London Walking Tours    with Joanna Moncrieff

A lunchtime wander: Westminster

In my other job (the one that pays the bills) I temp as a legal secretary.  In the past few months I have been working in the immediate vicinity of Westminster Abbey which is (for someone interested in London’s history) a great place to work. There is also lots to do in the area whether you’re interested in history or not. For the purposes of this blog post I’m trying not to venture too far away – ie  not as far as Victoria Station – and am including places that you can comfortably visit in your lunch hour. 

Where to eat your sandwiches

You are spoilt for choice! 

It’s not widely advertised but College Gardens within Westminster Abbey are accessible without having to pay to go into the Abbey. Access is via Dean’s Yard (go through the arch in The Sanctuary and turn left) and you will see the other entrance.  The gardens are open Tuesday-Thursday as long as there aren’t any other events going on. Just speak to one of the green or red gowned gate keepers and they will issue you with a laminated card.  The gardens are beautiful and very peaceful.  However, a word of warning – if you turn immediately left when in the gardens and sit outside the residential accommodation there you may be tapped on the head by Archie the dog especially if you’re eating. There is a resident ginger cat too! Whilst you’re there you can also visit the Museum with its amazing waxworks – see below under “museums”.

Brass on the Grass! Until the end of August brass bands are playing free concerts in College Gardens on Wednesday lunchtimes (12.30pm-2pm).

Named after the lesser known tower in the Palace of Westminster where the Parliamentary Archives can be found Victoria Tower Gardens run to the west of the Houses of Parliament fronting the river and are accessed via Abingdon Street/Millbank. 

To avoid the tourist throng around the Abbey and Parliament cut through Dean’s Yard, turn left into Great College Street which then emerges opposite the gardens. Whilst there have a look at the Buxton Memorial Fountain and the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst. 

The Burghers of Calais sculpture is currently on loan to the Henry Moore Foundation in Perry Green, Hertfordshire for an exhibition on Rodin which is on until the end of October. 

One of my favourite London parks is St James’s Park. I used to visit regularly when I worked at the Basil Spence building that now houses the Ministry of Justice.

Christchurch Gardens at the corner of Victoria Street and Broadway is what’s left of the former burial ground for St Margaret’s, Westminster. People buried there include the infamous Thomas Blood, who almost succeeded in stealing the Crown Jewels. I wonder how many people sitting in those gardens realise there are bodies beneath their feet.

Cafes

In what’s left of the former swimming baths in Great Smith Street can be found the Wash House Cafe which is within the Abbey Centre a community and conference centre. Meals are fairly reasonably priced although a bowl of their soup is not substantial enough for lunch. It’s a bit like a works canteen.

Voted as the 5th best restaurant in London by followers of the website Yelp the Regency Cafe – 17-19 Regency St is a greasy spoon famous for its breakfasts. I must visit soon.

Whilst searching out links for the above cafes I stumbled across Pizzetta in Greycoat Place which has now been added to my list. Tom (Tired of London) just commented on my Facebook page that he goes there a lot so that’s a good enough recommendation for me.


The Methodist Central Hall in Storey’s Gate has another canteen like cafe this time in the basement. The cafe has recently been refurbished and there is now a conservatory area with natural light. You can have a main course hot meal for just over £5.

In the last couple of months they’ve added a takeaway cafe on the ground floor with a couple of tables outside. I was told yesterday that they run tours between 10am and 4pm and basically you just turn up and they will take you round. There is no charge but they do appreciate a donation for their funds.


Slightly further afield on the other side of the river but still do-able in a lunchtime is the cafe attached to the Garden Museum. You can either get a no. 3 bus two stops from Abingdon Street (outside Victoria Tower Gardens) to Lambeth Palace or just walk across the bridge. It was just because of my ongoing foot problem that I caught the bus.

Although I have visited the cafe I am yet to eat there. Arriving between 1 and 2 the queue was too long for me to have enough time to eat so when I next visit I will take an early lunch.

The cafe is vegetarian and the food on offer looked good and reasonably priced. Although the actual museum is quite pricey for a lunchtime visit (£7.50) I’ve just noticed it’s free to those with an Art Fund card so I will definitely visit at some point.

The museum was set up in 1977 in the abandoned ancient church of St Mary’s. The garden was only created in 1980 but the centrepiece of it and the reason for the museum being created in the first place is the tomb of the 16th and 17th century gardeners the Tradescants.


Whilst visiting the cafe I bumped into Vic Keegan who I know from London Historians. He told me about another vegetarian cafe in the same area which I didn’t know about.  According to TfL it’s only 7 minutes’ walk from the Lambeth Palace bus stop so I will definitely try to visit soon.  It’s called the Ragged Canteen, 22 Newport St, SE11 6AY and is within the former Lambeth Ragged School which also houses an arts venue (I think that’s what it is).  The cafe is only open Wednesdays to Fridays from 11 until 4pm. Here’s a Time Out review from a couple of years ago.

Back on the north side of the Thames Strutton Ground Market has lots of lunchtime options. I can definitely recommend the fish and chips at The Laughing Halibut but you do need to get there early. Back in the 1980s when I worked at the Home Office we always went to Stiles for birthday cream cakes. I was delighted to see it’s still there. Although I have seen the odd person order a selection of cakes the main selling point here is the range of filled baguettes with several costing less than £2. Make sure you know what you want before you join the queue though as there’s no time to think when you arrive at the counter!

One last place to mention – and another one I have yet to visit – is the restaurant within Westminster Kingway College, The Vincent Rooms in Vincent Square. You will be served food created by possible famous chefs of the future. Former students include Jamie Oliver, Anthony Worrell Thompson and Ainsley Herriott. It will re-open in September after the summer holidays. The prices are very reasonable too.

I’m going to stop there with cafes but if you know of any other good ones in the area add them in the comments below.

Museums

Entrance to Westminster Abbey Museum is via Dean’s Yard as mentioned above for College Gardens. The museum is small but contains some amazing funeral effigies of kings and queens and other notable people. Really worth visiting to see these. Free entrance.

At the Guards’ Museum in Birdcage Walk you will learn about the history of the five regiments of foot guards that guard the Queen and the Royal palaces ie how to identify which guard is which from the number of buttons on their tunics. Entrance is £5.  There are monthly free recitals too here although the calendar isn’t up-to-date. 

Two regiments of the Household Cavalry also guard the Queen and the Royal palaces and The Household Cavalry Museum in Horse Guards explains their role. Entrance is £6.


Opposite Horse Guards is The Banqueting House the major part remaining from the sprawling Whitehall Palace which burned down in 1698. (Horse Guards Parade and Henry VIII’s wine cellars also remain the latter being within the Ministry of Defence.)  Banqueting House is run by Historic Royal Palaces and costs £5 to get in. Note that there are quite a few closures coming up in September.

Definitely too expensive to make it worth visiting in a lunch hour (£17) but the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill’s Bunker are worth visiting if you have more time.

As mentioned above the Garden Museum just across Lambeth Bridge is free with an Art Fund card (or £5 or £7.50 depending on what’s on).  

Lastly, opposite the Palace of Westminster on College Green can be found The Jewel Tower. Only the Jewel Tower and Westminster Hall survived the 1834 fire. Entrance to the Jewel Tower costs £3.90 unless you’re a member of English Heritage. If you want to know more about the fire read this excellent book – “The Day Parliament Burned Down”.


Pubs 

There are quite a few pubs in the vicinity but not many really good ones (in my opinion). Since a bit of a fall-out with a pub in the St James’s Park vicinity (it’s a long story!) the Westminster Guides have been trialling a replacement pub for drinks post our monthly meeting at Westminster Archives. The Monk in Strutton Ground is our pub of choice at the moment. However I’ve been told that the basement floods regularly and is sometimes closed for months on end so we may have to continue our search.   

Reading through Westminster Archives’ One on Every Corner about the history of some Westminster pubs there was once some 50 pubs in the area around Westminster Abbey and Parliament. There are 2 left – the Red Lion and St Stephen’s Tavern. I think this subject may have to become a separate blog post! 

The ground floor of The Old Star in Broadway is nothing special. However the cellar bar has some very atmospheric vaulted areas which are defnitely worth visiting if you can get in them. 

Formerly the Cardinal, now back to its original name of The Windsor Castle, (see adjoining Windsor Place passageway) this Sam Smiths pub is now full of etched glass and mirrors which I’m pretty sure weren’t there before the redecoration.  The carpeted upstairs room with its leather sofas is a bit like a gentleman’s club and is the location for London Historians on the first Wednesday of every month from 6.30pm. If you’re interested in London’s history and want to meet like minded people come along! There’s no need to join just to attend the pub meet – which is just a social. Oops I’ve gone off the lunchtime theme!

The Windsor Castle is a Sam Smiths pub so there’s a limited choice but Old Brewery Bitter is currently £2.90 a pint (not that I go there much!).  The pub is in Francis Street close to the back of Westminster Cathedral. 
Several times in this post I’ve mentioned Westminster Archives. They are based in St Ann Street, parallel with Great Smith Street and were partly built on the site of the swimming baths. To use the archives you need to hold a Westminster library card but anyone living in London can apply. 
There is a good selection of local history books for sale too. Plus since the closure of St James’s Library next to Westminster City Hall (now a Waitrose!) you can take your library books back there.  

They host occasional free evening talks and weekend events and you can follow them on Facebook too. 

Lunchtime entertainment 

Brass on the Grass – Wednesdays in July and August each year in College Gardens – mentioned above.

The new St James’s Theatre in Palace Street (cut through Cardinal Place, past M&S and next to the pub with cows on the roof!) have recently started doing lunchtime theatre similar to those performed at The Bridewell Theatre in the City. They don’t have any lunchtime productions on at the moment but it’s worth checking the website occasionally. 

Shops 

Ignoring the chain shops in Victoria Street: 

Oxfam book shop, Strutton Ground sells lots of good books for Westminster Guides and people interested in London’s history and the Royal Family.  They recently had a window display with a good selection of secondhand cricket-themed books and have the task of trying to sell a job lot of Lords’ Hansards for £600!  

The Cardinal Hume charity shop in Horseferry Road (near the Regency Cafe) has recently been renovated but the prices have remained the same. They usually have a good selection of books with a bargain stall permanently outside the shop plus a reasonable selection of clothes too.


I always struggle to find birthday cards that are a bit different but there are two shops in the vicinity with a good selection of London themed cards. The Mother’s Union shop on the corner of Tufton Street and Great Peter Street being one of them and Church House Book Shop in Great Smith Street being the other. Both shops sell a surprising amount of non-religious cards.

One last shop to mention which might not be there for much longer, is Mimosa Jewels a pop-up shop in an office building in Cardinal Place opposite M&S and near the pub with the cows on the roof.  I bought this gorgeous scarf there last week.

One shop I miss is the amazing map centre which used to be in Caxton Street but has now unfortunately been replaced by a Pret. The Blewcoat School opposite was formerly a cafe although I only discovered this when reading Vic Keegan’s blog a few months ago only knowing it in my Home Office days as a National Trust shop. I walked past yesterday and the doors were still firmly closed.

It has taken me several months to put together this blog post but I am sure there’s much more I could add if I carry on exploring. Only yesterday I discovered a terrace bar at St Ermin’s Hotel which looks worth a visit. 

If you have any places to recommend add them in the comments below. I’m always looking to discover more!

I have previously done lunchtime wanders in Marylebone, Chancery Lane and Fleet Street although some of the places mentioned in those posts may have closed down. 
The author of this blog (Joanna Moncrieff) is a qualified City of Westminster Tour Guide who specialises in food and drink themed walks in the West End.

Details of all her bookable private walks are listed here and upcoming public walks are here.

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