First impressions of the Royal Mile might lead you to the conclusion that the most famous thoroughfare in Scotland is just one long street encouraging swarms of tourists to part with their hard-earned money on buying ‘Tartan Tat’, but scratch below the surface and it will soon become apparent why this spinal cord that joins Edinburgh Castle with Holyrood has played such an important part in Edinburgh’s – and Scotland’s – history.
The history goes back a long way too – about 340 million years in fact. This was around the time when volcanic activity, followed by glaciers during the ice age, helped to form a classic example of what geologists call a ‘Crag and Tail’. Obviously, the crag is where the castle sits, and the tail is the ridge that has become known as the Royal Mile.
This famous artery is not just one street but five – Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street, Canongate and Abbey Strand, and if you’ve not been here before it helps to know where each one is and what it has to offer.
Originally part of the Roman road to Silchester, the Strand has always been one of London’s most important roads as it connects the City of Westminster with the City of London, and as its name suggests, originally ran alongside the Thames, but nowadays runs slightly inland for about ¾ mile between Charing Cross and Temple Bar.
Between the 12th and 17th centuries some of the most influential people in London owned mansions along the southern side of the road with gardens that swept down to the riverside, but apart from the re-designed Somerset House, they have all but disappeared.
As the aristocracy left for the West End, the Strand became a popular hangout for people who preferred a pint, a coffee, or even a cup of tea and at no. 216 you can still visit Twinings which has been here since 1706. These days it’s more like a small museum, and somewhere to sample their different blends. The samples are free, but the idea of course is that you’ll be tempted to buy one or two of them before you leave.
During the 19th century Joseph Bazalgette’s plans to improve London’s sewage system led to the demolition of many of the fine houses that were still left along the Strand. The river was narrowed, the shoreline raised, and a road built to form an Embankment.
Not only did the engineering works improve the health of Londoners, it also improved transport links between Westminster and the City. Apart from the road, an underground railway line was constructed underneath it, all of which helped to relieve congestion along the Strand.
It’s strange isn’t it, that although London’s practice of discharging raw sewage into the Thames caused cholera epidemics which cost thousands of lives, it was only when MPs kicked up a stink about the smell that something was actually done about it.
The job of sorting the whole problem out was given to a Victorian engineer by the name of Joseph Bazalgette.
His scheme involved an extensive network of underground sewage pipes that took the effluent from Central London out into the Thames Estuary.
The project involved several locations including the mile and a half section of riverside between Westminster and Blackfriars Bridges, the most challenging of them all.
After buying up and demolishing many expensive riverside properties, work started on the Victoria Embankment project in 1865.
Not only did Joseph Bazalgette deal with the sewage problem, he also narrowed the river to make it more controllable, built a new road to ease congestion along the Strand (which linked Westminster to the City of London), and even allowed for the construction of a line for the Metropolitan and District Railway beneath the road.
Following on from my article about the City of London Corporation, it’s not difficult to see how London became an important trading and financial centre.
As British explorers opened up new trade routes, then most of the important trading and commerce ended up on the streets of London, the hub of which was centred around what is now called Bank Junction.
The junction is where nine streets converge and includes three of The City of London’s most influential buildings – the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House, the Royal Exchange, and the Bank of England.
The Bank of England was founded in 1694 and ‘The Old Lady ofThreadneedle Street’ was opened in 1735, but the story goes back much further than that.
Visitors to Exeter city centre will probably want to see the Cathedral, do a bit of shopping, and maybe take a look around the Museum, but like anywhere, it would be easy to overlook some of the less obvious points of interest.
With this in mind I thought it might be worth taking a closer look at some of the things that might go unnoticed while wandering around the High St.
A word of warning though first. High St is a pedestrianised area, except that it isn’t. By that I mean that buses use it – and there are plenty of them, so be sure to keep your wits about you when using the road.
The street runs in a north-easterly direction from the top of Fore St and if you follow it from this point the first thing you’re likely to miss is Parliament St.
After crossing over the North St/South St junction the first street on the left is Parliament St, and the reason you’re likely to miss it is because it’s one of the narrowest streets in the world (the award for the narrowest goes to the town of Reutlingen in Germany). It links High St with Waterbeer St and ranges in width between 0.64m and 1.22m (25 and 48 inches in old money). It may not look that old, but it’s been here since the 14th century, believe it or not.