A London Lies Beneath guided London Walk
from Trafalgar Square to East Street Market
The celebrate the publication of London Lies Beneath, Stella Duffy takes us on a guided London walk from Trafalgar Square to East Street Market…
The first chapter of London Lies Beneath is a speedy spin through the beginnings of London, from swamp to town to city, and then we are with the three young boys whose enthusiasm, headlong passion for life, and hope of a better future are the core of the story. To guide the reader who may not know south London as well as they do the tourist points, Tom, Jimmy and Itzhak run us from Trafalgar Square to their home in the Elephant and Castle. The boys run it, but you can probably do it in an hour or two, depending on your pace and how long you linger over the views.
Start at Trafalgar Square. If you are a visitor to London you might want to touch all of the lions’ paws around Nelson’s Column as the boys do – just to ensure you come back. (I made that up, but I’ve been telling people it’s a real superstition for years, long before writing this book, and they all believed me, so perhaps it’s true …)
Cross to the Strand and head east. If you walk on the left hand pavement, you’ll come to a line of old red telephone boxes. These are almost a tourist attraction themselves now, and were originally designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott – who also designed the Waterloo Bridge you’ll soon cross, and the statue of the weeping Scout that features in the book.
On the other side of the road you’ll see the Eleanor Cross outside Charing Cross station, the boys would have run past this cross – restored in their time, and restored again this century. On either side of the Strand there are narrow alleys, some looking south and offering a glimpse of the river, others heading up to Covent Garden via offices and pubs.
Like the boys you could choose to go around St Mary le Strand, if you do, make sure to look in to the courtyard of Somerset House – none of it open to the public in the boys’ time – or turn straight on to Waterloo Bridge. Not the bridge the boys would have known, this one was built during WW2 and I’ve been told many times, though with no definite source for the story, that it was also called the “Ladies Bridge” because the builders were mostly women – which makes sense given the wartime construction and lack of (actual) manpower available.
Stop halfway across the bridge and look at what I believe is the best view in London, the bends of the river are clear and the skyline constantly changing. So many of the docks the boys would have known here in the heart of London were bombed during WW2, and much of what you see has changed enormously in the past century, even in the past twenty years – but they would have seen St Paul’s to the east and the Houses of Parliament to the west, and they would have known that this bridge was leading them home – heading south.
When you get to the south side of the river, take the steps down to the embankment and stand alongside the Thames. The ship the boys take in the book, the Arethusa, left from Waterloo Dock – I’m not entirely sure where it would have been in relation to the new bridge, but the Thames is still tidal and flows fast from here to the sea.
Heading on further south, you’ll see the old Royal Waterloo Hospital for Children and Women on your left and to your right – behind hoardings and building works and buses – the façade of Waterloo Station, a little further on your left St John’s Church which these days does a huge amount of work for and with the homeless community. Head straight along Waterloo Road and pass the LCC Fire Station (now a bar) which will have been new to the boys, and the Old Vic on your left. Go past the Old Vic and straight down to St George’s Circus where you will come to the obelisk the boys are sure they remember seeing when they were very small. By the time the book opens in 1912, the obelisk had been removed and replaced with a clock tower, the one you see now is the original, returned in the 1990s.
Walk down London Road and you’re coming much closer to home for this novel (and for me), the ox-blood red tiles and arches of Elephant and Castle Station common to the many early tube station facades, designed by architect Leslie Green. The new road layout at the Elephant and Castle is still confusing to some drivers, so cross carefully here. Your aim is to head to the other side of the silver box Farraday Memorial, designed by Rodney Gordon – and commemorating the locally born scientist. If you stand outside the shopping centre, you’ll have a good view of the front of Metropolitan Tabernacle (buses and trucks notwithstanding) – known locally as Spurgeon’s Tabernacle, in honour of the preacher who led the congregation there for 38 years, attracting both genuine worshippers and those who were such fans of his style that they made the great trek and crossed the river to hear him.
Head down Walworth Road, past the massive redevelopment of the Heygate Estate – a site of serious local concern about gentrification. The grand Borough New Synagogue that Itzhak’s family attend on Heygate Street, and the attached school he later goes to, were gone long before the 1970s estate was built.
The Cuming Museum, which opened in 1906 suffered a serious fire in 2013, and sadly it is closed to the public at the moment. It was here that I had the great good fortune to access some of Edward Lovett’s collection and realised that the charms and folklore he collected could twist into the story I wanted to write about these families.
Turn the corner on your left and you’re on Larcom Street, our boys are home. The blue plaque to mathematician and inventor Babbage reminds us that redevelopment of this area has never stopped – the house that Babbage was born in was destroyed when Larcom Street was built.
The best thing you can possibly do now is cross the road a little further south to Arif Bakery for a slice of perfect spinach pie. Once refuelled, keep on a few minutes more to East Street Market, still known as East Lane to many older locals – where Jimmy’s father Charlie and Tom’s mother Ida have their stalls, marked with a plaque to another local boy, Charlie Chaplin.
From here, if you want more, you can either head right up to Nunhead Cemetery – which you might want to do after you’ve read the book – the 343 bus will take you all the way from East Street. If you happen to have read my other south London novel The Room of Lost Things, you could get a 35 or 45, either of which will take you through Robert’s Loughborough Junction to Brixton tube.
When you’re on the bus, turn off your phone, put down your book, and look out of the window – these streets have been full of life for centuries, they are stories, layered. I think they want us to read them.
London Lies Beneath publishes 27/10/2016. Get your copy here.