Self-guided Historical Walk along ‘Secret’ London Landmarks

Historical London walk along London landmarks

London is ever-expanding, not only in size but most certainly in height. No matter where you’re standing, chances are you’ll be able to spot numerous cranes working away on future skyscrapers. Although I enjoy photographing these sleek buildings, I’m more interested in the centuries-old constructions built by people who are long gone. And London is still filled with these old structures. You probably often walk right past them without taking any notice. On our wedding anniversary last year I proposed to go on a self-guided historical London walk. I wanted to explore some of these overlooked historical London landmarks. (Sounds like a real fun and romantic day out, eh?) Join me on this self-guided historical London walk past an overgrown Saxon Church, a poisonous water pump and more ‘secret’ London landmarks. (See, I told you it was going to be romantic!)

The Great Fire of London Monument

Historical London walk along London landmarks

Okay, I’m cheating a bit here as Monument isn’t much of a secret of course. I mean, how on earth could you keep a 62-metre tall obelisk a secret? However, because I find the sight of this gigantic structure so impressive I couldn’t leave it out from this historical London walk.

I always love taking people on my Harry Potter walking tour (Dutch only, sorry) and see their faces when we exit Monument Tube station. As soon as you leave the station, you’re treated to a truly stunning sight. Towering high above the passers-by stands the Monument. This enormous Doric column was built in commemoration of the devastating Great Fire of London that destroyed most of London’s centre in 1666. Although it is one of the most well-known London landmarks, not that many people make the effort to come and visit it. I guess because it’s a bit out of the way of other, more famous London landmarks. It even took me a few years after living in London to go see it. And it wasn’t until two months ago I actually went inside!

Trivia: the height of the column equals the distance from this site to Pudding Lane where the fire originally started.

Old Billingsgate Market on the Lower Thames Street

This Victorian building used to be the world’s largest fish market in the 19th century. After the fish market was moved further eastwards in 1982, they renovated the building of the old market hall. It is now used as an events and hospitality venue. I love the juxtaposition between the old and new in this photo. You can see The Shard photobombing in the background.Historical London walk along London landmarksI find the sculpture of Britannia on top of the building the most beautiful part of its exterior. I’ve made it a habit nowadays to look up when I’m walking through the streets of London. You’d be surprised to see how many amazing sculptures there are on top of the buildings! Even, or perhaps more so, in the West End. Try it next time when you’re out and about on Oxford and Regent Street and around Piccadilly for example. [Warning: be aware of the potholes and impatient shoppers!]

Public garden in a bombed Saxon church

The next stop on this historical London walk is the quiet hidden garden of St Dunstan in the East. The church was originally built as an Anglo-Saxon church in 950 AD.
St Dunstan in the East church London history
It has been destroyed and restored several times throughout its history. Finally, after being bombed during the WWII Blitz, it was decided not to restore it as a church anymore. The site became derelict, until the local council decided to turn the ruins into a public garden in the 1970s. Considering its location, it makes for a great lunch spot for City workers from the nearby offices. Otherwise, this garden is very quiet which is surprising as it’s located right in Central London. You can even see such striking and modern London landmarks such as the Walkie Talkie right behind it.Historical London walk along London landmarksThe overgrown walls and eerie surroundings make this garden a perfect place for taking Instagram photos! You can see more photos and read more about the history of St Dunstan in the East on my travel blog Done That Been There (article in English and Dutch): St Dunstan in the East: From Saxon Church to London Blitz Ruins.

Public executions

When you walk towards the Tower of London from the St Dunstan in the East church ruins, you will pass this London pub. Notice the rather grim name ‘The Hung, Drawn and Quartered’. This is a reference to the public executions that took place on nearby Tower Hill.Historical London walk along London landmarksJust across the road from the pub stands one of the most iconic London landmarks: the Tower of London. While the Tower is infamously associated with beheadings, surprisingly ‘only’ seven people lost their heads here.

I didn’t realise that executions taken place within the walls of the Tower of London were exclusively reserved for the nobles. (The most famous beheading would be Anne Boleyn’s.) These ‘VIP prisoners’ had the courtesy to have their heads chopped off in privacy, far away from cheering spectators. Convicts of lower ranks, however, were executed outside the confines of the walls. Under the watchful eyes of hundreds of excited onlookers, criminals would be executed on Tower Hill. According to common practice, they would be hung, drawn and quartered. (Aaaaaah, now I understand the pub name!)

In the photo you can see the blue plaque with a quote from Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) on the pub wall. Pepys is probably England’s most famous diarist. He recorded many valuable eyewitness stories of important historical events, including the Great Fire of London in 1666. The quote is from Pepys’s diary entry on 13 October 1660. It’s about a public execution he went to see on Charing Cross that day:

I went to see
Major General Harrison
Hung Drawn and Quartered.
He was looking as cheerful
as any man could
in that condition.

Roman walls and London’s oldest church

Did you know that London was founded by the Romans in 43AD? They named the settlement Londonium – nowadays referred to as the City of London – and built defensive walls around it. If you want to see parts of these Roman walls, you can make a little detour from here. Just cross the road and walk to Tower Hill Tube station. Right next to the station you will see remnants of the nearly 2,000-year-old Roman walls.

The next sight is right on the main road Byward Street. It is the All Hallows by Tower Church, the oldest church in the City of London! It was founded in 675AD, which makes it several hundreds of years older than lots of London landmarks in the vicinity, including the Tower of London. I don’t know about you, but I find it quite exciting to be looking at the oldest church in the City! Historical London walk along London landmarks

Last stops: sinister London landmarks

Skull-adorned church gate

On Byward Street, turn left on Seething Lane. Note the name of the first street on your right, Pepys Street. Three points if you can guess who once lived here! At the end of Seething Lane you will find the St Olave’s Church. This medieval church may be one of the smallest churches in the City, but it has had quite some famous admirers. Local resident Samuel Pepys was one of them. Both he and his wife lay buried here.

Another great admirer of St Olave’s Church I want to mention here is the famous novelist Charles Dickens. If you look closely, you can see skulls sitting on top of the churchyard gateway. Inspired by the skulls on the churchyard gate Dickens wrote the following about it.

This gate is ornamented with skulls and cross-bones, larger than the life, wrought in stone; but it likewise came into the mind of Saint Ghastly Grim, that to stick iron spikes a-top of the stone skulls, as though they were impaled, would be a pleasant device. Therefore the skulls grin aloft horribly, thrust through and through with iron spears. (Charles Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveller, 1875) St Olave church skulls London history

Historical London walk along London landmarks

Water infused with human bones

From stone skulls and bones we continue the sinister part of the historical London walk to a morbid sight that has a connection to human bones. On the junction of Fenchurch Street, Leadenhall Street and Aldgate stands a historic water pump. Its official name is the Aldgate Pump, but it has also been referred to as the Pump of Death.

The first mention of the Aldgate Pump dates back to the thirteenth century already. Not many people know that it marks the start of the East End. Dickens refers to it as such in his The Uncommon Traveller:
“My day’s business beckoned me to the East End of London, I had turned my face to that part of the compass… and had got past Aldgate Pump.” 

As you can see in the first photo, the spout has the shape of a wolf. According to common belief, this symbolises the last wolf that was shot outside of the City of London.Historical London walk along London landmarksThe well, which provided free water, was initially praised for its clear and pure water. Over time people started to complain about the foul taste of the water. After the outbreak of a mysterious deadly epidemic, the City started an investigation into the water pump. It appeared that its high levels of calcium were derived from human bones! The water from the pump travelled all the way from Hampstead and there had been new cemeteries built along its route. Bacteria, germs and calcium from the decomposing bodies leaked into the soil and water. This resulted in what’s now known as the Aldgate Pump Epidemic, during which several hundreds of people died from drinking polluted water.

So, remember when you next walk along any street there are secret London landmarks just beneath your feet, or above your head, at almost every turn. You will be surprised by the extraordinary stories that lie behind something you pass every day.

Remember, romance doesn’t always have to be celebrated with flowers. Skulls and bone flavoured water does it for me. How about you?
Zarina xx