City of London Boundary Dragons

City of London Dragon on Victoria Embankment

At the heart of London are two cities: the City of London and the City of Westminster.  The City of London is the ancient part of London that was once known as the Roman city of Londinium.  It comprises an area of one square mile and is located north of South Bank and London Bridge.  The boundaries of the City of London have changed little since medieval times and the boundary is six miles long.

The entrance to the City of London is marked in ten locations by statues of dragons.  There are two dragons supporting the City of London Coat of Arms and dragons are important symbols of the city.

The dragons at Victoria Embankment are quite special (one of which is pictured above).  They mark the boundary between the City of London and the City of Westminster, with the dragon facing outwards from the City of London. 

These are the original dragons that were located under the entrance to the Coal Exchange in Lower Thames Street.  The Coal Exchange was demolished in 1963 and the dragons were moved to either side of the Victoria Embankment.  All of the other dragons were based on them and the map below marks their locations (click to be taken to Google Maps).

[Click me] Map of the City of London showing the location of the dragons

London Through the Eyes of a Cab Driver

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 Greenglass London Cab Tours

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

St James 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

Statue of Charles I Trafalgar

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

Horse Guards Clock Tower

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!)

Horse Guards and Inigo Jones Banqueting House Whitehall

The Palace of Westminster

Last Remaining Portion of Westminster Palace

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.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

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

Crimeon War Memorial and The Sanctuary Westminster

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!

5 Things You Didn’t Know About St James’s, London

St James’s is the exclusive neighbourhood in central London where Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace and Green Park are located.  If you’ve ever visited London, chances are that you’ve been in the enclave of St James’s and you possibly think you know all there is to know about it, right? 

I recently went on a black taxi tour with Graham from London Cab Tours.  We learned so much in two hours that I couldn’t possibly fit it all into one post.  The astounding thing was that we were learning about areas and locations that we thought we already knew!

So, without further ado, I present some interesting facts about St James’s, London.

Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace didn’t always look like this and started out in 1703 as the decidedly more modest Buckingham House.  The slightly more yellow stone that you see to the left of the photo above was part of a three-wing extension built in the 1820s in the neo-classical style by King George IV’s architect John Nash.  The extension comprised three wings that formed the three sides of a courtyard.

The most famous, iconic part of the palace, the east front of Buckingham, was only completed in 1850, enclosing the courtyard.  It was remodelled in 1913 (almost 100 years ago!) with a Portland stone facade to include the famous balcony where the Royal family gathers on special occasions. 

Buckingham Palace has been the main London residence of the ruling Monarch since George IV.

If you’re wondering about all of the crowds, that is pretty standard for a summer day but the changing of the guard was also about to take place.

The Victoria Memorial

The Victoria Memorial

The Victoria Memorial was sculpted by Thomas Brock and dedicated to Queen Victoria by her grandsons King George V and Wilhelm II of Germany in 1911.  It is actually quite a stunning memorial and it is certainly worth stopping to look at the detail if you have the time. 

Graham told us that London black cab drivers like to refer to the Victoria Memorial as the ‘wedding cake’!

The memorial features a sculpture of Victoria sitting on her throne.  If you move clockwise around the memorial, Victoria is flanked by the Angel of Truth, Charity and the Angel of Justice.  Victory sits at the pinnacle of the memorial and is joined by two seated figures.

The Royal Parks

If you click on the photo above, you will see the ornate, gilded gate leading to Green Park. The gate represents that this is a Royal Park.  There are eight Royal Parks in London, five of which are in central London: Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, St James’s Park, Green Park and Regent’s Park.  In typically peculiar English way, the parks were made accessible to the public with the Crown Lands Act, 1851 but the public does not actually have the right to use the Parks.  Public access depends on the grace and favour of the Crown although there are public rights of way across the land. 

Green Park

Green Park

Green Park is possibly one of the most beautiful parks in London, if not the world.  It is notable for its simplicity: there are no lakes, gardens or flowerbeds like you see in the other parks, no monuments, cafes or buildings.  Green Park consists entirely of wooded meadows of maple hybrids and London plane trees. 

Have you ever wondered why Green Park is so plain, especially when you compare it to the Queen’s Gardens in front of Buckingham Palace?  I’ll give you a clue.  It is for the same reason that there are several massive, flat, undeveloped and plain stretches of land in Blackheath, near Greenwich.  That’s right.  Green Park is the site of a mass grave.  The dead that are buried there came from the St James’s Leper Hospital for Women which once overlooked the park.

The leper hospital was founded by Matilda of Scotland, wife of King Henry I in 1101 and was dedicated to Saint James the Less.  Thankfully, the leper hospital is no longer there and neither are the dead buried in Green Park, for the site is where St James’s Palace is now located.

St James's Palace Weather Vane

St James’s Palace

The first thing I noticed about St James’s Palace is that it is built of brick, which is highly unusual for a palace.  This is because Henry VIII felt that he didn’t need the security that a castle provided and this was the first structure to be built in the French style of palaces.  It is a pity that his wives did not realise just how much they would need security!

St James’s Palace was built between 1531 and 1536 in the red-brick Tudor style.  It used to be the residence of Prince Charles but he and Camilla now live in Clarence House.  Today, it is the residence of Princess Anne, Princess Beatrice, Princess Alexandra and the staff of both Prince William and Prince Harry.

So that is my collection of useful information regarding the palaces, memorials and parks in St James’s, London.  Next time I’ll tell you a little bit more about the London Cab Tour.