London is a city that holds an almost mythical allure for travelers—the chance to see iconic sights that have formed the backdrop of so many movies and TV shows is simply irresistible. And no doubt any good trip to London should take in Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and a show in the West End. If you have a little more time to explore, however, a guided walk around some of the city’s most historic areas—often neglected by tourists on a tight schedule—can yield fascinating insights into this city of a thousand layers.
We asked Ian Porter, historian, novelist, and the man behind London Town Walks, to share some of his favorite strolls that reveal the sometimes forgotten history of the city. For the full experience, you can book Ian to lead the walk and share his many stories with you along the way—and he’ll even factor in time for coffee or a pint at an authentic London pub. We can’t think of a better way to experience the city like a local.
1. Walk in the Footsteps of the Suffragettes
100 years ago this year, after years of struggle and dissent, women were finally able to vote in Great Britain. You can mark the centenary by stepping back into history on the suffragette walk. The route starts at Trafalgar Square (where a statue dedicated to Millicent Fawcett, a key campaigner for women’s suffrage, will soon be unveiled), before heading along Horseguards Parade and behind 10 Downing Street to the little-visited Suffragette Scroll memorial behind Westminster Abbey.
Ian says, “You’ll see where women chained themselves to railings, threw stones to smash windows, went on great marches and processions, held their meetings, spread the word, got arrested, got beaten up, hassled politicians, and more.”
Pro Tip: If you start the walk at 10:30 am you can take in the Changing of the Guard outside Buckingham Palace, which happens every day.
2. An Authentic Jack the Ripper Tour
The murders of five Whitechapel women in 1888 by an unknown killer, dubbed Jack the Ripper, captured the imagination of people the world over. Numerous TV shows and movies (including From Hell starring Johnny Depp) have been made about the crimes, and walks around Whitechapel are popular with tourists. Although numerous London walks companies offer a “Jack the Ripper” walk, according to Ian, they are not all equal. “The traditional route through Spitalfields at night which many walks take now has nothing to show a tourist unless they enjoy looking at skyscrapers and construction sites, and standing in huge crowds at all the tour groups jostle to see the very limited things on view.”
Instead, Ian suggests heading further into the heart of Thameside London, starting at Shadwell station and walking along cobbled streets and under railway arches, following in the footsteps of the unknown killer. You’ll even walk past the two remaining buildings with direct links to the murders. And if that’s not enough grisly entertainment for one night, Ian says, “You can also head for the Whitechapel of the Kray twins, and the pub where their most famous murder took place.”
Pro Tip: After your Whitechapel walk stroll up to Brick Lane, home to many of London’s best curry houses, to try one of the UK’s favorite dishes—Chicken Tikka Masala.
3. A Side of the City That Most Tourists Miss
To get a new perspective on the city, Ian suggests a walk he dubs “Hidden London”. The route goes to the heart of the City of London, starting at Blackfriars and heading into the narrow streets behind the station, including the street where William Shakespeare lived for a time, in the parish of St Helen’s. The 12th-century church of St Helen’s is still standing in Bishopsgate and has remained largely unchanged since Shakespeare’s day.
The walk heads by St Paul’s Cathedral before turning towards Smithfield market, past the oldest house, church and hospital in the City. In medieval times Smithfield was one of the most important places in London, where summer fairs, markets, and even executions were held. Ian says, “There’s lots of bloody medieval history, body snatching, ghosts, and the Black Death. All this and the very spot where Moriarty stood on that roof with Sherlock.”
Pro Tip: At Smithfield, look for the memorial to Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace (immortalized by Mel Gibson in Braveheart). He was executed on this very spot in 1305.
4. The London of Call the Midwife
The BBC series Call the Midwife has proven extremely popular with American audiences, so much so that Ian says his walk centered around the program is one of his most-booked tours. For this walk, you’ll be heading well off the beaten track to Poplar, in London’s East End.
The walk takes you past the real Nonnatus House—which is still standing, unlike in the program. Its real name is St Frideswide’s Mission House, and the nuns that lived here helped to deliver local babies well into the 1970s. Records show that the nuns delivered up to 100 babies a month in just the 8-square mile radius of Poplar, many born into terrible conditions in tenement houses. Ian says, “You’ll see where the Spanish woman with 27 kids lived, and where sister
Evangelina jumped off the quayside into a boat to save time.” For fans of the program, this walk is a must-do activity.
Pro Tip: Stop for a drink at the Prospect of Whitby pub after your walk. Built in 1520, it claims to be the oldest riverside pub in London.
5. Uncover Maritime History in Greenwich
Right up until after Second World War, when the importance of sea power began to fade, Britain was considered one of the world’s great naval powers, and Greenwich is a great place to head to find out more about the country’s seafaring history. The walk starts at the Royal Naval College, where naval officers were trained, including Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India.
You might recognize the surroundings—several films have been shot around the college, including the monumental barricade scenes from Les Miserables. The location of the college is fascinating in itself. Ian says, “It was built on the ruins of Henry VIII’s great Greenwich riverside palace, where he and his daughters were born, and where so much Tudor history took place.” You’ll walk along the river with great views across to Central London as far as the Cutty Sark, a clipper ship built in 1869 one of the last tea clippers ever built. You can even go onboard to explore the ship and see what conditions were like for sailors in the 19th century. The next stop is Greenwich Observatory, and one of the best views of London from anywhere in the city.
Pro Tip: Leave time for a photo op at the Greenwich Meridian (at the Observatory), the line that delineates 0 degrees of longitude and the place from which all time zones around the world take their cue.