Hang Out in the Docks

From the early 17th century the docks in East London have been key to the history of its development. A former Georgian warehouse which is now Museum of London Docklands tells many a story of shipping and trade through interactive  displays and hands-on activities . Hear stories from sailors, merchants and pirates, learn about the transatlantic slave trade, roam the alleyways of Sailortown and inhale the smells of East London’s past in a recreation of Victorian Wapping. More information.


Meet the Meat Market

It has seen many a head roll (not just cows’) including that of Scotland’s hero William Wallace who was hung, drawn and quartered there with his head then stuck on a pole above the London Bridge in 1305. It’s Smithfield market, the largest meat market in London. It survived through generations and iterations. In medieval times it was known for public executions when scenes of torture were commonplace. It was also the site for wife selling in the early 19th century when divorce was very difficult and men brought their unwanted wives along with other goods to the market to sell them. History has it that one woman’s fortune turned around there when she was picked up from the gutter by a wealthy passerby, remarried and propelled by her new husband to the world of the upper crust. In 1852 the Smithfield Market Removal Act was passed relocating the live market to Copenhagen fields in Islington, clearing the way for Sir Horace Jones to design the new market buildings that we know today. In 1873 the Poultry Market was erected to the west of the Meat Market and followed by two buildings further west known as the General Market and Annexe. The market itself was for the chop as part of those recent fancy kill-old-build-new redevelopments. But it was saved by the SAVE Britain Heritage.

The market is open from about 2 am to 7 am ish and is mainly catering to wholesale buyers but there are lots of bargains for individual buyers too. Families are known to use the night time and no congestion charge to stock up for weeks ahead at a third or even half of the price they would pay at their local.
 It’s better quality too.  Visiting is free.

From Gladiators to City Clerks

The City is the oldest part of London known in the Roman times as Londinium and was under Roman rule for a fifth of its history. The Romans built a wooden amphitheater, a Wembley Stadium of the times, accommodating more than 7,000 spectators to watch wild animal fights and execution of criminals, as well as gladiator combats. Over the centuries it was buried under layers of later buildings and was re-discovered in 1988 during site preparations for the new art gallery. The record of the finds from 13 years of fieldwork filled three volumes and the amphitheater was opened to public in 2002. It is six meters below the modern pavement. The circle of black paving stones in Guildhall Yard marks the original extent of the arena.

From the Roman times fast forward to the 12 century when the City became so important to the country as a trading center that the Crown granted the people their own form of local government. The government, formed before the Parliament, sits in the Guildhall, the City’s only secular medieval building . The City is divided into 25 wards and 125 members are elected to represent them. The Square Mile as it is also known counts 9,000 residents and around 400,000 workers. It is a city within a city and even has its own police with 700 officers. The City’s present-day links to its past through more than 100 livery companies that were created from the early trade practices in the 12th century: Merchant Taylors, Fishmongers, Drapers and Haberdashers. You can visit the Guildhall and the amphitheater for free. Also worth visiting is the Art Gallery which provides a portrait of the City through years. The changing display counts 250 artworks from its permanent collection including Victorian art and Dutch 17th-cenury masterpieces. The library also host various exhibitions and talks throughout the year. Free introductory tours of under 45 minutes are available on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 12:15, 1:15, 2:15, 3:15. They can be joined or left at any time and no booking is required.

Hatch, Match, Dispatch

That’s how this palatial building on the Strand was referred to once when housing the Register of births, marriages and deaths. Now, a place for free art exhibitions as well as open air cinema in the summer and a skating rink in the winter, the Somerset House has been used for many functions. A royal abode where young Elizabeth I lived while her half-sister Queen Mary I reigned, and Anne of Denmark, wife of King Charles I kept residence there, temporarily giving it a name of Denmark House.
The original name comes from the first owner Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector to young Edward VI, who commissioned its building in the 16th century. The Duke was executed in 1552 and the house went to the Crown. Initially used by the royals, it was given up for residence to people close to the Crown and suffered from neglect until it was demolished in 1775.
The current building designed by Sir William Chambers has since been home to the Admiralty, the Royal Academy and the Inland Revenue among many other functions.
Somerset house was the first building in England to have parquet flooring and hosted the first performance of an Italian opera in the country. It has also been a popular filming location and features in the James Bond and Sherlock Holmes films. And it once stood in for Buckingham Palace.

Follow the Money

You can even be at the helm of the monetary policy for a few minutes … at the Bank of England museum. From hand written notes to sophisticated plastics, see the history of money evolve over more than 300 years and the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street presiding over it. It’s free. The rest of the current building which is a joint effort by Sir John Soane and Sir Herbert Baker, including the inner garden, the rate room and Carney’s office is open to public on the Open House Weekend in September. Founded to raise money during a time of war against France from private investors, the bank was established by Royal Charter in 1694 and moved to its current location 40 years later. The earliest paper money was a form of receipt for deposits left with goldsmiths for safekeeping. The portrait of monarch first appeared on notes in 1960 and ten years later the first historical character to grace the face of banknotes was William Shakespeare on the 20 pound note. The first polymer notes that will be 15 percent smaller in size have already been introduced in the circulation. Sir Winston Churchill is on the five pound note and Jane Austen will adorn the 10 pound note later this year. You can  lean a lot more including about how to tell a forged note from the genuine one at the BoE museum which is open Monday to Friday 10am to 5pm.







Long Live The Longplayer

It’s a long way getting there but it’s worth it. And there is time as it is a 1,000-year long composition. It has been playing already for 16 years, so another 984 years to go. Conceived and composed by Jem Finer, one of the founding members of The Pogues band, the Longplayer is located in the 19th century lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf. The composition of Longplayer results from an application of simple rules to six short pieces of music. Six sections from these pieces are playing simultaneously at all times.

Longplayer chooses and combines these sections in such a way that no combination is repeated until exactly one thousand years has passed. There are 234 singing bowls, used as a part of the 66-foot-wide orchestral instrument to perform Longplayer Live. There are also public listening posts around the world, and a continuous online audio stream. Listen in, take in, meditate and walk around the area which also has an American-style diner, a café, and an artsy office space made from disused shipping containers.

Free Treasure: Guns & Lenin

Apart from some 150 species said to inhabit the Thames and an occasional whale washing up in its estuary, there is also a lot of rubbish in it. Go comb the shoreline when it recedes — the usual find is 17th clay pipes (mostly fragments), cotton buds, shipping nails and ceramic pieces. One fellow treasure hunter I spoke to found a well preserved Roman leather shoe,  another found a gold coin and gave his daughter for birthday. A colleague once heard a story of someone finding a gun and a bust of Lenin.


Free Sky View

Forget the 25-pound-for-the-view Shard. Head for the Walkie-Talkie, officially known as 20 Fenchurch Street. Its top-floor Sky Garden offers breath-taking 360 degree views of London, for free. You may want to buy a coffee or/ and cake to celebrate the view at its Sky Pod bar. Access is airport-style and you have to produce an ID with your name (a credit card will do) before you are whizzed up to the 34th floor. There is a glass balcony and a garden featuring Mediterranean and South African plants. Staff say the best time to come is after 6pm Monday to Friday for the view and live jazz. The fifth-tallest building in the City, designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Vinoly, it went through a bit of controversy. Still under construction in 2013, acting like mirror for the sun, it sent street-level temperatures up to 91 degrees Celcius melting a few cars parked nearby. Urban legend has it that City boys even came to fry eggs for a laugh. Hence its other nickname: the Fryscraper. Oh, and see if you can say Beschorneria Septentrionalis.

Paint It Green: St Patrick’s in town!

It’s that time of the year when not all buds in the city have blossomed yet but the streets will wear colour green. In honour of St Patrick and all the Irish. The main event of course is the annual parade leaving Piccadilly at noon to proceed to Trafalgar Square where dance schools and marching bands will dance many a reel and play many a cheerful tune for you to enjoy. Do you know the difference between the hard shoe and the soft shoe? If you do, Riverdance away!


St Paul’s, 12 Inches and Masonic Lodge

If you seek his memorial, look around. Those words were said about Sir Christopher Wren and his most important creation – St. Paul’s Cathedral. And it is a monument to Britain itself and its history in so many ways. From the Roman times when a temple to Diana is said to have stood there through the 1666 Fire of London, to the war with Napoleon to the Blitz and to the present day. What you see today is more than 300 years old, took 35 years to build and is 111 meters high. It lacks the spire which made the previous iteration (one of five) the second tallest in the country at the time. And it is not as long. But it is the only one with a dome.
Admission to St. Paul’s is ticketed and gives you access to the top galleries which provide breath-taking views of London and the crypt with tombs to Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington and famous painters. It is well worth paying for and if you are a U.K. tax payer, with gift aid you can come back any time throughout the year. Otherwise pick a Sunday and attend one of the services for free. Even if you are not religious or of different faith it can be a special musical treat for choirs singing at St. Paul’s are some of the best. Come a bit early to take a short tour of the Cathedral to see the monuments to Lord Nelson with his seasick lion, Duke of Wellington (step back to see him on a horse) and the only monument surviving from pre-fire Old St. Paul’s to poet and preacher John Donne.

State funerals for Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington and Sir Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher were held at St. Paul’s.  Prince Charles and Diana were married there in 1981 and Queen Elizabeth II had services for her 90th birthday at the Cathedral.  Outside,  Guy Fawkes and his accomplices who had sought to blow up the Parliament, were hung, drawn and quartered in 1606. The first Grand Lodge was formed on June 24, 1717, after four masonic lodges met at the Goose and Gridiron ale house in the cathedral’s churchyard. St Paul’s is also known for giving England its foot measurement.  A market place in the middle ages, the area around St. Paul’s was bustling with trading activity. The standard measurement at the time was the so-called ‘foot of St. Paul’ or rather the length of the foot of St. Algar, a statue by the cathedral entrance which was lost in the fire. The foot equals 12 inches.