A personal account of a lively history lesson with Emma Parker of Coutours London
The tour is titled ‘London in Four Drinks’, and we are offered one as soon as we enter the meeting point, a coffee bar opposite St Paul’s Cathedral. There are nine of us, male and female, young and ‘old’, plus Emma our guide.
Whilst we sip our teas and cappuccinos, Emma explains that the first coffee house in London opened in 1652, something which takes a few of us by surprise. Back then, Londoners were a thirsty bunch, because the city water was filthy (we’ll learn why later) and constituted a serious health risk, so everyone drank beer instead, including the children. Coffee, a new arrival from Turkey, became an alternative to the alcoholic drink, and coffee house culture was further boosted by the fact that it was one of few pleasures approved of by Oliver Cromwell. Emma explains that the coffee itself was disgusting, but that the houses ended up having huge social significance, evolving into hubs where anybody (male) was welcome as long as they paid their penny entrance and contributed something useful to the conversation. I am fascinated to learn that both The London Stock Exchange and The Spectator evolved out of these establishments. It sounds more fun than Twitter.
Outside the café we marvel at St. Paul’s cathedral whilst Emma talks about its history, the reconstruction after The Great Fire, and the significance of the golden pineapples on top of the western towers, which symbolise excess – in seventeenth century London, pineapples were in short supply. ‘It would be a bit like putting two Bentleys up there today,’ says Emma.
We set off towards Holborn, passing the entrance to the new London Stock Exchange, which, with its white walls and glass entrance, looks more like a Scandinavian dental surgery than a symbol of globalised capitalism. No sign of coffee house chatter on this grey Saturday.
Outside on the square, a few young men are playing table tennis, which I find quite random. Then again, why not? At least they’re keeping warm. It’s now bitter cold but we’re all dressed for January and happy to stand still whilst Emma explains that the area is privately owned, which is why the migrated Occupy Wall Street-Movement had to put up their tents in the cathedral grounds during their protest back in 2011. Our group must be looking quite blank, because Emma stares at us for while before saying, ‘Remember Occupy London, the protests a few years ago? When people were camping here?’ There’s vague mumbling followed by a noncommittal, ‘oh yes, there was something wasn’t there?’ No lasting impact on this group then.
Despite the blue sky, rain and hails appear out of nowhere, so Emma directs us towards a covered shopping area where our education continues. She seems to know so much about everything that leaving anything out is a choice, and I get the feeling that were I to stop her and inquire about a particular brick or window frame, she’d be able to tell me all about its origin followed by a relevant anecdote. I use the term anecdote loosely. These are not the cheap opening lines of a greasy salesman, but quirky history snippets of the kind that makes you retain information subconsciously. It’s a narrative style that means people pay attention whilst feeling free to ask questions.
The weather front disappears as quickly as it arrived, and we head up Holborn Viaduct above the Farringdon Road, where the river Fleet used to flow in the open. Here, as we watch the traffic beneath us, Emma explains why the London water was so filthy in pre-Victorian times. Before such practices were linked to disease, London residents and workers used to chuck everything in the river, using it as a kind of garbage disposal and waste transport system. I think most of us knew about the sewage and kitchen waste, however, we’re surprised to hear about the bits from the abattoir and the human bodies from the hospital. Apparently, everything went in. I’m amazed anybody survived at all having drunk that water. Then again, many didn’t. Emma tells us that in the late eighteenth century only one in five children lived to see their sixth birthday. This is shocking information and I think we all lose our romantic fantasies about the old days. For a moment, the heavy traffic fumes of 2017 don’t feel so bad.
We’ve been out for over an hour now and it’s pretty chilly so everybody is delighted that our next stop is a pub. Sadly not the Old Mitre, which we pass on our way. This pub, only open on weekdays, is where Elizabeth I allegedly used to go dancing with her handsome lover Sir Christopher Hatton. The atmosphere is so authentic I almost feel I’ve missed this wonderful spectacle by arriving out of hours rather than 400 years late. Armed with the knowledge that Elizabeth was no looker (apparently, she had rotten teeth due to a sugar addiction), we head to another pub where Emma has secured a large table by the window.
I am not normally a beer drinker, but I feel I would be missing out by ignoring a drink that has had such an enormous influence on the local culture, so I settle for half a shandy, the anti-feminist drink of the 1990s. It tastes of ale and sugar and drunk toddlers roaming the streets.
Next stop is Samuel Johnson’s house in Gough Square. Here Emma talks about another important drink, tea. She also settles the milk question. (Hold your eyes, if you are the type who pours the milk first. I’m afraid it’s a sign you’re common). There’s an anecdote here, but I’m not going to ruin it for you, you’ll hear it if you take the tour. We learn about the origin of the tea salons and the subsequent opium wars, and standing in this quiet, car free square, it’s easy to be transferred back to Chinese trade wars and the politics of import/export. Funny how some things don’t change.
Afterwards, as we head in the direction of Temple, I spot a statue of Hodge, one of Dr Johnson’s cats, which I must photograph. Unfortunately, I’m held up by a sightseer who refuses to leave the frame, so by the time I’ve got a tourist-free snap, I’ve lost our group. Believing our next stop to be Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (because I heard Emma mention it earlier), I enter the pub and roam around searching its many small rooms. There’s no sign of our group, just cliques of young people who stare at me as I frantically scan the nooks and crannies trying not to bang my head on the low ceilings. I find their staring odd until I remember how old I am. They probably think I’m a parent hunting down a stray teenager. Thankfully, Emma phones and I am reunited with the group across the road. Brilliant service but embarrassing, as I know Emma privately and now fear I come across as the flaky friend.
It’s a testament to my basic lack of rationality that after hearing stories about the gin craze, when chaos reigned due to the population’s addiction to this Dutch import, I’m now desperate for a gin and tonic. But I’m not alone. By the time we’re seated at our last stop, The City of London Distillery, all ten of us order G&Ts. Even the nice lady next to me who claims she’s never tasted gin before. Perhaps there’s an underlying reason, or perhaps the place just want to be different, but the customary lemon slices have been replaced by melon. It’s not a bad combination, the lemon is a sweet antidote to the bitter drink and even better as a conversation starter. ‘What’s with the melon? Everybody asks and soon the polite conversation turns into friendly chat.
Later, as I walk towards Temple tube station, passing Blackfriars Bridge with its view of The Shard and the Southbank, I feel like I’ve spent the day in a real life documentary, only this is much better than TV, because you’re outside, you’re socialising and your host doesn’t have a personal grudge around which the narrative has been designed. Even better, there’s no accompanying sofa guilt. I’ve been walking for two hours, whilst learning about my city and talking to nice strangers. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon.