London Walking Tours    with Joanna Moncrieff

The Rialto – the tale of a forgotten cinema

I discovered a forgotten gem in London last night. The Rialto Cinema in Coventry Street (near Leicester Square) was described by Nikolaus Pevsner as having “the finest early cinema interior in London, worthy of a full-scale theatre”. Built in 1912-13 it is today used as a rather downmarket casino and the gamblers seem oblivious to their opulent surroundings. The exterior of no. 3-4 Coventry Street doesn’t really stand out but the interior is breathtaking.

I’ve been unable to find an interior photo on the internet and there is a distinct lack of information available but this American website has a few details:

Details of the casino if you want to check out the interior for yourself are at:

It is a real shame that it’s hidden away from the general public and isn’t being used for its original purpose.

A Secret Garden

London is full of secret places and I am enjoying searching them out. Hill House Garden is a little known part of Hampstead Heath. It would be hard to come across this garden by accident as it is really tucked away off North End Way close to the former pub Jack Straw’s Castle. When I visited it for the first time last year for a BookCrossing picnic I was absolutely blown away. The manicured gardens with the ornamental fish pond and the Edwardian pergola make this an amazing place. The pergola is in need of some much needed and probably costly refurbishment but you can still enjoy the beautiful views and imagine all the garden parties that took place here at the beginning of the 20th century Picnicking in these peaceful beautiful surroundings is a great way to spend a summer afternoon.

The pergola and gardens together with Hampstead Heath are owned by the City of London Corporation and more details about the history of the pergola can be found on this link. The garden is halfway between Golders Green and Hampstead tube stations on the Northern Line and on bus routes 210 and 268 and interestingly the building of the Northern Line helped in the creation of the garden.

Running the Race

Tonight I watched a great event – the annual City of London Road Race. However I wasn’t joined on the streets by hundreds of people. In fact I was the only person in my stretch of the course near to Liverpool Street station.

The race sponsored by Standard Chartered started at 7.15pm at the Honourable Artillery Company ground near to Old Street so there were a lot of people on the streets but they were all rushing home and seemingly oblivious to the race about to start. They would have noticed the barriers on the roads, the buses diverted and the stewards with their yellow jackets but they didn’t stop to think that it might be worth spending a few minutes to egg the runners on.

I had planned to get a bus from the Strand to Liverpool Street but ended up walking from St Paul’s because of the diversions. I noticed the signs for the race but carried on like everyone else as it wasn’t due to start for another 15 minutes. However standing in the station waiting for my train it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t want to be like everyone else and wanted to be back by the side of the road being a part of it.

In the 15 minutes or so that I watched the runners turn into Old Broad Street the winner would more than likely (going by last year’s times) be crossing the finish line back at Old Street. Initially I was just going to watch the start but the pounding legs became quite hypnotic and I couldn’t draw myself away. I then started looking out for people I knew and saw H, the Managing Partner of my old firm quite close to the front. I saw someone with an army backpack, someone dressed as a zebra, Wonderwoman and several people who had volunteered to dress up as human billboards for the sponsoring company and who looked very uncomfortable. However I mostly saw normal people from law firms, banks, barristers’ chambers and accountancy firms concentrating on completing the 3.5 mile course in a respectable time.

I must have returned to my hypnotic state as was then amazed to hear someone call my name and noticed that a group of runners from my old company had recognised me!

Prior to watching this event I had been feeling a bit down and sorry for myself. This was the perfect antidote and I boarded the train home feeling quite happy.

London Life

Despite studying to become a London guide I haven’t been enjoying London as much as I should have over the past few months as have been cooped up at home revising. However last weekend I got right back into the thick of it and have been celebrating living in London

I found out at late notice about a free event on Friday night at the Wellcome Collection in Euston Road called Quacks and Cures. Myself and my friend S started off the evening with a cheap veggie curry in Drummond Street (just behind Euston Square tube) and when we arrived at the Wellcome Collection the place was buzzing. Our visit started with a lecture by Ben Goldacre who writes the Bad Science column in the Guardian. I confess I had never heard of Ben but my friend S was keen to hear him. We had to queue for 20 minutes to get a seat but it was worth it. The talk was entitled “The Placebo Effect” and was very interesting and thought provoking.

We then had a look around some of the exhibits in the Museum and the permanent collection which were fascinating although I did wonder whether the old fashioned prosthetic limbs and bottles of preserved organs would be featuring in my dreams that night. We stopped to look at some live leeches but I didn’t get too close as slimy animals aren’t my favourites. However I was completely unaware that they have found their way back into use today as part of plastic and reconstructive surgery.

After a restorative tonic in the cafe we went home.

Saturday I was a volunteer host for another medically connected event – a visit to The Old Operating Theatre Museum just south of London Bridge. Visiting this museum is like going back in time. You go up a winding wooden staircase as if you are going up Rapunzel’s Tower. When you reach the top you are in an old fashioned museum that doesn’t take credit cards (so I unfortunately had to go back down, to the bank and then up again to get enough money to pay for 10 people). We sat in the old operating theatre and watched a demonstration (without the actual cutting obviously) of an amputation with a live volunteer. The surgeon at the time back in the mid 19th Century had perfected his technique and got it down to a record 27 seconds. Just as well as there were no anaesthetics. It’s amazing how the population ever survived as there was absolutely no thought of hygiene. No hands or surgical coats were ever washed so the person being operated on at the end of the day would be contaminated with every other patient’s germs and had little chance of survival.

The London Bridge Festival was happening last weekend and on my way across the bridge in the morning I’d witnessed Freemen of the City of London exercising their right (after a substantial donation to the Lord Mayor of London’s charity) to drive sheep across London Bridge. I had intended to have a proper look at the stalls on my way back north. However the first stall I came to was manned by the City of London Guides Association and I knew several of the people on the stall from my Westminster and Foundation Guiding courses. A walk was just about to set off so as I had nothing planned I joined the group.

When I worked at More London (near City Hall) I did a lot of exploring in the area. This part of Southwark is one of my favourite parts of London as it has so many surprises. On Saturday’s walk I learnt that several hundred years ago the City of London extended several miles into Southwark, evidence of which can be seen on a gravestone in the Cathedral garden. On our walk we went down many alleyways and through busy Borough Market (and unfortunately lost quite a few of the group) and I discovered a few more interesting pubs to add to my collection. We visited one of the alcoves from the old London Bridge which can be seen in the grounds of Guy’s Hospital and we also saw the final resting place of Thomas Guy. The evening finished with a couple of drinks in one of the aforementioned pubs.

Next weekend I will be BookCrossing in Hampstead and watching the latest Harry Potter whilst dressed as Professor Trelawney. Details soon.

A nice cup of tea

Our exam walk has two subjects that crop up throughout the whole walk – one is Americans as there is a strong American connection in Mayfair – and the other is afternoon tea.

Afternoon tea is of course a very British institution and it seems to have become a meal in its own right at a price to match. Prices range from £37 at the Ritz to an amazing £6.25 (granted a much smaller tea) at Sothebys. If you want to have tea at the Ritz you need to book at least 12 weeks in advance and if you want afternoon tea on Christmas Day you will have to wait until Christmas 2010 as it’s already fully booked this year.

Browns in Albemarle Street won the Tea Guild’s annual award for Top London Afternoon Tea earlier this year. They have a choice of 17 different teas with 2 dedicated tea sommeliers to help you make your choice. Their tea is £35.

Claridge’s tea includes a choice of 30 teas and they have also won a prestigious tea award this year. During Wimbledon fortnight their website indicates (although I may have misunderstood this) that guests taking afternoon tea (for £33) will be treated to strawberries, macaroons and a glass of champagne, served in a “garden party atmosphere”. If that is right that is a bargain.

At the other end of the scale the auction house Sothebys in New Bond Street do a “Small Tea” for the real bargain price of £6.25 which is perfect for people with small appetites like me. This comprises a toasted teacake, a portion of scones with clotted cream and jam and tea or coffee. Whilst you’re there you can preview any items coming up for auction or pop upstairs to the gallery to view one of the sales in progress which I did today. I watched a contemporary art sale and prices started at £20,000. There were plenty of people buying.

If you’re shopping for perfumes in Miller Harris in Bruton Street they have their own minature cafe at the back of the shop where you can partake in one of 3 fragrant teas. A pot of tea here isn’t cheap at £4 but it’s not exactly PG Tips. All teas are from Postcard Teas in Dering Street.

The last place I’ll mention isn’t strictly only for afternoon tea but if you can get past the intimidating shop assistants (and security guards) in Dover Street Market (not a market in the normal sense of the word with very expensive clothes for sale and bizarre animal skulls for just under £2000) and make your way up to the 4th floor you will find an unexpected light and airy unpretentious cafe. It’s set up rather like a slightly posher version of Food for Thought in Covent Garden with increased prices to match. The Rose Bakery was started by Rose Carrarini who co-founded Villandry in Marylebone and Rose and her French husband set up the original Rose Bakery in Paris in 2002. I haven’t yet eaten there but the reviews look good.

Of course there are many more I haven’t mentioned – not just Fortnum & Mason and The Connnaught Hotel – but other fashion stores and shops and I’m sure there are many more that I am still to discover.

This could be an idea for a themed walk. Watch this space …

Almost there

I think I’ve finally cracked it. I’ve finally realised what I have been doing wrong in relation to guiding and am all set to prove next Sunday that I can guide when I pass the exam.

I went out today with some of my trainee guide colleagues and we practised the exam walk not once but twice over the course of the day. They gave me what I needed which is constructive and detailed feedback. My mistakes (ie basically talking too much and too fast) have been hinted at by others on my course but no-one had actually spelled it out to me and I was too dim to realise what they were trying to tell me.

I have finally managed to smile as I talk (another thing I had had difficulty with) and had thought that was my only problem. However after talking about Lansdowne House (where Mr H G Selfridge lived in the 1920s) for 1 minute longer than I should have this morning I was told I was giving far too much information and that I should slow down, give less detail and put some pauses in. In the afternoon I tried the same stop with the pauses and cut the extraneous information and it worked.

S from the class has organised a couple more practice sessions during the week and I do still have a long way to go but feel that I have finally seen the light at the end of the tunnel.

Fingers’ crossed for Sunday

London’s secret pub tours

One of the first tours I do when I qualify as a guide will be a tour around some of the many interesting pubs in London. In fact I think it will have to be a series of tours as we obviously want a decent amount of time in each pub and we will want a bit of history/interesting facts thrown in but we don’t want to be traversing too far in the process.

Thursday night we had a practice walk around Belgravia and there, really is my first pub walk sorted. Firstly, as its history is associated with the disappearance of Lord Lucan (although I can’t vouch what the actual pub is like) we have The Plumber’s Arms in Lower Belgrave Street. It was on 7 November 1974 that Lady Lucan discovered the body of the nanny Sandra Rivett in the basement of their house at 46 Lower Belgrave Street. The nanny had been battered to death. Lady Lucan was grabbed from behind by a gloved hand and hit on the head by, she later claimed, her estranged husband. She managed to escape and ran out of the house and burst in the pub bloodstained and wet from the rain exclaiming that there had been a murder and that she believed the murderer still to be in her house along with her children. Later that night Lord Lucan told a friend that he had interrupted the murderer, slipped in a pool of blood (likely story!) and things didn’t look good for him (too right!) so had decided to flee. He hasn’t been seen since.

The middle part of the walk needs more research. However I do have 2 further fantastic pubs to be included.

Near to Hyde Park corner tube, just along from Pizza on the Park our guide took us down a very dodgy looking backstreet, where I would never have ventured by myself – Old Barrack Yard. Back in the mid 18th century this had been the entrance to a cow pasture on which a Foot Guards Barracks had been built. I wasn’t the only person in my group of fellow trainee tour guides who had never been to this part of Belgravia. As we turned the corner we arrived in a cobbled mews and at the end of this mews was a picture postcard pub, The Grenadier. It was impossible to believe that Hyde Park Corner was so close as it was completely peaceful. We didn’t have time to stop for a pint as had to be on our way but I will return.

Our final pub of the night where we did stop was the Star Tavern. It is in deepest Belgravia near to Belgrave Square in Belgrave Mews West. This is reputedly the place where the Great Train Robbery was planned. It was very busy on a Thursday night so obviously I will have to return to check it out at different times of the day and night!

After my course is finished I foresee that I might have to do a bit more exploring and sampling of the pubs in the area in order to put together a walk. I can see a full-time job of research for pub related walks all around the city. Watch this space …

Undiscovered (for me) London

I have had a stressful week in preparation for a practice walk around Little Venice/Paddington Basin which took place yesterday. All our previous practice walks have taken place in areas of London that I know well (ie the West End generally) but although I have been to Little Venice a couple of times on canal trips to and from Camden I can’t say I really know it.

It was Little Venice pool that confused me. I just couldn’t get my bearings with it. I even managed to spend 30 minutes walking up and down the wrong arm of the canal wondering where Edgware Road had gone to! I was worried that on the walk the person doing the stop before me would be somewhere I didn’t know and I wouldn’t be able to find my next stop! Over the last week I visited LV 3 times (including 2.5 hours after work on Friday) and by yesterday was just about confident not to get lost.

Last Saturday it was the annual Canal Cavalcade which is really worth seeing. Hundreds of narrowboats converge on the pool and you can get a feeling as to how the area was back in the 19th Century when it was a hive of activity with the barges delivering coal, hay, wood and even live sheep. Pickfords the removal company had their own fleet of boats at 2 speeds. One for normal deliveries and one for urgent or perishable goods. They couldn’t have been that urgent though as top speed was 3 to 3.5 miles an hour. Wedgewood and Dalton also used the canal to deliver their pottery. There was unbelievably a 90% breakage rate by road. By canal it was down to less than 50%. The canal’s heyday didn’t last long though with the arrival of the railways.

4 of my class colleagues joined me on a free walk entitled “Little Venice Waterside Walk”. It was interesting but most of the content had already been covered in class. I also couldn’t help but notice when the unqualified guide did something wrong such as turn away from us when talking or start talking before we all got there. I suppose this is going to happen every time I go on a walk now but it must mean I’m learning!

Bank Holiday Monday I needed to go back there again as still hadn’t figured out where I was going to stand for my 2 stops (Little Venice – Canal life and architecture and Bridges Railways and Heathrow Express). My brother A, was playing trumpet in one of his bands The BBJC Dance Band (who play 40s dance music) at the new amphitheatre at Sheldon Square (just along from LV) so that seemed a good reason to visit too.

After watching A unfortunately under cover as it was raining I then went on another free guided walk entiled “Big Changes in Paddington” with John, a qualified City of Westminster guide (what I hope to be at the end of my course). He was very good. This walk was around the new development at Paddington Basin and it will be fantastic when it is finished. If you get off the tube at Edgware Road, cross over to the new Hilton Metropole and then just walk around the corner you will be completely surprised to find the end of the Grand Union Canal. I have never seen the end of a canal before.

Part of the new development will be a new landscaped area, Merchant Square which will include shops, restaurants etc.

John’s walk started at the Hilton and we then walked along the canal crossing 3 of the new bridges. We saw the new development including buildings by Terry Farrell and Richard Rogers but we also saw some of what was left of the old Paddington. This was very interesting. A previous church on the site of the current St Mary’s Church at Paddington Green is where Hogarth got married. The actress Sarah Siddons is commemorated by a statue on Paddington Green. Unfortunately she is facing the very busy main road and I feel the statue should be moved to a more peaceful spot. If you ignore the roar of the traffic and the ugly flyover you can almost imagine what Paddington used to be like when it was a village on the outskirts of London. This was all new to me.

Back to Monday’s walk – John had arranged that the new Rolling Bridge would open for us. This was an amazing sight. The bridge curls up on itself completely silently and gracefully and ends up as a sculpture that rather looks like a hamster’s wheel.

Our practice walk yesterday went well although I had a few problems on my stop because they were noisly cleaning one of the bridges and I couldn’t immediately think of an alternative place to stand. However I now know to have a “reserve” stop and won’t make that mistake again.

After the walk we adjourned to a local pub. This pub, the Royal Exchange, is definitely going in my list of good pubs for future pub crawls (although I know of no others around that area). Having been unemployed and on a strict budget recently I was really suprised by the good food at very cheap prices. A ham and cheese melt with “proper” ham and not too much cheese in “proper” bread was £3. Pie with veg and potatoes was £5.50. Very good value. Will definitely go there again if I’m exploring more. (Sarah Siddons & Paddington Green) (Free walks in Paddington/Little Venice) Incidentally my tutor, Lucy, is doing one of these walks although she hasn’t told us which one!

Now onto my next lot of research for a walk on Thursday – Belgravia – another area I know little about.

St James’s secret life

I’m rather late posting this but it was an unusual evening so wanted to share it.

Last year or maybe the year before I bought 2 tickets for a whisky tasting and then couldn’t find a friend who liked whisky enough to come with me so I went by myself. The last event was in a trendy bar in Bermondsey (The Hide Bar). I do like that bar and it was a good evening.

The Whisky Lounge are based up north so over a year passed before they returned to London and I could use my second ticket.

This year’s tasting was in one of the poshest areas of London (St James’s) and with a completely different clientele. The actual tasting format was very similar but because of the location and the guests the evening was unrecognisable from the Bermondsey one.

There were only 9 of us including Eddie, the organiser. The tasting took place in the Red Lion in Crown Passage one of those fantastic tucked away London pubs.

At first I felt a little out of my depth as not only was I the only female but I got the impression from some of the other guests that they knew a lot more about whisky than I did and were (on first impression) high up in their jobs and rather scary!

However after a couple of glasses I relaxed and started to enjoy the experience.

At one head of the table was Eddie and at the far end was Doug, the Spirits Manager for Berry Brothers & Rudd no less. Berry Brothers had been a stop on my St James’s walk in the Christmas Holidays. They are Britain’s oldest wine and spirit merchant and have been trading from the same shop in St James’s Street for over 300 years. They also produce Cutty Sark Whisky. Doug had some very interesting stories to tell and I felt privileged to meet someone who worked there although he was partial to telling some rather terrible jokes.

It got better. To my left was David who was a very jovial Scottish man and was determined to guess all the Scottish whiskies correctly. The theme was Japan v. Scotland and it was very hard. He said he lived in St James’s so I was really impressed with that fact. It turned out that he worked for a member of the Royal Family.

After the tasting we went down to the ground floor bar which had on my previous visit after my St James’s walk been filled with Freemasons and drunk Monopoly pub crawl participants. This time, on a Monday evening, everyone (apart from me) was a local. They were all very friendly and welcoming especially David’s wife.

By meeting these people I feel that I have entered into the world of St James’s which I would have thought would never be accessible to me. I had never even considered that a pub like the Red Lion would have locals or regulars. I will definitely return.

And interestingly after at least 6 glasses of whisky I had no hangover the next morning.

Anorak tales …

I think I’m turning into an anorak although I am sure some people will say I already was one. Having to learn 17 five minute stops around the London Transport Museum for an exam this Saturday the 21st I am beginning to get obsessed with London’s transport and its history. I am ashamed to say I found myself discussing the print font (ie Johnston) with someone from work that I got on the tube with. Am not really sure how that fact managed to come out of my mouth with no prompting. I must apologise next time I see her. I also found myself on Saturday getting off a no. 26 bus and trying to find out what was different about it and even looking it up on the Internet when I got home. It seemed a completely new style to all the other buses but I’ve yet to find the answer. I did notice however that the seat covers had “ELBG” woven into the design ie East London Bus Garage. Think I need to get out more.

I have, however, enjoyed having conversations with my fellow classmates about random obsessive websites we have discovered. I have already signed up to follow one very interesting blog and I think more may follow even beyond the date of the exam.

Tonight I’ve been researching the Routemaster and the Green Line bus and have discovered I can now talk for 5 minutes without even having to learn it as I find it so interesting. Did you know for example that the ceilings of the upper decks of the Routemasters were allegedly painted yellow to disguise cigarette stains? Right, I had better stop now …