Samuel Johnson once said that “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” This quote resonates with many people who have had the fortune to visit or live in this magnificent city and it has come to mean a lot to me this year. In 2011, I have discovered that there is no end to the wonder, history and excitement that London has to offer.
In my last post, I mentioned that Stephen and I went on a London sightseeing tour with London black taxi driver and tour guide Graham Greenglass.
Graham picked us up from Waterloo station and can in fact pick you up from any location in London. He has been a taxi driver for about ten-and-a-half years and began giving tours about nine years ago.
Did you know that in order to become a London taxicab driver, you have to pass a test known as The Knowledge? This is an in-depth knowledge of the routes and attractions in London and takes about three years to learn. Taxicabs drivers need to make snap decisions within a split second, without looking at a map, and they need to navigate anywhere within a six mile area of the centre of London. But, wait, we’re not quite there yet…
St James’s Square
Once we’d finished learning 5 things we did not know about St James's London, we drove around St James’s with its private art galleries, exclusive gentlemen’s clubs and royally appointed merchants. The building above is one of the few original late-Georgian buildings around St James’s Square and was the home of Nancy Astor, the first woman to sit in Parliament in 1919.
The Centre of London
We then exited St James’s via Pall Mall and were at the centre of London. Prior to our tour, I had no idea where the centre of London was but apparently many people think it is Trafalgar Square or Nelson’s Column. The dead centre of London is in fact located at the statue of Charles I, pictured above. Trafalgar Square is a couple of metres to the left of this photo.
Horse Guards Building
If you round the statue of Charles I and turn left down Whitehall, you will arrive at the Horse Guards building which is guarded by the Household Cavalry and is one of the number one locations that tourists visit when they come to London. For this exercise, you are going to have to click on the photo above and take a look at the clock.
I bet you don’t know what the black mark at the number II is for! That commemorates the time at which Charles I was executed: 2pm on 30 January, 1649. He had lost the English Civil War and was marched from St James’s Palace, through Horse Guards Parade and brought to the balcony of the Banqueting House where he was beheaded.
If you look at the photo below, you can see the Banqueting House which was built by Inigo Jones in 1622. It is the last remaining vestige of the Palace of Whitehall which was otherwise completely destroyed by fire in 1698.
The balcony is just peeking out on the right hand side of the photo, but we weren’t able to go around the front and take a photo (because the taxi cab was parked in the middle of the street!)
The Palace of Westminster
The Palace of Whitehall wasn’t the only building in London that burnt down, and in fact, Graham began to play a game of “It Burnt Down!” with us. He would ask us what we thought happened to a building, palace or street, and we would reply, “it burnt down”.
You’re probably familiar with the exquisite perpendicular gothic styling of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament which is also known as the Palace of Westminster. But did you know that this is the new palace? The original medieval palace complex burnt down in 1834 and the low-lying building in the photograph above is all that remains of the original Palace of Westminster. This building is facing Parliament Square and Big Ben is to the left of the photo.
On the day of our London Cab Tour, I learned three things about Westminster Abbey that I honestly did not know before. The first is that Westminster Abbey, like so many buildings in England, was never finished. Can you guess what is missing? Well, there is no spire on Westminster Abbey, although there have been plans in the past to erect one.
The second bit of information that I learned is that some, but not all parts of the abbey are genuine Gothic. In the photo above, the windows in the left background are Gothic but two western towers were only built between 1722 and 1745 and is therefore of the Gothic Revival style.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit this last point. Let’s just agree that I am possibly the world’s least observant person and this is why I try so hard to take note of the world around me and blog about it. So although I did not know this, I am sure all of you did. So, did you know that Westminster Abbey has a cruciform ground plan, meaning that it is built in the shape of a cross, and that it is east-facing?
The Crimean War Memorial
You might wonder why I didn’t name this section after the gorgeous Bath stone faced building depicted above. The reason for that is that although it is quite beautiful, it apparently isn’t anything special but is an office building. The prestigious Westminster School lies behind it though and that is the Westminster School Crimean War Memorial on the left (not to be confused with the Crimean War Memorial at Waterloo Place).
After four years in London, it seems I am no closer to knowing but a fraction about this wonderful city. I would certainly recommend contacting Graham from London Cab Tours and going on a tour with him. As Stephen said after our excursion, “the amount of knowledge that Graham had, you could spend a week with him and you wouldn’t even touch the surface”.
I have two more surprises from the taxi cab tour, but those will have to wait for next time!