I’ve spent more time in London than in any other European city. And in a dynamic city like London, learning history doesn’t require going through a museum turnstile. Sometimes it’s just…picking up garbage from a riverbank.
Because of the coronavirus, Europe is effectively off-limits to American travelers for the next few weeks (and likely longer). But travel dreams are immune to any virus. During these challenging times, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my very favorite travel dreams-come-true…a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe on the other end of this crisis.
Strolling with a good local guide is like beachcombing. I pick up obscure shards of a neighborhood’s distant past, unlocking unexpected stories. On a bright, brisk January morning, I join David Tucker, who runs a tour company called London Walks.
From London Bridge, David points downriver past the Tower of London and says, “During the Second World War, Nazi bombers used the Thames as a guide on their nightly raids. When moonlit, they called it a ‘silver ribbon of tin foil.’ It led from the English Channel right to our mighty dockyards. Even with all the city lights carefully blacked out, those bombers easily found their targets. Neighborhoods on both banks of the river went up in flames. After the war, the business district on the North Bank was rebuilt, but the South Bank… it was long neglected.”
Turning his back to St. Paul’s Cathedral, David points to a vast complex of new buildings showing off the restored, trendy South Bank, and continues, “Only recently has the bombed-out South Bank been properly rebuilt. There’s a real buzz in London about our South Bank.”
Then we walk down to the beach and do some actual beachcombing. The Thames is a tidal river. At low tide, it’s literally littered with history. Even today, London’s beaches are red with clay tiles from 500-year-old roofs. Picking up a chunky piece of tile worn oval by the centuries, with its telltale peg hole still clearly visible, David explains that these tiles were heavy, requiring large timbers for support. In the 16th century, when large timbers were required for shipbuilding for the Royal Navy, lighter slate tiles became the preferred roofing material. Over time, the heavy, red-clay tiles migrated from the rooftops to the riverbank…and into the pockets of beachcombers like us.
Like kids on a scavenger hunt, we study the pebbles. David picks up a chalky white tube. It’s the fragile stem of an 18th-century clay pipe. Back then, tobacco was sold with disposable one-use pipes, so used pipes were routinely tossed into the river. David lets it fall from his fingers.
Thinking, “King George may have sucked on this,” I pick it up.
Climbing back to street level, we prowl through some fascinating relics of the South Bank neighborhood that survived both German bombs and urban renewal. Scaling steep stairs, we visit the Operating Theatre Museum, a crude surgical theater where amputations were performed in the early 1800s as medical students watched and learned. Down the street, we wander through the still-bustling Borough Market to see farmers doing business with city shopkeepers.
Walking through this area puts us in a time warp. David leads us into a quiet courtyard, where we look up at three sets of balconies climbing the front of an inn. He explains, “Coaching-inn courtyards like this provided struggling theater troupes — like young William Shakespeare’s — with a captive audience.”
A typical day in London can be spent at the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, or the British Museum. But it can also be spent sifting through the tides of history.
(This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel, coming out in July. It’s available for pre-order. And you can also watch a video clip related to this story: Just visit Rick Steves Classroom Europe and search for London).