Category Archives: The Blog

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The Coronation Chair

Whenever I’m taking Americans around Westminster Abbey, I like to mention that when Columbus stumbled across the Americas, King Edward’s Chair (commonly known as the Coronation Chair) was already nearly 200 years old; when the rebellious colonists laid out their Declaration of Independence, some two dozen monarchs had already sat here to be crowned.

It really is that old – created in 1300/01, used in its first coronation (of Edward II) in 1307. It predates all but one of the objects in the Crown Jewels (the Coronation Spoon), and comes from a time before the concept of ‘Britain’ or a’United Kingdom’ exercised any minds. Elizabeth II sat in it in June 1953, as did Elizabeth I in January 1559. Charles III will be crowned in it, as were Charles I and II; Henry VIII, Richard III, Henry V and most of those other kings you remember from Shakespeare were crowned in it. English history is in its very grain. Continue reading

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The India Club

Dishoom does the ‘Indian Cafe’ experience very well indeed, and if you’re prepared to queue, serves some great tasting food and impressive cocktails. But if you want the echt rather than the ersatz, then head on over to the Somerset House side of the Strand and try and find the India Club Restaurant.

It must be 30 years since I was last here, but climbing the two floors – past the India Club bar and the Strand Continental Hotel reception on the first floor – and stepped into the room again, it was if I’d never been away. The brown Formica tables and the wooden chairs are almost certainly the exact ones I sat in in the 1980s (and probably the originals from the restaurant’s opening in the 1940s). The waiters were too young to be the same, but their white jackets and their welcome was exactly how I remember it. Continue reading

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Behind the glass at the Churchill War Rooms

cabinet-war-rooms-3Already a huge hit with visiting Americans, the queues for the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum are only going to get longer with the releases of the Darkest Hour movie.

The film is set in the early days of Churchill’s wartime premiership when debate in the Cabinet was whether to sue for peace with Hitler. It is no understatement to say that the entire course of 20th century history would have been utterly different had such an outcome occurred.

The movie wasn’t filmed in the War Rooms, but meticulously recreated them, even down to the peeling paint on the wooden supports of the map room.

“This is the room from which I shall conduct the war”, Churchill famously said of the basement-level Cabinet Room itself, but only around a quarter of wartime cabinet meetings were actually held in the space, at times when the threat from bombing – and the later ‘V’ weapons – was most acute. But the complex was staffed by hundreds throughout the course of the war, an essential bureaucracy of information-gathering and coordination. Had the Germans landed, this would have been one of the first places to get the news, and the initial response to any invasion would have been organised here. Continue reading

Chiappa “organ builders” at Eyre Street Hill in EC1.

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Apparently they’ve been here since 1877, when this would have been the heart of London’s ‘Little Italy’, the area around Saffron Hill and the Clerkenwell Road. The Italian church of St Peter’s is just round the corner. Each July it still holds the procession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a bit of Italian Catholic cultural tradition on the streets of London.
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Autumn Walks and Tours

 

I’ve scheduled some walks and tours for the Autumn, so those of you who want to have a stroll around some of the key London sites and hear history and tall tales about these places, click on one of the links below.

If you can’t make any of these dates, join my mailing list and I’ll send an email as I add new dates.

cartouche384Sunday morning in the British Museum
8 October and 5 November, 10:30
Discover the treasures of the British Museum, from ancient mummies to monumental sculpture. “Intelligent, articulate and friendly.”
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Discover the City of London
Saturday 14 October, 10:00
Walk the layers of London’s history, from the Romans, through the medieval and the Tudors, to the Victorians and the present day.
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Rock n Roll Soho
Saturdays, 30 September, 28 October, 25 November 10:30
Discover the heart of rock ‘n’ roll London in the ’60s and ’70s – the places, clubs and venues that were the setting for the music that defined a generation. “Fun and informative.”

Michael Fagan and Buckingham Palace

buckingham palace with lifeguardsThere might be red-coated soldiers from the elite Guards regiments standing sentry around it (not to mention large numbers of coppers with Big Guns), but Buckingham Palace isn’t quite as secure as you might think.

Queen Victoria suffered from the attentions of ‘The Boy Jones‘, who broke in on numerous occasions (stealing some of Victoria’s underwear at one point – insert “not amused” gag here). In 1981 three German backpackers, mistaking the palace gardens for Hyde Park, scrambled over the back wall of the gardens and camped out for the night.

But the most significant intrusion of recent times was that of Michael Fagan a 31 year old unemployed painter and decorator, who, in 1982, not only got into the main part of the Palace at least twice, but also managed to find the Queen’s bedroom and woke her up to ask for cigarettes. Continue reading

A sponsored cycle ride – this time it’s personal

prostate cancer uk cycling jerseyOn 30th July – that’s only 3 weeks! away – I’m going to try to cycle 46 miles around London to raise money for Prostate Cancer UK. You can give money here.

Three years ago that wouldn’t have been much of an issue. I did a couple of 100km rides and used to cycle 30-40 miles on an average week; training up to do 46 in an afternoon would have been relatively easy. Continue reading

Instagram #1

I’ve been lax at blog posts this year (there are ones coming on the Tudor Pull, Marlborough St Magistrates Court and Michael Fagan, honest), but as I’m out and about on the Blue Badge Guide stuff I occasionally manage to take some pictures and load them up to instagram.

You can follow what I shoot if you look for ‘donbrowndotlondon’, but here’s a selection of recent images from across the capital.

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“Commit no nuisance”

As you wander around London you might see, either on an old sign, or painted up on a wall, the message “commit no nuisance”.  There’s an example below from the sign on the south side of Waterloo Bridge – “2: COMMITTING NUISANCE – no person shall commit any nuisance on any bridge…”

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Charming, yes? A Victorian injunction to always behave oneself in a pleasant and decorous manner? (The signs and notices are always a good 100 years old.)

Not quite.

What they’re really saying is – “Men, don’t p*** against the wall”

In the days before public toilets (indeed, before proper plumbing in most pubs and houses), the more respectable citizens were frequently up in arms about the ‘lower orders’ relieving themselves in public. You’ll find more about this – and more physical deterrents used to prevent al fresco micturation – in Lee Jackson’s excellent book, Dirty Old London.

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The Beigel Bake

Forget your hipster bars and street art tours, single estate coffee and craft beer, upcycled furniture and bleeding edge fashions, the most compelling reason to visit Brick Lane is the Beigel Bake.

beigel-3Open 24 hours and selling 3,000 beigels a day (as well as platzels, rye bread, chollah, cakes and impossibly retro custard slices), it’s been around since 1976 when brothers Asher and Sammy Cohen stopped working for another brother at the Beigel Shop two doors down, and branched out on their own.

(The Beigel Shop is still going, but, although older, doesn’t match the Beigel Bake. It also is the perpetrator of the almost blasphemous ‘rainbow beigel’.)

Continue reading