London: from Westminster to Charing Cross

From the Palace of Westminster, by way of Parliament Street and Whitehall, you will reach Charing Cross. Government Offices now occupy this district, but in the old days, the road now called Whitehall used to be surrounded by the buildings and grounds of the Palace of Whitehall, originally named York House, because it was the town residence of the Archbishop of York. Consequently, when Henry VIII removed the cardinal from power in 1530, he obtained possession of York House and changed its name to Whitehall.

Many historical events took place at the Palace of Whitehall. Henry VIII died at Whitehall Palace on January 28, 1547.  It was at this Palace that he married Anne Boleyn in 1533 and Jane Seymour in 1536.  From Whitehall, Princess Elizabeth was carried as a prisoner to the Tower, and to Whitehall, she returned as Elizabeth I of England. The execution of Charles I occurred on January 30, 1649, outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall. Oliver Cromwell lived and died at the Palace in 1658. Charles II, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, held his court here, and he died here on February 6, 1685.

After the terrible fire of 1698 that destroyed one of Europe’s most exquisite palaces, St. James’s Palace became the new royal residence until the reign of William IV. The Banqueting Hall, built by (James Charles Stuart) James I, King of England and Ireland in 1620, is the only surviving building from the enormous Palace of Whitehall.

St. James’s Palace.

Here also is the Dover House, a historical landmark, used by the Scottish Office and the Scottish Education Department.  Behind Dover House and the Horse-Guards Parade ground, lies St. James’s Park, confined by the Birdcage Walk and The Mall, leading to Buckingham Palace, the London residence and administrative headquarters of the monarchy of the United Kingdom. It contains fifty-seven acres and is a beautiful spot with its green grass, fine trees, winding walks, shimmering lake, and the St James’s Café.

The gardens and buildings of Buckingham Palace occupy about thirty-nine acres. At the back of the Palace are the gardens, which are separated by Constitution Hill, from Green Park, which contains about fifty acres.

Hyde Park, the central point of the district, is one of the poshest neighbourhoods in the world. On entering the Park, two paths on the left lead to Kensington Gardens. One is the South Carriage Road and the other Rotten Row, London’s “fashionable ride” during the 18th Century, a mile and a half long. North of Rotten Row is the Serpentine, a pretty lake made at the instance and cost of Queen Caroline, wife of George II. Beyond the Serpentine was a road called the Ring and the Ladies’ Mile. It was a spot at which the Coaching and Four-in-Hand Clubs met during the summer and where ladies displayed their new summer dresses during the reign of Queen Victoria.  A bridge divides the Serpentine from the Long Water lake in Kensington Gardens and beyond the bridge are the Serpentine Galleries, London’s popular art venues showing modern and contemporary art.

Kensington Gardens cover 275 acres and adjoin Hyde Park. Here is the Kensington Palace, built by Sir George Coppin in 1605, purchased by the 1st Earl of Nottingham 1619 and sold to William III, who bought the property because it better suited his fragile health. Queen Anne lived and died here in August 1714. Queen Victoria was born on May 24, 1819, in the dining room at Kensington Palace. More recent residents of the Palace were the late Princess Diana, Princess Margaret, and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex.

Kensington Gardens.

To the south of Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, is South Kensington, home to cultural heavyweights like the Natural History and Victoria and Albert Museums. Immediately in this area is the London Oratory, a large neo-classical Roman Catholic church built between 1880 and 1884.

Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park are bordered on the north by the Bayswater Road. Oxford Street begins at the Marble Arch and ends at Tottenham Court Road. With approximately half a million daily visitors and a selection of exclusive shopping experiences, Oxford Street is the busiest shopping street in Europe.

On the way down Oxford Street, take a turn down Duke Street, and walk to Manchester Square, where you will find the Hertford House, the former townhouse of the Seymour family, Marquesses of Hertford and the present home of the famous Wallace Collection of paintings, furniture, and arms.

From Manchester Square by way of Hinde Street, Marylebone Lane, and Wigmore Street, you will eventually arrive at the British Museum. Dedicated to human history and culture, the British Museum, in the Bloomsbury area of London is home to some eight million works, including extensive collections of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Assyrian sculptures and Greek and Etruscan vases.

The other important relics of the past are the Church of Holy Sepulchre and the small remaining part of Christ’s Hospital in Newgate Street.

The bells of St. Sepulchre’s used to toll during a public hanging. The church was harmed, but not destroyed, by the Great Fire, and some of the old building is still in existence. The current building dates from 1450, but after the Great Fire in 1666, the interior had to be rebuilt. Captain John Smith, an English soldier, explorer, and the colonial Governor of Virginia, is buried in the south aisle.

Near St. Sepulchre’s Church, is the Golden Boy of Pye Corner, a 17th-century monument to indicate the point where the Great Fire of London ended. Immediately to the left is Cock Lane, the scene of the Cock Lane Ghost that rocked London in 1762. Beyond Giltspur Street is the area of Smithfield, just beyond the northern wall of the City of London, where, during the reign of Queen Mary I, the Protestant martyrs were publicly burnt at the stake placed opposite the gate of St. Bartholomew’s Priory. During excavations necessary for a new sewer, many charred human bones were uncovered at this spot in 1849. Smithfield was also the scene of the famous Bartholomew Fair, which dates back to the 12th Century and used to last for a fortnight, with shows of dancing dogs and bears, morris dancers, wild beasts, and monstrosities. Smithfield Market, the largest and oldest meat market in the country, once included nearly all of Smithfield.

The beautiful church of St. Bartholomew the Great is part of the old Priory of St. Bartholomew, founded in 1102 by Rahere, an Anglo-Norman priest, who became a monk, and then the first prior. St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, initially a part of the Priory, was also spared by the Great Fire but was rebuilt in 1730. It is now one of England’s most influential schools of medicine and surgery. Near the Priory of St. Bartholomew, Wat Tyler was slain by the Mayor of London.

Going back to Hyde Park Corner, Piccadilly, which runs from this point to Regent Street, is one of the most elegant streets in London, dedicated to luxurious residences and shops that cater to a wealthy class of customers. Shops such as Watches of Switzerland, Burberry, Church’s, Liberty London, Penhaligon’s are all found on Regent Street. Across Regent Street, The Crown Estate owns and manages residences that are available for short and long term rentals.

Regent Street.

Aligned with Piccadilly is Pall Mall, another famous London Stree of private clubs and brilliant shops.  Pall Mall connects St James’s street to Trafalgar Square.

At the north end of Whitehall is Pall Mall on the left and the Strand on the right, while directly in front is the Trafalgar Square. Nelson’s column was erected in 1840-49, and the four lions were placed many years later. In 1832, the work on the National Gallery started on the north side of the square. In 1874, the last of the Strand palaces, Northumberland House, was demolished and Northumberland Avenue built in its place. One old landmark remains on the east side of the square, the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, erected by James Gibbs, one of Britain’s most influential architects in 1721-26.

Queen Eleanor Memorial Cross at Charing Cross.

A modern copy of Queen Eleanor’s Cross, the one that originally stood at the top of Whitehall, can be seen in the Charing Cross Station yard. Edward I of England erected twelve crosses in 1291 to mark every spot on which Queen Eleanor’s coffin rested on the funeral procession to Westminster Abbey from Lincoln. The original cross of three stories, decorated with paintings and gilt metal figures, was removed by the orders of Parliament in 1647 because it was deemed “superstitious and idolatrous.”

The Strand is a significant thoroughfare and forms a part of a highway that connects the City of London with the West End. It is lined with embassies, theatres, shops, and restaurants and crowded with cabs, cars, buses, and foot passengers. On your way towards the City of London, you will pass two churches. St. Mary le Strand, built by James Gibbs in 1714-17, and St. Clement’s Danes, an ancient church rebuilt in 1680.

1 Comment

  1. Very nice read and really informative article. What a shame that the Whitehall Palace was destroyed by fire.

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