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Why Walking in London is The Best Way to Explore Its Past

To put it simply: London is a city best explored on foot.

While we have the most comprehensive public transport system in the UK, taking you anywhere in the city (more or less) seamlessly, it’s incredible how much you miss while underground or on a winding bus route.

One of London’s greatest charms is its web of towns and boroughs, enchanting in their individual ways. The boundaries blur as you pass from Hackney to Shoreditch, Soho to Mayfair, Camden to Islington — and each area’s distinctive charisma represents the ebb and flow of city life.

A city of contrasting culture

As the streets entangle, you can experience vastly different architectures and atmospheres in a matter of metres.

Take Oxford Street for example: the Roman road which once led to a gallows is now lined with retail stores, endlessly busy with shoppers and traffic.

Oxford Circus c. 1904
Photo: Louis Levy postcard on Flickr

Step down a side street and you’ll find St Christopher’s Place, a peaceful pedestrian quarter with boutique stores, restaurants and endless Victorian charm.

Fact: St Christopher’s Place was redeveloped in the 1870s under the patronage of social housing advocate Octavia Hill — later a co-founder of the National Trust. It was transformed from a slum into a thriving neighbourhood with local cheesemongers, drapers, lamp and bookmakers setting up shop.

Wimpole Mews, Marylebone
Photo: Rachael Davis

London’s mews, originally built to cater for horses, coachmen and stable-servants of wealthy townhouse residents, are another favourite of ours to explore.

In West London, for instance, swap the tourist-swamped Portobello Road for some cute and cosy Notting Hill mews. The modern owners take pride in their city cottages with beautiful flowers adorning the window boxes – you wouldn’t see these pockets of domesticity from a double-decker bus!

London through the centuries

The ancient city is now unrecognisable amongst the high-rise buildings, busy city life and abundant traffic. Skyscrapers like The Shard, The Gherkin and Walkie-Talkie have changed the way we view the City of London at street-level: they dominate the skyline, altering our perspectives and reshaping the dynamics of the streets.

20 Fenchurch Street (Walkie Talkie) from Lombard Street
Photo: Rachael Davis

Walking through the City of London on a peaceful Sunday morning, however, you can see the fusion of pre-Great Fire buildings with more contemporary, glass-fronted behemoths. Stop by The Olde Wine Shades in Martin Lane, a survivor of the Great Fire built in 1663, for a glass of red that’s gone down in history!

Heading east, see the depth of London’s past on a walk between Hackney’s Tudor National Trust property Sutton House and the 2012 Olympic Park in neighbouring Stratford.

Fact: Built in 1535 when Hackney was a rural village, Sutton House is one of London’s last remaining Tudor houses.

After exploring Sutton House’s rich history, spanning from the 16th century to the 1980s, take a walk across the Hackney Marshes or along Hackney Wick Canal. You’ll end up in the modern, beautifully landscaped Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, an emblem of contemporary London!

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford
Photo: Rachael Davis

How to start your adventure

To curate your own walking tour, a great place to start is English Heritage’s Blue Plaque directory. Search by person, borough or category, and see otherwise unremarkable buildings in a new light.

Or take a leaf out of architectural historian Dan Cruickshank’s book (figuratively and literally: Cruickshank’s London: A Portrait of a City in 13 Walks is a source of inspiration) and uncover the city’s layered history by foot.

Explore world-famous buildings and little-known wonders; bustling roads and tiny streets; townhouses of the rich and famous and East End corner shops of decades past.

London lives and breathes, two millennia from its conception. Walk it, experience it, love it — and let us know where you end up!

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