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Discovering the origins of Somerset House on the Historical Highlights Tour

Learn about the history of Somerset House on a free tour.

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The Historical Highlights Tour explores the history and secrets of Somerset House

Somerset House is one of my favourite London buildings. It’s so versatile, full of history, is beautiful to look at and has a wealth of entertainment and art options. The current building we see today dates back to the 18th and 19th century, but its history goes way back to the 16th century. With over 450 years of history on the site, there’s a lot to take in. However, the Historical Highlights Tour, which takes place every week is a good place to start.

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Gravestones from the former Catholic chapel are now hidden under the courtyard

The first large house on the site was a two-storey property, which started to be built in 1547. It was a home for the Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset (1500-1552), who was given the land by his brother-in-law King Henry VIII. He served as Lord Protector of England for the first two years of his nephew King Edward VI’s (1537-1553) reign from 1547-1549, who was only nine when he came to the Throne. However, Somerset was overthrown in October 1549 and was executed on Tower Hill in 1552. His house, known as Somerset Place, was taken into the crown’s possession, with the future Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) living there during her half-sister Queen Mary’s (1516-1558) reign. However, the house hadn’t been completed decades later, with 16th century historian John Stow (1524/25-1605) referring to Somerset Place as still ‘yet unfinished’ in 1598 – over 50 years after building work started.

By 1603, Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), Queen Consort to King James I of England (or James VI of Scotland) was given Somerset Place for her London residence, with it renamed Denmark House in her honour. Anne enrolled architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652), among others, to make some improvements and additions to the long neglected house. Following Anne’s death, Jones designed a chapel in 1636 where her daughter-in-law, Henrietta Maria of France (1609-1669), wife of King Charles I, could quietly worship as a Roman Catholic, when Protestant was the dominant religion of the time. A small cemetery was established outside the chapel, with some of the 17th century gravestones being shown during the tour.  Read the rest of this entry

‘Roman’ bath at The Strand: What the Dickens is the history behind this old watering hole?

Down a small side street near the Aldwych campus of King’s College is an extraordinary piece of hidden London.

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The remains of the ‘Roman’ Bath in Strand Lane actually date back to the early 17th century

Known as the ‘Roman’ Bath on Strand Lane, the building is rarely open to the public. I visited a few months ago during Open House London and found the origins of the baths weren’t quite as romantic as they sounded. At one point there were two baths on the site – named ‘Essex’ and ‘Roman’ respectively, however it is the latter (which is also the oldest), that can be seen today.

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The doorway to the old ‘Essex Bath’ – built in the 18th century – is now blocked off, although the Dutch tiles can still be seen

Thanks to centuries of redevelopment, bombing and fires, there isn’t much left of Roman London today. Within the borders of old Londinium, we have some of the Roman wall at Tower Hill, the remains of the Amphitheatre at Guildhall and an old bathhouse at Lower Thames Street. While the bath at The Strand continues to be named ‘Roman’, it turns out it is significantly younger than two millennia.

Recent research by historians at nearby King’s College London has found the bath was originally constructed in 1612 as a feeder cistern for an elaborate fountain in the gardens of an earlier incarnation of Somerset House (prior to the current building, which dates back to 1796). At the time, the house was the residence for Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), Queen Consort of King James I of England (1566-1625). Following their deaths, it is believed the fountain was demolished around 1630 during extensive remodelling under the reign of their son King Charles I (1600-1649). This research by Professor Michael Trapp and Dr Kevin Hayward rejects an earlier theory the bath was a spring water reservoir for Arundel House, home to Thomas Howard, 21st Earl Of Arundel (1586-1646). Read the rest of this entry

Get your skates on: Guide to ice rinks in London for Christmas 2012

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Get your skates on!

Open air ice rinks have been rising in popularity over the past 10 years. In December, I can’t think of many activities more festive than going ice-skating with friends, family or a date, before warming up afterwards with a hot chocolate or mulled wine. While there’s a handful of permanent ice rinks open all year round, from late November until early January, a host of iconic venues host pop-up ice rinks. Here’s a guide to some of the rinks open this season. Although walks up may be possible, I recommend booking in advance to avoid disappointment, especially at weekends and Christmas holidays. (NB: Most ice rinks will be closed on Christmas Day and early closing on Christmas Eve).

For the updated 2014 guide, click here.

  • Natural History Museum Ice Rink

A 950 square metre rink in the gardens of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. Open from 2 November until 6 January 2013. Mon-Wed 10am-10pm, Thu-Fri 10am-11pm, Sat 9am-11pm, Sun 9am-10pm. Adults £11.50/£13.50, Children 12 and under £8/£9. Nearest tube: South Kensington (Circle, District and Piccadilly line). To book, visit the Natural History Museum website.

  • Skate at Somerset House

One of the original pop-up ice rinks located in the courtyard of Somerset House. As well as general skating, they also host club nights on ice and skate lessons. Open from 16 November until 6 January 2013. Session times last an hour and are bookable from 10am until 9.15pm (later for club nights and New Year’s Eve). Adults £12.50/£15.00, Children £7.50. Nearest tube: Temple (Circle and District line). To book, visit the Somerset House website.

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In the courtyard: Skate at Somerset House on The Strand

  • Eyeskate

A newer addition to the open air ice rinks is the raised rink in the park shadowed by the London Eye. Open from 17th November until 6 January 2013. Open daily from 10am until 9pm. Session times last 45 minutes . Adults £10.50 (£9.45 online), Children £7.50 (£6.75 online). Nearest tube: Waterloo (Overland, Jubilee or Bakerloo line) or Embankment (Circle, District or Northern Line). To book, visit the Eyeskate website.

  • Ice Rink Canary Wharf

In the middle of the soaring skyscrapers on Canary Wharf and surrounded by shops is another pop-up rink. Open from 3rd November until 13 January 2013. Session times last 1 hour. First session times vary from 9.45am/10.45am ending at 11pm most nights. Adults £12.50, Children £8.50. Nearest tube Canary Wharf (Jubilee line). To book, visit the Ice Rink Canary Wharf website.

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Whole lotta history: Skate in the dry moat of the Tower Of London

  • Tower Of London Ice Rink

Skate in the moat of one of the most iconic and historic buildings in the capital. Open from 17th November until 6th January 2013. Session times last 1 hour. First sessions start at 10am, last session starts at 9pm. Adults £11/£13, Children £8.50/£9. Nearest tube Tower Hill (Circle or District Line). To book, visit the Tower of London Ice Rink website.

  • Hampton Court Palace Ice Rink

Skate in front of King Henry VIII’s favourite London residence. Session times last 1 hour. Open from 1st December until 13th January 2013. First sessions start at 10am, last session starts at 9pm. Adults £11/£12.50, Children £8.50/£9. Nearest train Hampton Court (overland from Waterloo). To book, visit the Hampton Court Palace Ice Rink website.

  • Ice Age 4 Ice Rink @ Winter Wonderland

A pop-up ice rink at the annual Winter Wonderland in the south east corner of Hyde Park. Session times last 1 hour. Open from 23rd November until 6th January 2013. First sessions start at 10am, last session starts at 9pm. Adults £10.50/£13.50, Children £8.50/£9.50. Nearest tube: Hyde Park Corner (Piccadilly Line). To book, visit the Winter Wonderland website. For a sneak peek, check out MOAMG blog posting on Winter Wonderland.

  • Broadgate Ice

Temporary ice rink at Broadgate Circle in the City of London where you can actually turn up and skate without a need to book. Open from 9 November until 24th February 2013. Weekday sessions 12.15-9pm, weekends 9.30am-9pm. Adults £9, Children £7, Skate Hire £2. Nearest tube: Liverpool Street. For more information, visit Broadgate’s website.


For more fun things to do around London this January and February, read my blog post Guide to what’s on in London in January and February 2013.

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Gliding: Take to the ice at the Winter Wonderland’s Ice Age 4 ice rink