We were in London a few years ago when friends invited us to meet Judith, who was going to show them around — and, as it turned out, about 20 others who were waiting in the same place. It turned out she was a guide for the city’s not-so-secret London Walks. Although I had walked along the Victoria Embankment before, Judith pointed to a row of bronze lions’ heads, each holding a mooring ring in its mouth, which can be used for tying up a small vessel.
“But they serve another purpose,” she said. “They serve as a flood warning: ‘When the lions drink, London will sink. When it’s up to their manes, we’ll go down the drains.'”
Realizing how much we were missing exploring on our own, we now take several London Walks each visit. Started 50 years ago by an Australian who so disliked the banality of the banter of typical guides, he came up with a winning formula: guides with an extraordinary font of knowledge and a flair for performance. Many have theatrical backgrounds, and most are specialists in their fields: “Legal London” is guided by a barrister, “Medical London” by a doctor, “Urban Geology” by a geologist, of course. The ever-popular “Jack the Ripper” evening tour is led by a crime historian who is a recognized authority on the subject. “Target London” is run by no less than a Scotland Yard anti-terrorism detective.
They are also marvelous storytellers. On the Beatles Walk, “In the Life,” my husband told guide Richard P. (called the “Pied Piper of Beatlemania”) about being in a New York sound studio when they were remastering a Beatles album, and then Richard filled in the details. In fact, he’s so knowledgeable that he’s banned from participating in the annual Beatles trivia contest because he always wins it. His tour took us to places where “Help!” and “A Hard Day’s Night” were filmed, past a flat where John and Yoko lived in 1968 and ended — where else? — at Abbey Road Studios.
Whenever friends are headed across the Pond we bully them into taking at least one walk. Recently, a friend reported, “Oliver took us to Westminster Abbey, where he had been a chorister as a boy and lived in the dorms. He got us there in time for a performance, and afterward he pointed out where he had lived and told quite a bit about that life.” She also loved the Sherlock Holmes walk with Richard IV (they have so many Richards that they are numbered), who is an actor with a mellifluous voice. He led us in and out of narrow alleys that we never could have found, and the tour finished at the perfect spot: one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s favorite pubs.
You don’t have to book ahead because you just turn up at the appointed place and time. Most walks last two hours. Rainy day? Select one of the museum tours, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral or my favorite: “Behind Closed Doors.” I had been in Covent Garden many times but paid no attention to the “Actor’s Church” that houses memorials to the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Vivien Leigh and Boris Karloff. A museum connected with the Royal College of Surgeons had a most unusual array of specimens. I don’t want to give away too many intriguing surprises, but one tour ended in the Royal Courts of Justice, where we were able to watch a trial with barristers in wigs saying “My lord” to the judge instead of “Your honor.”
One spring morning we took the tube to Tower Hill, where guide Isobel helped us buy boat tickets to Greenwich. On our way we passed the former docks — now super-expensive real estate — and arrived near where the Cutty Sark, the last tea clipper, is berthed. We would never have guessed that the palatial buildings designed by Christopher Wren were originally a home for retired sailors, including many of the men who had fought in the battle of Trafalgar led by Horatio Nelson. And because the walks are all about revealing secrets, we were shown a place where we could straddle both the Eastern and Western hemispheres at the prime meridian without paying to enter the Royal Observatory.
Walks.com also offers private tours, children’s outings, and reasonably priced (including the guide, public transportation and entrance fees) day trips to Stonehenge, the Cotswolds, Cambridge, Windsor and more.
Cities as a whole can be daunting; history can be dry. But legends and anecdotes are far more engaging, and every one of these guides knows how to spin a yarn. After a guided walk I always feel less like a stranger and more like a local, but maybe that’s because we meet many Londoners who never knew what was around their own corner.
WHEN YOU GO
Pick a day, pick your walk, meet at the appointed place and time, and off you go!
The price is about $12, $10 for seniors and children are free. Tipping is welcome, and you will be so pleased you will want to be generous: www.walks.com.