London Drum

A Walk Around London’s West End & Covent Garden

Distance: Approx 3 miles Time required: 1 to 1½ hours (based on a leisurely 20-30 mins per mile, but you should add on more time if you want to stop at any of the places) Starting point: Trafalgar Square End point: Trafalgar Square What you will see: Nelson’s Column, National Gallery, Piccadilly Circus, Shaftesbury Avenue, lots of theatres, Chinatown, Leicester Square, Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden, Royal Opera House, Drury Lane, Strand

Craig’s review… I’m getting too old for all of this walking. I’m not a twenty-year-old kid anymore, you know. I’m not even thirty. How old do you think I am? I will give you a clue: I still have all my own teeth (plus another set that I keep in a jar at home). And we’re supposed to be walking around the West End today as well, so you’ll have to forgive me if we have to stop about ten thousand times along the way.

I am sitting in the coffee shop on the corner of Trafalgar Square (by Cockspur Street). This is one of my favourite seats in London – right by the window looking at the fountains and the National Gallery [see 1 on the map]. Technically this is not quite in the West End (this is Westminster), but you should always start a walk with a sit down.

The ‘West End’ is what we call the theatre district – where you’ll find all the nightlife and the neon lights, and 24-hour pubs and bars and cinemas. It runs roughly from here up to Piccadilly Circus, and then along Shaftesbury Avenue and Drury Lane to the Strand, and encompasses an area including Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Chinatown. So we’re going to see some good stuff today.

When you’re ready head up Cockspur Street and turn right into Haymarket. Keep an eye out for one of my favourite blue plaques on the wall of New Zealand House – have a guess who used to work in there. (You will never guess in a million years.) That is where Ho Chi Minh used to work as a pastry chef – the same guy who defeated America in the Viet Nam War. Obviously it wasn’t New Zealand House back then though – it was a big posh place called the Carlton Hotel. So that just goes to show you what is possible in life: one minute you can be rolling dough in the West End, and the next minute you can be planning surprise attacks in the Tet Offensive.

Next door to New Zealand House is our first famous theatre: Her Majesty’s. This is where Phantom of the Opera has been running for the last forty-thousand years. It’s not quite the longest running show in London – we will see that later. There’s another famous theatre over the road: the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Continue up Haymarket towards the Trocadero, until you find a horse fountain on the corner [see 2 on the map]. If you want to try and learn your London geography then memorise this spot. To the right is Leicester Square and Covent Garden, and to the left is where we’re going next – Piccadilly Circus. This is definitely the best way to enter the Circus – you get a great view of the fountain from here with Regent Street curving off behind. We need to turn right before the neon lights, down Shaftesbury Avenue.

You need to see this street at nighttime to get the best of it, but it’s still a busy spectacle during the day. Shaftesbury Avenue is where you’ll find another load of theatres. The most famous one is probably the Sondheim where they’ve been showing Les Miserables for thirty-thousand years.

We will see the top end of the street later, but for now we are going to take a right turn into Chinatown. See if you can guess which turning is the gateway to the Orient without looking at the street names – it’s not very difficult because it has a huge red pagoda guarding it. All of the shop signs have proper Chinese writing so you haven’t got a clue what they’re selling inside [see 3 on the map].

Turn left underneath the pagoda and you will find yourself in Gerrard Street. I really love the smell of this place – it even smells like China (not that I’ve ever been to China). Or maybe it’s just the dustbin bags full of sweet and sour sauce. It’s hard to tell whether the shops are genuinely Chinese or just touristy Chinese – maybe they just stick a load of stone dragons out the front because that’s what the tourists like to see.

You’ll find another little pagoda when you get to the end. Turn right there and then another quick right into Lisle Street. Then take the next left towards Leicester Square [see 4 on the map]. That’s the end of the Chinese empire in London. For all their military might they’ve only managed to occupy two little side streets in the capital.

Leicester Square is another place that you really need to see at nighttime, because this is where you’ll find all of the big clubs and cinemas. It’s also where they hold all of the big movie premieres with snapping paparazzi and a carpet full of film stars. There’s none of that today though – no red carpet for me – obviously they weren’t aware that I was coming.

Have a little stroll around and a sit down in the centre, before heading for Irving Street in the far corner. Bear right at the end of Irving Street and then cross over the road, turning left into St. Martin’s Lane (if you turn right by mistake then you’ll find yourself back in Trafalgar Square). The London Coliseum is down here, where they hold all the big ballets and The Nutcracker at Christmas.

Keep an eye out for Cecil Court on the left – a pretty little lane with wooden shop fronts and Victorian-looking lampposts [see 5 on the map].

Turn right after that and head up Charing Cross Road. Have a quick peer down Litchfield Street as you pass by, and you’ll spot Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap at the very end. Now this really is the longest running play in London – and has been going for fifty-thousand years at least. If there is anyone left in the world who still doesn’t know who committed the crime then they must be living in a cave. (I won’t tell you who did it, just in case you do live in a cave.) The only people who haven’t worked it out are the policemen in the play.

Keep going until you find our old friend Shaftesbury Avenue again, and then follow it up until you see Monmouth Street [see 6 on the map]. It always seems to be raining when I come down this bit of Shaftesbury Avenue, and with all the overhanging trees and leaves and headlights snaking their way up the street it feels like permanent autumn.

Monmouth Street is a very acute right turn and it’s quite difficult to spot, and it’s even harder to spot the entrance to Neal’s Yard on the left (it’s ten-seconds down Monmouth Street). Have a walk down there and you will find yourself in a world of tangerine and lemon and lime green paint.

Continue on through the next arcade (Thomas Neal’s over the road) and turn left at the end. Neal Street should be the next right. When you get to the end of that one hopefully you’ll have Covent Garden tube station staring at you straight ahead. If you’ve managed to make it this far without getting lost then very well done, because I am now totally lost myself. I was hoping that you might know where we are so we don’t go round in circles.

Go down James Street (the road where Covent Garden tube station is) and you’ll end up at the Covent Garden piazza. I’m going to give you a bit of free time now because you’re definitely going to need a cup of tea. Have a walk around the piazza and find one of the nice pavement cafes, or just head straight for that big ‘Covent Garden Market’ arch and enter the little alleyway to the righthand side. They’ve got some cafes downstairs where you might get lucky and find some classical buskers playing Vivaldi and Mozart. When you’re finished let’s meet up again on the corner of Russell Street (on the lefthand side of the piazza) [see 7 on the map].

Are you knackered yet? I’m starting to wilt so do me a favour and walk a bit slower – I can’t keep up with your long legs. You can see one of London’s most historic theatres at the end of this street: the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. This place has burnt down to the ground three times in its 350-year history, so don’t worry if it’s on fire – that’s normal.

We’re going to take a quick left up Bow Street before we get there, so we can have a look at the Royal Opera House. That’s where people sing songs in high voices before dropping dead at the end.

Turn right into the pretty little Broad Court, and then right at the end of that into Drury Lane [see 8 on the map]. I only brought you down here because everyone associates Drury Lane with the theatres (a bit like how they associate Fleet Street with the newspapers) but it’s rubbish isn’t it? I don’t know what all the fuss is about, because there’s nothing here anymore. So run down here as quickly as possible until you end up at Aldwych. A right turn along there will take you past another couple of theatres and the Waldorf Hotel.

Aldwych is another road where it always seems to rain. I like the warm yellows and golden lightbulbs on the Waldorf. You don’t need any carpet down here when you’ve got all of those shady trees dropping their leaves on the concrete. When it starts raining they lie there wet and soggy and make the place like an ice rink. Come down here at nighttime and you’ll have all of the red and orange car lights streaming down the road as well – it can very pretty down here in the wet and the rain.

Turn right at the end of Aldwych and you’ll enter the Strand… we’re nearly there! [see 9 on the map] You can even see the finishing line from here if you’ve got good eyes – the top of Nelson’s Column. Can you see him poking above the buildings at the end of the street? There are another three theatres down here but I bet you fifty quid you can only find two.

Your comments and questions

Paul Sinclair I'm reading your walks and comments and I really appreciate the information. I'm so looking forward to trying them out in hopefully glorious May weather.

Craig Hi Paul, thanks for that. It’s good to know that someone’s giving them a go.

Roger Wife and I are going to be in London for the first time on May 11. We are in our early 70's and after reading your guide I do believe we could handle this. Does your guide book have downloadable maps ?

Craig Hi Roger. The book has photographs and reviews of the all the landmarks and attractions. It doesn't have any maps

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