I ascend from the evening rush of the London Underground into a dark, warm evening, and, like any disoriented traveller, I pull out a map. Here I am at Victoria Station, a splash of pale red on a salmon-pink background, the name etched in wobbly handwriting. “Can I help ya at all?” asks a com-muter, over honks and the grind of bus engines. I want Rubens Hotel, near Buckingham Palace – is it a right turn? I point to my map and the Londoner does a double take: “What’s that, then?” A map of London, I say, straight-faced, unfurling the four-by-three-foot tract. “Are you havin’ a laugh?” he snorts, and turns away.
I am, in fact: it’s a vintage 1891 map of London. When I first unearthed one of these, at my favourite old-book haunt back home in Canada, it made the quest of my next trip to London clear. I would see what I could learn about the city as it is today, at a time when the Olympics are about to descend on the regenerated East End (a former industrial wasteland that is literally off my Victorian map), by viewing it through layers of history.
I find the location of my hotel, on Buckingham Palace Road, just a few blocks away. Walking there, I try to imagine these busy streets in Victorian times. The reign of Queen Victoria (from 1837 until her death in 1901) was a time of growth, peace, wealth and much building in London. By 1891, Victoria was already a longtime widow and much-beloved queen. This was the time of Dickens and Darwin, and the first World’s Fair. (This year is the bicentenary of Dickens’s birth – see dickens2012.org for details on exhibits, performances, festivals and activities around London.) Many iconic London landmarks, including the Houses of Parliament, Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria Embankment promenade, were built during this era, along with much of
the invisible infrastructure – subway lines and water, gas and sewage systems – that still exists today.
If this were 1891, I would be a high-society girl returning home after a glittering evening at an aristocratic ball: what is now Rubens Hotel was built in 1882 to house debutantes. Feeling decidedly unglamorous after my long flight, I retire early: I have a morning meeting with my very own Blue Badge guide, the elite rank of tourist guides responsible for this summer’s Olympic walking tours and other “official” tours of London, such as visits to the Houses of Parliament. (Anyone can book a Blue Badge guide almost anywhere in Britain, through touristguides.org.uk.)
In the morning, I recognize Sophie Campbell by her bright red scarf and sturdy boots. “Are you ready for some walking?” she asks brightly, intrigued by my old map quest. She suggests we start here, in the City of Westminster, the central borough that encompasses Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s office and residence. Strolling Buckingham Palace Road, we pass the Royal Mews, where the Queen’s horses are kept, and the nondescript, unmarked door that is actually the prestigious ambassador’s entrance. After a few minutes, we stop in front of the familiar, white-columned facade of Buckingham Palace, where the statue atop the Victoria Memorial glitters in the sun. I glance at my 1891 map, confused. On it, The Mall is nothing but a narrow green-lined park lane, not the regal, red-surfaced road it is today. There is no roundabout in front of the palace, circling the golden statue. The boulevard, traffic circle and memorial were erected in 1911, Campbell tells me, a decade after Victoria’s death.
We walk down The Mall, and she points out a nondescript building on our left, behind the walls of the palace complex. Its small, dark brown bricks belie its Tudor heritage. “That’s St. James’s Palace, built by Henry VIII,” says Campbell. Once the home of monarchs, it lost its lustre when Victoria became queen and moved to then-Buckingham House. She points out Friary Court in the courtyard at St. James’s Palace, where new monarchs have always been announced. Nearby is stately white Clarence House, in my map’s era the home of Victoria’s son, Alfred, and today the home of another royal son, Prince Charles, and his wife Camilla.
As we continue along The Mall toward Charing Cross tube station, Campbell points behind us, to the Horse Guards Parade on the northeastern corner of St. James’s Park. In Victoria’s time and for more than two centuries before, royal ceremonies, including the annual Trooping of the Colour on the monarch’s birthday, have been celebrated here. This summer, it will be covered with sand for beach volleyball during the Olympics, which delights some and causes traditionalists to frown. These landmarks are all on my Victorian grid, but their uses, and importance, have changed dramatically since 1891.
Just a few Tube stops to the east, but a world away from the genteel Westminster area, we emerge in the ancient City of London. Campbell points to a jagged red line on my map – the border of the City and roughly the footprint of the Roman settlement that founded London. (You can still see a bit of the Roman wall just outside Tower Hill Tube station.) This was the original port of London and its first and current financial centre. Bankers in perfectly tailored dark suits walk briskly past, nimbly dodging the black Hansom cabs that zip through the narrow streets.
As we walk down Eastcheap Street, Campbell points out Pudding Lane, where the great fire of 1666 started, devastating the oldest part of London. By 1891, the time of my map, the affluent had long since moved away from the burned city core, creating stately homes and pleasure gardens to the west. I’d always wondered why the lively theatre and tourist district of London was known as the West End, even though it’s quite central in the modern metropolis: it’s because it’s west of The City.
We head to the West End next, to a Victorian landmark made lively again today. Just a few short years before Victoria took the throne, Covent Garden was a notorious red-light district. Transformed by the addition of stately new buildings in the Victorian era, it became as popular a market area as it is today. Under the arched-iron ribs and glass roofs of the century-old (restored in the 1980s) food halls is a modern shopping centre, now swirling with tourists and shoppers carrying lattes and fashionable totes from boutiques such as L’Occitane.
We duck into the old floral hall, now the London Transport Museum. Here I learn about the infrastructure underpinnings of Victorian London. By the time my map was drawn, trains were replacing horse-drawn carriages and many of the major Underground lines still in use today had recently been built. The well-known streets of this district would have been just a few years old at that time. Planners had carved new streets into the existing grid to relieve traffic congestion (already a problem in Victorian times!) and to break up some of the most overpopulated and unsanitary neighbourhoods, which had become slums due to overcrowding.
When we emerge from the museum, I say goodbye to Campbell, who has taught me more in a half-day than I’ve learned on all my previous trips to London. I pull out my trusty Victorian map and wend my way up Charing Cross Road, across Shaftesbury Avenue and then up Regent Street. With just my old map to guide me, I discover some off-the-beaten-path spots. While meandering northeast to the British Museum, another great Victorian building, I come across a shop that ladies and gents of the time might have visited. “James Smith and Sons Established 1830,” the old-fashioned lettering on the flatiron-shaped storefront proudly declares. The store, which relocated here to New Oxford Street in 1857, still makes some of its umbrellas and walking sticks right in the basement, as they would have in 1891. I wander into a tiny, ancient-looking courtyard tagged Pied Bull Yard on my map. Today, it’s a tiny oasis of calm, just a block away from the tourist hordes, where diners sip on the patio of Truckles wine bar. Enjoying the quiet of this spot hidden from modern life, I feel as if we’re all sharing in a century-old secret.
The next day, as I wheel my little suitcase across Green Park on my way to the tony Mayfair district, I remember what Campbell told me about Victorian green spaces. They were private, largely closed to everyone except royals, who used them for hunting. I approach Hyde Park Corner, where the noblest Victorian stomping ground used to be – Rotten Row (slang for the French rue de roi, or “road of kings”), a kilometre-long track running west from Hyde Park Corner to Serpentine Road. When my map was published, Rotten Row was the place for upper-class Londoners to see and be seen, promenading in horse-drawn carriages and their best finery. Today, the Row is nothing but a wide, sandy path along the south side of Hyde Park, but the place to see and be seen still exists, right across the street: the Metropolitan hotel, where I’m checking in. It’s around noon, and beautifully dressed men and women are streaming into Nobu, the hotel’s posh in-house sushi joint, for lunch.
After dropping off my bag, I head out again, this time southeast, toward the River Thames, to investigate one final curiosity from my map. Just where the river elbows south, on the west bank, there is a large black hexagon labelled Millbank Prison. In Victorian times, convicts were held here before being shipped off to Australia. The year before my map was drawn, it was shuttered completely, having been tarnished by epidemics and overcrowding.
Today, it’s a totally different scene. Colourful banners flap in the breeze promoting the Tate Britain, the respected museum that occupies an 1897 building on the same site. Students with hip, chunky eyeglasses, likely from the neighbouring Chelsea College of Art & Design, stroll the nearby streets. In the water, a sleek Thames Clippers ferry, the so-called Tate to Tate Boat, takes visitors up and east on the Thames to the Tate Modern, London’s hulking museum of modern art. In less than 15 minutes’ time, you can make the journey from this spot, one-time site of a Victorian prison, to the bustling centre of all that is modern – including the giant London Eye
Ferris wheel and sleek Millennium Bridge. It’s a journey that is a metaphor for this city itself, where the past is never far behind you.