London is a big city, with a big past. It sprawls north, south, and along the Thames; and it’s a city that’s always buzzing with something new, while other voices clamour for you to hear hundreds of years of dense history.
So, although I’ve visited a dozen times, I was happy to try a walking tour of London with Urban Adventures. Maybe it would help add some shape to my understanding, and unearth a few more treasures to explore again on future visits.
We met our guide, Paul, outside the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, right on Trafalgar Square. We have never visited the gallery, something we were almost immediately castigated for… I’d recommend a morning visit before starting your tour!
Our guide showed his historical knowledge first — outlining the major buildings and events that happened in Trafalgar Square — and then moved into more prosaic tone: noting the big parties it’s famous for, especially at New Years when people always end up swimming in the fountains!
The mix of historical import and modern events suffuses London, and Paul was at home with describing both aspects. A born-and-bred Cockney, he seemed to have a story at hand for every alley, every building, every square and every pub. We traversed the world of lawyers hand-fighting in the streets; the dictionary’s creation at the hands of Johnson; the Knights Templar and their rise to financial power; and we learned about cruel prisons, stunning buildings, and modern market forces.
The tour listing promised an English tea with scones at St Paul’s Crypt, a nice stop for a cuppa at any time. However, they were in the act of closing early for a private party that afternoon, and we were back on the street without our cream and jam. Not to be deterred, we headed to a neat little pub Paul knew, where they happened to be running a small ale festival: several locally brewed beers right from the keg. We settled in for a pint and chat.
We had also been warned to bring a London transport card with us, but we went everywhere on foot: Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, the Royal Opera, Fleet St, St Pauls, Cheapside, down to the Thames and over it.
Here, we pulled in for one more beer — this time a smoked rauchbier from Germany served by an Asian woman wearing a dirndl. This certainly served to highlight London’s metropolitan feel.
One of the advantages of small tour groups and local guides is that they can ditch the script to tailor things to suit your interests, and that’s something I think Urban Adventures is excelling at. We definitely felt we had been given a personal taste of London by a local; and got to know a little more about a place he loved well.