Virtual tours of London’s best buildings: How to explore during the Covid-19 lockdown

Visit some of London’s most iconic buildings without leaving your sofa.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

Head to Somerset House… virtually

Most Londoners would agree they often take the city for granted normally, let alone now. As our ongoing lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic continues, many of us are looking lustfully over #throwback photos on social media wondering when we’ll be able to explore the capital again. Or perhaps, you’re a would-be tourist whose trip to London was postponed or cancelled.

During the current Coronavirus crisis, I’ve put a lot of my usual events and ‘what’s on’ content on hiatus and have instead been focusing on London history and architecture. While researching the background of some of the capital’s most iconic buildings, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find how many of their websites provide virtual tours.

So if you’re feeling bored and missing walking around the capital, why not enjoy a virtual stroll around some of these iconic London sights.

Ten virtual tours of London buildings

  • Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Explore the striking Victorian government offices of Whitehall, which were built in the 1860s. Gaze at George Gilbert Scott’s designs, such as the Grand Staircase, the Locarno Suite and Durbar Court. Although usually off-limits to the public, you can usually get a peek during Open House London in September.

– For a virtual tour, visit the FCO website.

  • Middle Temple Hall

The public rarely gets to step inside the 16th century hall in the Temple legal district. This historic building has an impressive hammerbeam roof and is said to have hosted the first ever performance of William Shakespeare‘s Twelfth Night in front of Queen Elizabeth I.

– For a virtual tour, visit the Middle Temple Venue website. Read about the history of Middle Temple Hall.

  • Sky Garden

The ‘Walkie Talkie’ is the nickname for the City of London skyscraper 20 Fenchurch Street. Its top floors are home to a garden, bar, restaurants and viewing platform, give wonderful views of the capital.

– For a virtual tour, visit the Sky Garden 360 website. Read a review of a visit to the Sky Garden.

  • Somerset House

The multi-space arts and entertainment venue has a contrasting mix of old and new architectural features inside the 18th century riverside building.

– For a virtual tour, visit the Somerset House website. Read about the history of Somerset House. Read the rest of this entry

Artistry, education and tragedy: The Pugin home on Great Russell Street

The history of the London home of artist Augustus Charles Pugin and his architect son Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin.

Pugin Great Russell Street © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The Pugin family lived at 105 (now 106) Great Russell Street

The name Pugin will be familiar to many as it comprised a dynasty of talented artists and architects. The family name has been immortalised as the creators of many great buildings in the UK, mostly notably the Elizabeth Tower at the Palace of Westminster (aka Big Ben). While the architects of the family designed many grand structures, their own abodes were rather modest in comparison. One of the Pugin family’s only surviving London homes stands on Great Russell Street on the Bloomsbury/Fitzrovia boundaries.

Augustus Charles Pugin by Joseph Nash 1861

Augustus Charles Pugin (by Joseph Nash, 1861 – from Wikimedia Commons)

Great Russell Street was first established around 1670 and followed an old path named Green Lane. The road took its name from the local landowners, the Russell Family and Dukes of Bedford. John Strype’s (1643-1737) ‘Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster’ in 1720 described Great Russell Street as “a very handsome large and well built street, graced with the best buildings, and the best inhabited by the nobility and gentry, especially the north side, as having gardens behind the houses: and the prospect of the pleasant fields up to Hampstead and Highgate. In so much that this place by physicians is esteemed the most healthful of any in London.” One such early resident was the celebrated architect Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), followed by Regency architect John Nash (1752-1835), who designed a row of white stuccoed, terraced houses on the street in 1777-8 and lived at No.66. By the 19th century, the road’s fortunes were somewhat mixed. Although the north side has remained relatively well to do, the south side had become more downmarket and commercial, with the Meux brewery premises nearby.

When it was first built in the late 17th century, 106 Great Russell Street was numbered 105. The three-storey terrace is made of yellow brick, with an attic featuring dormer windows. Today, the ground floor features an early 19th century shopfront with a projecting window, that is currently a showroom for the Italian lighting company Artemide. There are two doors on the ground floor – one on the left providing entrance to the shop and the other providing access to the floors above (what would have been the home of the Pugins).

French artist and writer Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) arrived in Britain in 1798 after leaving France during the revolution and enrolled at the Royal Academy school in London. He soon found work as an architectural draughtsman for John Nash, sketching his buildings such as Carlton House Terrace and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. In 1802, Pugin Snr married Catherine Welby (1769-1833), of the wealthy Lincolnshire Welby family. By 1809, the couple were living at 39 Keppel Street (now Store Street) in Bloomsbury, where Pugin Snr also had an office. Their only son Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852) was born at the home in 1812. Read the rest of this entry

Ye olde gaol door: The lone survivor of Tothill Fields Bridewell prison

Learn about the history of one of Westminster’s prisons and its only visible remains.

Tothill Prison © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The old gateway to Tothill Fields Bridewell

Today, London prisons are few and far between. While today, prisons tend to be extensive and house large populations of prisoners, in previous centuries, houses of punishment were quite different in more ways than one.

In past centuries, Westminster only had a couple of prisons in comparison to many in the City of London. There was the substantial Millbank Prison (on the site of the Tate Britain) and Tothill Fields Bridewell. During its over two century history, the latter was known by various names, including Westminster House of Correction (Tothill Fields), Westminster Bridewell, Westminster Prison or Westminster County Gaol.

The location was Tothill Fields, a marshy section of land in between Westminster Abbey and Millbank. When it first opened, it was originally named Bridewell after Bridewell Palace and Prison in the City. Formerly a royal residence, the original Bridewell (on the current site of New Bridge Street near Blackfriars) became a prison, hospital and workrooms in the 16th century. When the Westminster prison first opened in 1618, it was deigned as ‘house of correction’ for paupers. It was relatively small and was built near the site of the House of Fraser store on Victoria Street. It was enlarged in 1655 as its population grew. During Queen Anne’s (1665-1714) reign in the early 18th century, Bridewell started to incarcerate criminals.

The 17th century prison was demolished in 1836, two years after a new prison opened. The new larger prison was built on an eight-acre site near Vauxhall Bridge Road. Designed by English architect Robert Abraham (1773-1850) at a cost of £186,000, the new prison was in the shape of an ace of clubs. This was inspired by social reformer Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) Panopticon design, which meant guards could keep an eye on a large body of prisoners from a central point. Each ‘leaf’ featured a separate cell block, which collectively held 900 inmates. The centre of the leaves included a courtyard, with exercise yards located between each cell block. The main entrance was located on Francis Street. Aside from the main prison buildings, there was also a chapel and governor’s house within the complex (see the original ground floor plan of the new prison). When the new prison opened, it had one block for untried male prisoners and debtors, one of male convicted criminals and the last of female convicts. Inmates were put to work, usually oakum picking (here’s an image of women picking oakum in 1906), carpentry, mending clothes and the exhausting treadmill. Among the noted prisoners were Scottish soldier and trickster Gregor MacGregor (1776-1845), tea broker and schizophrenic James Tilly Matthews (1770-1815), and revolutionary war veteran and artist John Trumbull (1756-1843). Read the rest of this entry

Kings, hills and prisons: The story behind Ludgate in the City of London

The history of Ludgate in the City of London… and does a part of the old gate still exist?

An image of Ludgate from a 1680 map after it was rebuilt following the Great Fire
(Wikimedia Commons)

Centuries ago, when London was significantly smaller, the City was enclosed by a wall with several gates providing entrance to the Square Mile. After the population boomed in the Georgian and Victorian era, the capital spilled over the boundaries of the City, spreading east, west, north and south.

One of these City gates was Ludgate – or the Lud Gate – situated on Ludgate Hill. The latter was one of three ancient hills in London, the others being Tower Hill and Cornhill. There have been a few theories about the origins of the name Ludgate. The idea that the gate was named after King Lud (who is claimed to have founded London before the Romans arrived) has been widely discounted. Many historians believe the word derives from the Saxon term ‘hlid-geat’, which means swinging gateway into a city. Another popular theory is Ludgate evolved from Flud-gate – a potential barrier to the flood waters of the nearby Rivers Fleet and Thames.

Ludgate sign © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

A plaque marking the site of the Lud Gate

The first Lud Gate was built around 200AD as an entrance into the fortified Roman settlement of Londinium. It was the most western of all the gates into the city. After the Romans abandoned Londinium in the 5th century, the city was largely uninhabited for several centuries. However, it started being used a settlement again around the 8th century as the old Roman walls provided perfect protection from the frequent Viking invasions.

By the 12th century, the area of Lud Gate has become known as Lutgatestrate. Around 1215, the old Lud Gate was repaired or rebuilt when the wealthy rebel barons captured London and strengthened the walls and gates of the city as they battled King John (1166-1216). In 1260, the gate was apparently repaired again under King Henry III’s (1207-1272) reign, with statues of King Lud and other monarchs added to the façade. Read the rest of this entry

Borough Market extends delivery service within M25 and brings foodie community online

The iconic market is extending its delivery service amid the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak.

© Borough Market Bikes

Life in London has changed rapidly for most of us in the past couple of weeks amid the current Covid-19 outbreak. However, while things are obviously different, it’s important that Londoners support each other and our local businesses during this difficult time.

London’s famous Borough Market has extended its online delivery services to customers within the M25. While the market remains open with strict hygiene and public health measures in place to protect shoppers and traders, it is also offering food and drink delivery to those Londoners who can’t get to SE1.

Borough Market launched its deliveries by zero-emission electric bikes in November 2019, initially within a 2.5 mile radius. However, in light of the Coronavirus crisis, the radius has been extended to any location inside the M25 from 19 March 2020. Electric bikes couriers will be used for a reasonable distance of the market, but vans (hybrid whenever possible) will be used for deliveries further away. Traders and couriers will follow strict hygiene practices with food securely packaged and an option of contactless delivery system if needed if customers are self-isolating and want to avoid contact with others. Meanwhile, the click-and-collect service is also available daily from 12pm-9pm if you’re able to reach the market.

In the coming weeks, Borough Market will be supporting the local community. Trader Bread Ahead is offering free yeast to locals who want to bake their own bread at home. Foodies can also find plenty of inspiration for their home cooking with hundreds of free online recipes, as well as live cooking demos and cookalongs from top chefs and market restaurants on the Borough Market Community Facebook Group.

To find out the history of Borough Market, click here.

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Making art affordable and accessible as Roy’s Art Fair returns to the South Bank

Roy’s Art Fair returns to the South Bank in April

Important update 17/3/20: Due to the continuing Coronavirus pandemic, Roy’s Art Fair is being postponed until September 2020.

The Spring edition of Roy’s Art Fair returns to the South Bank this April. The 6th fair will kick off at the riverside Bargehouse from 2 – 5 April 2020. Roy’s Fair is a bi-annual show which makes art affordable and accessible, where art lovers can peruse and buy art in a relaxed environment. With free entry and no hard sell, visitors can enjoy a comfortable afternoon checking out some art. The fair is fully inclusive with an equal balance of men and women artists exhibiting.

The next Roy’s Art Fair will feature a new addition of talks and tours. The talks will feature experts giving advice on introduction to buying and curating for your own space, unleashing your own creativity and the benefits of having art within your workplace. “Disappointman” will be hosting a cartoon workshop, inviting partcipants to create your own cartoon superhero based on your insecurities, feelings, and thoughts.

The fair will be partnered with artist Jonny Concrete, who is famous for creating concrete door stops using waste concrete. Fifteen concrete door stops will be hidden around the capital for the public to find and keep. Follow the journey on Jonny Concrete’s website or Roy’s Art Fair on Instagram.

  • Roy’s Art Fair is on 2-5 April 2020. At Bargehouse, Barge House Street, South Bank, SE1 9PH. Nearest station: Blackfriars, Southwark or Waterloo. Register for a free ticket online. For more information and tickets, visit the Roy’s Art Fair website.

For a guide to what’s on in London in March, click here.

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Scenes in the Square: Meet icons of cinema on Leicester Square’s art trail

Goodwin’s Court: Step back in time in a quaint Georgian alley

Is this small passageway near Covent Garden the inspiration for Diagon Alley?

Goodwin Court © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Goodwin’s Court is like stepping back in time to the 18th century

Goodwin's Court © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The narrow passage leading out of the Court to Bedfordbury

In between Covent Garden and Leicester Square, is one of London’s most interesting alleyways. Known today as a cut-through for busy Londoners or a destination for ‘Muggles’ in search of Harry Potter, Goodwin’s Court could be easily missed. The alley is about 280ft long, two metres wide and is accessed from St Martin’s Lane and Bedfordbury.

Goodwin’s Court was built in the old parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Following the dissolution of the Monasteries, King Edward VI (1537-1553) gave seven acres of land in the area to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford (1485–1555), in 1552. Subsequent earls started widespread building in the area, Covent Garden being one of their most famous creations. During the 17th century, lots of courts and alleys began to pop up on the fringes of the Bedford estate. One of these was Fishers Alley, which was in existence by 1660, at some point evolving into Goodwin’s Court.

The existing houses on the south side of Goodwin’s Court were built in 1690, although feature late 18th century shopfronts. One of the rumoured early residents of the Court was actress and royal mistress Nell Gwyn (1650-1687), who was linked to Covent Garden and the Parish – along with many other London spots – during her short life. However, we’ll likely never know for certain if she was a Goodwin’s resident.

Goodwin's Court © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

No.1 Goodwin’s Court

Walking down Goodwin’s Court is like stepping back in time. Ignoring the more modern creations on the north side of the alley, your eye is drawn to the Georgian terraces of No.s 1-8. The two-storey, brick buildings feature shiny, black front doors with brass knockers and knobs. The wooden bowed shopfronts were added in the late 18th century and certainly give the Court a real Dickensian vibe. You can easily imagine the shopkeepers of the time displaying their wares in a bid to attract the eye. Dotted along the façades are three mid-19th century gas lamps, which are restored and still working today. No.1 Goodwin’s Court still has its original window, front door and some fairly old looking steps.

Unsurprisingly, it was not the most prestigious address, with directories and censuses of the 19th century giving an insight to the tough lives for those who lived at Goodwin’s Court. The Post Office Directory of 1855 shows piece brokers (who traded in shreds of cloth) did business at 2, 4 and 7. A few decades later, the 1881 census showed a lot of people were crammed into the small terraces, with many different families sharing a house. Among the professions of the residents included tailors, a coach body maker (likely working one of the coachmakers on nearby Long Acre), waiters, clockmakers, an oystermen, a printer and an upholsterer. Victorian author and journalist George Augustus Sala (1828-1895) described the alleys off Bedfordbury as “reeking courts”. Amazingly, Goodwin’s Court managed to survive destruction when the Metropolitan Board of Works demolished the east side of Bedfordbury during a slum clearance plan in 1890. Read the rest of this entry

The lonely tower of St Augustine Watling Street: The history of St Paul’s next door neighbour

The story of the former church, which dates back to the 12th century.

St Pauls Augustine © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

St Augustine, Watling Street was the closest church to St Paul’s Cathedral

St Augustine church tower autumn © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The tower overlooks Festival Gardens

Standing just a few feet besides St Paul’s Cathedral is the remains of St Augustine, Watling Street. Today, all that’s left of the Anglican church is the 17th century tower and spire, which has been incorporated into a prep school.

St Augustine, Watling Street dates back to the 12th century when it was built in dedication to St Augustine of Canterbury (d.604). The Benedictine monk was sent to England as a missionary in 597 and converted King Æthelberht of Kent to Christianity. The earliest recording of the church dates back to 1148. Located on the corner of Watling Street and Old Change, the Medieval church was around 61ft long, with a 59ft long extension added in the 13th century. It was partially rebuilt in 1630-31 for £1,200. Writing about its renovation, historian John Snow (1524-1605) called St Augustine “a fair church”, adding “every part of its richly and worthily beautified”.

Prior to the Great Fire of London, St Augustine was one of 109 churches in the City of London. The terrifying blaze of September 1666 ravaged 89 of these, with only 52 being rebuilt. Like most buildings in the City, the Medieval St Augustine was destroyed along with the neighbouring Old St Paul’s Cathedral.

St Augustine's steeple © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The spire was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor

As rebuilding began, the parish of St Augustine was united with St Faith’s, whose congregation had worshipped in the crypt of the cathedral prior to the fire. Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) designed a new St Augustine, along with 50 other City churches and the current St Paul‘s Cathedral. The main church was opened in September 1683 and was 51ft long, 45ft wide and 30ft high. An arcade of Corinthian columns separated the nave from the aisles with a barrel vaulted ceiling and three skylights on each side. The interior walls had up to 8ft of panelling, while galleries were erected on the north and west sections of the church. The Portland stone tower was rebuilt in 1680-84, with oculus windows and a belfry, topped with a Baroque parapet, obelisks and pinnacles. It was completed with a lead spire designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) in 1695-96.

While the church probably sounds lovely to our 21st imaginations, it didn’t impress one 19th century critic. In the 1838 book, ‘The Churches of London: A History of the Ecclesiastical Edifices of the Metropolis’, architect and journalist George Godwin (1813-1888) writes: “The interior of the present church is plain and very small; and consists of a nave and ailes (sic) formed by Ionic columns that carry a waggon-headed ceiling. These columns are raised on exceedingly lofty plinths, which render the height and consequent diameter of the columns so small as to degrade them to mere props and produce altogether a bad effect.” Read the rest of this entry

Going to ‘town’: A guide to Jane Austen’s London

Find out where Jane Austen stayed, shopped and socialised during her many visits to London.

Jane Austen
(1870 engraving based on sketch by Cassandra Austen)

Jane Austen (1775-1817) spent most of her years living in Hampshire and Bath, but visited London frequently throughout her adult life. Her favourite brother Henry Thomas Austen (1771-1850) lived in the capital for a lot of his life, while publishing houses were another incentive for the author to visit London.

As well as being a frequent visitor to London, the city also served as inspiration for Austen’s novels. Some of her wealthier characters had homes in the capital, while it often poses as a location for many scandalous scenes. Who can forget Lydia Bennet and Mr Wickham eloping to London and being made to marry in a City church? Or Marianne Dashwood realising Mr Willoughby is engaged to another woman while in the capital with her sister Elinor? While London is full of adventure for some of Austen’s characters, one in particular wasn’t so fond. In ‘Emma’, the title character’s father Henry Woodhouse laments London’s pollution, declaring: “The truth is, that in London it is always a sickly season. Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be.”

Guide to Jane Austen’s London haunts

Find out where Jane Austen lodged, socialised and shopped during her frequent visits to London.

  • Cork Street

Jane and her brothers are believed to have slept at an inn on Cork Street in Mayfair on her first visit to London in 1796. Cork Street was a short walk from White Horse Cellar on Piccadilly (the present site of the Burlington Arcade) – where Jane was likely to have disembarked as it was a popular coach drop-off for travellers from the south and west of England.

– Cork Street, Mayfair, W1S. Nearest station: Piccadilly Circus or Green Park.

  • 64 Sloane Street

Jane’s older brother Henry and his wife Eliza moved from nearby Brompton (where they lived in 1808) to Sloane Street by the time Jane visited in 1811. Henry was a banker at the time so could entertain his sibling with parties and trips to the theatre. Jane returned for another visit in 1813. Today, the building is Grade II listed and is home to an investment bank, with its façade dating back to a redevelopment by Fairfax Wade in the late 19th century. The original house inside dates back to 1780.

– 64 Sloane Street, Knightsbridge, SW1X 9SH. Nearest station: Knightsbridge or Sloane Square.

  • 10 Henrietta Street

Jane lived with her brother at Henrietta Street during summer 1813 and March 1814. In 1813, Henry was devastated by the death of his wife Eliza. Soon after her passing, Henry moved to rooms above Tilson’s bank on Henrietta Street. Jane and their niece Fanny Knight visited him there in the spring of 1814.

– 10 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, WC2E 8PS. Nearest station: Covent Garden or Charing Cross.

  • 23 Hans Place

Henry moved round the corner from Sloane Street to Hans Place in 1814 – a year after his wife Eliza died. Jane stayed at the house during her visits in 1814 and October-December 1815. Jane was fond of the building and the square’s garden. The author travelled to London in 1815 while she was preparing her novel ‘Emma’ for publication. While there, her brother became seriously ill so Jane remained in the city to nurse him back to health. It is believed this was Jane’s last visit to ‘town’, as she died in Hampshire 19 months later. Today, No.23 has been redeveloped, but No.s 15, 33 and 34, as well as the garden from the original period, still exist. A blue plaque commemorates Jane’s time at the residence.

– Hans Place, Knightsbridge, SW1X. Nearest station: Knightsbridge.

  • Carlton House

During her visit to London is 1815, Jane was invited to the Prince Regent’s (the future King George IV) library at Carlton House by the royal librarian James Stanier Clarke (1766–1834). The latter suggested Jane dedicate ‘Emma’ to the prince, and despite her disdain for the royal, she was in no position to refuse. Carlton House was demolished the following decade, with Carlton House Terrace being erected on the site in the 1820s.

– Carlton House Terrace, St James, SW1Y 5AH. Nearest stations: Green Park or Piccadilly Circus.

Buy some tea like Jane in Twining’s flagship in the Strand

  • Twining’s flagship store

The oldest tea shop in London has been trading on Strand for over 300 years. The Austen family, including Jane, visited the shop to buy their tea. Jane wrote in her diary that her mother Cassandra (1739-1827) had asked her to pick up some Twining’s tea to bring back west. She also refers to the price of tea going up in a March 1814 letter to her sister Cassandra (1773-1845), written from Henrietta Street.

– 216 Strand, Aldwych, WC2R 1AP. Nearest station: Temple. For more information, visit the Twining’s website.

  • Astley’s Amphitheatre

Jane was entertained at Astley’s Amphitheatre during a trip to London and referenced the location in ‘Emma’. The performance venue was opened by Philip Astley in 1773 and is considered the first modern circus ring. Although the Amphitheatre is long gone, a plaque on the site remains today. It makes an appearance in ‘Emma’, as the location of Robert Martin and Harriet Smith’s reconciliation and subsequent engagement.

– Cornwall Road, Waterloo, SE1 8TW. Nearest station: Waterloo. Read the rest of this entry