This excursion will be back soon. In the meantime we’d be happy to organise a private tour for you. Please contact us on 020 7624 3978 | [email protected] to make a booking.

In Focus: Whitehall

Westminster tube station, London

Guided by

IN FOCUS Whitehall

Micro version.

The most important street in Britain. Guided by Fiona, winner of the Guide of the Year Award for 2015

Shorter version.

“Whitehall contains more landmarks of our island’s history than any other street.”

The casual visitor misses 99 percent of what’s there. We don’t.

The casual visitor gets the popsicle. We feast on the full banquet.

Longer version.

Two images.

1. Think of a book. A closed book. The title of the book is Whitehall. We’ve all seen that book lying there a million times. Know its cover. Know its title: Whitehall. Have a vague idea what’s in it. But we’ve never bothered to open it. To read it.

2. Don Patterson’s got a wonderful sonnet called Wave. It begins:

For months I’d moved across the open water
Like a wheel under its skin…

We can sense – but only sense – from that first perfect image in Patterson’s sonnet the power of the wave. How far down it reaches – its great depths. How far it’s come. How much has gone into it. How much is there. Where it’s going and what might be wrought when it finally gets there, comes ashore, reveals its full self, its full might.

Apt images – both of them – for Whitehall. There’s a whole book to be read there. There’s much there and it runs very deep. It is, after all, the most important street in the country. Decisions taken there affect the lives of every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom.

This walk – the second in a series of In Focus walks – opens up the book called Whitehall. Reads it.

Let’s us see the works – the fullness, the plenitude, the sweep and power – of the wheel under the skin.

So, an example or 22 of the kind of thing Fiona will be doing – what she’ll be showing you – in Whitehall:  “the shame of London”; the last private dwelling in Whitehall; the alleyway that was the game changer for the look of London; the seven arrowheads; the first office in London designed for a specific government department; two hippogriffs; a Roman galley; a royal navy frigate; the scars of 19th century terrorism; the small black square of metal that governed the planning and strategy of the Royal Navy for a century; semi-draped Victorian maidens; the array of towers and turrets where the servants lived; the author of the creeping barrage; “The Two Fat Ladies;” the parade ground formation eerily reminiscent of the mass urination on the Siegfried Line; buildings from four centuries; the man who turned down the job of Prime Minister three times; a secret, small, dark doorway leading to a secret, small, dark, passage leading to…; the tower that was the lookout point when this was the tallest building in this part of London; the tower where our official spy organisation got started; the behemoth that nearly became the largest assassination weapon in the world; the oldest gas lamps in the world; the building that changed the look of English architecture for ever afterward; the weather vane that heralded “the Glorious Revolution”; the ”installation” that gave rise to no end of bawdy jokes and obscene cartoons; the spot where Sir Walter Raleigh was first presented to Queen Elizabeth; the building where General Bernard Montgomery – Monty – had his flat; a building that looks like a drawing from a child’s picture book; the handiwork of the Harvard graduate who was a double agent and into the bargain “the greatest rogue in Christendom”; the famous structure that doesn’t have a single straight line on it; Vulcan the smith-God and why he’s there and who “sat” for him…

Just one damn interesting thing after another.

And the guide? Since “it all comes down to the guiding.” Some of you have probably guessed: it’s Fiona.

Fiona If this were the British military Fiona would be “the most decorated member of the Armed Forces.” The full fruit salad. All four badges. Blue Badge, City of London, City of Westminster, and Clerkenwell. And not just badges – there are any number of badged guides in London who are pretty run of the mill. Fiona wins the gold medal, the big one, the Numero Uno award: Blue Badge Guide of the Year, City of Westminster Guide of the Year, etc.

Final thought about In Focus walks generally. They’ve been a long time a-coming  – been like a wave forming and building, a wheel under the skin – to the London Walks programme. All things considered they’re practically a tectonic shift for us. Something has finally broken free. Moved. Which is by way of saying, famously we – London Walks – do untrodden paths, quaint little back streets and hidden courtyards. That’s always been our specialty. We want to get off main drags, get away from the London equivalent of Times Square and the Champs-Élysées. We want to nook and cranny London. Take people into the little backstreets they’d never find off their own bat. That’s not to say we didn’t know about Parliament Square and Whitehall and Trafalgar Square and the Strand (the four In Focus walks that will debut the series). We of course knew about them. Knew full well that in many ways they’re the most nutrient-rich tesserae of London terrain. We just didn’t think fine-tooth combing a place like Parliament Square – spending a whole walk there – was really us. We had enough to be getting on with in the back forty patches we’d staked out as our turf.

And there was one other thing. We had to bring our market – our community – along.  Get our following, our walkers, ready for this.  It wasn’t that London Walks – “walks for grownups” – was going to stop doing what we’ve excelled at for half a century. It was that we were going to add to the programme a strand that was counter-intuitive to the London Walks ethos. So counter-intuitive that we felt our market – our following – had to ripen. Be ready for this step, these steps. Our sixth sense is telling us that hour has come round. That we’ll get some takers for walks that look extremely closely at the likes of Parliament Square and Whitehall and Trafalgar Square and the Strand and the 23 that follow on from those four.