David Whitley gets a new perspective on central London on a tour using old maps.
On the map, there is a massive white space. Not a field, nor a stretch of scrubland – just nothing. But as we look up from the map, we see that the void has been filled with one of the most majestic building complexes in.
The multiple turrets and Gothic-revival design touches are part of the Royal Courts of Justice, the city’s key legal hub. And the reason that the Royal Courts aren’t on the map is that they weren’t built when it was drawn.
Independent tour guide Ken Titmuss has struck upon a rather novel concept. His walking tours go into the history of certain London areas, using old maps to tell the story. In the case of his Strand Bye-ways walk, he has two maps. One is from 1870 and the other is from 1746. The Royal Courts of Justice were opened in 1882, which makes the 1870 map an extraordinary snapshot of that period.
On the 1746 map, of course, the law courts aren’t there either. But the blank space is replaced by a dense network of tightly-packed houses, congregated around unruly laneways. The area now occupied by this splendid piece of spectacularly pompous architecture was once a slum, and it was deliberately cleared so that the Royal Courts of Justice could be built.
Either side of the Strand, there are little remnants of such laneways. They’re often surrounded by buildings belonging to either King’s College or the London School of Economics, but the odd ones out provide the intrigue. One, for example, is Twinings House. Approach from The Strand and it’s a narrow shop selling tea. Sneak around the back, and you can see it’s the old warehouse of one of the first companies to import tea into Britain and sell it in packet form. But it’s not all that close to the river, which wouldn’t really make sense for a company planning to ship cargo up the Thames.
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Again, this is where the old maps enlighten and explain what may appear curious to the casual observer. ‘Strand’ is an old Saxon word meaning shoreline. At one point, it was right up alongside the river, and over the years, the Thames has gradually been pushed back. In the 1746 map, for example, the river is significantly closer. But since then, the Victoria Embankment has been built.
The Embankment was the work of Joseph Bazalgette, and was an attempt to clean up the river with a proper sewerage system. Before then, people just threw everything into the river and it stank to high heaven. Afterwards, there were pipes and tunnels underneath, and gardens on top. And, by Waterloo Bridge, a lifeboat station. This would have been unnecessary before, but the embankment narrowed the river, changing it from being placid and shallow near the banks to a deeper, faster-flowing beast.
It also rendered some architecture somewhat incongruous. Somerset House is the last of the great houses belonging to rich dukes and noblemen that once lined this section of the Thames. From the maps we can see that Charing Cross Station ploughs through where Northumberland House once stood, while the seemingly out-of-place stone steps and arch in the Embankment Gardens is all that remains of York House. Back in the day, it was a glorified boat ramp.
Somerset House itself has a series of arches lining the busy street that passes in front of it. Ken digs out an old photo that shows water lapping under them, in their prime position on the water’s edge.
Gradually, a picture begins to emerge of an ever-changing area. Opulent riverside palaces fall out of use and are knocked down for traffic-calming thoroughfares, warehouses are converted into wine bars, private gardens are built over with ambitious housing projects and fashionable coffee houses become pubs. But somehow the street plan remains largely the same, with the feeble laneways and dead-end alleys originally used for hauling goods up from the river to The Strand becoming the awkward-looking survivors of the evolutionary process.
Duck in and around them, and there are all sorts of unlikely treasures to be found. Some bear the blue plaques of famous faces that once lived there; for others, the clues only emerge from a long-dead cartographer’s snapshot of a bygone moment in time.
Bookings for the old map tours should be made through London Trails.
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