Did you know you really can time travel back to London’s yesterday? And there is no better time than at Christmas when you can experience the sights and smells of ‘ye old London as you tread in the footsteps of Christmas past. I might not be able to give you a horse and carriage, but I can give you cobblestones, historical alleys, shops and some of London’s oldest and best historical restaurants. Let’s get lost in time and take a tour of Georgian and Victorian Christmas in London.
A tour of old London at Christmas
Time travelling in London: historic places
Time travel to the smallest public courtyard in London, tucked behind London’s oldest wine merchants, Berry Bros. Pickering Place was once home to the Texan Embassy in London, back when the Lone Star state was an independent republic (you’ll see a plaque as you walk down the alleyway). Pickering Place is also thought to be the last place where a duel took place in London (it’s even thought Beau Brumell duelled here). Check out the original gaslight and what I think is the prettiest Christmas tree in London. Both former Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and author Graham Greene lived here.
Pickering Place: Pickering Place, London SW1Y 5HZ
In 1698, a woman thought to go by the name of Bourne established a grocer’s opposite the fashionable royal residence of St James’ Palace. Fast forward to 1810 and several descendants later and Berry Bros and Rudd was born. The company started selling coffee but also branched out into wine for which it now famous. Lord Byron and Beau Brummell were customers – perhaps the latter had a quick snifter before taking up his duel on Pickering Place. In 1903 Berry Bros concocted a special ginger drink to warm Edward VII;s cockles during his cold car journeys. You can buy The King’s Ginger to this day, and Berry Bros prides itself as still being official supplier to the royal family.
Berry Bros. & Rudd: 63 Pall Mall, St. James’s, London SW1Y 5HZ
Once upon a Georgian London, in 1818 to be precise, the Burlington Arcade came into existence. Commissioned by Lord George Cavendish, aka the Earl of Burlington, the shopping arcade shouldered his palatial residence of Burlington House, now home to the Royal Academy.
It appears he may have ordered this pretty annexe in order to stop passers-by throwing their empty oyster shells over the wall and into Burlington House. Burlington Arcade is home to the oldest and smallest private police force in the world and at Christmas, it’s dressed head to foot for the season.
Burlington Arcade: 51 Piccadilly, London W1J 0QJ
Just a hop, skip and a jump from the Burlington arcade sits another old shopping arcade – the Royal Arcade, and one of the prettiest Christmas hangouts in our tour of old London. It was known simply as The Arcade until Queen Victoria started shopping with a 24 year-old shirtmaker by the name of H W. Bretell. If you want to time travel in London, this architectural gem hasn’t changed much since it was erected in 1879 with its ornate stucco facades and arches and ionic columns, and it still holds its royal warrant with Charbonnel et Walker, chocolatiers to her late Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II.
Royal Arcade: 28 Old Bond St, London W1S 4SD
Cecil Court is a must for booklovers, dubbed Booksellers’ Row. Walk down this thoroughfare in Covent Garden and you’ll feel like you’re time travelling to Georgian London via Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. It dates back to the seventeenth century, and is now home to charming antiquarian and secondhand bookshops. In 1764, it was Mozart’s home and during his stint here, he would perform twice for King George III (look for the plaque at number 9).
Cecil Court: Cecil Court, Covent Garden, WC2N 4EZ
On Christmas Day, A Christmas Carol’s Scrooge wakes up a reformed man and decides to make amends with the world. He stops a passing lad and packs him off to the Poulterer’s from which a big turkey is to be purchased and delivered to the Cratchits. It’s thought that Leadenhall Market was the location of the shop (you can still see Victorian poultry hooks there). The market actually dates from 1321, sitting at the heart of Roman Londinium, so you can do some extra time travelling here. By 1600, Leadenhall was the most important market in London.
Leadenhall Market: Gracechurch St, London EC3V 1LT
Inigo Jones left his mark all over London, but one of my favourites is St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, dubbed the Actor’s Church. The church was completed in 1633 and was the first in London to be completed following the Reformation. On 9 May 1662, Samuel Pepys recounts the first recorded performance of Punch and Judy under the St Paul’s portico. The first known victim of the 1665–1666 outbreak of the Plague in England, Margaret Ponteous, was buried in the churchyard. J.M.W Turner was baptised in the church, whilst the ashes of actress Ellen Terry rest here. Inside, you’ll see memorials to Vivien Leigh. Boris Karloff, Charlie Chaplin and Noël Coward.
St Paul’s Covent Garden: Bedford St, London WC2E 9ED
Time travel in London : historical restaurants
Rules is London’s oldest restaurants and the perfect place for some London time travel this Christmas. This historical restaurant opened in 1798, serving up oysters and feeding the likes of Charles Dickens, Laurence Olivier and Clark Gable. The restaurant has had many starring roles including more recently Downton Abbey and James Bond’s Spectre.
But the real star attraction at Rules restaurant was Edward VII who would entertain his mistress, the actress Lillie Langtry by way of a private door and table upstairs. You can now sit and enjoy a cocktail or two in the exact spot where the lovers would meet.
Rules restaurant: 34-35 Maiden Ln, London WC2E 7LB
The legendary J Sheekey has been dishing up oysters since 1893 when Lord Salisbury gave Josef Sheekey permission to serve fish in St Martin’s Court – provided he looked after Salisbury’s post-theatre dinner parties. Today, it’s a hotspot for actors who come in for spot of dinner after an evening’s work on stage.
J Sheekey: 28-32 St Martin’s Ct, London WC2N 4AL
The George Inn, Southwark is the last remaining galleried inn in London, dating from 1677 and now owned by the National Trust. This famous pub was once a terminus for coaches and horses coming to and from south London. Horses could be stabled and passengers could stay in the rooms above. It was frequented by Dickens and makes an appearance in Little Dorrit. It’s also said to be haunted so this old London pub is perfect for a visit at Halloween as well as Christmas.
The George Inn: The George Inn Yard, 77 Borough High Street, Southwark, London, SE1 1NH.
The George and Vulture is one of London’s historic chop houses, dating from 1748 and tucked away at the back of an alley in the City of London. The pub is mentioned no fewer than 20 times in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, and the great man himself used to drink here. It’s also a serious contender for being the place where Scrooge had his “melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern,” in A Christmas Carol. Don’t forget to say hello to Dickens’s bust which winks at the punters from the window.
The George and Vulture: 3 Castle Ct, London EC3V 9AE
OK, you’re not time travelling very far for this one, a mere 40 years. But Maggie Jones gets a mention because it’s one of London’s cosiest, most romantic restaurants and it feels like a time warp when you walk in there. Plus, it’s named after Queen Margaret who would use the name Maggie Jones as her alias when she would have secret rendez-vous with Lord Swindown. The would always eat In the same booth (ask for it when you’re booking a table) and would order chicken pie. You’ll find Maggie Jones just off Kenisngton Chuch Street in a cul-de-sac, the perfect place for a romantic Christmas candlelit supper.
Maggie Jones: 6 Old Court Place Kensington Church Street, London W8 4PL
Time travel in London : historical shops
Hatchards is London’s oldest bookshop, perfect for intrepid time travellers and the place to buy a book a two for those Christmas stockings. This famous bookshop was setup in 1797 by John Hatchard, a publisher and anti-slavery campaigner. It’s where the royal family buy their books – Queen Charlotte was one of their first customers – and today it still holds royal warrants. Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde were also fans.
Hatchards: 187 Piccadilly, St. James’s, London W1J 9LE
Fortnums is Christmas. It’s a real wonderland of festive goodies, from hampers to baubles, tea, sweets and this Londoness’ favourite London gin. Mr Fortnum invented the Scotch egg here in 1738, and the department store first stocked Heniz baked beans back in 1886. Fortnums would go on to supply the imprisoned suffragettes with sustenance via with their world-famous hampers. No time travelling visit to London would be complete without a stopover here, especially at Christmas.
Fortnums: 181 Piccadilly, London W1A 1ER
If you want a shave à la royal, à la Churchil or even à la Dickens, then head down to St James and to Truefitt and Hill. This barber’s shop was established in 1805, and received its first Royal Warrant from King George III shortly thereafter. It offers a traditional wet shave and ‘ye olde toiletries, the ones you would need in order to time travel in style.
Truefitt and Hill: 71 St James’s St, St. James’s, London SW1A 1PH
Time travelling in London: museums and historic houses
If you want to do some serious time travelling in London, look no further than the Dennis Severs House in Spitalfields. Built in 1724, the house is four stories high and ten rooms deep in history. Leave your 21st century version behind as you enter this life-sized cabinet of curiosities and walk into a tableau of life in the 17th and 18th centuries – an experience which David Hockney has called one of the world’s great operatic experiences. This is old London – proper. Dennis Severs Christmas tour is on until 8 January. Book here.
Dennis Severs House: 18 Folgate St, London E1 6BX
No one does a historical Christmas quite like the Charles Dickens Museum as its interiors are transformed into scenes from Christmas Past. Follow in Dickens’s footsteps as you savour the sights, sounds and smells of the rooms where he lived and worked – with beautiful beautiful Victorian decorations, holly and ivy decking the halls, and a whole host of other festive flourishes. More information here.
Charles Dickens Museum: 48-49 Doughty St, London WC1N 2LX
Get into the festive spirit this Christmas at the Tower of London, as this 1,000-year-old palace is transformed into a winter wonderland for the whole family. Running daily from the 23 November – 3 January, the famous fortress is dressed with twelve festive installations based on the history of the Tower of London and some of its most famous residents. Book here.
I hope you enjoyed our little time travel in London this Christmas. Let me know if you have a favourite historical place in London in the comments below.