A walk through Westminster
Westminster has been at the centre of religion, royalty and political power for over a thousand years, and this walk covers each of these.
The original area on which the Houses of Parliament and the Abbey were built lies on what was called Thorney Island. This was just marshy land where the River Tyburn, which rises in Hampstead, flowed into the Thames. It is known as the ‘City of Westminster’ because for a short while the Abbey was classified as a cathedral – in the same way that the City of London is called a city because of St Paul’s. (The reason for it being called a cathedral is further explained in the notes and appendix.)
Start: Westminster station
Finish: Charing Cross station
WHERE TO START THE WALK
The walk starts outside Westminster tube station, which is served by the Jubilee, Circle and District Lines. The station was rebuilt to accommodate the Jubilee Line in a rather futuristic and ‘brutalist’ style of architecture (which in this instance I rather like).
There are also numerous bus routes that serve the area.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN THE WALK …
A few words on the River Thames and Westminster Bridge
The bridge and the River Thames are just 100 yards or so away from the station, where the walk begins. So, if you would like to take a look at them first, then leave the station via Exit 1.
Cross the Embankment, passing the statue of Boadicea and her daughters on a chariot. It was erected in in 1902, though not without some controversy as although she may have ‘tried to defend our shores by attacking the Roman invaders’, in doing so she hung, burnt and crucified tens of thousands of innocent people. She was certainly bloodthirsty! Not the sort of woman you would care to upset.
Standing on Westminster Bridge you have a wonderful view down the Thames. The building to the immediate left of the bridge on the other side was County Hall, headquarters of the London County Council, from where all the affairs of London were controlled. That changed when Maggie Thatcher, fed up with her plans being voted against by the councillors, many of whom she regarded as being ‘Labourites’, disbanded the Council and set up a more regionalised structure of boroughs. The building is now part hotel and part entertainment complex. I’ve written a little more about Westminster Bridge in the appendix.
STARTING THE WALK
If you’ve taken a look at Westminster Bridge, then simply turn around and walk back down Bridge Street until you reach Parliament Square. Otherwise, leave the station via Exit 4 Bridge Street North.
On the other side of the road is Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Walk down to the bottom of Bridge Street, but before you cross over at the pedestrian lights towards the parliament buildings it’s a good idea to get your bearings.
This is Parliament Square, and the three arms of the state – plus the Church of England – are represented on each side: Legislature to the east (the Houses of Parliament), Executive to the north (the government offices in Whitehall), Judiciary to the west (the Supreme Court) and Church to the south (Westminster Abbey). It is an area of the most significant importance to Britain and its influence has been felt across the world. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
So, to your right is Parliament Street, which after a few hundred yards becomes Whitehall. The large open space almost opposite you is Parliament Square – with the rather magnificent statue of Sir Winston Churchill in front of you; whilst diagonally across to the left is St Margaret’s Church and Westminster Abbey.
Once you’ve crossed over, start walking down St Margaret’s Street, with the enormous Palace of Westminster on your left. I’ve put a little more information about the Palace of Westminster and how to visit the Houses of Parliament in the appendix, but I think it would help if I give some details now.
Virtually all of the Palace of Westminster is suffering from erosion and much else, and there is much disagreement within the government and indeed the public at large as to what should be done about it. It probably needs to be closed for several years for all the renovation now urgently needed to take place, but the cost is massive – and where will parliament go in the meantime? So, the arguments continue.
The Palace of Westminster is the name of the building that contains both Houses of Parliament – the Commons and the Lords – and is Grade I listed.
The first entrance you come to is known as the Carriage Gate, and this is the ‘working entrance’ for the Houses of Parliament staff, particularly the Commons, as well as by Members of Parliament. This leads into the New Palace Yard, a bit of a misnomer as it dates back to the year 1100, though very much larger in the early days. It was at this gate that the recent (2016) terrorist attack took place and since then security has been noticeably strengthened, with extra bollards and more policemen, now equipped with automatic rifles (another good example of the old saying ‘shutting the gate after the horse has bolted’).
Underneath it is a car park for Members of Parliament, and it was here that Airey Neave, who was an MP, an ex-army officer and a barrister, was killed by a bomb placed there by the IRA. And I must just mention that during the excavations for the car park, the remains of a fountain dating back to the 1600s or even earlier was discovered. I rather like the idea of this fountain, as it apparently ‘flowed with wine’ when a coronation or other major event was being held here.
You would normally get a good view of ‘Big Ben’ from here, but unfortunately because of renovation work the tower is currently surrounded with scaffolding and a shroud and it won’t be chiming again until 2021. This causes much confusion for the thousands of tourists who still stand around every hour, looking at their watches and waiting for it to sound!
‘Big Ben’ is actually only the name of the biggest of the bells in what used to be called the Clock Tower. However, in 2012, a group of MPs (perhaps hoping for knighthoods) suggested the tower should be renamed the Elizabeth Tower in honour of the Queen’s Jubilee. I guess nobody was brave enough to disagree, so that is now its new name.
On Cromwell Green, just 100 yards further along on the left, is a statue of Oliver Cromwell, holding a sword and bible with a lion at his feet (and to me, looking as miserable and as stern as I’ve always imagined a Puritan to have been.) The decision to erect his statue, which was to mark the 300th anniversary of his birth, was controversial and many MPs objected, not least because he was the man behind the execution of Charles I. Permission was eventually granted providing no public funds were used and so Lord Rosebery, once a Liberal Prime Minister and who was one of the proposers, paid for it himself. Quite why, I have never found out.
Behind him is the historic and famous Westminster Hall. As I’ve already mentioned, many historic events took place here, including the trials of Guy Fawkes, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Thomas More and even Charles I. And directly opposite, on the other side of the street, is St Margaret’s Church. (There’s more information on Westminster Hall in the appendix.)
Continuing along, you come to the St Stephen’s Entrance – in front of which people assemble to meet their Member of Parliament or attend a debate in one of the chambers, and have to show their relevant passes, although they don’t actually enter through it but turn to the left and walk through Cromwell Green.
The actual St Stephen’s entrance leads into St Stephen’s Hall and then into the central lobby. From here you can see just how immense the Palace of Westminster really is. Indeed, there are over a thousand rooms, one hundred staircases and three miles of corridors.
Walk on down past Old Palace Yard, behind which is the House of Lords. There’s a rather imposing statue of King Richard I (otherwise known as Richard the Lionheart) on horseback that was originally made of clay and exhibited in the famous Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. However, Queen Victoria was so taken with it that she joined a number of others who liked it and between them, raised the money to have it recast in bronze and placed here.
Old Palace Yard once contained a number of small cottages, one of which was where Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, once lived, whilst another was rented by Guy Fawkes, the instigator of the Gunpowder Plot.
Visiting the Houses of Parliament
They’re open to the public every Saturday from 9.30am – last admission is at 3.30pm – throughout the year and on certain weekdays in the summer recess when parliament isn’t sitting. Tickets can be obtained in advance online (recommended) or from Portcullis House, which is on the corner of the Embankment and Bridge Road. Alternatively, you can also just sit in on a debate in the Chamber of the House. You can’t book – just turn up and queue. Finally, you can also request a permit to visit by writing to your Member of Parliament..
Next is the Peers’ Entrance, used, as the name implies, by members of the House of Lords, and then the Monarch’s Entrance. This is at the base of the Victoria Tower, the largest of the palace’s three towers and under the rather impressive fifty-foot-high decorated stone archway. The gates you see are only open when the monarch is visiting.
This is almost the end of the building but walk a few yards further down and you’ll see a sign marked ‘Black Rod’s Entrance and Garden’, which points down to the side. Black Rod, whose correct title is ‘The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod’, is a sort of manager cum caretaker and general boss of the Houses of Parliament. He or she is appointed by the reigning monarch, a custom that dates back to the early 1300s.
Next to the wide gates and access road into Black Rod’s Garden is a little park that’s known as the Victoria Tower Gardens, the smallest of the Royal Parks and, just inside the entrance to it, you will find a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst.
I suggest you now turn around and walk back up to the pedestrian lights and cross over. Once you’ve done so, the medieval building a few yards to the left is the Jewel Tower, which is looked after by English Heritage. Built over 650 years ago to house Edward III’s private collection of jewels, gold and silver treasures, it’s one of only two parts of the original Palace that hasn’t been destroyed and therefore rebuilt. I haven’t been in so can’t comment on how interesting it may be but bear in mind the Crown Jewels are now kept in the Tower of London.
Continue back up towards Parliament Square; in the little green area there’s a statue of King George V who reigned from 1910 until 1936 and then St Margaret’s Church – known as the ‘Parish Church of the House of Commons’. Tourists sometimes confuse this with Westminster Abbey – they get this far, tick the box on their sightseeing schedule and head back to their coaches. People often ask why two such large and important churches are so close together – the answer is simply that Westminster Abbey was originally a Benedictine monastery and not a church.
Visiting Westminster Abbey
It’s open daily from 9.30 until 5pm except Fridays. (Sundays are also closed to visitors, being reserved for those attending church services). Be warned though – in peak season the queues and crowds are frightening. I suggest you make a winter visit!
Once you reach Parliament Square turn to the left – and shortly you have a wonderful view of Westminster Abbey. Needless to say, it’s had a fascinating history and although I’ve put a couple of paragraphs about it here [click the button below], there’s quite a bit more in the appendix.
Continue on past the Abbey and immediately after the ‘stand-alone’ gift shop on your left, you see ‘The Sanctuary’, a lovely old building that is now the offices of a firm of solicitors. There’s an archway you can walk through that leads into Dean’s Yard (part of the Abbey Precincts), a rather lovely haven of peace as it’s usually ignored by tourists. Most of the buildings in the square are part of the famous Westminster School.
The school was set up in the 12th century by the Benedictine monks of the priory on the orders of the Pope and was initially a charitable institution. It was originally called St Peter’s College as St Peter’s is the official name of Westminster Abbey. Today it’s one of the most prestigious schools in the country and one of the most expensive, renowned for having one of the highest level of GCSE passes. The list of ‘school traditions’ is long; one is that the pupils are allowed privileged and special access into the public galleries of the Houses of Commons and Lords – apparently this was done in order to stop them from climbing onto the roof of the building and trying to get in that way. That was a long time ago though! Another is that the teachers of the school are entitled to get married in Westminster Abbey – as the son of a friend of mine did recently. Quite some perk too!
Time to stop for a snack?
Wesley’s Café serves a variety of food and refreshments all day, including full English breakfasts, sandwiches and hot lunches.
Wesley’s Café serves a variety of food and refreshments all day, including full English breakfasts, sandwiches and hot lunches.
Queen Elizabeth II Centre
Retrace your footsteps and leave Dean’s Yard back through the archway you came in and directly opposite you, across Victoria Street and slightly to the left, you will see the imposing Methodist Central Hall.
To get there cross over Victoria Street at the pedestrian crossing that’s just to your left and then cross over Tothill Street.
Leave Central Hall and walk across the small grassy area in front, passing the modern Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre (which to my mind is architecturally awful, being totally out of keeping with its surroundings) and head back towards Parliament Square.
Cross over the road called Little Sanctuary. Just ten yards along it you can see all that remains of the 17th century Westminster House of Correction (otherwise known as the Bridewell and later Tothill Fields Prison) – it’s just an old stone gateway set in the wall, so don’t get too excited!
Turn left into Parliament Square. The large white stone building on the left is the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, where the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council meets.
Carry on past the front of the Supreme Court, keeping Parliament Square on your right – you can’t fail to notice the many statues and I particularly like the one of Abraham Lincoln. Cross over Little Sanctuary (again), pass the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors on your left and directly ahead of you on the other side of Great George Street is the enormous HM Treasury building.
Cross over Great George Street but before you turn to the right, look through the iron gates into the centre of the Treasury Building. (I mention the central courtyard shortly.) Keeping the Treasury Building on your left turn left up Parliament Street (which a few hundred yards further along becomes Whitehall).
After a few yards, take the first left through the arch into King Charles Street. The building on your left is still the HM Treasury (though several other government departments now share it), whilst the equally grand building on the right is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
At the end of the road, you’ll see a bronze statue to Robert Clive of India. Walk down the ‘Clive Steps’ that lead to Horse Guards Road. On the right at the bottom of the steps you can’t fail to miss the memorial carved into the wall that commemorates the many people who were killed in the horrific terrorist attack in Bali in 2002. The granite globe has 202 doves; each one is unique, signifying the individuality of each of the lives lost; the dove of course being the symbol of peace.
On the left side of the steps is the entrance to the subterranean Churchill War Rooms. They were built in the basement of the ‘GOGGS’ building (Government Offices Great George Street) and thick bomb-proof concrete slabs were installed at street level to protect those working below. Some years ago they were opened to the public; you descend a couple of levels below ground to see where the War Cabinet oversaw the Second World War effort.
Turn right up Horse Guards Road. On your left you will see the lovely 57-acre St James’s Park. Again, if you have time you may want to take a little wander inside. It’s more extensive than people sometimes imagine and extends across to the Mall and Buckingham Palace. If you’d like to read more about the park, please click the button below.
Just a few yards further along are large gates that lead to the ‘rear entrance’ of Downing Street (we will see the other side shortly). It is through this exit that a Prime Minister who has just lost an election ‘slinks’ away from Downing Street. Leaving by the ‘back door’ ensures there is no embarrassment by potentially meeting the new incumbent as they enter through the main entrance in Whitehall! However, if the incumbent PM has won, then they still have to visit Buckingham Palace, but can leave triumphantly (or maybe just relieved) out of the front door of No.10, and directly into Whitehall, where crowds will have gathered.
Carry on for just a few more yards and you reach the magnificent Horse Guards Parade, which was the ‘recreational grounds’ of the Palace of Whitehall and where Henry VIII held jousting competitions, spectacular pageants and the like.
Walk across Horse Guards Parade towards the arch between the two statues of soldiers mounted on horses. The one on the left is Field Marshall Viscount Wolseley, Commander in Chief of the British Army at the end of the 19th century, whilst on the right is Field Marshal Earl Roberts, who followed Wolseley as Commander in Chief.
To the left of the arch is the entrance to the Museum of the Household Cavalry, who are the soldiers that you see guarding the entrance to Horse Guards on the Whitehall side. (I say ‘guard’, but there are now always several armed police officers alongside them to ‘guard’ from terrorist attacks, as they have been subjected to many threats.)
Pass through the arch – and if you are visiting between 10am and 4pm you will normally see two sentries on horseback.
You are now in Whitehall – and we turn to the right, passing both the Scottish Office and the Cabinet Office, as well as several other (to me at least) rather nondescript buildings, until you get to Downing Street.
Downing Street must be one of the most well-known addresses in Britain. Unfortunately, these days you can no longer walk along it. That was stopped by Maggie Thatcher, because of the IRA bombing campaign, which is a shame; I can still remember doing that and chatting and posing for a photo taken with the policeman on duty outside No.10 – there was always one standing there, as there still is today (though I’m assured not the same one!)
Finish: here, optionally
A SHORTENED VERSION OF THE WALK
If you are pressed for time or tired, then you can end the walk here and simply continue on down Whitehall to Westminster tube station, where we started, passing the Cenotaph on the way.
BUT IF YOU DECIDE TO CARRY ON …
Leave Downing Street and wherever it’s convenient cross over Whitehall.
On the other side, start walking to the left (back up again, so away from Parliament Square and Westminster). You pass the ‘Women at War’ memorials and the Ministry of Defence, the monolithic, eight-storey, white stone building that’s fronted by statues of several military heroes, including Field Marshall ‘Monty’ Montgomery and Viscount Slim. However, first notice the rather quirky red brick building with the name ‘Ty Gwydyr’. That probably gives away its connection with Wales, and indeed it’s the Welsh Office. (Interestingly, it was used for the office of the Prime Minister in the sitcom ‘Yes Minister’.)
The Ministry of Defence building was constructed for the Board of Trade but wasn’t finished until the 1950s. Building work was meant to have started in 1915, but it was delayed by the First World War, then the 1930s depression, followed by the Second World War. However, when the three Armed Forces merged in 1964 and the Ministry of Defence was formed, they moved in.
Next you see the Banqueting House, the only remaining part of Henry VIII’s Whitehall Palace.
Turn right down the side of the Banqueting House into Horse Guards Avenue, and pass the main entrance of the MOD building, with just the pillars and the statues on either side (apparently meant to represent Earth and Water, though I struggle to see this).
Several years ago, the government decided the Old War Office was superfluous to requirements and it was sold to a Spanish company who at a cost of over a billion pounds (yes, you read that correctly), are currently converting it into a five-star hotel. They are going to put three more floors on the top whilst inside there will be an enormous ‘ballroom’, swimming pools, a rooftop bar – oh, and of course bedrooms – over 200 of them. However, conservationists are outraged at the way one of ‘London’s most significant historic buildings’ is going to be so greatly altered and as a result, many objections to the planning application have poured in. Judging by the current activity, I would imagine that some sort of agreement has been reached.
The building on the other side of the road is the huge (over a thousand rooms and more than two miles of corridors) Old War Office. Built in the lovely neo-Baroque style (used by architects at the time for many of London’s prestigious public buildings), it stands on the site of what were once the kitchens of Whitehall Palace. It was the headquarters of the British Army from 1906 until the mid-1960s and was where such military luminaries as Lord Kitchener, David Lloyd George and TE Lawrence once worked. And of course, not forgetting Sir Winston Churchill, who had his offices here for a few years.
On the corner of this building and Whitehall Place (which we shall be walking along shortly), notice the rather splendid memorial statue to the Ghurkhas, the brave soldiers of Nepal who have fought with the British Army for many years.
Continue down on the right-hand side almost to the bottom of Horse Guards Avenue but stop when you reach the end of the MOD Building. The site of the building, and indeed much of the surrounding land, is where Whitehall Palace once stood, which I write a little about next, but now just look down to the lower ground level at the rear of the building and you will see a ‘sunken terrace’ with stone steps.
Other than the Banqueting House that you passed just now, this is all that remains of the huge Whitehall Palace.
The rather pleasant grassed area that runs from here down to the Embankment contains a number of rather fascinating statues and memorials that have been erected to commemorate various branches of the Army, Navy and Air Force. We’re not going to walk through the garden (unless of course you particularly want to take a look). My two favourite memorials are firstly the ‘Aviator’ that stands on a plinth with huge outstretched wings, which commemorates those who lost their lives serving in the Fleet Air Arm. The second is almost at the far end and is the memorial to those who served and died in Iraq.
The rather fine statue nearest you, by the entrance to the garden, is of Major General Charles Gordon, the famous soldier who fought in the Crimean War and in China but was eventually killed in Khartoum in 1885.
We turn around now and walk back up Horse Guards Avenue, but as you do, notice the extremely elegant building on the other side of the road that is fronted by rather lovely embankment gardens. It’s known as One Horse Guards Avenue and you can learn a little more about it by clicking the button below.
Turn right down Whitehall Court, which of course is the name of the building that we are talking about, and which runs its full length. Besides what’s written above, I’ve put more about this notable building in the appendix, including why the many residents of the apartments never realised the commissioners and doormen were actually special branch police officers.
Notice the blue lamps numbered 4 down to 1 over the buildings four entrances. Numbers Four and Three lead into the into relevant reception areas for the private residences, whilst numbers Two and One now lead into the Royal Horseguards Hotel. Previously they had led into the National Liberal Club that was established by William Gladstone’s Liberal party in 1884. When it opened, it was said to be one of the biggest ‘clubs’ in the world. It is now considerably smaller than it once was, as much of it was sold to the Royal Horseguards Hotel.
Directly in front of you at the end of Whitehall Court is another very large 5-star hotel, called the Corinthia, but before you turn left into Whitehall Place, notice the memorial to the army’s Tank Regiment on the corner. It depicts the five-man crew of a World War Two ‘Comet Tank’ and was unveiled by the Queen in 2002. I think it is rather special.
Walk just a few yards up Whitehall Place then turn right under the archway alongside the Corinthia Hotel into Scotland Place. However, before you do, notice the building that runs from the corner of Scotland Place to the top of Whitehall Place, where it joins Whitehall. It’s yet another rather grand building but this one is very special – this was the original Scotland Yard – though now known as Old Scotland Yard. The site was chosen by Sir Robert Peel, who founded the police force in 1829, to be the original offices of the Metropolitan Police. It’s now the offices of the Department for International Trade.
Walk to the end of the short Scotland Place and turn right into Great Scotland Yard. Notice though the two large wooden doors (that are usually open) ahead of you. What this is might be given away by the smell of manure and hay … yes, the doors are the entrance to stables where police horses are kept. If the doors are open, then take a little look inside – whenever I’ve done that, nobody has seemed to mind.
Walk right down Great Scotland Yard – a rather nondescript street, but a few rather eminent people have lived here in the past – two architects for starters: Christopher Wren and Inigo Jones, as well as the poet John Milton. On the left, in what was once a fire station, you’ll see the rather inviting outdoor terrace of a bar and restaurant – unfortunately though it’s only for members of the Civil Service Club.
Great Scotland Yard leads to the unusually wide Northumberland Avenue, once part of the estate of the dukes of Northumberland. It’s much broader than many surrounding roads because in 1874 it was bought by the Metropolitan Board of Works for the building of new hotels to cater for the rise in visitors to the city, particularly from America. To preserve the avenue’s elegance it was decided that no hotel or other building could be taller than the road was wide, a problem they got around by simply increasing the width of the street.
Finish: here, optionally
YOU NOW HAVE TWO CHOICES
The walk carries on for just a little bit further, but if you are short of time or a little weary, you can end it here. If you do, then:
- To get to the Embankment station (Circle, District and Northern tube lines) turn right down Northumberland Avenue and almost at the end, but before you reach the Embankment, turn left under the railway arches immediately after the Playhouse Theatre, and you come to the Embankment station.
- To go to Trafalgar Square (and onwards to Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, etc.), turn left and it’s just a few minutes’ walk.
- To go back to Westminster station, turn left and walk up Northumberland Avenue and turn left down Whitehall (about fifteen minutes’ walk).
OR … To continue to the end of the walk – which will also take you to Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross station (Northern and Bakerloo lines) and the Strand – cross over Northumberland Avenue and almost opposite on the other side, you’ll see the Sherlock Holmes pub at the start of Northumberland Street. Turn right up the side of the pub, and walk up Craven Passage to the top where it meets Craven Street.
If you look to the left at the end of Craven Street you will see a modern office building with four unusual ‘chimney columns’ on the roof. These ‘chimneys’ are actually the top of an enormous chamber some ninety feet below that allows air to escape from the underground lines deep beneath Charing Cross station.
One of the London Underground’s Secret Tours (run for anoraks and sad people with too much time on their hands!) that I have been takes you down into these tunnels – you climb through into the bottom of one of the vents where you can stand looking up this enormous shaft that stretches high up above.
Cross over Craven Street and carry on up Craven Passage, which continues opposite.
The house where Benjamin Franklin lived – now a museum to him – is just up Craven Street to the left.
Pass the rather unusually named (and often mispronounced) pub called the Ship and Shovell, which is Grade II listed. The pub is also unusual as it is on both sides of the lane.
Carry on through what becomes the Arches shopping arcade beneath the railway lines that run into Charing Cross station and you emerge into Villiers Street.
Finish: Villiers Street
For the Embankment tube station, turn right – it’s just a couple of hundred yards to your right. And if you fancy a drink then on your left, just before the Embankment gardens and station, you pass Gordon’s, a wine bar established in 1890 and one of my favourites. It’s small inside but has a long outside terrace and a great selection of wines by the glass and light meals.
For Charing Cross station and The Strand, turn left and they’re just 50 yards walk.
If you want to get to Trafalgar Square, then turn left along the Strand.
HOPE YOU’VE ENJOYED THE WALK!
Please – any comments, criticisms or suggestions are very much welcomed! I’ve tried hard to make the walk and all the associated information as accurate as possible, but there’s definitely always room for improvement.