Has strong claims to be among the best guidebooks ever written. SUNDAY TELEGRAPH
It is surely remarkable to write of a guidebook that is difficult to put down. But it is certainly true of this one. ECONOMIST
Both of the above are – of course! – completely true. We endorse them wholeheartedly. David Piper’s original Guide was a masterpiece that, in the hands of Fionnuala Jervis, found the perfect person to bring it up to date.
This edition was published in 2000 so, we must admit, is not entirely up-to-date any longer. Anyone who has counted the dark shapes of construction cranes on the London skyline will know how quickly the city changes. Its history, its heart, its bustle persist but, even before the pandemic, if you’d not visited your favourite restaurant for a while it was best to phone ahead to avoid hungry disappointment as it might now be a gallery or a micro-brewery or a mini budget hotel.
That said, this Guide is in many ways timeless: much of what it discusses remains in place, the rest lives on in our memories and imagination.
On Tower Green at the Tower of London:
On the left indeed is a marvellous piece of grass, Tower Green, between the pretty late perpendicular flank of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the north end and the inner façade of the Queen’s House at the south; it looks at first most restfully picturesque, timber-framing giving way to seventeenth-century prime brick, like an extract from a cathedral precinct, with a dapple of light and translucent green. But part of this is the old burial ground; under it still lie perhaps the chopped bodies, and Macaulay said of it that there “was no sadder place on earth”.
Chapter Two, The Tower and Tower Hill, p. 30.
Take any of the three famous culinary streets that run parallel northwards, Dean, Frith or Greek, and you are at once in another country. Most noticeable first is perhaps the scale, for Soho’s unit is still that of the two or three bay, three or four storey, dwelling house, very astonishing to find at the centre of a great capital city, and still reflecting the original lay-out of the area mostly in the 1680s, though the fabric is predominantly eighteenth century or early nineteenth. At the first crossing (Romily Street) pause and look up, left: do this preferably (perhaps before or after eating at Kettner’s, founded in 1868, where though in culinary respects it is now devoted to the pizza and the hamburger, champagne is still dispensed in quantities, to the sound of a cocktail piano) in a warm hazy London dusk when the sky is green, and against it the weird tower of St Anne’s of Soho makes its hauntingly exotic silhouette, almost Russian, bulbous under its dark lead spire.
Chapter Four, Leicester Square and Soho, p. 56.
On Westminster Abbey:
I wonder how many of the thousands who visit think of the church as still active. The great ceremonies of state, of course, are known to the nation via television even if few are privileged to go in person; but the church is also daily alive with prayer and song. Its status is odd; it has neither parish nor bishop but is, like St George’s at Windsor, a ‘royal peculiar’, its Dean responsible only to (after God) the Crown. But to hear, at evensong, from somewhere in the Abbey’s depth a prayer intoned by a single voice, to hear it rise, lonely, almost as if groping against the immensity of the building, then to hear the lift and surge of the choir, music flooding to the vault – this is to have the building’s fabric as if lit, redefined by some other sunshine.
Chapter Nine, Westminster Abbey, p. 212.
On the Tube:
Tubes they literally are, steel-threaded through the solid earth; their station platforms are not really stations at all but brightly-lit landing and loading bays bulging the darkness at intervals along their length, all more or less identical. The trains are tailor-made for the tube with their arched tops, and low snaking motion; when they emerge into daylight at the extremities of each line, they seem almost to blink, and scuttle the faster like reptiles betrayed out of their element. Their splendid redness has alas given way to an assorted livery, which seems to succumb sooner to dinginess and graffiti, but their world is magic. Fabulous as a piece of engineering, fabulous in its mammoth day to day operation, fabulous in its voracious subterranean indifference, digesting thousands upon thousands of human beings every day and spewing them forth again. The tunnel rumbles in its darkness; from the squat mouth, the train appears, beetling, projects itself into the glare of the platform, which, slowing, it occupies precisely with all its length.
Appendix One, Travel in London, p. 398.
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