Wednesday 22 May 2013

London Cab Tours with Graham Greenglass

Nothing epitomises London more than a traditional London black cab. With its unique and iconic design, there is something very special about hailing a black cab, climbing into the spacious, comfy back seat (or one of the funny little fold-down seats) and letting your knowledgeable cabbie drive you expertly to your destination. Or in this instance, take you on an educational and informative tour around the streets of the best city in the world. Last week I was lucky enough to spend 2 hours with London taxi driver, Graham Greenglass, who is not only a licensed cabbie and a fellow proud Londoner, he also has a BA.Hons in history and he certainly knows his stuff! When he's not picking up and dropping off passengers across the Capital, Graham runs his brilliant London Cab Tours which he started in 2001.

I felt honoured when Graham contacted me a few months ago, asking if he could take me on a personal tour of London, in exchange for a mention on Miss Immy's London. I didn't hesitate to accept his offer, and last week, we were off. Already having a pretty comprehensive knowledge of London's obvious landmarks, I decided to experience one of Graham's more unusual tour options. The London Horror Tour: A Way of Death. He collected me outside Charing Cross Station and we were soon on our way to Charterhouse Square in EC1. We went via Lower Robert Street, WC2 which is one of London's 'secret streets' and a favourite shortcut for taxi drivers.

With its cobbled streets and tranquil setting, Charterhouse Square is a pretty area dominated by Charterhouse Priory which is the site upon which Sutton's Hospital was acquired in the 14th Century as a burial ground for the victims of the Black Plague. In fact, earlier this year, excavations for the London Crossrail Project unearthed 13 bodies on the edge of Charterhouse Square, believed to date from the time of the Black Plague. On another gruesome note, a Catholic Priest called St John Houghton joined the London Charterhouse Priory in 1515 but was the first member of his Order to die as a Martyr for acts of treason. He was arrested by Thomas Cromwell, and was hung, drawn and quartered. After his death, his body was chopped to pieces and parts were hung around various parts of London. His arm was attached to the main door of the Charterhouse Priory. Lovely!

Next stop was the 'Church of St Bart's The Great' around the corner in West Smithfield. I've often walked along here and past this pretty Church entrance, but never realised just how steeped in history it is. The graveyard is a perfect example of the 'stacking' system where due to the excessive number of bodies from the Great Fire, Black Plague and general trend for executions in that area (Henry VIII was especially partial to execution by boiling!), graveyards would fill up quickly so instead of being buried, corpses were covered in soil and layered on top of one another, creating the stacking effect. So if you stumble upon a graveyard made up of various levels, you know what lies beneath.  West Smithfield had a long, bloody history of hosting public burnings and executions, including the famous Scot, William Wallace who was executed here in 1305 and you can see his memorial plaque there today. Fortunately these days, West Smithfield is more renown for its legendary meat market rather than its executions. Which I guess still involves blood and slaughter (sorry vegetarians). Hmm, moving on...

Another fascinating place Graham introduced me to, is Postman's Park in the City, just a short stroll from St Paul's Cathedral. It opened in 1880 on the former Churchyard and burial ground of St Botolph's Aldergate Church and again used the grave stacking system, hence it is noticeably and significantly elevated above the surrounding streets. Postman's Park got its name as a reflection of its popularity with workers from the nearby GPO Headquarters. 

But the nicest thing to me about this park, is the G. F. Watts memorial wall. Created in 1900 by the Victorian artist, George Frederic Watts, this is a memorial to heroic self-sacrifice. Numerous hand-painted plaques remembering ordinary everyday heroes who gave their lives by saving others and who may otherwise have been forgotten.

Just across the road are the ruins of Christ Church Greyfriars which sadly perished in the Great Fire of 1666 and was rebuilt, but then largely destroyed in the Second World War. It is now a public garden. Various royals were buried in the grounds of Christ Church, including Isabella of France (sometimes referred to as the She-Wolf of France), the wife of King Edward II who was buried here in 1358. Almost 200 years later, a Lady Agnes Hungerford apparently killed her husband and is thought to have been buried at Christ Church too, although this is unconfirmed and unlikely as she wasn't royal or titled, just a commoner. Anyway, her ghost is known as Alice Hungerford and it is thought that during Victorian times, night watchmen often came across the ghosts of both Alice Hungerford and Queen Isabella feuding in the burial grounds. Who knows if it's true or not, but I like the idea of a couple of historical female ghosts having a territorial bitch fight and scaring the locals!

The above is just a nutshell account of what I learnt from my fascinating tour with Graham. I could go on for hours, but I think you'd be better off booking yourself a London Cab Tour so you can see and hear it all first-hand. Graham will point out Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare's favourite hangouts; show you where Jack the Ripper carried out his gory murders; take you to the place where John Lennon met Yoko Ono, and that famous Beatles zebra crossing. He'll drive you into the heart of Lincoln's Inn Fields and can even show you Ziggy Stardust's famous plaque. Or just take you on a tour of all the London greats including Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and the Royal Albert Hall. You name it and Graham will take you there. He is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide and a true London ambassador. If history classes had been that interesting at school, I would have probably got a BA. Hon degree too! So whether you want to treat yourself or take a few friends on a magical mystery or history tour, I highly recommend you try one of Graham's tours. Just tell him Miss Immy sent you!

Miss Immy was a guest of London Cab Tours

London Cab Tours by Graham Greenglass
Tel: +44 (0)7956 141 733

Tours range from 2 - 3 hours, half days or full days
Prices start from £95 (up to 5 passengers) payable by cash or card on the day

Thursday 9 May 2013

The View From The Shard

Being a South East London resident, I've watched with huge interest and intrigue over the past few years as The Shard has lovingly grown from a twinkle in the architect's eye, to the magnificent structure it is today. Erected in 3 short years, construction started in March 2009 and was completed in March 2012, which is pretty impressive. Dominating the London skyline, The Shard is a 72 storey glass skyscraper which was built on the site of the demolished London Bridge Tower. Designed by Master Architect, Renzo Piano (who also designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris), it is called The Shard due to its 'shard of glass' design and structure. It was inaugurated on 5th July 2012 when hundreds of people gathered to watch a lightshow as The Shard was illuminated in an array of colour and light beams. It was only opened to the public on 1st Feb 2013 so it's still very new, shiny and undiscovered.

As a regular commuter from London Bridge station where The Shard is based, I've witnessed its creation as it has teasingly loomed ever higher by the day. Now complete, it is 1,016 feet (310m) tall which makes it the tallest building in Western Europe. Watching its gradual exterior construction from afar was one thing, but like everyone, I was longing for it to be finished so I could get a chance to experience the view from inside The Shard. Well that chance became a reality yesterday when I took my very pregnant bump for a special trip up to The View from The Shard. It was amazing! And luckily baby didn't come early (although giving birth to the first Shard baby would have been very memorable).

The View is a highly efficient, luxurious, state of the art experience. The staff are super friendly, knowledgeable and helpful and definitely made the experience even more fantastic. Once you've purchased your ticket and gone through an airline-style security system, you take two high-speed 'kaleidescope' lifts - dazzling images surround you as you ascend to level 68 in a matter of seconds. Very speedy, and apart from a bit of ear-popping, you won't feel a thing. You then take one flight of steps to level 69 where you'll get your first glimpse of the breathtaking view. 'Wow' doesn't even begin to describe it! With an incredible 360 degree view of the cityscape, it really is quite fantastic looking out over 40 miles of stretching scenery. London and beyond in all its glory spread out before your very eyes. You can see absolutely everything from up here, including Wembley Stadium, Battersea Power Station, Borough Market, Crystal Palace, Canary Wharf, St Paul's Cathedral, BT Tower and Greenwich. With a beady eye (or even the help of one of the many telescopes on offer), you can probably see the ends of the earth on a good day.

Then you ascend a final 3 floors to level 72 which is the highest level available. You're standing at a height of 800 feet (244m). Even though it's only 3 floors up, the feeling is quite different. For a start, this floor is exposed to the elements as you find yourself gazing up at the actual 'shards' of glass above your head which form the top of the building. It's a strange and wonderful perspective looking down on London from above. Ant-like people scurrying along the bridges and streets. The tiny trains pulling out of London Bridge station. Miniature boats chugging along the Thames. Everything looks so small and vulnerable. Up here you feel almost invincible. A strange sense of peace.

Tickets are expensive, but this isn't any old London attraction. The View is definitely worth it as you're not rushed (there's no time limit to how long you spend up there) so you can enjoy the experience at your own leisure with no queuing or overcrowding. You can also buy gift certificates, so if you want to treat someone to something special, this is a great present. My advice would be to go later in the day so you can enjoy both day and night views. I went during the day which was brilliant, and I can only imagine how stunning watching the sunset from The View would be like. I'll have to return with my little one and witness a sunset sometime. Apart from The View, The Shard is also going to comprise smart offices, a shopping complex, lovely restaurants, luxury private apartments and a top notch 5* Shangri-La hotel, all due to open later this year.

And here's a nice little story. During construction in 2011 a fox (later named Romeo) was found living up the Shard. The cheeky chap found his way all the way up to the top and spent several days up there living off construction workers' scraps. He was soon rescued and returned to ground level safety but has left his mark as a bit of a Shard mascot. Cuddly fox toys can even be found in The Shard gift shop in his honour!

I love The Shard and think it's an absolute must for locals and visitors alike. Admire it from afar, then go and experience The View. You won't be disappointed. I reckon even vertigo-sufferers could be transformed, it's that good! And I'm very much looking forward to going for cocktails at the Shangri-La when it opens.

Miss Immy was a guest of The View from The Shard

The View from The Shard
London Bridge, SE1

Open 09h00 - 22h00 daily (except Christmas Day) Last entry 9pm

Advance tickets available online here or telephone 0844 499 7111

£24.95 adult (advance booking)
£18.95 child (advance booking)

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