THE SECRET SPACES OF LONDON CITY WALKING TOUR
London Guided Walks run walking tours across London, focusing on different areas and aspects of the capital. Providing public guided walks, private tours and self-guided walks, this group of guides can show visitors to places which are off the beaten path and which usually go unnoticed by tourists.
I recently joined a public tour of the Secret Spaces of London City, to discover places I may have missed on my previous travels. The City of London is known for being a bit of a concrete metropolis, heavily bombed during World War II and rebuilt with the brutalist architecture of sites such as the Barbican and the less than beautiful exterior of the Museum of London. I wanted to find the hidden sites that only the locals know about, and was astonished to discover that there are indeed some hidden, verdant gardens within the famous Square Mile. Not only are they peaceful places to spend some time, but they have long and varied histories, none of which I would have known about without going on a guided tour.
The meeting point was appropriately on London Wall, a road named after a historic feature which would provide a prominent backdrop to our guided walk. London Wall was initially built by the Romans to contain the city of Londinium, which roughly correlates to the modern-day City of London. The City of London is a small area within the larger area known as London which is in fact all of the various different settlements merged into the one vast metropolis. The City still has a unique character though and is distinctive with its different insignia which you can see around the area, as well as having its own police force, mayor and local government.
Our group of 16 all gathered around the meeting point on a very hot and sunny day, our guide Susan helpfully holding a sign saying London Guided Walks as she welcomed us all and had an individual chat with everyone. She gave us a brief health and safety talk - obvious things about crossing the roads safely, which I'm guessing many people on tours may fail to remember in their haste to keep up with the front of the group.
This was followed by a quick background of the City of London and the three crucial events which shaped the city after the Romans had left - Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 - 41, the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the Blitz in 1940 - 41. All of these events led to the destruction of the previous buildings and have irreparably determined the layout of the City.
Guilds also have a large role to play in the formation of the City. These ancient trade associations, or livery companies, many of which go back hundreds of years, are large organisations of great wealth, which they use to further the interests of their profession and for charitable donations. They have huge and stately halls across the city and in some cases gardens, which they have opened up to the public, popular places for city workers to spend their lunch breaks, or for tourists looking to explore the secret areas of this metropolis.
Our first port of call was Salter's Garden. The Salters Company is one of the oldest of the guilds, receiving its first licence in 1394, salt being vital for food preservation, flavour and medicinal use. The Salter's Hall you see today is a Grade II listed example of brutalist architecture designed by Basil Spence (who most famously designed Coventry Cathedral), their original halls having burnt down several times over the centuries before moving to this location in 1976.
Salter's Garden is owned by the Guild but the public are allowed to access it when it is not in use for private functions. It is a truly beautiful garden, installed in 1981 and redesigned in 1995, and has now grown to fill its space. With the London Wall running down one side of the garden, you can clearly see the different levels of the wall. The Roman part is the area at the bottom of the wall and the rest is a mixture of medieval additions and repairs. This particular section of the wall still has some of the red brick crenellations which were added during the Wars of the Roses when the city reinforced its defences in case of attack.
The garden is laid out in a formal geometric pattern with a water feature and a decorative urn positioned near the wall. In the height of summer when we visited it is filled with the scent of lavender, the beech hedging is over head height and the pergolas provide much needed shade from the heat of the sun. Pots were dotted around filled with colourful petunias and the number of freshly trimmed rosebushes showed that the garden must have been filled with the aroma of roses during the previous month. There are thoughtfully placed benches around the garden, where a few people were sitting peacefully with a sandwich and a book. Surrounded by the tall office buildings, it is a haven of tranquility, that crumbling London Wall providing a historical permanence to such a modern place.
Another stop on our walk was Goldsmiths' Garden, a two-level garden which was once a bombsite. At street level are benches arranged around a wonderful London plane tree, but the lower level is a manicured lawn surrounded by planting. This was the graveyard of St. John Zachary, a church which was bombed during the Blitz and never rebuilt. The garden was created by fire wardens in 1941 and won an award for Best Garden on a Blitzed Site in 1950. It is now owned and maintained by the Goldsmiths Livery whose hall is just across the road. The garden bears the stamp of the golden leopard, the symbol used on an item which has been hallmarked at Goldsmith's Hall.
Another hidden garden on our walk was Postman's Park, a public park which is actually one of the largest public spaces in the City. Once little known outside the local area, it has become more popular in recent years. Created on the ground of three graveyards, it was now known for its Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, which was started in 1900 by artist Frederic Watts, who thought it wrong that there were no statues or memorials to ordinary people who had nevertheless made the ultimate sacrifice to save others. Under a wooden and tiled loggia, ceramic plaques are painted with the names and sacrificial acts of those who gave their lives, many of whom are children.
Dwarfed by the towering plane trees which are dotted around the edges and with some formal planting and a fountain, the park has some unusual plants. Susan explained that the park seems to have a unique microclimate as it is surrounded by tall walls as well as the heat from the electric cables which run underground and so, unusually for London, there is large banana plant growing against one wall. The park was a popular place on that sunny lunch time, with groups of people resting on benches, eating sandwiches or scrolling on their phones.
The plaques are incredibly moving; there are 54 of them in total dating from the 19th and 20th centuries, the oldest being from 1863. The latest is 2007 which is the only recent one for decades: presumably special permission was given to add it to the others. Each plaque tells a tragic yet heroic tale which you can find out more about on a dedicated website, Postman's Park >>
Other places we visited on our tour included further areas of London Wall, including one spot where there had been a fort as part of the Roman Wall, and is the only bomb site still remaining in London. It is cleared of overgrowth but otherwise has been left as it was, as a reminder of what the City suffered.
We also walked on a high walkway past some of London Wall and a single tower, the rest of its church long since gone. We visited a Physic Garden which smelled wonderful, and in fact the lady who was busy gardening there gave us sprigs of rosemary she had trimmed off, so we all spent the rest of our walk clutching these wonderful fragrant cuttings. We saw the garden, once graveyard, where the creators of Shakespeare's First Folio are buried and also a garden in a large former monastery, three walls of its quire still standing and now filled with towering greenery, roses and huge alliums.
Our walk ended near St Paul's with Susan giving us directions to the tube, bus stops and our various routes home. Overall the guided tour was 90 minutes and I'm not sure how far we walked, probably no more than a mile, if that, yet we had seen so many places . We all applauded as she said goodbye - it had been such an interesting walk and even those of us who thought we knew a lot about London had learned something new. Susan had very patiently answered all questions she had been asked and seemed to be a fount of knowledge on areas of London well beyond the scope of the walk.
It was a fascinating, enjoyable and enlightening walk through the secret spaces of London, and one I know any Slow Traveller would find rewarding.
Booking your walk
You can find this and all of the other walks on offer on their website, London Guided Walks
Book direct through their website.
The guides are all qualified professionals and experienced in guiding. They use microphones to ensure that you can hear them.