Who amongst us would choose to visit the Strand? Assaulted by tourists at most hours and commuters and office workers at certain hours it is fairly sought after on the Monopoly board but seems to have little to offer anyone who has been there at least once, apart from its use as a thoroughfare. There are many places in London that share this characteristic – Oxford and Regent Street, Camden High Street and Trafalgar Square for instance – where one must adopt a different somewhat less relaxed attitude to walking London. Head down, one foot in front of the other, take a parallel side street if all becomes too much. Camden-ites must forgive my lumping of their NW1 home into this grouping – I am too much of an adopted south Londoner. With tourism such a defining characteristic of London it would be wrong to ignore the history, or indeed the present worth and interest that these oft-avoided parts of the city can offer. In this vein I sought to reclaim the Strand: to find interest in it and interesting features of and on it; without much more methodology in mind than looking above shopfronts and no more prior knowledge than that there were several embassies located there.
I deliberately alight my bus at the Southbank in order to cross the Thames, on foot, across Waterloo Bridge. Giving the skyline panorama information panel on the bridge more than a glancing look for the first time I notice St. Martin-in-the-Fields church spire is just visible in the far distance past the Embankment and Cleopatra’s Needle; this church overlooking Trafalgar Square being my pre-ordained end-point.
I could have wrapped-up warmer. I was soon trusting warmth to come from walking. My on-ear headphones were positioned around my neck but, I hasten to add, out of operation – their use would severely restrict one of a walkers most essential senses. In this case they served, in lieu of a scarf, to keep the collar of my jacket up against the cold.
Passing Somerset House, I head east to where Fleet Street, Chancery Lane and Strand meet, to be sure that I walk the street’s entire length. With some of King’s College buildings on my right I notice the entrance to the disused Strand Station (then of the Piccadilly Railway). I intended to look down as well as up during this exercise and could picture viscerally what was below my feet. If not sous les paves, la plage, then sous les paves, le métro désaffectée – the finest Google Translate.
Further, I smile to myself as I pass a walking tour, but I slow my pace too much and earn a disapproving look from the guide. People have clearly paid for this walk – but I haven’t. When I later pass this group again, I get a more approving look as the guide notices a camera and notebook and seems to assume I am not simply trying to mooch clearly lucrative information regarding the Anglican church of St-Dunstan-in-the-West that has over a thousand-year history – I got that much for free anyway.
St Clement Danes, church of the RAF, fronted by a grand statue of Gladstone, flanked by statues to Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding and the infamous Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris. I am ashamed to admit I once spat on his statue. A veritably rough-and-ready statue of Samuel Johnson, from 1910, is tucked away at the back of the church.
The Royal Courts of Justice, avoiding chuggers, encounters with which leave me frustrated at the state of government funding to the charity sector, frustrated at this coercive method of gaining secure donations and, at once guilty at the lengths I can go to in order to avoid these people whilst smugly proud at the occasional inventiveness of my solutions. Finally, where Strand becomes Fleet Street I rather inefficiently execute an about face and head west, ultimately, to Trafalgar Square. This spot turn is not wasteful however at is only leads to new and different perspective – and it is when I have my second encounter with that walking group.
Old parish boundaries of St. Margarets – now with public notices subtlety informing of imminent and lengthy road closures – I pass Aldwych, Kingsway and more King’s College and LSE buildings. I believed India House to be the first embassy I had come across but in truth I had missed the Australian High Commission back towards St. Clement Danes.
Onto Strand proper I realise that the scale of the buildings dictates they are best viewed from their opposite side of the road; thus, I head towards Trafalgar, whilst observing the river-side of the Strand – the etymology of Strand being from Middle English for shore. The Strand’s architecture is grand in scale, design and longevity. That is, some buildings are large, others ornate, some both, others old, more old and ornate etc.
Royal society of arts; sandwiched between and behind branches of Topshop and Bella Italia. I honestly had never considered where this Society would call its home but I realised at the time of writing that I had walked past the building countless times – only from the back. The offices my father works in being nearby, and the Royal Society of Arts being on my way from his offices, along Embankment and across Waterloo Bridge to a single bus home – tube be damned.
On the corner of Bedford Street is the clock of the Civil Service Supply Association Ltd., once the Army and Navy Supply Store. Destroyed in 1982 by fire, the clock is halted at 6.55 – the time that the fire started, perhaps. One of many innumerable myths of London. It is one of those seemingly personal links to the past that are the reward when one keeps oneself aware of the surroundings and their history. Why does the entrance road to the Savoy Hotel have cars drive on the right rather than the left? For the archaic benefit of ladies in carriages. When you feel among a minority that is aware of these objects or bygone times but persistent traditions, that alienation from the masses is dwarfed by the sense of historical privilege. Further, the useless clock stands above a watch specialists.
The main use of the Strand in history and presently is as a thoroughfare and once-upon as the resident to wealthy families. Buses may crawl painfully along, but they are there nonetheless, utilising the A4 – the far less romantic name for this stretch of road, certainly not rooted in Middle English. The Strand is not an anomaly against London’s arguable status as the most interconnected city.
At the Holborn end one can see the flashing lights of the Southbank, only a bridge crossing away – even if that crossing is less than inviting at this time of year. At Charing Cross is the cut down to Embankment station, the tube journey to which from Charing Cross is as foolish a journey as Leicester Square to Covent Garden. A cut up Southampton Street leads you to Covent Garden piazza.
This accessibility is testament to London’s interconnectedness – enumerated by Simon Pope – this place where one can walk from anywhere to almost anywhere. Be it for the simple pleasure, whether one is lost, or whether finances dictate it must be so. Whilst the journey from embankment to Charing Cross is foolish in its brevity and cost, the tube network and underground passage in general can serve to reduce that feeling of connection that one can most easily maintain with walking. Passing under urban topography is no substitute for being amongst it.
Perhaps my study proved too focussed on buildings and static, impersonal features of the Strand. One must never reduce a city only to its physical attributes at the expense of that place’s heterogenous population. Mark Twain fell into this trap when he compared Berlin with Chicago – both rather new cities in the 1890s – writing at length on the remarkably straight avenues and orderly nature of Berlin whilst leaving Berliners themselves conspicuously absent and without any individuality. i hope to have brought focus on the ‘feel’ of the city not just the city itself.
I would have rewarded the end of my walk – as well as fuelled the beginning – with a brief stopover in a pub (as much as public houses in that part of town can be called ‘pubs’ proper) but I have self-prohibited myself for the foreseeable, near, future.
What is interesting about the Strand is not what it offers in itself but what it opens up to you – theatres, centres of culture, transport, restaurants, embassies should one need them (Zimbabwe and South Africa in addition to the aforementioned). Or, less tangibly, a sense of history. One might have to seek it out and look beyond Pret, McDonald’s and Boots [above, not unlike Chinese nail houses?], but one is more often than not rewarded for the effort. Tourism might lead us to avoid certain places but it should not have us neglect them. If their history is not discovered and preserved, it will be lost. Imagine what damage developers would do to this city if left totally unregulated by the preservation of the past.