Our work was being tour guides for Star Tour 6 days a week for Scandinavian guests coming to London for a weekend or a weeks city break. This was in the days before internet and self-booking, so there were thousands of people coming every week to see London, go to musicals and football matches. Two days a week we did sightseeing around London, 5 hours of guiding around some of the biggest attractions and sights in London. We built up quite a knowledge of the known and the not so known sides of central London.
The tour started from Bayswater, and first on the programme was driving through the magnificent Hyde Park on Carriage drive across the Serpentine lake talking about how this used to be the hunting grounds for the kings and how it now is one of the greatest parks in the world. Exiting the park, we would take a right down Kensington Gore (which becomes Kensington High street further down the road) and we would pass The Albert Memorial. This is the memorial of Prince Albert who died in 1872 at the age of 42, beloved husband of Queen Victoria who wore black after this and until her death in 1901. The memorial is featuring a statue of the prince holding a catalogue of the Great Exhibition (held in Hyde Park in 1851, which he inspired and helped organize) surrounded by marble figures representing Europe, Asia, Africa, and America standing at each corner of the memorial. Immediately on the right-hand side would be the impressive rotunda of the Royal Albert Hall. A beautiful building, opened by Queen Victoria in 1871, it is one of the United Kingdoms most treasured and distinctive buildings. It is the venue for the Proms concerts, and it is host to more than 390 shows in the main auditorium annually, including classical, rock and pop concerts, ballet, opera, film screenings with live orchestral accompaniment, sports, awards ceremonies, school and community events, and charity performances and banquets.
The bus would take a left down Queens Gate, past embassies, and the Imperial College down towards the intersection with Cromwell road. On the right-hand corner was the headquarters of the international Scout movement, with a statue of founder and chief scout Baden Powell outside the entrance. The statue is still there today, but the headquarters is sadly a hotel, the only tell that the building once had Scout significance is the statue and a Fleur de Lise on the building’s façade.
Taking a left on Cromwell Road we get the imposing building of the Natural History Museum on our left side. This is a great museum for both young and old, containing mind boggling exhibits, full size skeletons of dinosaurs and a full size stuffed blue whale suspended from the rafters. The Science Museum is just as grand and lies just behind the Natural History Museum. The next grand building on this magnificent row of museums is the Victoria and Albert Museum, known for its revolving exhibitions through the years it is still a fantastic museum to visit. The V&A is the world’s leading museum of art and design, housing a permanent collection of over 2.3 million objects that span over 5,000 years of human creativity.
Just down the road on the right is a building that is undoubtedly one of the most well-known department stores in the world, Harrods. In the mid 80s there was a bit of controversy since an Egyptian businessman had purchased Harrods, it caused quite a stir, nowadays no one bats an eyelid when an Arabian prince or American investors buy a football club or two. Harrods is a very British institution in one of the most British of neighbourhoods, Knightsbridge. It is still a sight to see from the outside, especially at Christmas with thousands of lights twinkling on every surface of the building, and just to walk among the luxury and pomp inside is a treat for any visitor. Next corner on the right-hand side is the very chic department store Harvey Nichols, and the number of posh girls and boys meandering outside the shop is amazing to watch on a Saturday afternoon.
A few hundred metres down the road and we drive towards Hyde Park corner, on the left corner of Hyde Park is Apsley House, once the residence of the Duke of Wellington, father of the Wellington boot, and victor at the battle of Waterloo. In the middle of the roundabout is Wellington Arch, which was built as an original entrance to Buckingham Palace, later becoming a victory arch proclaiming Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon. Crowned by the largest bronze sculpture in Europe, it depicts the Angel of Peace descending on the ‘Quadriga’ – or four-horsed chariot of War.
Piccadilly continues straight west past the first Hard Rock café, Green Park is next on our left with Constitution Hill and then we would go round the final part of the massive roundabout and go left down Grosvenor Place.
Next on our left is the Queen’s backyard, Buckingham Palace Garden. A quick glimpse of the entrance to one the finest working stables in the world – the Royal Mews. The museum here is a nice visit if you are interested in horses, stunning royal carriages and royal pomp in general. In the 90s you could drive around the grand statue of Queen Victoria in front of Buckingham Palace and we would be talking about the queen, the palace itself and maybe throw in the anecdote about Michael Fagan who broke into the Queen’s bedroom in 1982 – all those who followed the series The Crown in recent times will know this story. A quick left down Birdcage Walk along the magnificent St James’s Park (a must visit when in London) and then a right and suddenly the bus was at the start of the most exciting few hundred yards in the world. As a tour guide you had to compose yourself and concentrate and hope for a red light or two to talk about everything whizzing past the window (if you can say that anything can whiz by in London traffic, it moves at a snail’s pace on a good day).
First on your right is one of the most famous churches in the world, Westminster Abbey, where all kings and queens are crowned and buried. The abbey was consecrated in 1065 and Edward the Confessor was buried here in 1066. Other notable people who are buried here include Isaac Newton and Charles Dickens, and seventeen British monarchs including King Henry V and all the Tudors except for Henry VIII. If you visit London for the first time Westminster Abbey is a must see.
Rounding the corner of the abbey, Big Ben and the Parliament building (officially known as the Palace of Westminster) loom in front of the bus – it is a huge building and Big Ben is one of those most iconic worldwide known things that have ever existed. At Parliament square we would take a right and drive down along the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and we would talk about how heads of traitors would be hung over the entrance of the palace. Outside the House of Lords is the statue of Oliver Cromwell, the only non-royal to lead the British Isles as Lord Protector and head of state and government after defeating (and later beheading) King Charles I during the English Civil War (1642-1651). When he died of natural causes in 1658 his son took over the rule but was soon overthrown and replaced by Prince Charles, son of Charles I, who was named King Charles II and thus bringing the royalists back to power. Wanting revenge for his father, King Charles II subsequently dug up the body of Cromwell and symbolically hung the corpse in chains and beheaded a very dead Cromwell for his crimes against the crown. Cromwell’s head was placed on a 20-foot spike above Westminster Hall. Many speculate that the statue of a king killer is still there so to remind the royals that their power is not a matter-of-fact thing. A quick left would take us over Lambeth Bridge, which has a paint scheme that is mainly red – the same colour as the leather benches of the House of Lords at the south end of the Palace of Westminster and closest to the bridge. If you look left up the river Thames you can see the Westminster bridge that is predominantly green, the same colour as the benches of The House of Commons at the northern end of Palace of Westminster and closest to that bridge. The British are very cunning indeed. London is full of those quirky and very British odd things like these.
Across Lambeth Bridge we would do a left past the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury (the leader of the Church of England), Lambeth Palace, and drive along the embankment just across from the Palace of Westminster. Here we would stop for ten minutes, so that everyone could get off the bus and take some pictures across the Thames of the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben of course.
Continuing the tour, we would take a left again and go across Westminster Bridge. Since the 90s a few things have happened to the scenery and the bridge itself. Now on the southern side of the Thames there is the Millennium wheel or as it’s now known as, the London Eye. Opened in 1999 to celebrate the millennium, it was so popular that it still stands today, more than 20 years later. We highly recommend to prebook a ride at the London Eye, it is fun for both young and old, and to avoid the queues, book a set time for the experience, the views are awesome. If you’re a group of adults why not book an exclusive capsule ride with champagne – we loved it! And we should also mention how Westminster bridge has been used in movies like Harry Potter (when the bus goes skinny between two other buses) and it was used in James Bond film Spectre. Big Ben would be looming over the bus on our left side, an icon of Britain and the symbol of the city of London. Big Ben is probably the world’s most famous clock. The Clock Tower (as it was called in the 90s, it was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee) is 96 metres high, and the dials of the clock is 6,9 metres in diameter. It is a fun fact to remember that it’s just the clock itself that is called Big Ben, but it has become a nickname for the whole tower with the clock. On the right-hand side of the bridge, opposite of Big Ben, is a rather cool statue of warrior queen Boudicca, who led a rebellion against the Romans in AD 60 or 61.
A quick glance to the left across Parliament Square once more and look at the statue of Winston Churchill on the corner, one of the great statesmen in British history. We would go right around the corner and head up Parliament Street, here on your left you will in short intervals get the entrance to The Imperial War museum Churchill War Rooms, a bunker you can still visit where Winton Churchill had his offices during the Blitz of London during WW2. A quick recommendation is the Imperial War Museum itself, one of the best in Europe, and a favourite visit of one of our nephews. Next street on the left is Downing Street were the Prime Minister lives at number 10.
Just a few metres more and we passed The Horse Guards, always a cool visit when in London. Stout men and women of the Queen’s Life Guard sit on big horses guarding the old entrance to St James’s Palace. The changing of the Horse Guards is at 11am every day with great pomp and circumstance. The whole area on the right is Whitehall with numerous ministries and secret James Bond lairs. The whole street ends in Trafalgar Square, with a short glimpse down the Mall on the left-hand side, and at the end of The Mall you can see the front of Buckingham Palace. In the mid-90s you could drive around Trafalgar Square and up in front of The National Portrait Gallery, this is now luckily a pedestrian street.
Trafalgar Square is filled with fountains, gigantic lions, and a dude on top of a tall pillar. This dude is admiral Nelson, hero of the battle of Trafalgar. He is a national hero, read more about this great admiral here. Round the square we drove past St Martin in the Fields, a church with a café and great free concerts in the crypt. Down the Strand we drove, past Charing Cross Station and The Savoy hotel (with the only right-hand drive street in Britain) and further past the Royal Courts of Justice and onto the old newspaper street of Fleet Street. The first (and only stop) we did with our bus group was at St Paul’s Cathedral.
There has been a church dedicated to St Paul on this site since AD 604, the cathedral we see today is the masterpiece of Sir Christopher Wren completed in 1710 as a part of the rebuilding of London after the great fire of 1666. One of the most recognisable buildings in London – the inside is just as spectacular as the outside. We took our guests on a small tour of the inside of the church, explaining the engineering of the vast dome and the spectacular artworks inside the church itself. We always ended the tour by standing in the middle of the room under the dome talking about the epitaph Sir Christopher Wren’s son, Christopher Wren Jr., made in the floor directly in the centre after his father’s death: “Reader, if you seek his monument look around you”. A powerful statement to honour the memory of a great man and the architect of London, he singlehandedly reimagined the streets and buildings of London after the great fire. The guests got some free time where we recommended to take the stairs to the middle gallery in the dome, or all the way to the top of the dome. Then and today the view from the top of St Paul’s cathedral is nothing short of spectacular, if you look towards the Thames, you will look straight across the Millennium Pedestrian Bridge and Tate Modern Museum.
Tate Modern is one of the world’s best modern art galleries with international works on display, plus a café with panoramic river views. St Paul’s is in City of London, a city within a city and the old financial centre of the world. City has its own mayor and is still a financial and business hub for England and London.
The number of new buildings that have popped up since we lived there is enormous. The two most famous and stand out buildings are probably 30 St Mary Axe or more popularly known as “the Gherkin” due to its shape and 20 Fenchurch Street also nicknamed “The Walkie Talkie” due to its similar shape. Inside this building is one of the more spectacular gardens in the world, the Sky Garden. A huge mezzanine space with plants, trees, restaurants, bars and a viewing deck that is just awesome. We have been here many times later years, having breakfast and lunches, and it is breath-taking.
Our bus did a right onto London bridge and past The Monument, a 61-metre-high column to commemorate the great fire of London in 1666. It is said that if you laid this monument down, the flaming top would reach Pudding Lane where the fire started in a bakery shortly after midnight on the 2nd of September 1666. It raged for 4 days and gutted medieval London inside the old Roman city wall and threatened to destroy the city of Westminster (today’s West End). It burned for 4 days, destroying more than 13 000 houses, 87 churches including the old St Pauls cathedral and most of the buildings of the city’s authorities. The fire destroyed the homes of 70 000 of City of London’s 80 000 inhabitants. If you visit the Monument, you can climb the stairs all the way to the top for a great view over the Thames and surrounding areas.
London bridge has been the site of a bridge over the Thames since Roman times, they built the first bridge across the waters. It was also the only bridge across the river until Westminster Bridge opened in 1750. Several bridges have been built and rebuilt and torn down on this site. In the Tudor period there were over 200 houses and businesses on the bridge. The bridge that stood at this site from 1831 to 1967 was sold to an American businessman called Robert McCulloch. The story goes that he thought he bought Tower Bridge, but this is a mistake, he knew very well what he was buying. The bridge was meticulously torn apart and transported to Lake Havasu, Arizona, where it was rebuilt as part of a development of that area into a holiday destination. We rode across that bridge on motorbikes as part of our Phoenix to San Diego road trip. The current bridge was opened in 1973. Imagine we had to talk about all this while driving across the bridge that is only 269 metres long towards London Bridge station – a lot of facts, so we had to learn how to talk fast .
Later years this area has also been developed quite a lot, among many things the skyscraper The Shard popped up. At 310 metres it is the tallest building in London, containing a hotel, offices, and restaurants, plus the tallest viewing deck in London.
Down Tooley street we go, the street was named after St Olav’s church in that area, but the pronunciation was muddled, and became Tooley after St Olav – St Ole – Tooley, simple, right? The bus would make a sharp left and suddenly we were on the most iconic of bridges, Tower Bridge! The ooooos and the aaahs in the bus were always funny to listen to. Driving and indeed walking across Tower Bridge is something you just need to do while in London. And of course, across the bridge lies another icon of London, the Tower of London. Home to kings and queens of England since 1066, a fortress, infamous prison, and home to the Crown Jewels. We have visited a number of times with nephews and niece over the years and The Tower is a must on any London tourist’s itinerary, the exhibits of medieval armour and costume, and to walk among history is awesome. Throw in beheadings of queens and princes, a zoo, the ravens and the iconic Yeomen guards, you have a visit not easily forgotten.
Looking to your right when you drive past Tower is Tower Hill Station (Circle and District Lines), a probable point of entry to the area if you use the underground. Tower Hill was one of the many sites for executions in London. A thing worth noticing next to the station and continuing behind it, is the old Roman city wall still visible and standing proud. After all it was the Romans who gave name to the city when they founded Londinium in this area around AD 50. Roman London was the biggest city Britain would see for over a thousand years.
At its height, around AD 120, Londinium was home to about 45,000 people. It would not reach that size again until the 13th century. Speaking of Romans, another great museum is the Museum of London which has Roman ruins in its basement.
From Tower Hill the bus whizzed down the Embankment towards central London again. Passing Cleopatra’s Needle of the banks of the Thames, some found it surprising to find an Egyptian obelisk in London. It was made in Egypt for the Pharaoh Thotmes III in 1460 BC, making it almost 3,500 years old. It is known as Cleopatra’s Needle as it was brought to London from Alexandria, the royal city of Cleopatra.
A sharp right took us up Northumberland Avenue towards Trafalgar Square yet again. Keep your eyes peeled for another great pub on the right, the Sherlock Holmes. Across Trafalgar Square we went once more, and if we had forgotten or not had time to talk about some of the many things happening on the square, we could do it now. Each of the lions around Nelsons column weighs 7 tonnes, and the sculptor used a dead lion from the London zoo as a model, the lion decomposed quickly and that is why the paws of the lions resemble the paws of domestic cats more than lions. A few metres on Pall Mall and then right up Haymarket and within a few blocks the bus is hurled into the mayhem that is Piccadilly Circus.
A major traffic hub in old London, it was still congested and full of cars in the 90s, so the chance of getting stuck around it for a while was a weekly occurrence. Luckily, the square has plenty of things to talk about. The huge TV screens on the north east buildings were, and still are, blinding. The so-called Eros statue and fountain in the middle of the square where mods, punks and tourists have gathered for decades. The Criterion Theatre just behind the statue has a peculiar layout, as most of the theatre is underground, when you enter the lobby, you enter the top balcony level. Up towards the right runs Shaftesbury Avenue, the theatre street of London, packed with old theatres showing musicals and plays catering to very taste.
Immediately to the right of Piccadilly Circus is the “centre of London” Leicester Square throbbing with tourists and street entertainers. The area to the north of Shaftesbury Avenue is Soho, and it was the old “entertainment” district of London. Famously Ray Davies of The Kinks sang “I met her in a club down in old Soho, where you drink champagne and it tastes just like coca cola” about his first encounter with a woman of the night, who turned out not to be a woman. In the 90s it was still filled with certain houses of ill repute, but the clearing up of Soho had started, for good and for bad. Soho is a bit more gentrified now than it was back then, but still one of our favourite areas of central London.
Old Compton street was then, and is still, the gayest street in London packed with bars and restaurants. And just up Shaftesbury avenue on the right-hand side is London’s Chinatown, famous for its food buffets and still very Chinese streets, it is not a big area, but still worth a visit. The bus turned the corner of north west Piccadilly Circus and began the long and sometimes slow drive-up Regent Street, one of the grandest streets of London. It is lined with high end shopping from bottom to top. On the right side behind the grand facades was still Soho, with the dark pubs and seedy nightlife. Many an evening after work we ended up at the Intrepid Fox, one of the legendary rock pubs of London that is no more.
Also, on the right behind the big shops like the world’s biggest toy shop Hamleys lies the old mod and hippie street Carnaby street. It has remained a very cool street and area, a pedestrian street lined with shops. We still go there although it has become a bit less gritty, more touristy, but if you look in the smaller parallel streets to the east of Carnaby street, you will find many small and independent shops and cafes that are worth exploring.
The final stretch of the sightseeing is now within reach. The nexus of big brand shopping in London lies around Oxford Circus. The huge transport hub that is the crossing of Regent Street and Oxford Street. Below the street lies one of the busiest underground stations in London, and above on the street London buses, taxis and coaches struggle to pass the thousands of people trying to cross the road. It is a chaos that we try to avoid when we visit London, the only reason to go there is the Nike flagship store and Top Shop.
Our sightseeing would turn left here east down Oxford Street and let off those who wanted to go shopping here. The rest of us would sit and look at the shops and department stores outside the bus windows. At the end of Oxford street is Marble Arch, a triumphant arch celebrating victories in the Napoleonic wars that stood in front of Buckingham Palace until it was moved to its current location in 1851 when the palace was extended with a new front that is the one we see today with the balcony for royal waving. Entering Bayswater road, the whole sightseeing was more or less over, about 5 hours and a few thousand words after it had started. Ørjan had a bit of a morbid end to the whole sightseeing mentioning the small building in the entrance to Carriage drive and Hyde Park. In the garden of that building there is an original Victorian pet cemetery, where well to do women of the area buried their beloved pets. One of the gravestones supposedly said, “To my dear Fluffy, more intelligent and faithful than any of my husbands”.