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Tower Bridge in London

The Tower Bridge Walkways – Part of (not so) Hidden London

London’s Tower Bridge is an internationally recognized icon of the city. Its structure – part drawbridge, part suspension bridge – was considered absurd and even tawdry by some early critics when the bridge was created in the 19th century. Yet today it’s been judged one of Britain’s best buildings, loved by locals and visitors alike.

Seeing the drawbridge section of the bridge rise is a rare treat – especially if you happen to be in a boat on the Thames when it happens (not so thrilling if you are needing to cross the river in a hurry) – yet it’s raised at least 1,000 times a year. And, surprisingly – although the tall-masted sailboats, a large river cruise boats and red-sailed Thames Barges have to request an opening 24 hours in advance – it’s free.

At least 40,000 people cross Tower Bridge every day – on foot, in vehicles and on bicycles. But, unless they’ve been burying their noses in guidebooks or tourist oriented websites, not many of them know about the exciting tourist attraction hiding in plain sight, high above their heads.

The two high level walkways were designed to tie the two towers together against the opposing stresses of the suspension sections. Like most people, I always thought that was the beginning and end of it – a structural device and little more. But, in fact, these horizontal “bars” were also always intended as open-air (though caged) walkways, offering remarkable views of the Tower of London and the City of London from 138 feet above the river.

Because the walkways quickly became a haunt of petty criminals, street walkers and pickpockets – real Oliver Twist territory – they were closed to the public in 1910. They remained closed until 1982 when a fee paying public was allowed to climb up for the view.  Few people did though.

A new role for the High Level Walkways

In 2014, a new attraction, a clear glass flooring, was added to the walkways. And, if you haven’t yet visited, the dramatic new view of London, will surprise and delight you. The walkways are totally safe but there’s no mistaking the frisson you’ll probably feel walking across them.

Opening day at Tower Bridge Glass Walkway
At the press opening, I joined the guests to cross the glass walkway.

At  138 feet above the Thames, the views from the High Level Walkways at Tower Bridge may not be as lofty as other London viewpoints – The Shard or the London Eye for example. But with nothing between you and the river save a thick sheet of glass, the new walkways are hard to beat for sheer excitement.

Totally Safe…If a Little Scary

The glass floors for each walkway are 36 feet long and 5 feet 10 inches wide. They are made up of six glass panels, each weighing almost 1,200 pounds. They’re supported by a carbon steel framework.

Under the frame, the original steel lattice structure of the walkways has been preserved – mostly for its visual reassurance, I imagine. Those original crisscrossed beams give nervous visitors a little extra psychological help when they step onto the glass floor. The glass is also patterned with dots to give it vertigo-reducing substance.

Among those of us who tried out the west walkway before its

Standing on the glass floor of the Tower Bridge Walkway
Walking on the glass walkway can give you wobbly knees. Those are my feet, just nervously stepping out onto the glass, with the traffic flowing beneath me.

official opening in late 2014, there was a certain amount of trepidation before the first journalist stepped onto the glass.  Of course, in no time at all, we were scrambling across it for a better view of the traffic and pedestrians whizzing along – and the birds flying – beneath our feet.

But, be warned, if you really are prone to vertigo, you might not like walking on the glass. Not to worry – you can cross the high walkway, which is heated and – these days – completely enclosed, without actually stepping on the glass.

Timed for a Bridge Lift

But, if you did, you’d be missing the best part – as we were soon to discover. Tower Bridge doesn’t open very often so if you happen to be on the glass floor when it does, you are in for an unforgettable sight. We watched the slow majestic lift of the roadway to let a tall-masted sailing ship through, looking down on a view that no one had ever seen before in Tower Bridge’s 120 year history. The gleaming white under structure of the bridge roadway (the bascules to show off a little technical terminology) was one of several surprises about witnessing the bridge lift.  Another, after the bridge lowered and the roadway was restored, was the ballet of traffic that commenced beneath it. First  across were the cyclists, what seemed like hundreds of them. Then pedestrians flooded the walkways and finally the cars and vans.

If you are careful, you can time your visit to see the bridge lift.  A schedule of Tower Bridge lift times is published online.  If you can’t make it for a bridge lift, just download the free Raise Tower Bridge app for smart devices. The app takes visitors through an augmented reality window in the glass, offering a 360-degree, panoramic video of the bridge being raised.  You’ll be able to walk around and find different angles to look through. If you don’t have a smart device, assisted iPads are available on the walkways.

Opening the Tower Bridge
The bridge opens. Click on the video link at the bottom of this article to see the full impact, with tall ships, ferries and riverboats passing below.

And here’s an interesting aside. If you are traveling up or down the Thames in a very tall ship, you can book a bridge lift for your boat for free. Bridge lifts for any ship with masts or superstructure more than 30 feet tall can be booked 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But before you pick up the telephone, you’d better check that you meet all the requirements for a Tower Bridge lift.

The Tower Bridge Exhibition

The £1 million glass walkways, funded  by  the Bridge House Estates and the City of London Corporation, are the first major changes to the Tower Bridge Exhibition since it opened in 1982. Also part of the exhibition are the original steam mechanisms that lifted the bridge when it was created, in the 1890s. The exhibition includes interactive touch screens that explain the modern operation of the bridge.

Tower Bridge, the creation of architect Sir Horace Jones and civil engineer Sir John Wolfe Barry (youngest son of Sir Charles Barry, chief architect of the Houses of Parliament) was opened to the public in 1894 by the Prince and Princess of Wales – the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.

Essentials:

  • Open: October through March 9:30am to 5pm, April through September 10am to 5:30pm
  • Exhibition Entrance: the West side of the North tower.
  • Prices: In 2017, Adults £9.80 (£8.70 online), Children 5-15 £4.20 (£3.80 online) Children under 5 free. Children under 15 must be accompanied by an adult. 
  • To Get There: Nearest London Underground stations are Tower Hill or London Bridge. Tower Gateway Station is the nearest mainline train station. And for a special treat, why not take a Thames riverboat. Boats stop at St Katherine Pier and Tower Pier on the north bank and at London Bridge City Pier on the south bank. All are within a short walk of Tower Bridge.
  • Book Tickets to the walkways and the exhibition.*
  • Watch a video of a Tower Bridge Lift

* FULL DISCLOSURE STATEMENT: If you use links on this page to book tickets or services, I will receive a small amount of money, at no extra cost to you, to help fund this website.

 

montage of cherry Bakewells

Pudding, Pie or Tart? So What is a Bakewell?

When I headed for the Derbyshire market town of Bakewell, I was sure I would taste the original Bakewell tart.  I was even sure I knew what it looked like. I was wrong on both counts.

What’s a Bakewell – or a storm in a pudding basin

You see, you can’t get a Bakewell “Tart” of the sort we uninitiated expect in Bakewell – unless you visit the supermarket to buy Mr. Kipling’s Cherry Bakewells, a brand almost as ubiquitous in Britain as Oreos are in the USA.

The mass-marketed cross between a cake and a tart, pictured above, consists of a spongy layer of frangipane baked in a tartlet case over a layer of raspberry jam, the whole lot smothered in thick white icing – sometimes striped with chocolate – and topped with a candied cherry. 

A nicer version, made by home cooks and bake shops all over the UK, skips the sugary icing and tops the cake-like almond frangipane with sliced almonds. 

Nope, that’s not a Bakewell in Bakewell either

In Bakewell, near Chatsworth House, where they claim to have invented this dessert, they call it a Bakewell Pudding. It has neither a cake-like sponge of frangipane nor a thick layer of white icing. And hold the candied cherries. too.

Will the real Bakewell please stand up

The Bakewell I was served at the Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop was a bit of an ugly ducking to begin with. The glass counter was full of  lopsided pastries looking pretty unappealing for such a famous treat.  

Partly baked Bakewell puddings.
Partly baked Bakewell puddings look less than appealing before final preparation.

“Is that a Bakewell tart?”, I asked hesitantly.

“It’s a Bakewell pudding,” the woman behind the counter snapped, “That’s what we have.”  

Chastened, I found a seat in the suntrap terrace behind the bakery and waited, somewhat dubiously, for my pudding to arrive.

What was finally served bore as little resemblance to the dry, cold and soggy looking pastries I’d seen in the shop as the iced, mass produced version bore to the real thing. Having been heated, the pastry had undergone a transformation from an ugly duckling to a lovely, tempting swan. The raspberry jam had somehow risen to the top. flooding the entire surface. And the egg and ground almond layer, that looked so claggy and unappealing had become a translucent part of the whole dessert, tender and virtually invisible. What came to the table was a clear, shimmering and wobbly pool of raspberry and almond flavored filling, floating on a delicate, crisp base of multi-layered puff pastry. Maybe it was the sunlight sparkling in the molten jam that added to its appeal. Delicious. So, then, this must be the real deal, right? Well… Continue reading

Dome and stacks of the British Library Round Reading Room. Photo by Alex Watson ccl

Remembering the Round Reading Room at the British Museum

The British Museum plans to reorganize its collections and displays over the next ten years. Visitors to Britain’s number one visitor attraction can expect a gradual evolution of the museum’s gallery spaces, providing “more compelling and coherent stories”, according to museum managers. Perhaps that means they’ll unite the monumental Egyptian statues – now on the ground floor – with the mummies and ancient artifacts that are now several floors and a maze of corridors and galleries away.

The Round Reading Room

I’m glad to hear that the overhaul will include some serious attention to the Round Reading Room and its role in the grand scheme of things. The 19th century, Grade I listed room, with its beautiful blue, cream and gold dome and its halo of 20 arched windows, holds a special place for me and many other writers. I spent the better part of one intense and memorable summer studying there.

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Luxury bathroom in Wales

25 Perfect Hotel Room Essentials

What makes the perfect hotel room?

As a travel writer, I’ve stayed in a lot of hotel rooms, from the bare bones basic to the breathtakingly expensive. And I’ve learned that the cost of a hotel room bears little relationship to how close it comes to perfection. In fact, one of my most comfortable nights was spent in a cheap chain hotel room at a motorway rest stop

Worrying that my standards might be unusually low, I conducted a very unscientific survey of my travel writing and blogging colleagues in the British Guild of Travel Writers. It turns out that, among experienced travelers, traditional luxuries fall pretty low on their lists of what makes the perfect hotel room.

Cost is no indicator of perfection. And, for purposes of this list, neither are views or destinations. Soft, powder sand beaches beside turquoise waters under reliably cloudless blue skies can make up for a certain amount of inconvenience or discomfort. 

And friendly, helpful staff are essential. Even the most seasoned traveler is more stressed by minor mishaps and inconveniences when away from home. Knowing you are in the hands of competent, knowledgeable, pleasant staff can make up for a lot of other shortcomings.

The top 25 requirements for hotel room perfection

In no particular order

1. Decent beds – It should go without saying that a comfortable bed, with clean sheets free of critters, is not negotiable. Sadly, some hotels do need reminding.

2. Reliable wifi – Hotels in remote areas where the only internet connection is via satellite have a get-out clause on this one. But if broadband or wifi is generally available in the area, in this day and age, it should be free.

3. An up to date directory of hotel services  – The most basic directions – how to reach reception, how to connect to the wifi, how to work the television and clock, should be on the first page.

4. Convenient power points or electrical outlets – This is such a big topic it deserves its own special section, so here goes:

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Tewkesbury Park Hotel and Golf Club

A Dog-Friendly Short Break in Tewkesbury

We dog lovers are really not that hard to please. For the ideal dog-friendly break, we only require a few things:

  • A comfortable, grown-up hotel where dogs and their traveling companions are not made to feel like pariahs, relegated to the smelly room next to the laundry.
  • Lots of outdoors to run around in; fields, forests, or sandy beaches will do – we’re not fussy.
  • A good choice of attractions, at least some of which welcome dogs as well as people

A few dog-friendly coffee shops or pubs don’t hurt either.

Last month Lulu the Westie and I, along with her Westie pal Darcy and his human chums, discovered Tewkesbury, a medieval market town at the confluence of the Rivers Severn and Avon. Just two and a half hours northwest of London, the Gloucestershire town beneath the Malvern Hills sits on the Northern edge of the Cotswolds.  It has, we discovered, everything needed for a dog-friendly break and then some.  

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Jewelry from prehistoric times to yesterday in this hidden away gallery at the V&A

The Victoria and Albert Museum – A Between the Holidays Treat

I’ve only just discovered the Jewellery Rooms at the Victoria and Albert Museum and I cannot wait to head back there to explore them at leisure. 

The galleries, rooms 91-93, showcase items from the museum’s permanent collection ranging from precious metals to plastic, raffia and rubber and spanning millennia – from prehistory right up to yesterday.

As soon as you enter the first, darkened room, a large, beautifully worked embossed gold collar, alone in its glass case,  casts a warm glow across the entrance to the gallery. Is it from ancient Egypt? A piece from Agammemnon’s treasury? No, this stunning Bronze Age object, made between 800 and 700 BC, is the Shannongrove Gorget, found in an Irish bog in Co. Limerick.

The Shannongrove Gorget, An embossed gold collar made between 800 and 700 BC and found in a Co. Limerick bog.
The Shannongrove Gorget, An embossed gold collar made between 800 and 700 BC and found in a Co. Limerick bog. © Ferne Arfin

If it’s bling you’re after, there’s plenty of that to see. But what really makes these objects so fascinating is the craftsmanship and creative imagination, as well as some of the poignant stories, behind them.

There’s a Fabergé letter opener given by the doomed Tsarina Alexandra to her former English governess and lifelong correspondent, Margaret Jackson, for Christmas. The clear slice of rock crystal, simply adorned with gold and enamel was given to the museum along with a note of Christmas wishes to Miss Jackson dated 1900. The Tsarina,  Queen Victoria’s granddaughter,  was later among the members of the Russian imperial court shot, bayoneted and clubbed to death by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Another object, the steinkabinett – an 18th century box by  Johann Christian Neuber, the court goldsmith at Dresden – is a kind of pocket natural science museum with 77 stone samples, identified on a paper map kept inside it. The “pearls” are particularly clever. They aren’t pearls at all but flat pieces of rock crystal, the underside carved into domes and then silvered.

Fabergé letter opener in rock crystal, gold and enamels. © The Victoria and Albert Museum
18th century Steinkabinett by Johann Christian Neuber. © Ferne Arfin

 

 

These objects and hundreds more are part of the museum’s permanent collection and you can drop by any time to see them, for free – maybe something to do before moving on after dark to see the London Christmas Lights in Piccadilly and Regent Street.

Before you go, you might want to book tickets to the V&A’s current special exhibitions: Opera: Passion, Power and Politics in the new Sainsbury Gallery until February 25 and Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic. on until April 8.

Christmas at Waddesdon 2017

Winter Light at Waddesdon – Christmas 2017

Christmas festivities at Waddesdon Manor in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, are always extravagant fun.

This year, they’ll have a hard time topping the wonderful installations and events of 2016, when the grounds of the former Rothschild estate positively glowed with the Field of Light. But, in 2017, they’ve had a good go and they’ve given the video design students of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama a real chance to shine. 

In creating Waddesdon Imaginarium, seven Guildhall students experimented with 3D scanning and video projection technology to cover the entire front of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild’s faux French chateau with an animated parade of dancing clocks, 18th century portraits, fluttering butterflies and moths, flowers and porcelain animals – all scanned from objects in the Waddesdon Collection. 

The performance, accompanied by an original score and synchronized lighting effects, used 14 large format projectors to cover the1,700 square metre facade with a dazzling 12-minute display. The score was created by 111 Guildhall students in the BMus (Hons) programs in Electronic Music and Jazz.

My jittery videos should give you a taste of the spectacle.

Inside Waddesdon, artists and designers were invited to design decorations around the theme of an Enchanted Menagerie, drawing on the artworks and objects in the rooms for inspiration.

Enchanted Menagerie in the Smoking room
Imaginary animals decorate the Christmas tree in the Smoking Room.
Noah's Ark at Waddesdon Manor
Noah’s Ark on the Billiards Table

Meanwhile, The Electric Menagerie – neon animals, created by American multi-media artist Lauren Booth, lit up unexpected corners of the estate.

Electric Menagerie by Lauren Booth. The Aviary. Photo by Mike Fear © The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor.

And because it wouldn’t be Christmas without an opportunity to stock up on holiday gifts, this year’s Waddesdon Christmas Fair is arrayed along the front promenade leading to the house. The fair features food, drink, produce and crafts from local artisan producers and national independent traders. Lots of it is very tempting.  We left with shopping bags full.

Waddesdon Christmas Essentials

  • Christmas festivities at Waddesdon are on from now to January 2 (except December 24-26), 11am to 6pm 
  • Waddesdon Imaginarium, the sound and light show, begins at dusk every evening during the holiday opening hours.
  • The Christmas Market, with 80 decorated wooden chalets is open until December 10.
  • Visit the Waddesdon Manor website to find out more. 
Sideboard, Georgian House, Slave Owners House, Bristol

The Georgian House Museum – The story of a Bristol Fortune Built on the Backs of Slaves

Bristol’s Georgian House Museum is a surprising and sobering glimpse of an 18th century slave owner’s home.

If  you’ve toured in the UK or anywhere in Western Europe, chances are, you’ve walked around more than one historic house. You can expect collections of fine antique furniture, china, silver, porcelain and, depending on the original owner’s wealth, old master paintings or more primitive ancestor portraits. 

After a while, you know pretty much what to expect, which is not much that you haven’t seen before.

The 18th Century Warts and All

What you aren’t often confronted with are the sometimes tawdry stories, the unpleasant side of the 18th century New World fortunes that built these elegant homes.

The Georgian House Museum in Bristol is very different. This upstairs/downstairs glimpse into the lives lived in an 18th century Bristol townhouse tells a story that alternates between swashbuckling adventure and grim reality. It’s like wandering into someone’s private home and admiring the fine china before peeking into the closets to rattle all the skeletons.  And it’s fascinating.


In the 18th century, Bristol was one corner of the triangular trade route over which cloth, guns, manufactured and luxury goods were shipped to Africa to buy slaves for the plantations of the New World. Sugar, rum, tobacco and cotton came back. The sugar plantation slave owners, sugar merchants and shipbuilders of Bristol grew rich from this trade.  


The house, at 7 Great George Street, now a free museum, is an  upstairs/downstairs look at life in a sugar plantation slave owner’s home, circa 1790.

From Disgrace to Respectability

As you tour the 11 rooms, arranged on four floors, from kitchens in the basement to elegant upstairs salons.  enthusiastic on-site guides bring the history of the house to life.

Georgian House, Slave owners house, Bristol Museum, Bristol England
“Eating Room” in the Georgian House Museum

The story begins with family black sheep, Azariah Pinney.  Azariah chose the wrong side in a shortlived rebellion against James II . Saved from the gallows – or worse – when his family ransomed his life. He was banished, exiled to the West Indies for ten years. 

In the early days of the British Empire,  impoverished young men of good families could go adventuring after their fortunes in the colonies. Criminals could be transported to them to make a life in far off corners of the world or die trying.

The fate of the first Azariah Pinney was a little of both. After his disgrace, he fetched up on the Caribbean island of Nevis, eventually becoming a wealthy sugar planter and slave owner there. Several generations later, a younger cousin inherited the family plantations, wealth and name. By the time John Pinney retired to Bristol from his Nevis plantations, in 1783, he had massively increased the family’s wealth. In Bristol he became a sugar merchant, founding a company that made him many times wealthier than he was in Nevis.

Not only was his fortune built on the labours of slaves, but John Pinney actually brought a personal slave, Pero, back to

Bristol, England, 18th century slave
Pero’s Bridge in Bristol remembers John Pinney’s slave.

Bristol. It’s, perhaps, poetic justice, that John Pinney’s name is largely forgotten, but one of Bristol’s most striking modern landmarks is the sculptural Pero’s Bridge, linking Queen’s Square and Millennium Square across Bristol Harbour. 

A small but thoughtful exhibition about the Pinney’s involvement in the sugar trade, the treatment of plantation slaves and the life of Pero adds an important layer of context to this house. In the Georgian period, roughly corresponding to the Colonial and Federal periods in American history, many of the wealthiest families on both sides of the Atlantic were supported by the slave trade and took it for granted.

Upstairs Downstairs

Upstairs rooms in the house give clues to the life led by the family. There is a breakfast room and an “eating room” for more formal dining. Downstairs there’s a beautifully equipped 18th century kitchen, laundry room, housekeeper’s room and large china cupboard. In the housekeeper’s pantry, alongside some of the valuable copper pans, a cone of sugar would normally have been kept under lock and key.

One of the downstairs surprises is the plunge pool used by the master of the house. In an age when few people bathed regularly, John Pinney enjoyed a daily, cold water bath and had apparently become accustomed to the practice while a young apprentice in the family business.

The UK’s Most Complete 18th Century Townhouse 

The nearby city of Bath is known for its avenues and terraces of Georgian houses. But Bristol probably has just as many, if not more. They tend to be a bit less monumental only because Bristol, an important port and aircraft manufacturing city before WWII, lost so many of its buildings in the Bristol Blitz, when the city was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe. The Georgian House may be less famous than 1 Royal Crescent in Bath but it is probably the most complete 18th century townhouse in the UK. It’s definitely worth a visit to this quiet corner of Bristol, Great George Street, off Park Street, to see it.

  • Where:The Georgian House Museum, 7 Great George Street,Bristol, BS1 5RR
  • Telephone:+44 (0)117 921 1362
  • Opening Hours:The house is open year round though not every day of the week in winter. Because of seasonal variations it’s best to check the website for opening hours and days.
  • Admission:Free
  • Visit their website.

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At Kew bees hum in the key of C.

Did you know that bees hum in the Key of C?

The Hive at Kew Gardens

Did you know that all bees hum in the key of C? Or that bees, which are vegetarian, evolved from carnivorous wasps during the same era that dinosaurs walked the earth?

These are among the fascinating facts you can pick up in London when you visit  The Hive. It’s a  marvelous combination of 17-metre-high sculpture (designed by Wolfgang Buttress), engineering and science project. And it will be the anchor of Kew Gardens’ focus on bees until November 2017. Inspired by research into the life of bees, it’s surrounded by a wildflower meadow still active with bees in early September.

Discover the Secret Life of Bees

Bee activity, inside a real beehive located elsewhere at Kew, triggers the lights and sounds you experience inside. They call it an “immersive sound and visual experience”.

The promise is “Step inside and discover the secret life of bees”.  I don’t know about that, but you can certainly hear The Hive humming away in the key of C long before you see it.

And you can listen in on bee conversations. Clever devices, embedded in columns allow you to hear all the different calls bees make to each other. Insert a thin wooden stick into a slot on the column and put the other end between your teeth to hear the bees through your bones. Apparently that is how bees communicate with each other.  And I thought it was all about the wiggle dance they do in the air. They bark and croon and howl too. Who knew?

If you haven’t been to Kew in a while, right now is a great time to go. After our warm/cold/wet/dry summer, the flowers are looking wonderful. There’s a good assortment of live plants in peak condition to buy and several new pretty places to settle in for a cup of tea. 

Highly recommended.

Find out more about The Hive

Essential information to plan a visit to Kew

London’s Blue Plaques: A Chelsea Walk

Spend a morning or an afternoon discovering the London Blue Plaques of Chelsea. For more than 150 years, London’s blue plaques, on buildings scattered around the city, mark the homes and achievements of the famous and infamous of the past. 

It’s a kind of massive “George Washington slept here” scheme, except you won’t find George Washington anywhere; though you might find Benjamin Franklin. Hundreds of others – writers, artists, performers, musicians, composers, teachers, politicians, inventors, explorers, philosophers, engineers, heroes and heroines are commemorated all over the city.

The Oldest Blue Plaques in Britain

London has the oldest blue plaque scheme in Britain. The plaques surprise and educate  passersby who come upon the discreet reminders of people from all over the world who lived and worked in  London. I was inspired to find out more about the blue plaques by the plaque to an unknown (to me anyway) poet on a house across the street from my flat.

Today there are about 900 blue plaques in the London scheme administered by English Heritage. The first was put up in 1866 honoring Lord Byron. The oldest still existing commemorates a short stay by an exiled French king, Charles X.  

Up to 20 plaques a year can be added. In 2017, six will go up to honor Francis Bacon, Charlie Chaplin, Sir John Gielgud, Rudolph Nureyev,  early 20th century working women’s champion Mary Macarthur and volunteering pioneer Stella Lady Reading.

About This London Blue Plaque Chelsea Walk

This walk will take you through Chelsea, north and south of the King’s Road. About two miles long, beginning and ending near King’s Road bus stops, the walk is flat and should take you less than two hours walking at a snail’s pace.

To start, take the 11, 19 or 22 bus from Sloane Square Underground Station, up the King’s Road to Carlyle Square. It’s then a five minute stroll to Mallord Street where the walk begins.

From Winnie the Pooh to Count Dracula

 

A.A. Milne London Blue Plaque1. 13 Mallord Street in Chelsea is the house where both Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh were born. A.A. Milne moved there with his wife in 1919. His son, named Christopher Robin though called “Billy”, was born here and while living in the house, Milne wrote When We Were Very Young, Winnie the Pooh, Now We Are Six, and The House at Pooh Corner. Christopher Robin’s toys became Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, and Tigger. Few people realize that Winnie the Pooh himself was inspired by a real bear named Winnie after the city of Winnipeg in Canada. Canadian Army vet, Harry Colebourn brought the bear to London. Eventually, when he could no longer keep it on military expeditions, it ended up in the London Zoo. There, he was a favorite of the real Christopher Robin who changed the name of his toy bear from Edward to Winnie. Colebourn’s great-granddaughter, Lindsay Mattick has written a children’s book about it, Finding Winnie.  

The film Goodbye Christopher Robin is based on the life of Milne’s family and son while the author lived in this house. Watch it on Amazon Prime.

To see the houses featured in this blog, click on the matching numbers on the map below.

2. Augustus John London Blue PlaqueCross Mallord Street and turn left. At number 28 you’ll find the home and studio built for Welsh Painter Augustus John, brother of artist Gwen John. The house was finished in 1914 and he lived there with his second (common law) wife and their children. John painted some of the most recognizable portraits  of literary and artistic celebrities between the wars – notably Lawrence of Arabia, Dylan Thomas and several portraits of W.B. Yeats. He was also a notorious libertine with parties at the house said to end in orgies. He had at least 10 children by five different women. Eventually John tired of this house, calling it a “damned Dutch shanty”, and sold it to British entertainer Gracie Fields.
Continue left down Mallord Street, turning left onto The Vale and left again onto The King’s Road. Across the street, you’ll find Paulton’s Square. Turn right into the square.

Samuel Beckett London Blue Plaque

3. Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, usually associated with Dublin or Paris, underwent several months of psychoanalysis in London in 1934. A friend found him lodgings with a married couple at 48 Paulton’s Square. He was a regular at two local pubs, the Six Bells and The World’s End. While here, he published a collection of short stories, More Pricks than Kicks.  

Just in case you think you might like to drink where Beckett drank, you are probably about 40 years too late. The Six Bells, at 197 Kings Road, went through several incarnations before becoming The Ivy Chelsea Garden – which bears no resemblance to any pub Beckett might frequented – though you might pick up his vibe in the beer garden if you can get in to this very popular, Made in Chelsea kind of place.  The World’s End Pub, which was a real traditional boozer from the days of Charles II to about 10 years ago, is now an upmarket restaurant with a pretend 1930s ambiance. It’s now called the World’s End Market. 

Continue to the end of Paultons Square, walking toward the Thames. At the bottom of the square, turn right, then left into Danvers Street.

Alexander Fleming discoverer of penicillan London Blue Plaque4. Sir Alexander Fleming was living at 20a Danvers Street, a modest basement flat in a large house, when he made his breakthrough and changed the whole direction of modern medicine with the discovery of penicillin. From his first discovery in 1922, through refinements and clinical trials to his Nobel Prize in 1945 and until his death in 1955, he lived in this flat. In later years, he also had a country house in Suffolk.

Now, continue to the end of Danvers Street to Cheyne Walk, beside the Thames. Turn right and continue in that direction. Cross at the set of lights at Beaufort Street – Battersea Bridge is on your left. Just past this intersection, you’ll see large cast iron gates, with a garden and a big yellow house beyond.

Home of Whistler and Whistler's Mother, London Blue Plaque

 

5 and 6. You’ll need X-ray vision to see the plaque that is alleged to be at 98 Cheyne Walk. It’s behind a high brick wall. But just so you know, this was the home of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel who built the first tunnel under the Thames, the world’s first underwater tunnel through soft ground. He started it in 1825 and it wasn’t finished until 1843. While living here, he also worked on the education of his young son, who became the much more illustrious 19th century engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel – designer of the Great Western Railway, the Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge at Bristol and the giant screw propeller, sail-assisted steamship, the SS Great Britain which you can still visit in Bristol. The lovely yellow house next door at 96 Cheyne Walk belonged to James Abbott McNeill Whistler and his mother – you’ve no doubt seen her in his painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, usually known as Whistler’s Mother.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler's London home.
Lindsey House, once home to James Abbot McNeill Whistler – and his mother. © Ferne Arfin

Bring along a pair of binoculars if you really want to see this plaque. It’s not blue and it’s at least 50 feet from the street, set back behind gates. Judging from the yellow house, you might think Whistler was probably pretty affluent when he lived there. But actually the house is just one quarter of a larger house built in 1674 by the Earl of Lindsey on land that was once Sir Thomas More’s garden. It was divided into four units about 100 years later and among the other rental tenants of this large villa were the Brunels mentioned above.

Now turn and retrace your steps past Danvers Street. Continue along Cheyne Walk, looking out for the statue of Sir Thomas More, at the site of his house, in a small park beside Chelsea Old Church on your left. At Oakley Street, opposite the Albert Bridge, turn left.

Oscar Wilde's mother, London Blue Plaque
Lady Wilde

7. 87 Oakley Street was the home of Jane Francesca Agnes Lady Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s mother. A larger than life character in her own right, she came to London from Dublin after the death of her husband, Sir William Wilde. As a poet and essayist in Dublin, she wrote under the pseudonym “Speranza” and supported the cause of an armed Irish rebellion against Britain – which got her in no end of trouble. In London, she continued writing for fashionable magazines and eked out a slim livelihood. But she died penniless in 1896 while her son Oscar was imprisoned in Reading  Gaol. Oscar paid for her funeral but there was no money for a headstone until the Oscar Wilde Society erected one more than 100 years later.

Cross the street and head back toward the river to number 56.


Scott of the Antarctic London Blue Plaque

8. Doomed antarctic explorer, Robert Falcon Scott left for his last polar expedition from 56 Oakley Street and never returned. Scott identified the polar plateau, on which the South Pole is located, on a previous expedition, the Discovery expedition. But it was the second expedition, The Terra Nova Expedition, between 1910 and 1913, when all were lost. He moved to this house in 1905, on the return from his first expedition, and he wrote his famous account of that journey, The Voyage of the Discovery, while living here. In the late 20th century, his reputation took something of a blow with some historians saying his incompetence and lack of preparation led to his death and that of his entire team. But recent discoveries about the weather have restored his reputation as a doomed hero. Continue down to the river and turn left on Cheyne Walk.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne London Blue Plaque

9. 16 Cheyne Walk was the home of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, painter, poet and one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. He moved here after the death of his young wife and model in 1862. Some of his finest paintings, including 

Beata Beatrix by Rosetti

Beata Beatrix, were done here and he published his collected works of poetry while living in this house. The decadent poet and sometime hysteric Algernon Charles Swinburne rented a room from him for about a year. 

George Eliot London Blue Plaque

10.  The entire facade, including the blue plaque at 4 Cheyne Walk was covered with scaffolding for refurbishments when we visited. But we’ve been reliably told that this with the brief, last home of Mary Ann Evans, known to most of us as the 19th century novelist George Eliot. She moved in with her new husband (20 years her junior – good for her) on December 3, 1880.  Shortly after, she caught a sore throat and by December 22, she was dead.

Now, bear slightly left into Royal Hospital Road, turning right at the corner of Tite Street.

11. 34 Tite Street was the home of Oscar Wilde, his wife Oscar Wilde London Blue PlaqueConstance and their two sons. He lived here for 10 years, writing The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest. 

Now retrace your steps, cross Royal Hospital Road and continue along Tite Street to the corner of Tedworth Square.

Samuel Clemens - Mark Twain - London Blue Plaque12. Samuel Clemens, who wrote as Mark Twain, took his lecture tour on the road in Europe between 1891 and 1900. During that time, his base was 23 Tedworth Square. After the death of his daughter Susy in 1896, the creator of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, The Innocents Abroad, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and many more classic works, maintained virtual seclusion, with the rest of his family, in this house.

Next, continue right, past Mark Twain’s  house, to Ralston Street. Turn left on Ralston Street, then right on St Leonard’s Terrace. 

Bram Stoker wrote Dracula here - London Blue Plaque

13. How fitting that number 13 on this Chelsea Blue Plaque walk was the birthplace of one of the most terrifying creatures in literature. Dublin writer Bram Stoker was living in a pretty Chelsea cottage at 18 St Leonard’s Terrace when he wrote his classic gothic horror novel Dracula.  Stoker had come to London to manage the Lyceum Theater for actor manager Henry Irving. 

Now that you’ve completed the walk, it’s time for some refreshment and what would be more fitting than to have lunch or a snack at another listed building with a blue plaque.  Just beyond Stoker’s house, turn left on Royal Avenue and continue to the King’s Road. Then cross the King’s Road and turn left again. Look for an arched entryway, protected by two bronze birds of prey.

14. Pizza Express was the studio of a famous dancer - London Blue Plaque152 Kings Road, The Pheasantry, was the studio of ballet dancer and teacher Princess Seraphine Astafieva. The Russian princess, daughter of Prince Alexander Astafiev, came to England as a dancer with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe in 1910. She retired from the stage to teach and in 1916 established her school, the Anglo-Russian Ballet, here.  Most of the leading lights of early 20th century ballet visited her or took classes here, among them Margot Fonteyne; Alicia Markova, one of the founders of the Festival Ballet which became the English National Ballet;  Anna Pavlova and Marie Rambert, founder of the Ballet Rambert. And in case you are wondering about the lunch or snack I mentioned earlier, these days The Pheasantry is also a Pizza Express.

English Heritage who now administer the scheme, publish the Guide to London’s Blue Plaques. It lists 800 blue plaque locations, all over the city that can form the basis of many an enjoyable London walk. It’s available online from English Heritage or from Amazon.