Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 27, 2021
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Wild London Walks

These funky tours bring you face to face with a weird and wonderful city

You could spend days walking through London. Spread out over an area of more than 620 square miles, it is the largest -- and often the most daunting -- city in Europe. If you're like most people, you probably imagine a London walk to be a stressful dash through the sprawling streets of one of the world's most neurotic cities. Everywhere you look there's an endless tide of people, cars and double-decker buses. Not exactly a leisurely stroll.

Most visitors wouldn't know it, but London can be taken in at a more relaxed pace. The trick is to keep off the main thoroughfares. Maybe you'd like to walk through narrow, gas-lit alleyways to a peaceful 18th-century square. Or take a stroll down memory lane in the footsteps of Charles Dickens. Or how about a modern-day crossing of Abbey Road?

This is the London best seen on foot. Even for a seasoned traveller, a walking tour is one of the smartest ways to take in London's less-familiar sites. If you have a couple of hours to spare, a resident expert, armed with a brainful of historical trivia, can show you places which could surprise even the average Londoner.

Most of the following tours come in at less than $10. There's no need to book ahead for any of them, just meet your guide and fellow walkers at the designated Underground station (call to find out where). Guides are always holding tour leaflets to identify themselves.

Many of Westminister's squares, streets and shops haven't changed in the past 200 years. As you stroll past institutions like Lock's, the world's oldest hat shop and inventor of the bowler, and the gentlemen's clubs of the Whigs and Tories, your guide explains the finer points of 18th-century architecture. A horizontal bar dividing every ground-floor window on most homes was intended to keep young street urchins from entering. Fan-like motifs above many of the front doors were copied and used as addresses before the introduction of numbers with the Penny Post in the 1840s.

A fitting end to this delightful tour is the afternoon tea at the 17th-century Dukes Hotel. A room here would set you back almost $500; afternoon tea is a slightly better bargain at around $30 -- well worth it for the atmosphere alone. After tea, head straight for the hotel bar: Many an expert have said the Dukes's bartender serves the best dry martini in the world. Tour by London Walks.

This is a weekend walk through The City, London's answer to Wall Street, when the area is practically deserted, and thus free of the ususal crowds, traffic and noise. Essentially a 2000-year survey of the city's history, this tour brings you to the remains of the ancient walled town and London Bridge, rebuilt several times between the Roman occupation and the 1800s. Then it's off to Cheapside, London's first main road which dates back to Saxon times, and to the original alleyways where financial institutions like Lloyds of London first began as coffee-houses. Tour by Historical Walks of London.

The first part of this tour takes you on a boat ride past the most stately procession of homes you're ever likely to see. Not only do you pass the houses of modern-day celebrities like Michael Crawford and Cher, but you also get a good idea of how former royalty lived. This half-hour trip down the Thames also brings you by the centuries-old Queen's House, Old Royal Observatory, Royal Navy College and the National Maritime Museum.

But the riverfront is just a taste of this two-hour tour. Once on land, your guide leads you to one of England's most spectacular vistas at the Old Royal Observatory. Designed by Christopher Wren, the architect responsible for rebuilding London after the Great Fire, the Observatory's hilltop setting presents a striking skyline from below and a remarkable panorama of London from above. You may be short of breath once you get there, but the view is worth every uphill step. Think of this tour as an introduction to Greenwich; a second visit on your own might be worth it, just to stroll along the leafy Georgian avenues of Greenwich Park, the oldest of London's 10 Royal Parks. Tour by London Walks.


If it's the London of hansom cabs, bobbies and fictional intrigue you're after, then head straight for the stomping grounds of those two great sleuths, Holmes and Watson, and their eccentric creator, Sir Author Conan Doyle.

Anyone who feels a kindred spirit with that group known as the Baker Street Irregulars will love this walk. It begins at Charing Cross, moves along the Strand and weaves through Covent Gardens. But you don't need to be a fan to appreciate the walk. Thursday's guide, a former actor, weaves real-life trivia of the Savoy Theatre, the Lyceum and the Punch and Judy shows into her tour. The walk usually ends at the Sherlock Holmes Pub on Northumberland Street, where you can take in the memorabilia over a pint. Tour by London Walks.

Unlike Sherlock Holmes's London, this tour is exclusively for fans. You'll see, among other things, the rooftop where the Beatles performed their last live show in 1969, the Indigo art gallery where John met Yoko, the club where Paul met Linda and the office building where Paul McCartney still runs his musical empire. The highlight of this tour is the walk across the legendary zebra crossing of Abbey Road. Tour by London Walks.

If you can, try this walk on a Friday when your guide will be dressed in Victorian frock and bonnet. As you follow her to the real-life relics of Dickens's imagination, the sound of horse's hooves and cries of old London vividly come to life. Before you know it, the 19th-century world of Pip, Pickwick and David Copperfield is right before your eyes. Tour by London Walks.


No literary visit is complete without a stop at Bloomsbury to see the hangouts, homes and points of inspiration of Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, George Orwell, D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot, among many others. These days, the Georgian houses, parks and squares -- not to mention the nearby British Museum -- seem full of young scholars eager to recreate literary magic. Tour by London Walks.

Although it's been more than a year since her death, the world's odd fascination with the Princess of Wales seems unshaken. The number of people who take this walk is proof positive. Yet, like most of these walks, the places where she ate, shopped, lived and worked take on a broader historical context. If anything, you leave with an appreciation of why, even in the 20th century, British subjects are so divided over their monarchy. Tour by London Walks.


For the past 30 years, Peter Westbrook has gone to the Temple Underground station every Friday night for his ritualistic pub crawl. The white-haired and mustached Westbrook conducts his walks mainly for the sheer pleasure of showing off the London he knows best. And he's always forthcoming with an explanation: He loves to drink.

Each of his walks is unique. He studies the crowd, asks a few questions and takes it from there. And you can be sure that of London's 6000 pubs, Westbrook will find the four or five he thinks will suit you. Memories may include a stop at a Royalist pub, cluttered with framed oaths and memorabilia, a half-pint at an 18th-century pawnbrokers' pub, or dancing at a piano bar with patrons who seem like characters out of a Gilbert and Sullivan naval production and who know every word of Sentimental Journey and I've Only Got Eyes For You. Tour by Historic Pub Walks.

This night tour can give you the impression you're walking through a medieval city of the dead. And between tales of an oppressive and vengeful Reformation, a visit to the battered tombstones of Gravefriers and a stop at a gas-lit Plague pit, you leave quite thankful you're living in the 20th century. One of the highlights is the tale of Esabella, buried at Gravefriers, the supposedly haunted churchyard of Christ Church. Although this ancient cemetery is said to have three ghosts, its most famous inhabitant is Esabella, "The She-Wolf of France" and wife of Edward II, implicated in her husband's murder and buried beside her lover Roger Mortimer. Tour by Historic Walks of London.

Don't make the mistake of taking this tour on a Friday night -- unless you're willing to put up with large crowds. Led by Britain's foremost crime historian Donald Rumbelow, Friday night's version of the walk is by far the best, but it attracts as many as 200 people each week.

Yet a small crowd is important for this walk. Since most of the East End's 19th-century heritage areas were levelled in the Blitz, the only way you'll see the gas lamps and cobbled alleyways where the 1888 Ripper murders took place will be with a good dose of your own imagination. Tour by London Walks.


Perhaps a better way to understand the East End's history is to take in this lesser-known walk. Historical Walks of London is an 11-year-old company run by historian and guide John Muffty, who offers trivia-packed tours for usually no more than eight walkers. This jaunt takes you through the same area once haunted by Jack the Ripper, but with a different focus: Not so well known is the fact that East London was once home to more than 60,000 Jews and 29 synagogues. The highlight is a visit to the oldest synagogue in Britain, most of which has stood intact since its building in 1701. Muffty deliberately schedules this walk for Sunday mornings, so you have a chance to explore the colourful stalls of the Petticoat Lane flea market.


Highgate is London's most atmospheric cemetery. It opened in 1838 as the preferred resting place for wealthy families, although its ostentatious mausoleums, ivy-covered pathways and southern view quickly attracted intellectuals and artists. Here you'll find Christina Rossetti, George Eliot and Highgate's most famous resident, Karl Marx.

Split down the middle by Swains Lane, the older Western Cemetery can only be visited on a guided tour -- well worth it for the imposing stone monuments and incomparable Victorian feel. Leave yourself about half an hour after the tour to roam freely around the Eastern Cemetery, where Marx is buried with his daughter Eleanor.

There is one caveat to this tour: For unexplained reasons, no child (not even an infant) under the age of six will be admitted into the Western Cemetery. Like the monuments, those in charge of the cemetery are rather unbending. Children are admitted to the Eastern Cemetery. Tour by Friends of Highgate Cemetery.

It's difficult to believe that one of medicine's most influential players was King Henry I's jester. His name was Rahere, and after surviving malarial fever, he swore he'd build a hospital as an act of thanks. That's the official story. The unofficial version is that he had a vision of St. Bartholomew saving him from a winged monster. Whatever his motivation, the result, 850 years later, is St. Barts: England's oldest hospital still standing on its original site.

Guided by one of the hospital's consulting physicians, this tour leads you back to the time of the Black Death and the beginnings of modern medicine. While highly informed, your guide is also quick to relate some of medical history's quirkier moments, such as how the plague gave birth to the term quack or how the hospital's first chief surgeon ended his life on the gallows. Tour by London Walks.

This walk covers the Old City, Fleet Street and Smithfield. The highlight is a visit to St. Bride's Church, once an imposing, layered tower designed by architect Christopher Wren -- and, of course, the inspiration for the tiered wedding cake. Bombing during the Second World War destroyed much of the church, but also revealed a Roman crypt, mosaics, medieval walls and seven churches below ground. Other stops include locations where many of the Reformation burnings, boilings and hangings took place. Tour by Historic Walks of London.


This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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