The first and most important thing that you need to know about Whitehall is that there are no coffee shops down there. It's full of government offices and civil service departments. Personally I think we should knock a few of those down and build some Starbucks instead, which are far more useful. Because if you want to start your day off with a coffee then you need to do it in Trafalgar Square instead -- there's a Caffe Nero on the corner, or you can pop into the National Gallery or St. Martin's church. Try and get the window seat in Caffe Nero -- because you'll have one of the best views of Trafalgar Square.
When you're ready to go start with the statue at the top end of Whitehall. But I don't mean Nelson's Column -- I mean that equestrian statue standing fifty feet in front, on that little traffic island. That is King Charles I, one of our most useless monarchs, and the guy that Oliver Cromwell beheaded after the English Civil War (you probably didn't recognise him with his head on). I'll be saying a bit more about this doofus halfway down the street when we reach his execution site, so for now I will just give you a few little nuggets about the traffic island (I like to start with the interesting stuff!).
Note: be careful when crossing the road around here, because if you're going to get knocked down by a bike or a bus then this is where it will happen. I've been run over by all sorts down Whitehall -- I got knocked down by a pedal car once. And I got run over by a boat as well (I'm very unlucky).
Did you know that you are standing at the very centre of London? -- This is where they traditionally measure all of the distances from; from the base of that King Charles statue. But that's not the best thing about it... if you look down the Strand then you might be able to make out a big pointy monument outside Charing Cross station. That is a Victorian marker for the medieval Eleanor Cross, which used to stand on this very spot. When Edward I's queen died in 1290 he was so upset that he had her coffin parade all the way down from Lincoln to Westminster Abbey, and every time the procession stopped for a rest he'd put up an elaborate cross. So that's what the 'cross' of Charing Cross actually is -- the last resting spot before her coffin reached the Abbey. (This area used to called be the hamlet of Charing, before it got swallowed by Westminster.) Unfortunately the original cross has long since disappeared, so all we've got left is the name and that Victorian marker in the train station car park.
I've got another really interesting fact for you now... I am going to show you the first piece of pavement ever laid in London (aren't you glad you bought this book now -- I know all the best attractions!). Start walking down Whitehall and turn left into Craig's Court... or alternatively, don't. Because the pavement is not actually there anymore -- what I am actually going to show you is some modern pavement on top of the spot where the old pavement used to be. But hey, at least it's free! This is one attraction that you definitely don't have to pay for. And I happen to think that it is quite an attractive little court too. (And when you go home you can tell people you were standing on the spot of the first bit of pavement, and impress the hell out of them.)
Across the road from Craig's Court is one of the most derided pieces of architecture in Westminster. I don't understand what all the fuss is about personally, but when they put it up in 1760 the architect got an absolute roasting. I'm talking about that screen wall across the front of the Old Admiralty Building, with the two winged horses on top (opposite the Clarence pub). Do you like it? It would be preferable if you could see through it, I suppose, because it's blocking out the architecture behind. But I don't think it's that bad.
Carry on walking down Whitehall and turn left into Whitehall Place, then left again into Scotland Place. You are now standing on the site of the original Scotland Yard. Back in the old days (before James I) this is where the Scottish kings stayed when they came to see the English king at Whitehall Palace. So this was technically Scottish soil -- and apparently it still is! This is definitely the best way to visit Scotland -- because you don't actually have to go there. And it's the only place in London where someone can play the bagpipes and not get beaten up (I made that bit up).
Continue down Whitehall and you will hopefully see about a million billion tourists standing outside Horse Guards. Look for the two horse boxes out the front (if you have arrived too early or too late then the horses might be in bed -- there is a stables located in the building on the right). This is one of the most popular photo spots in London, and those poor soldiers have to stand there for six hours whilst the tourists treat them like a waxwork exhibit at Madame Tussauds. It must drive them nuts. One day I'm expecting to see one of them go berserk and slash his sword about as he gets fed up with all the people laughing at his hat. But he seems quite happy today. They are not supposed to talk or interact with anyone, but I'm sure I can see a little grin on his face as a particularly pretty bird sashays up with ten foot legs.
If you walk between the two horse boxes and into the courtyard beyond then you will see two more sentries standing off to the side. If you walk through the central arch then you will come out into Horse Guards Parade. (I've got lots more to say about Horse Guards but I've included it in a separate review, so check out my Horse Guards page for a more thorough explanation. You might also like to read my reviews of the Changing the Guard ceremony and Dismounting ceremony, because if you time your visit right then you'll be able to see some pomp and pageantry.)
Back onto Whitehall... over the road from Horse Guards is Banqueting House. This is where we encounter King Charles I again, because it was on this very spot that they chopped his head off after the English Civil War. They didn't do it in the building though -- they erected a big wooden platform in the street and did it in front of a huge crowd of Londoners. Charlie was allowed to compose himself and gather his thoughts inside Banqueting House before stepping out of a door halfway up the wall. You can't see any trace of it now unfortunately, but if you look where the entrance is today, then imagine a door on the first floor in the brown wall to the right. If you enter the building then you will see a big staircase behind -- that's where Charlie took his final steps: out of the wall and onto the stage.
If you look back over the road to Horse Guards then you will see a clock on top of the tower. Can you see a little dark mark behind the number two? That's not a speck of dirt -- they deliberately put that there to mark the hour that Charlie's clock stopped ticking.
Now take a little detour down Horse Guards Avenue (next to Banqueting House), and you will eventually come to a little garden on the left. This is Whitehall Gardens. I think it's one of the nicest little gardens around, and the buildings at the back are beautiful. It's just a shame about the traffic noise roaring down the Embankment which kind of ruins the mood.
Now exit the gardens the same way that you came in, and cross over the road to the Ministry of Defence. In the corner of the lawn you should be able to see some concrete steps leading down into nowhere. I admit that they look very bland and boring, but this is actually a rare survival from the old Whitehall Palace, which burnt down to the ground in 1698. (The biggest bit is Banqueting House, of course, and there are a few more pieces inside the various government buildings -- but they don't let the likes of you and me inside). This piece is called Queen Mary's Steps, and they were built by Christopher Wren in 1691 as a promenade along the riverfront. They give you a good idea of how wide the river used to be, because the riverbank has shifted back a long way now, by the creation of the Victoria Embankment.
Now head back to Whitehall again and find Downing Street. It wasn't so long ago that you could walk down the actual street itself, but the IRA put paid to that in the 1990s with all their mortar bombs and shootings, and Maggie Thatcher thought it prudent to stick a big barricade across the end. So all you can do now is stand outside the gate and peer over the shoulders of a big burly gun cop. What you are looking for is the big black door on the right, about halfway up the street. Number 10 is the one with an ornamental iron arch over the top with a lamplight hanging in the middle. It's not the best view in the world (you are looking at it from a very shallow angle) but it's definitely visible. If the Prime Minister came out then you would easily see him. If you are prepared to wait around long enough then you might even see them open the gate to allow the limo out. (But there's another gate at the other end of the street... so knowing your luck he'll probably drive out the other end).
Carry on walking past that big monument in the centre of the road. That's the Cenotaph, and it honours the dead from all our wars (and we've had a lot of wars). Just past that is the entrance to King Charles Street. The Foreign Office and Treasury building are situated either side, so they always have a lot of barricades and security guards around, but you are actually allowed to walk down that street if you want to (you will find the Churchill War Rooms right at the very end). It's worth a quick look because they film a lot of period dramas down there because the street looks very grand. I saw a load of stage coaches and men in top hats and tails down there once (true!)... it was like I'd entered a time bubble to Edwardian times.
Now we're coming to the end of the Whitehall, but I'll just point out the Treasury on the righthand corner. Can see the balcony on the first floor (above the central doorway)? If you wound the clock back to 1945 then you'd see Winston Churchill standing there, waving to the crowds after we won the war.
After that comes Parliament Square, and there are obviously lots of things worth seeing around here, but I have written a detailed write-up for each of them -- so check out my separate reviews for Big Ben, Parliament, Parliament Square and Westminster Abbey.
P.S.: Whilst I was sitting in Parliament Square I saw Fasail Islam from Sky News come along to do an interview. I sat there for a while listening to him blather on about the polls, and then I considered being one of those saddos who run behind the camera to get on the telly. I suppose I could have tugged his trousers down too -- that would definitely have got me on the news... or offered him one of my crisps. I could have just played it cool and asked him for directions to Big Ben, to see what he said. In the end I decided the best thing for me to do was just sit there and do nothing.
What do you think?Please leave a comment