A SELF-GUIDED WALKING TOUR OF POLITICAL LONDON
As the capital city, London is at the heart of British politics. This self guided walking tour of political London is a one-day itinerary that takes you through the history of British politics, stopping at a few significant and interesting political landmarks. Starting at the Brompton Oratory you will visit a handful of places that have been the site of protest as you walk on to to Churchill’s War Rooms and then on past 10 Downing Street to Parliament Square.
The tour can finish with an out of hours tour of the Houses of Parliament, if they are running. See end of article for details.
This walk starts with the hiding places of Cold War spies and ends at the heart of British politics, taking in places of political protest as well as the secret wartime bunkers of British Government.
There is about 80 minutes of walking in total, through both cityscape and parkland, although you can reduce that to 40 minutes if you take a tube for one section.
You will need to pre-book two tickets. The first for the Churchill War Rooms for around mid-day, and the second for the tour of the Houses of Parliament (if running). All other sites and landmarks on this self-guided walk are free to view.
SELF GUIDED POLITICAL TOUR ITINERARY
1. Your self-guided tour starts in Brompton (nearest tube station is South Kensington), with some political intrigue and espionage from the Cold War. This was a popular area for spies and their handlers in those dark days of post-war animosity. The area was regularly used as a location for dead drops, otherwise known as dead letter boxes. Double agents would use a pre-arranged location to drop off secret messages or objects, which would then be collected by another person, enabling them to pass on information even if under surveillance.
Photograph © Dillif
The Brompton Oratory, also known as the London Oratory, is the location of one of the Dead Letter Drops. As you enter the church there is an altar on the left of the entrance – it is a memorial to British soldiers who died in the War, hence the replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta, a dead Christ is held in the arms of his mother.
Apparently the dead drop was behind the right-hand column of a pair of marble columns on the left of the altar. Soviet spies are said to have used the small space behind the pillar to leave microfilms and messages under the guise of visiting the church to light a candle and pray.
2. Behind the Oratory is the Holy Trinity Church. Here the Dead Letter Drop is outside, the space at the bottom of the tree next to a statue of Saint Francis of Assisi on the left of the church. These locations are still there today if you can find them.
The notorious double agent, Kim Philby, lived in the area for some time (18 Carlyle Square, Chelsea), even holding a press conference here to deny he was a Soviet spy, and these locations would have been used by him and other members of ‘The Cambridge Five’ and their Soviet handlers.
2. Walk east on the main road (A4), turn left onto Serpentine Walk and head north into Hyde Park. Follow the paths between the Serpentine and the Serpentine Waterfall, past the Memorial to Queen Caroline, past The Lookout on your left and keep going until you reach the Reformers’ Tree (w3w: dragon.tour.digit) , it’s about a 22 minute walk in total.
The Reformers’ Tree is now marked with a black and white pebble mosaic, showing where an oak tree once stood at the convergence of nine footpaths through Hyde Park. Hyde Park has long been connected with political upheaval and unrest and this spot was once at the heart of it.
The Reform League was started in 1865 with the aim of manhood suffrage, ensuring the vote for all men regardless of their income, property ownership or any other factors. After a series of meetings in Trafalgar Square, the Reform League planned a meeting for Hyde Park, which was subsequently declared illegal by then Home Secretary, Horatio Walpole. The massive procession started in Adelphi Street and headed towards Marble Arch where it was stopped by the police. People realised that they could push through the railings and swarmed into Hyde Park, 200,000 of them, which led to three days of skirmishes.
The oak tree at the spot was said to have been set alight during the unrest, leaving only a charred stump. The stump became viewed as a symbol of discontent and was used as the location for future Reform League meetings. The Suffragettes also held a weekly meeting near the tree in the summer of 1906.
4. From The Reformers’ Tree, head straight up Nicholas Hemmingway Walk, to Speakers’ Corner (w3w: bank.gone.cups) which is less than five minutes walk away.
Speakers’ Corner is a symbol of democracy and free speech. Here, anyone can stand and speak about whatever subject they want, so long as it is lawful.
The history of this tradition began with the so-called Tyburn Tree – a set of wooden gallows historically at the edge of Speakers’ Corner but what is now a traffic island. A memorial plaque (w3w: cube.drums.danger) marks the spot for visitors to see.
This site was used for executions for over 650 years, where thousands of people were executed over the centuries for everything from stealing livestock to murder. It was the tradition at these public executions that the condemned could make a final speech, which many did, either a confession, a protestation of innocence or a criticism of the authorities.
These ‘last words’ evolved into the tradition we see at Speakers’ Corner today, an area that developed into a political arena. After the 1866 riots in Hyde Park, a Parks Regulation Act in 1872 delegated decisions about public meetings to the park authorities, who were fortunately very liberal minded about it and allowed for the right to meet and speak freely in the park. Since then, speakers have included Lenin, Karl Marx, Engels, Orwell, William Morris and Tony Benn.
Anyone can get up and speak on this oldest living free speech platform in the world at any time, although it tends to be only on Sundays from midday until long after dark. If you fancy giving it a go yourself, be prepared for heckling!
(Shortcut to the end via the tube: if it is raining, you don’t want to or can’t take a walk to the Houses of Parliament, this is the time in your tour where you catch the tube from Marble Arch station to the Westminster tube station.)
5. If you have chosen to walk to Westminster, and the next major points on the itinerary, the walk is about 40 minutes. Walk to the south east corner of Hyde Park to Apsley House, the address that used to be widely known as Number 1 London. This is because this was the first house visitors to London passed after the toll gate at Knightsbridge.
Apsley House was the London townhouse of the Dukes of Wellington, and although it is now open to the public, the 9th Duke of Wellington retains the rights to certain parts of the building. If you start your itinerary early, and have time, you can visit the house. The building’s official name is the Wellington Museum as it exhibits the Wellington Collection, artworks and memorabilia of the career of the 1st Duke of Wellington. Wellington was a prominent military and political figure in 19th-century Britain, who served twice as Prime Minister and was victorious against against Napoleon at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo.
6. From here, cross the road to the Wellington Arch. The arch was originally an entrance to Buckingham Palace, but it later became a victory arch honouring Wellington’s victory at Waterloo. There are a number of other military memorials around the arch, commemorating more recent military campaigns around the world. Until 1992, the arch housed a small police station, it now houses the Quadriga Gallery managed by English Heritage.
7. Continue on your walk down Constitutional Hill, with Buckingham Palace on your right towards the Victoria Memorial.
Buckingham Palace is the official home of the British monarch, who is the constitutional Head of State. All political power used to rest with the monarch, who ruled under the ‘Divine Right of Kings.’ Over the years power has transferred from the monarch to Parliament, particularly during the turmoil of the 17th Century, which ended in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1689. The resulting Act of Settlement in 1701 passed the power to decide on succession to the throne to the British Parliament. The monarch still retains powers in a formal sense, with the government operating under the Royal Prerogative to rule the country.
8. Continue on through St. James Park, the oldest park in London. It has many cultural and political associations and has long been a meeting place for British Intelligence as well as being used by assorted Prime Ministers and other ministers for their daily exercise.
The entrance to the Churchill War Rooms can be found next to the Robert Clive Memorial on Horse Guards Road (w3w: puppy.fork.send).
If you’ve booked online you will be able to stroll past the long queues and enter at the exact time on your ticket. Allow probably around two hours for this visit, as there is a lot to look at especially if its peak season and is filled with crowds.
9. When you leave the War Rooms, walk to Horse Guard Parade which is practically adjacent and only a two minute walk away. Once you have walked into the parade ground, on your right you will see a rather neglected statue of the Earl Kitchener (w3w:facing.cave.formed) and nearby, some armed guards. Behind them is the rear entrance to Downing Street, and a bit of a better view than you will get from trying to look from the front.
Walk through the Parade square and out of the exit that leads to Whitehall, flanked by two mounted members of the Household Cavalry. Turn right and head down the pavement where you will probably find a bundle of people all trying to peer through railings. Join them if you can, and if you persevere you may get a glimpse of 10 Downing Street, the home of United Kingdom’s Prime Minister. There is often a crowd of press waiting opposite the front door.
Keep walking, heading towards Parliament Square. This square was created in 1868 and has become a focal point for demonstrations and protests against the government. It is flanked by 12 statues of significant political figures, including Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Ghandi and Millicent Fawcett, the famous suffragist. Demonstrations still take place here and you’ve a good chance of seeing one in action.
If you’ve got time, nip into St. Margaret’s Church next to Westminster Abbey. This is free to enter and has been the unofficial parish church for the House of Commons since 1641, reflected in some of the decoration inside. It also has some wonderful memorials and is well worth a visit.
If you have opted to go on the out-of-hours tour of Parliament, be at the Winston Churchill statue for 3.45pm. The reason to choose this tour is that it is out of hours, without the usual crowds, enabling you to see a side of the heart of government that few others will. The tour takes in Westminster Hall, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as well as the Queen’s Robing Room amongst others. The tour lasts for 2 hours and will give you a fascinating insight into the workings of the British Parliament. (This tour is currently not on offer as of July 2022, but keep an eye on the GYG website as they could be re-introduced at any time.)
The tour ends here and you can either wander across nearby Westminster Bridge to try to catch the sun setting over the Houses of Parliament and the Thames, or head off for some well deserved sustenance.