Discovering the City of Dickens and Shakespeare with a London Walks Tour

Our guide is loud and theatrical, and has no problem making himself heard by the crowd of people clustered hopefully around him. “It had to happen sometime,” he booms. “A North American telling you about those two icons of English literature, Dickens and Shakespeare!”

Martin Chuzzlewit's House, London

Martin Chuzzlewit’s House

David knows his stuff. Snippets from the whole history of London, from the layers of Saxon society to Victorian prisons and street urchins. He tells us how Shakespeare’s London was dominated by three buildings: St Paul’s Cathedral and London Bridge (both now rebuilt), and the Tower of London. As he talks, he brings the old city to life, even where there is very little still to be seen.

Even for someone like me, who has been visiting London, on and off, for more decades than I care to remember, there is something new to be learnt. We pass St Paul’s, where I ponder the contrast between the old cathedral and the tall and ultra-modern buildings around it, and David stops to show us the place where public proclamations would have been made in Shakespeare’s time, a sort of 16th century equivalent of the daily TV news broadcast.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You will see bits of London you would never have found for yourself.
  • Professional guides bring the city to life more vividly than any guidebook.
  • Good for: city lovers, history buffs and bookworms.

Pearly Kings and Queens

As we walk, David talks about the names of the streets, linking them with the origins of the city and the mediaeval guilds. We see the house in which Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit lived, and the site where Pip in Great Expectations stopped when he first came to London, before arriving at the Guildhall, scene of Pickwick’s famous legal case.

London's Pearly King

Pearly King

Here I am reminded of one of the joys of walking round London: you so often come across something you were not expecting. Approaching the Guildhall, we see the tail end of the annual Pearly Kings and Queens procession. This is an annual tradition that first arose among London costermongers (apple sellers) in the 19th century. A Pearly King and Queen (so called because of their elaborate costumes covered with pearl buttons) are elected, and parade through the streets with a train of decorated vehicles collecting money for charity.

Conjuring the Past

London would not just have looked different in Shakespeare’s time, David tells us, it would have smelt and sounded different, too. He conjures up the smells of the tanneries and the meat market, and the screams of patients undergoing primitive surgery, so vividly that we are momentarily transported back in time. He draws the contrast with the ‘rich’ end of the city, where the goldsmiths and the embroiders plied their more genteel trades. Even in places where the city has been swallowed up in concrete, he finds evidence of that hidden past, in old guild plaques, or windows barred up to prevent entry by child thieves.

London street sign

Mediaeval guilds gave their names to streets

We visit the Shakespeare memorial at St Mary Aldermanbury, and stop at the church of St Bartholomew the Great, which has featured in several films including Shakespeare in Love and Four Weddings and a Funeral, before finishing at the old Smithfield Market. Here we see the Pearly King and his retinue again, stopping for well deserved drinks at a local hostelry now that their procession is over.

The walk is over, and people cluster around David, seeking recommendations for local pubs and restaurants. For me, I go away determined to dig out some of my unread Dickens novels.

Shakespeare memorial at St Mary Aldermanbury

Shakespeare memorial at St Mary Aldermanbury

 
Practicalities

  • London Walks cover a variety of subjects, from Dickens and Shakespeare, to Jack the Ripper or The Beatles. Walks are conducted by professionally qualified guides.
  • All walks start and end near to tube stations, and take place as advertised, regardless of rain or other weather conditions! They last for approximately two hours.
  • There is no need to book in advance, just turn up a few minutes before the start of the walk. However it is possible to pre-book private walks for large groups.
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Comments

  1. Karen Berger says

    I did a couple of these tours while in London and they were excellent: Informative, fun, and brought the city to life in the way a guidebook never could.

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  2. says

    I loved the article on London Walks. I’ve taken quite a number of them and wrote a piece on London Walks for the Philadelphia Inquirer a while ago. They are high quality, yet much less expensive than other companies. Where else can you meet with other travelers for two hours and be entertained by actors and actresses who are licensed guides?

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