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.
By the end of the century the road had become a place to come for enjoyment, and theatres and music halls outnumbered mansions.
In 1890 Harry Castling and C.W. Murphy wrote and composed the famous cockney song ‘Let’s all go down the Strand’ which summed up what it would have been like along here at the time, but where the phrase “Have a banana” came from I’ve no idea because it wasn’t in the original composition, and I’m not sure that anybody really knows.
The eagle-eyed among you will notice the now defunct Strand tube station that was built to serve the theatregoers on the Piccadilly Line. Several of the theatres are also no more, but the Adelphi, Vaudeville, and Savoy still remain.
The Savoy Theatre was built for the impresario Richard D’Oyley Carte on the site of the old Savoy Palace in 1881 to stage his Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas. The profits made from the operas helped him finance a plush new hotel next door. The Savoy hotel is still regarded as one of London’s finest, and when you walk past, take note of how the cars drive down to it on the right-hand side of the court, but contrary to the urban myth that it’s the only road in the UK where this is the case, it’s not actually true.
While I’m talking about the Savoy Hotel, I can’t miss the opportunity to mention the fact that one of its most famous chefs, Auguste Escoffier, invented the ‘Peach Melba’ and ‘Melba Toast’ in honour of the Australian singer Nellie Melba whilst working here. I imagine you’re wondering why I couldn’t miss the opportunity to mention it. Well, believe it or not, Dame Nellie Melba was a distant relative of mine, but unfortunately, I have to tell you that her singing skills didn’t pass their way down to me – although I have to admit that I’m not bad at scoffing down ice cream and toast.
A bit further along at Lancaster Place (which leads down to Waterloo Bridge), the crescent-shaped Aldwych diverts traffic away from the Strand, and then meets back up with it again near St Clement Danes. The road layout, whether intentional or not, has left the church, and St Mary le Strand, somewhat isolated on islands in the middle of the traffic.
If for some reason you decide to walk around Aldwych, you will miss Somerset House, and as I pointed out earlier, it’s the only mansion remaining from the early days. It was re-modelled in the 18th century, but today it’s open for the public to enjoy in various different ways.
Next door is the King’s College London, Strand Campus. The building isn’t particularly old (1829-31), but if you get the opportunity I recommend that you visit the chapel. It’s quite something.
Just past St Clement Danes and opposite Twinings are the Royal Courts of Justice, which, if you have the time, is another place worth a visit. This High Court is open to the public, and after going through the obvious security checks, you are free to sit in on any of the cases that are being heard. Even if the case isn’t that interesting, the building and the experience certainly is.
Just outside the High Court, the Strand meets Fleet St and the boundary with the City of London, where the fun of the West End stops and the serious business of legal issues and finance begins.