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