionable stores selling cosmetics and handbags.

In any event we had a delightful tea at Betty’s Tea Room in York, best known for their lemon curd tarts.

In York, we stayed at a small but conveniently located hotel now called Parigi, formerly St. Denys Hotel.

Brontes and David Hockney in Yorkshire

I am a fan of the Brontë sister novels, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.   While I am more familiar with both Charlotte and Emily Brontë, it appears that their sister, Anne, was more popular during their tragically short lives.

As depicted in the recent documentary “To Walk Invisible,” these very talented authors wrote under male pseudonyms. Charlotte was “Currer Bell”, Emily was “Ellis Bell” and Anne was “Acton Bell.”

While I enjoyed both novels and the rich characters their lively imaginations created,  I do not have a “I am Heathcliff” coffee cup, which seems to be the rage in Brexit England these days.   In fact, I far prefer re-reading The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, a hilarious romp featuring literary detective, Thursday Next.   Other “Thursday Next” novels by Jasper Fforde are not nearly as entertaining.

We stayed at Haworth, Yorkshire to visit the Brontë Parsonage, which houses the Brontë museum.  Frankly, it is one of the most interesting exhibits I have ever attended.  The costumes worn by the Brontë characters in the “To Walk Invisible” documentary are interspersed throughout the exhibit.

These brilliant women all died tragically young.  In fact, Charlotte died pregnant roughly a year after her marriage to an assistant to her father at the Parsonage.  Sadly, her progressive father, Patrick, outlived all of his six children and his wife.

bronte table

Original table at which the Bronte sisters wrote their novels.

I would encourage all to visit this superb museum and learn more about these remarkable women and their determination to break through in a literary world dominated by men.

Yorkshire is a wonderful county full of delightful panoramas and interesting historical venues.   After our visit to the Brontë Museum, we drove about 30 minutes to Saltaire, a World Heritage site featuring the a completely refurbished textile mill that houses the colorful art of David Hockney.


Painting of Saltaire by David Hockney at entrance to the Salts Mill

Very briefly, the six story and two acre Salts Mill building was built by Sir Titus Salt in 1853.  He later built homes for his workers just across the train tracks in the village of Saltaire (seen above in the foreground of the painting).

The Salt Mill building features long expanses of book shelves, art supplies and a majestic gallery featuring Hockney’s latest work.  The Tate Britain is currently hosting a Hockney exhibit in London and we were fearful that much of his work would be on loan.  Fortunately, his recent work was not!

Most of Hockney’s work at the Salts Mill features colorful paintings of the surrounding Yorkshire countryside.  I will leave it to art critics to opine on the merits of his art, but in this setting his paintings are majestic.  I understand that his use of vibrant colors was triggered by a visit to California some years ago.

Now nearing 80, I was amazed to see a retrospective of some of Hockney’s “drawings” for friends crafted on the iPhone and iPad using an app called Brush.  The “drawings” are magnificent.   I only wish I had the talent to send such beautiful images to friends.  The world would be a happier place.

Enjoying a brief break in Haworth, Yorkshire.

More later from York, where I was reunited with my soul-mate, Richard III.