diamond geezer

 Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Sometimes the best things to do in London are the most obvious. Taking a walk through the centre of town, for example, to admire centuries of history and architecture. So have you ever considered following the City of London Visitor Trail? Indeed, have you even heard of it?

The City of London Visitor Trail kicks off at the City Information Centre in the shadow of St Paul's. This is also the best place to discover where the City of London Visitor Trail actually goes. The trail's website is particularly reticent in this regard, trumpeting how brilliant the trail is and some of the brilliant things you can see but without telling you the route. There is a promotional video to watch, with a brief map shot you can freezeframe at 00:02, but that's not much help for wayfinding. Instead the designers' hope is that you'll be forced to pop into the City Information Centre for a leaflet where they can upsell you tickets for some of the attractions you'll pass on route. Or perhaps download their app, although it's not especially easy to multitask and navigate on the way round. But rest assured that the map does exist deep down on the website, buried in a pdf of accessibility information, in case you want to see where you're going before setting out.

The trail runs from St Paul's to Tower Bridge, and is more a path linking famous places than a rubberstamped route. At any point you can wander off into an iconic building, go sightseeing a couple of streets away or deviate into a souvenir shop. Indeed the map recommends a minimum time of 90 minutes which "includes a coffee stop", so you'll get some idea of the target audience right there. Ticking off all the sights increases the time somewhat, however, with the published assumption that going into every attraction will take two days. It'll also cost you a pretty penny. Paying to enter the big three (St Paul's, the Tower and Tower Bridge) will set you back £47.50, which must be why Londoners don't go very often. But many of the other attractions are free, and of course there's much of wonder to be seen along the way for nothing.

» St Paul's Cathedral (£16.50) Wren's masterpiece is a fascinating building to explore, from the tombs in the crypt to the galleries and balconies around the dome, but don't come on a Sunday though unless you're visiting for a service. My top skinflint tip is to wait until the day of the Lord Mayor's Show in November, when access to the ground floor and below is free. But my other tip, which works any day, is to enter the One New Change shopping mall opposite and take the public access lift to the sixth floor. The view on the way up is almost as good as the roof-height panorama when you get there... and increasingly popular with tourists in the know.
» St Mary-le-Bow (free) The church whose bells you have to be born within the sound of to be a Cockney... so that's virtually none of us, then.
» Guildhall (free) Far too few Londoners are aware of all that's on show here (for nothing) in the heart of the City. Not just the glories of the medieval great hall but a fine art gallery and the remains of a Roman Amphitheatre in the basement.
» Bank of England Museum (free) Recently reopened (this week, actually) after a three month refurb, this is the place to come to learn about the history of money, and to hold a gold bar. Warning - only open Monday to Friday (but open this year on the weekends of 5th and 12th July, 20th September and 8th November)
» St Stephen Walbrook (free) A more ordinary Wren church, this, hence still rather lovely. Again closed weekends.
» The Monument (£4) 62 metres high, and 62 meters from the source of the Great Fire of London. If you can cope with the narrow staircase, this still has one of the best views of the City (though annoyingly semi-blocked by an over-dense metal gauze)
» The Highwalk: The official trail heads down Fish Street Hill to the river, which isn't lovely, so I diverted via the walkway round the back of Pudding Lane instead. This is one of the few remaining sections of the City's Highwalk, an elevated concrete walkway once planned as the saviour of interconnectivity, now an abandoned failed experiment. Nowhere tourists ever go, except by mistake, but a fascinating deserted detour.
» The Thames: One of the finest things in the City is obviously the River Thames, so the trail includes a stretch round the back of Old Billingsgate Market. The Shard's immediately opposite, but it's the long view across the Pool of London towards Tower Bridge that has the smartphones snapping. Better still I'd accidentally timed my visit for low tide so it was possible, even inviting, to head down the steps onto exposed foreshore. I love the lower-than-usual view, and the knowledge that in a few hours this secret pebbly expanse and its ancient wooden posts will again be underwater. Check the tide tables and you too could indulge.
» All Hallows By The Tower (free) This is the church adjacent to the Tower of London - the clue's in the name - and I'd somehow never been inside before. It's impressively big inside, but the real treat is the museum in the crypt. As a big City church All Hallows has a lengthy history, and as the place of William Penn's baptism it has a strong connection to the New World. Spend awhile perusing the cases and artefacts, and enjoy the 2nd century Roman tessellated floor at the foot of the stairs. See Ian's report for more.
» The Tower of London (£22) Sheesh, is it really that expensive these days? I'll mention again that residents of Tower Hamlets get in for a quid on production of a library card, but otherwise it's probably best to admire from outside.
» Tower Bridge (£9) And finally, after 90 minutes or two days depending, to the world's most famous bridge. If you're very fortunate you'll time it for the raising of the bascules, or else pay your money and go for a walk across the top.

And if all that isn't enough, the trail map (and app) include five additional circuits allowing you to explore other areas of the City thematically. If you have kids, there's even a special children's trail to collect which comes with free stickers in the leaflet. And if all that's too much, simply treat today's post as a reminder that sometimes it's good simply to walk around the City and explore - this square mile's packed.

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