I doubt that it was intentional, but the location of the Memorial to Edith Cavell seems appropriate somehow, standing just yards away from St Martin-in-the-Fields. At the same time as Dick Sheppard was keeping the doors open for troops returning from the WWI battlefields, Nurse Edith Cavell was helping Allied troops escape from occupied Belgium.
One of the most celebrated female figures of the war, Edith Cavell was born on 4th Dec 1865 in Swardeston, a small village near Norwich in Norfolk.
At the age of 20 she started her nursing career at The London Hospital (now the Royal London Hospital) and then went on to become assistant matron at the Shoreditch Infirmary.
In 1907 she moved to Belgium where she became matron of the Berkendael Institute in Brussels.
A visit to the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields will be especially rewarding for people with a social conscience.
Centrally located next to Trafalgar Square, records show that there was a church ‘in the fields’ between Westminster and the City of London from Norman times, but the present structure was built by James Gibbs and completed in 1726.
Although the design wasn’t universally popular at the time, it wasn’t long before copies were being made around the English speaking world, particularly in the United States.
The interior is also interesting, from both a modern and historic perspective. The restored Baroque ceiling is extremely impressive as is the fabulous organ that was built as recently as 1990, but probably the most eye catching feature is the East Window. Installed in 2008, the abstract cross was designed by Shirazeh Houshiary and her husband Pip Horne. From a modern point of view I think this window is quite outstanding in its simplicity.
I read somewhere that London has somewhere in the region of 1,500 permanent art galleries, and I wouldn’t have a clue as to whether that’s a true number or not, but however many it is, it’s definitely a large number.
Some are big and some are small, some are good, and some no doubt are not so good, but art is very often a matter of personal choice. The problem for visitors who don’t know their Constable from their Hockney is where to go to see the best examples of what London has to offer.
One of the most well known, and deservedly so in my opinion, is the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, and next door just around the corner in St. Martin’s Place is the National Portrait Gallery (NPG).
Whereas the National Gallery’s name is a bit confusing because it includes works of art from all over Europe, the National Portrait Gallery’s collection is of “the most eminent persons in British History”.
That statement seems to sum up the NPG for me. The paintings are more about the subjects rather than the artists. There are some great subjects, but that doesn’t necessarily make them great works of art. Now, I have to admit that I can’t even paint an outside wall, and the only thing I’ve ever been able to draw is a pint, so what do I know really?
Looking at works of art is very subjective, and so it’s probably a good idea to have an understanding on what type of art is on display at the National Gallery and where you can find what you’re looking for.
Overlooking Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery has over 2,300 paintings that belong to UK citizens and consequently is free to go in. You can either walk up the steps and enter through the portico, or better still take the Getty entrance on the right, where, not only is there a lift for people who need it, but also other facilities such as cloakroom, toilets, coffee bar, café, restaurant, shop, and information point.
The lift will whisk you up to Level 2 where practically all the paintings are located. The layout is arranged in a total of four wings – the Sainsbury Wing (13th-15th century), the West Wing (16th century), the North Wing (17th century) and the East Wing (18th to early 20th century). The Sainsbury Wing is a modern extension added in 1991. In some ways this makes it slightly more confusing because although it houses the earliest paintings, the rooms are numbered the highest (from 51 to 66). Other than that all the other wings run in chronological order.
Given that the name is The National Gallery, you might think that it just houses British works of art, but in actual fact it exhibits the country’s collection of Western European paintings including Renaissance, Baroque and Impressionism. (For the National Gallery of British Art you need to go to Tate Britain on Millbank).
London’s foremost meeting point for social and political gatherings, Trafalgar Square takes its name from Horatio Nelson’s famous victory over Napoleon’s French and Spanish fleets at Cape Trafalgar in 1805. The battle cost Nelson his life and he’s remembered here with a 170ft column, at the base of which are four lions cast out of his enemy’s bronze cannons.
What started out as mews for the horses of Whitehall Palace, the area now occupied by the square was transformed in the early 18th century by the architect John Nash. It’s had several makeovers since, the latest being in 2003. The road between the National Gallery/National Portrait Gallery and the square was removed and replaced with a terrace making the whole thing much more pedestrian friendly.
I wouldn’t mind betting that the majority of visitors who walk up Whitehall are so focused on getting across the road to Trafalgar Square that they are completely oblivious to the fact that they are walking across the point that is regarded as the exact centre of London. It could be argued that it’s not the exact centre but it’s the point from which all distances to, and from, the capital are measured, and there’s a plaque in the floor to mark the spot.
I used to think that Charing Cross got its name from being at the intersection of Whitehall, The Mall, Cockspur St and The Strand, but it doesn’t. In actual fact the name originates from the Eleanor Cross that was erected here after Eleanor of Castile’s death in 1290. Eleanor was the wife of King Edward I who died on her way to Lincoln. Edward arranged a state funeral, and her journey back to Westminster involved twelve overnight stops, the final one being at the hamlet of Charing. A cross was erected at each of the stops.
I tend to regard the southern part of Whitehall as the political end, and the northern part as the military end. I’m not sure if it was meant to be that way, but that’s the way I see it.
From a tourist’s perspective the one thing that shouldn’t be overlooked at the northern end is Horse Guards and its Parade Ground. As you walk up Whitehall past Downing St and the Scotland Office you can’t fail to notice the handsome looking Horse Guards Building with two mounted troopers of the Household Cavalry symbolically protecting the entrance to Horse Guards Parade. This used to be the formal entrance to St. James’s Palace via St. James’s Park and only the monarch is usually allowed to drive through the central archway.
There are so many tourist attractions in Westminster that it’s inevitable that some worthy places to visit often get overlooked, and I reckon that the Banqueting House is one of them.
I’ve read that some people are somewhat underwhelmed when they come here, which is a bit of a shame really because there’s more substance to it than many people realise. I think it’s better to regard it as a Banqueting Hall rather than a house, because it’s just basically one room – but what a room!
Situated opposite The Horse Guards in Whitehall, the Banqueting House is the only complete part of the Palace of Whitehall to survive the devastating fire of 1698.
From 1530 until the fire, the palace was the home of the monarchy, and with more than 1,500 rooms, was also the largest palace in Europe, larger even than The Vatican and Versailles.
It was designed by Inigo Jones in 1622 for King James I in a style that Londoners had never seen before. Built in the classical style, the highlight without any shadow of doubt is the fantastic ceiling painted by Peter Paul Rubens, and the seating arrangements around the room enable visitors to gain the maximum amount of vision to see and understand the paintings.
Not as conspicuous as the nearby Houses of Parliament or Westminster Abbey, Churchill’s War Rooms is a must see for anyone interested in where Britain’s top brass and politicians directed the Second World War from.
Even before the outbreak of war, it was decided that these decision makers wouldn’t abandon London and its people, and so the basement of the Office of Works building opposite St James’s Park, was adapted and strengthened to suit its new purpose.
Officially known as the ‘New Public Offices‘, but unofficially as just ‘George St’, the corridors of this subterranean nerve centre became a bunker, with a cabinet war room, private rooms for the prime minister and chiefs of staff, a map room where plans were worked out, and several other rooms that would help to facilitate the war effort.
From 27th August 1939 until the lights finally went out on 15th August 1945, a total of 115 cabinet meetings were held here.
At the end of the war the rooms were left just as they were, and in 1948 they were given the status of a historic site. In 1981, the incumbent Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, decreed that the public should have access to this historic site and the Imperial War Museum opened the doors to the Cabinet War Rooms in 1984. In 2005 the Churchill Museum was added.
Don’t ask me why, but I’ve always been intrigued by what goes on in the ‘corridors of power‘.
What do those ‘Mandarins of Whitehall’ actually do?, and is our destiny really at the mercy of those men in grey suits?
A few years ago I was looking down on those bastions of government control from the London Eye and they looked even more mysterious somehow, so when the opportunity to visit the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) arose during London’s Open House Weekend, I was determined not to miss it.
Obviously I wasn’t the only person curious to see what it was like inside because there was a huge queue to get in, largely because of the security checks that were taking place due to recent terrorist activity in London and elsewhere.
The Houses of Parliament may be the most obvious landmark of British politics, but the real corridors of power are trudged by the grey mandarins of Whitehall. This is where the Treasury, Foreign Office, and the Cabinet Office, amongst others, make some of the country’s most important political decisions.
Sandwiched between these large buildings of Portland stone is Downing St where the Prime Minister resides at No.10 and the Chancellor next door at No.11. For security reasons there isn’t much to see because everything is well guarded by gates, barriers and armed police.
The Ministry of Defence has its offices here and some of the other buildings used to belong to The Admiralty and War Office. Even the Metropolitan Police had their original headquarters at the famous ‘Scotland Yard’.
Being of an inquisitive disposition (some might prefer to call it nosey), I couldn’t resist the temptation to enter the doors of The Supreme Court in Parliament Squareto see what goes on in there.
One of the good things about living in a free and democratic country is that any member of the public can enter a courtroom to witness the proceedings, and so after passing through security checks I made my way up to Court No 1 to listen to a case about which the highest court in the land was sitting in judgement.
The UK Supreme Court was only created in 2009 believe it or not. Before that a committee in the House of Lords was responsible for passing judgement.
If somebody was to ask me to stick my neck out and choose one landmark that should not be missed on a visit to London, I think I would have to say Westminster Abbey.
Although I’m not a religious person, I do enjoy visiting some of our magnificent ecclesiastical buildings, and they don’t come much more magnificent than Westminster Abbey – but that’s only half the story.
The history of the Abbey also covers an awful lot of British history, and for somebody like me who enjoys delving into the past, this building has it all, but before I expand on what’s here, I think it’s probably best to get the unpalatable stuff out of the way first, so here goes: –
It’s expensive (£23 for a full paying adult – Jan 2020) *
Photography is not permitted inside the Abbey
Can be busy
Often closed for special services
But it’s not all bad news –
*Church Services are free
There are reductions for online bookings
Also, if you travel by train, 2 for 1 tickets are on offer at certain times
London is blessed with so many well known parks and gardens that it’s easy to overlook some of the less obvious ones, even in the centre of the city.
In Westminster, next to the Houses of Parliament, are the Victoria Tower Gardens, and as the name suggests, are located at the Victoria Tower end of the building.
I think the word ‘gardens’ is a bit misleading because it has a large open grassy area more reminiscent of a park, but whatever you think this open space should be called, it’s a welcome respite from the area around Parliament Square with all its hustle and bustle.
The gardens were created during the 1870s, but not officially opened until 1914.
Apart from the fact that it has a great riverside location, there are some interesting monuments here as well.
Just inside the entrance gate is a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette leader. It was unveiled in 1930 and is a timely reminder that 2018 is the centenary of the ‘Representation of the People Act’ which granted votes to all women over the age of thirty and all men over the age of twenty one. (The difference in ages was supposed to ensure that men didn’t become minority voters after the huge loss of life during WWI).
Emmeline Pankhurst died on 14th June 1928, just weeks before the Representation of the People Act (1928) which also allowed women over the age of twenty one to vote.
There are any number of ways of visiting the Houses of Parliament and it‘s best to visit the website to find out the latest times and prices, but if you’re a UK citizen you can arrange a tour through your local MP.
Entry is through the Cromwell Green visitor entrance where you will have to go through a series of airport-like security checks. There aren’t any luggage lockers and they recommend that you only carry a small bag. Continue reading →
When King Canute started to build a home for himself in Westminster back in 1016 I don’t suppose for one minute that he thought it would become a place known throughout the world a thousand years later, and in a way he would be right because there’s nothing left of what he, or his successor, Edward the Confessor, built.
There are any number of places where a visitor can start a tour of Westminster, but I’ve chosen Parliament Square, not least because of its proximity to two of London’s most famous landmarks – the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.
To visit both landmarks will involve some planning and a considerable amount of time to do them justice, but visit them you must (check out my page on Visiting the Houses of Parliament).
The location of Parliament Square is busy with traffic as well as an obvious magnet for tourists, and if that doesn’t make it busy enough, it’s also a magnet for demonstrators who come here to protest outside parliament about anything and everything.
London has 31 Boroughs, 1 City (The City of London), and Westminster, which is both a Borough and a City.
Whereas the City of London became the legal and financial powerhouse of London, Westminster became the religious, royal and political centre.
This is the home of Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and the Houses of Parliament, but it’s also the place to come for entertainment, shopping and culture in places like Piccadilly Circus, Oxford St and Trafalgar Square. I guarantee that you’ll run out of time – or steam – or both, before you’ve even scratched the surface.Continue reading →