diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 29, 2012

WALK LONDON: Walk Out To Winter (Sat 28 & Sun 29 Jan)
Paved With Gold (1½ miles)

Three times a year, Walk London organise a weekend of walks across the capital. This is one of those weekends, with fifty perambulations up for grabs, each led by an expert guide, and each free of charge. Here's a report of the walk I went on yesterday...

Not a bad turnout, I thought. A hundred people turned up outside Sloane Square station yesterday morning, each keen to wander the streets of Belgravia and discover more about the rich folk who live(d) here. There being so many of us we were split into two tours, each under the tutelage of a separate leader. My half's guide was Stephanie, who used to be an elephant-keeper at London Zoo, and was therefore highly adept at keeping a large group of wanderers under control. She does this for a living, working for the excellent London Walks, and we were to follow a route that usually costs punters eight quid. Bargain.

We headed first for the Pimlico Road, home to an upmarket agglomeration of designer boutiques. When the moneyed classes of Belgravia fancy a new bathroom, or silver candlestick or floral print handbag, how fortunate that so many local businesses are falling over themselves to offer such services. Viscount Linley runs a bespoke furniture store at the foot of Passmore Street, not especially busy with punters, but then I guess it only takes one sale to rack up a hefty profit. Stephanie paused us in Bunhouse Place because here's where the original Chelsea buns were baked, and to point out the Peabody homes where many Victorian servants hereabouts rented an apartment. Workers often needed to live somewhere close to their masters, for example all those humble mews houses which now sell for a million plus, tucked round the back of the larger villas.

The famous residents and ex-residents came thick and fast. Mozart lived in Ebury Street, only for a brief stay, and only as a young child, but long enough for him to compose his first two symphonies. Round the corner, in Belgravia proper, Noel Coward was bombed out of his home and went to stay at the Savoy. That, said Stephanie once we reached Chester Square, is where Andrew Lloyd Webber now lives, a few doors down from Mary Shelley's old place. She wouldn't take us over to the townhouse at number seventy-something, the one with a 24 hour police guard on the doorstep, but yes, blimey, that's where Margaret Thatcher lives out her remaining days. Surprisingly close to Victoria station, her gaff, but tucked away in a secluded spot overlooking private gardens, and offering precious anonymity.

All of the houses in Belgravia are of a similar type, having been built at the same time, and still being under the control of the Grosvenor Estate. Four-or-five storey terraced townhouses, each redbrick underneath but plastered in stucco, and a requirement in the lease to paint the front every few years in the regulation magnolia. He's a tough landlord, the Duke of Westminster, but numerous super-rich foreign millionaires flock to buy his property and help to top up his personal fortune still further. When he's in town he lives in an apartment in Eaton Square, one of London's largest residential squares - broad and very long, and set around grand communal gardens. Meanwhile close by is the house where all the external scenes of the original Upstairs Downstairs were filmed - 165 Eaton Place in the series, but 65 in real life. [photo]

Where the identikit buildings stop, the Cadogan Estate begins. This is a bit nearer to Knightsbridge, a little busier with people, but still an insanely desirable place to live. A Bentley parked up beside a Range Rover beside a Mini, that's the sort of roadside combination that's normal here, and a personalised numberplate often de rigeur. We turned off down a narrow mews beside the Prince of Wales' dry cleaners to see the anonymousflat where Judy Garland committed suicide [photo]. And finally to the hotel where Oscar Wilde unwisely turned himself over to the police, and where mistress Lillie Langtry had rooms. Here Stephanie bade us farewell - I suspect thirty minutes short of the tour she normally provides, but then it was damned cold, and we'd paid her no more than thanks. The entire walk runs next on March 10th, should you be interested, because you get so much more out of a Belgravia stroll with an expert to guide you.

If you're interested in one of today's free walks, good luck. You'll have to dig your way through this user-unfriendly database, which lists each walk separately beneath a not-especially informative header. The Walk London website used to display these special walking weekends so much more practically, via an appropriately detailed one-page overview, but I can only assume the project has had its budget cut substantially so can no longer afford a bespoke coding solution. Anyway, I've dug around and can tell you that two thirds of the weekend's walks are merely short strolls in the heart of town, many of them repurposed Walk London walks. They'll be good, but if you fancy something longer and healthier then today's only options are Capital Ring section 12, the Thames round Richmond, a short trek across Epping Forest and half of the Regent's Canal. Walk out to winter - your mind and body will thank you for it.

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