Four hours in London

An enjoyable afternoon walking 15km around London, from Victoria to London Bridge train stations via Fitzrovia and the City. London is a glorious city for pedestrians, flat with wide pavements, seemingly little traffic, and always something interesting to see. For example a few minutes from London Victoria is Westminster Cathedral, the largest Catholic church in England and Wales. Completed 1903, it is an incredible neo-Byzantine building, built almost entirely of brick, without steel reinforcements. The interior is very unusual, with a black mass of bricks above you, but around the sides mosaic filled chapels.

Heading north past Buckingham Palace and through Green Park I came across the beautiful Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception built in the 1840s, next to the pleasant Mount Street Gardens.

The purpose of walking to Fitzrovia was to visit the Wallace Collection, an incredible free museum housed at Hertford House in Manchester Square. This former townhouse is filled with one of the most important collections of French 18th century objects in the world, one of the largest collections of armour in the world, and much else, including Old Master paintings such as the famous Laughing Cavalier, and an extensive collection of paintings of Venice. Established in 1897 from the private collection mainly created by Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford, you need to visit to see the collection as one of the conditions of the bequest was that no object should ever leave the collection, even for loan exhibitions.

St James’ Roman Catholic Church completed in 1890 was very Gothic, and an oasis of calm and quiet inside.

Heading toward the City the influence of Christopher Wren became clear, as I visited some of the ~50 parish churches, built in the decade’s long-programme he led after the Great Fire of London in 1666. He also found time to design St. Paul’s Cathedral, leaving a huge legacy for London.

Wren’s largest parish church was St Andrew Holborn. Thanks to a last minute change in wind direction the original medieval church was actually spared by the Great Fire of London, but was in such a poor condition already that they decided to rebuild it. It survived until the London Blitz in 1941, during which much of the building was destroyed. It was subsequently rebuilt as per Wren’s original designs.

A couple of examples near Holburn of heritage buildings being incorporated into new buildings, some more successfully than others.

I prefer the traditional red brick style of London buildings.

Opposite St. Paul’s Cathedral, Christ Church Greyfriars was less fortunate. The 13th century monastery turned church after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries was destroyed in the Great Fire. Rebuilt by Wren it was also largely destroyed during the London Blitz, with only the tower surviving. The grounds have now been turned into the pleasant Christchurch Greyfriars Garden.

It was a similar story for St Mary Le Bow Church. The original church was considered the second most important church in the City of London after St Paul’s Cathedral, and therefore one of the first to be rebuilt after the Great Fire. During the London Blitz much of the Church was destroyed, with extensive restoration taking until the 1960s to complete.

The last church I visited was also designed by Wren but somehow survived the London Blitz though the dome was damaged. St Stephen Walbrook Church was built between 1672 and 1679.

I finished my afternoon at the Sky Garden on the 35th floor of 20 Fenchurch Church Street, better known as the Walkie Talkie. Despite some photographic challenges with reflections from the glass, this offers some of the best views of London. South across the River Thames is London Bridge and The Shard, Canary Wharf is to the East, to the North are the rest of the increasingly dire skyscrapers in The City, and West was looking into the setting sun to the heart of London.

Entry is free but you need to get a timed ticket online, with slots filling up weeks in advance. You can book up to a month in advance so get in early. The Sky Garden is controversial as it was part of the justification for such an overwhelming building being built on the edge of a conservation area. A large, free, public viewing space with trees at the top of the building was proposed and shown in the original plans. What they got were some tree palms in a tightly controlled space, which is only accessible after 6pm by paying customers of the bar and restaurant. Unfortunately this sort compromised outcome has seemingly become standard for major London developments.

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