Walk your way into history
It’s easy to forget when you’re rushing around London that your every footstep falls upon centuries of a rich and sometimes very dark history. Take a guided walking tour and layers of a different London will be revealed to you; one of intrigue, plague, ghosts, celebrity and fame.
There are dozens of walks to choose from and they’ll take you from Roman Britain to modern celebrity hangouts. Here’s a selection of the best; you’ll find out more about London than the average Londoner knows.
Ghosts of the Old City
Turn up at St Paul’s tube station and you should have no trouble spotting your tour guide. He’ll be the one wrapped in a long black cloak with a cadaverous, blanched face, waiting to lead you though 2,000 years of life and death in London.
As night falls, you’ll be taken through increasingly narrow alleys in the emptying city, wandering over paving stones that conceal ancient plague pits and from time to time, your host will become possessed as the spirits come to speak to him personally.
Details: Saturday and Tuesday, 7.30 p.m., meet at St Paul’s Tube Station. London Walks, Tel: +44 (0)20 7624 3978, www.walks.com. Cost €9, no booking required.
Dickens and Shakespeare
London provided plenty of inspiration for Britain’s two literary greats. This tour takes you to the South Bank, through warehouses and cobbled streets to discover Charles Dickens’ Victorian London. The author was seriously affected by his father’s imprisonment for debt at Marshalsea Prison, one of the stops on the tour.
William Shakespeare is conjured back to life at the site of the Original Globe Playhouse and the tour also takes in London’s only surviving galleried coaching inn. In Shakespeare’s time, actors would have played in the courtyards of these pubs and the rowdy audience would have made their disapproval clear if the play wasn’t good enough. The professional guides on this tour should mean you don’t have to do the same.
Details: Meet at Barbican Underground, Tel. +44 (0)20 8530 8443, www.London-walking-tours.co.uk.
Royal London free tour
If you are on a tight budget, but want to experience London on foot with a decent guide, this could be the one for you. The tour is totally free, but guides earn their money from tips (although these remain voluntary).
The walk will tick off the major royal sights in one handy afternoon from Edward the Confessor to the current incumbent of the throne, via tombs and palaces. You’ll finish near Westminster Abbey, site of the recent royal wedding.
Details: Daily 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. by Wellington Arch (exit 2 at Hyde Park Corner station). www.newlondontours.com/dailytours. Free.
Celebrity walking tour
If you want your claim to fame to be spotting Claudia Schiffer pounding the pavements or seeing Robbie Williams’ luxury London pad, then seek no more.
This Notting Hill tour will take you past Richard Branson’s house, the film locations for Love Actually and Bridget Jones, the hotel where Jimi Hendrix overdosed, the pub where the Sex Pistols and Bill Clinton both drank and the theatre where Sir Lawrence Olivier made his London stage debut.
You’ll also get to view an authentic graffiti artwork from London legend Banksy. Even if Elle Macpherson or Joseph Fiennes don’t pop up on your way (they’ve been spotted before), you’ll end up at Portobello market where many a celeb has been known to bag a vintage buy.
Details: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 2.30 p.m. Depart from The Sun in Splendour, 7 Portobello Rd, London. Book in advance on www.goldentours.com, Tel. +44 (0)844 880 5050. €17.
Within just a few streets, this tour will take you through a 14th century Tudor mansion where Queen Elizabeth I once stayed, a gatehouse that Shakespeare frequented and a timbered building that hosted the brutal burnings of martyrs.
The past overtakes the present as your guide leads you past the golden boy overlooking the site where the Great Fire ended in 1666 and you visit a watch house, built to prevent body-snatchers from disturbing the dead. The tour finishes in a Roman London that many Londoners have no idea exists.
Details: Tel: +44 (0)20 8530-84 43, www.London-walking-tours.co.uk.
Harry Potter’s London walk
If you have an older child with a passion for the bespectacled wizard, this is a pretty magical tour through the London film locations and the sights that inspired the series.
It’s a bit pricey, but includes a boat cruise along the Thames, a bus ride across London Bridge and a London Underground journey (you’ll need an underground ticket to take part).
You’ll take in the platform 9 3/4 sign where Harry catches the Hogwart’s Express, the bridge destroyed by Lord Voldemort’s Death Eaters in the Half-Blood Prince, the location of the red telephone box where Harry and Mr Weasley descend into the secret Ministry of Magic in The Order of the Phoenix and the secret hideout where Harry is reunited with Sirius Black (Order of the Phoenix), among othersites.
Details: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 2.30 p.m. Depart from the TKTS Booth, Leicester Square, London. Book in advance on www.goldentours.com, Tel: +44 (0)844 880 5050. €23 for adults, €20 for children.
Jack the Ripper
Author Donald Rumbelow is internationally recognised as one of the leading authorities on Jack the Ripper and he shines new light into the dim recesses of a gas-lit London where the Ripper stalked. The tour stops at around six places where the serial killer struck and many of the East End streets look striking similar now as they did then.
Donald also paints a vivid picture of life in London in the 1880s. To steady your nerves, you’ll stop in at the Ten Bells Pub for a swift drink – it’s reputedly haunted.
Details: Nightly, 7.30 p.m. Meet at Tower Hill Tube Station. London Walks, Tel +44 (0)20 7624 3978, www.walks.com. Cost ¬ 9, no booking required.
Tours are subject to change without warning, always confirm with the operator in advance.