Friday 26 October 2012

Hidden London in Context

It's amazing what you can find out by casting a question into the Twitterverse. When I asked my Twitter followers earlier this year about unusual or quirky walking tours of London, one name which popped up was Context.

This tour company employs only tour leaders who are academics or specialists in a particular field, who lead small groups of no more than six people and focus on a city's culture and architecture.

As I despise the vast tour groups which form human obstacles in popular destinations, I liked the sound of this. I also fancied the company's aim of helping "the erudite traveller appreciate and defend the city without overrunning it".

The erudite traveller. That's me, innit? So on a cold wet Monday morning in July, I joined Context's three hour Hidden London tour led by guide Lawrence Owens, an archaeologist and anthropologist when he's not leading tours.

"London is a Roman city," he said, before leading me a vantage point above this remnant of the Roman Empire's ancient fortifications:

"Imagine a big gate right here," he continued. "We're right in the slum area where all the military were camped."

As the rain wafted beneath my umbrella as I tried to take notes without getting the notepad wet, I wasn't having much trouble imagining a grumbling Roman sentry standing guard here and muttering about wanting to be back home in Sicily.

From here we walked past St Bartholomew's Hospital and into the Church of St Bartholomew the Great, founded in 1123 by a gent named Rahere. The interior of this very old church is darkly medieval - except, interestingly, for the colourfully decorated tomb of Prior Rahere:

And here's the decorative restored cloister off the main church, now a very atmospheric cafe:

Lawrence mentioned that the church has had a lot of exposure via television and film, appearing within Four Weddings and a Funeral, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and the 2009 Sherlock Holmes film starring Downey and Law. 

Speaking of Holmes, the roof of the nearby St Bart's Hospital was the place where Benedict Cumberbatch's version of the great detective apparently fell to his death in the recent BBC TV series Sherlock (but did he?).

Out on the streets of Smithfield, we stood in a square near the famous meat market which has operated within its grand Victorian buildings since 1868. 

It's here that a different type of slaughter took place in 1305, when William "Braveheart" Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered for his leadership of a Scottish revolt against King Edward I of England. Presumably this memorial was put up later on in slight embarrassment at such past excesses:

As we walked on, Lawrence segued neatly from the conflicts of the 14th century to more recent times, pointing out a bit of remaining damage from (as I recall) World War II:

We also swung into the Church of St Etheldreda ("One of history's most determined virgins," according to Lawrence). It's remarkable how this 13th century building, one of the oldest in London, is neatly tucked away between more modern structures:

It also has some impressive stained glass windows of modern design, which replaced those blown out by German bomb blasts during the Blitz in WWII:

It wouldn't be a London tour without a pub, so Lawrence led the way to Ye Old Mitre, originally a 16th century pub which was largely rebuilt in the 18th century - not an easy place to find, hidden as it is down a narrow alleyway:

So here we were, in a classic old London pub about noon on a Monday. Not too hard a day at the office:

I had to leave the walk at this point as the flight home to Australia was pending. Before I went, Lawrence told me he usually covers several other points of interest, including the Inns of Court, the London Silver Vaults, the Royal Courts of Justice, Fleet Street and more character-packed old pubs which tourists would never stumble across.

It sounded like a good way to spend a few hours in what Bertie Wooster called "the old metrop".

The Hidden London tour costs £60 per person; info and bookings via Context's website

Disclosure time... I was hosted by Context on this tour.

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