What to do if you think you’ve seen it all (in London)

London Redux – 1 week in the capital – Things to do that are not the Tower, Big Ben, or a museum

With my family off to see the Tower of London, I embarked on a mystery photography tour of London’s old city conducted by Hairy Goat Photography Tours and Adventure. As a buddy digital photographer, I was eager to improve my photography skills with my Nikon D5200 (and some lenses) and also visit a less touristy – but no less history-rich – section of London.

I met our tour guide and fellow tour-ees by the Bank of England, just a few steps outside the aptly named Bank Tube stop. We started with a quick history of the area, going way, way back, way back like to the Romans, then the Medieval markets, into the 1700s and shipping and colonialism, to the Victorian era and into the modern age. We started in this area, taking photographs of the thick, spiked vine of the wrought iron railings, the bank clocks, and the people going to and fro from work.

Then, we wandered over to a little hidden park with Gothic-style church benches under trees. This was the former site of St. Pancras Church, which burnt down, like many other things, in 1666. Now, some gems were the formation of the church benches and the somewhat whimsical carvings. Nearby was a glass wall that almost reflected the building perfectly. We ducked into a more modern building, which was pretty ugly on the exterior but interesting in the courtyard area. Blue walls led up to neon-coloured window sills. The angles were awesome!

From there, we peered into one of the most fascinating places yet – the narrow alleys and passages between Cornhill, Lombard, and Gracechurch Streets. Nestled in there was the Jamaica Wine House, a fascinating old pub with a history dating back to 1652. I had to read section of Pepys’s diary in high school for Brit Lit, and he happened to be one of the patrons here ages ago. It was the oldest coffeehouse in London, a hub of intellectualism and chat.

The alleys of Bell Inn Yard had some of London’s oldest and most interesting pubs. Whilst the courtyards and pedestrian streets go back to the medieval era, it has more of a Victorian vibe now, in my opinion. One area took me back right to the 19th century, almost as if Dickens was going to come striding around the corner any minute. It’s easy to understand how he was inspired to write some his most notable works from these dark and shadowy paths.

We stopped into Church of St. Stephen Walbrook, one of the smaller Christopher Wren churches in this area. A choir was practicing under the rotunda. We were able to catch reflective pictures in the golden chandeliers. I captured shadows on the organ keys. It’s a beautiful church, as were several churches in this area designed by Wren, and they are generally supported by hosting concerts and other ticketed-activities or cafes. If it’s not through church-goers’ donations, at least the churches were still being preserved for the future.

After the church and gorgeous alleys, we practiced more with taking architectural detail shots. Corners of buildings, old signage, and pipes became interesting details to capture. We were led into the stunning Leadenhall Market, with its Victorian colours and arches and historical markers. There has been a market on this spot since the 14th century, but it was remodeled in 1881. The old meat and cheese hooks were still lining the walls in a macabre reminder of the carcasses that used to be there. Now, fashionable cafes and shops were tucked inside, with seating spilling out into the cobbled walkways. Now, imagine the butchered bodies of cow, pigs, chickens, fish … all hanging above your flat white and artisanal bread sandwich. Ah, history!

Once we popped out of Leadenhall, I was taken aback by the ultra-modern “inside-out” concept of the Lloyd’s Building. The elevators looked like something from a space-age film. Thick pipes snaked around the exterior. Across the street was a full-mirrored reflection of all the odds and bits of the Lloyd’s Building. If I had just come out of the Victorian age in Leadenhall, I had now entered a steampunk novel. However, the Lloyd’s Building was a photographer’s dreamscape of possibilities.

More contrast opportunities presented themselves when looking at reflections in the Gherkin and the 20 Fenchurch Street (Walkie-Talkie Building). I also enjoyed how the Cheese Grater Building (I love the names of skyscrapers in London!) seemed to have taken on much more shape than last summer. The mix of the very old and the very modern in this area of London made for a really enjoyable tour and presented great photographic opportunities.

The Hairy Goat tour guides were absolutely wonderful. They were knowledgeable, friendly, and extremely helpful – gaving us tips on what to look for and how to adjust our manual settings to get the best picture. So many of these contrasts – or tiny details – I would have missed save for them. Take the photography mystery tour – you never know where you’ll end up as they take the tours to new locations and different paths each time. My only regret was not having enough time to take another tour with them, such as the night photography lesson tour. It’s another area where I really want to develop my digital photography skills.

We parted ways here, near St. Michael Cornhill, and I stepped up to the old “Wren-ish” church just for a bit, loving the stone details around the exterior. From there, I took a nice, strident walk past the Walkie-Talkie Building and toward the aptly-named Hung, Drawn and Quartered Pub near the Tower of London, where I would meet my family for lunch. Nothing like a pie and ale sampler to complement the day!

After lunch, my sister and I returned to the Jamaica Wine Inn for drinks. We sat by the old coffee machine in the window, enjoying the quiet and solitude before the post-work crowd showed up and filled the place.

All in all, I was able to discover new places in London I’d never have seen otherwise – and I was glad to have picked up photography tips along the way.


Another unconventional stop I dragged everyone along to was to the John Snow Pub in Soho.

Why the John Snow?

A course I taught last year was on epidemics and pandemics as changers of society. To prepare for teaching this, as I was no epidemiologist, I took an online course through Coursera first and also read a book called The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson. The cholera epidemic of 1854 killed hundreds of people in only a few days in the Soho neighborhood. John Snow, epidemiologist, sorted out, through extensive investigations, that cholera was not miasmic (as was the common belief) and was instead waterborne. Along with Reverend Henry Whitehead, a vicar in this poor, neglected area of London, he pieced together the ghost map of cholera deaths. John Snow got the water pump handle taken off at Broad Street – the ground zero of the epidemic – and thus, people wouldn’t continue to drink the water that was making them ill.

Their efforts and research saved many, many lives. The local pub was then renamed The John Snow in his honor.

I wanted to visit the Broad Street Pump memorial and the John Snow Pub whilst in London this time around. My sister and I looked for the pump, as it ought to be hard to miss. We walked around for about ten minutes, trying to sort out where this pump should be. Finally, we consulted pictures, and judging by the angle of the shot, we should have been standing right on it, looking at the pub.

I looked up the pump again and read that, on the Atlas Obscura site, the pump had been removed two years ago due to construction in the area. Bummer! Thank you, Atlas Obscura, for your weird, wonderful, and up-to-date information!

However, that didn’t stop us from having a pint or two in the John Snow. There were old newspaper headlines from the cholera outbreak and pictures of John Snow and Henry Whitehead. I supposed that was as close to the history as I would get at that time.

Yes, history. It makes me go all brain-tingly sometimes.

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