There is something I find immensely comforting about seeing how little London has changed over time. Despite being ravaged by ugly architecture, influxes of people, exoduses to the suburbs, fire, disease, poverty, bombings, and the relentless march of progress, it is still, and always will be, London.
It’s a city that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts, a city that has never had a heyday for today is always its heyday. London is unrepentantly modern and unabashedly old all the at the same time. Glass tower blocks jostle with medieval half timbered buildings and Georgian townhouses like rows of jagged teeth in a two thousand year old mouth.
London is a place where one really can walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before. It thrills me to be able to wait for a trundling tube train on the exact same platform as a woman alive during the reign of Queen Victoria and buy produce from a market first frequented by Romans. Two thousands years of history, not sitting in a museum (although it is there too) but right here, under our feet and above our heads. All we have to do to see it is look up.
The joy of wandering
I will always take the quieter streets, the winding alleys and hidden squares, the old churchyards and the little lanes that no one finds. This is where history often hides, sitting quietly waiting to be discovered. These wanders are my antidote to the overstimulation of modern life, the noise, the traffic, the bright lights and crowds of people. Here I find my London; my beautiful, historical, powerful, atmospheric, imperfect, city. My home.
It’s hard not to bristle when I’m asked how I can bear to live here – I could never imagine asking someone the same question of their home – but I just smile, because those people don’t know what I know; they don’t know that London has a hidden side, it has its own platform nine and three quarters. There is a secret city lying beneath the surface where only those prepared to get lost will find.
I love this city and I feel extremely fortunate to be able to live here. My love of the quieter, more gentle side of the city is what inspired me to create Conker London, my set of twelve free walking guides to London. These walks are quiet ambles, designed to give you the space and peace to really look, to learn, to photograph if you wish, and to enjoy.
How writers help us deepen our love for London
I love to read novels set in London and frequently plan expeditions to seek out the places I am drawn to in literature. It amazes me that so many of these places are still in existence and I adore being able to stand in front of a real life building I’ve discovered in a book written long ago, as if I am pulling an invisible thread back through time to the hands of an author, long since dead. It’s as if they’ve left us treasure to discover in the modern world, not locked away in an old trunk but up there, right above the pavement.
Walking through London holding a book in one’s mind is like taking a walk with a friend. Whether it’s Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s like having a personal tour guide from the past to show us the wonders this city has to offer. I love being able to sit on the exact same bench in Regent’s Park as Peter did in Mrs Dalloway, or pass by 221b Baker Street en route to Marylebone High Street. It’s thrilling to see the location of the opening court scene in Bleak House and pass the Savoy where so many of Agatha Christie’s protagonists rested their troubled heads.
Introducing Love Letters to London
It’s with this in mind I want to tell you about my new series of Bleak House Experiences. ‘Love Letters to London’ is a set of unique walks-with-lunch, inspired by writers who loved London as much as I do.
Join me as we uncover the places we find in books, the buildings, the little lanes, the shops, the parks, and the places beloved of writers. As we wander we will peel back the curtain of the 21st century to peek at the London of before that is lying quietly behind, hidden from view. We will travel back in time and tread the same footsteps as titans such as Virginia Woolf and Agatha Christie.
There is absolutely no requirement to have read any of the books the walks celebrate, but you may just be inspired to read them afterwards. More than anything, these new Experiences are a chance to have a pretty amble around London, followed by a delicious lunch, all in the company of new friends and like minded people.
I’m fascinated by the way different people navigate and cope with life in this enormous city and so on some of these walks we will be accompanied by a special guest who will be able to give us new perspectives on this city to complement those of the writer around whom each walk is based.
Next week we take possession of a dilapidated, neglected Victorian terraced house in North London and so begins a six month renovation project, during which we will be moving to the country.
Christmas shopping in London can be an enjoyable and fun adventure, far removed from the stressful crowds of Westfield or Oxford Street. You just need to know where to head for. Here are my favourite destinations.