One of the many reasons I and so many people love exploring London is that it’s steeped in so much history, which is demonstrated through the vast number of breathtaking and iconic landmarks. However, in recent years the capital has also been the place for new, impressive modern structures to be developed. This has given London the perfect mix of combining the old and new. One minute you’re looking at The Shard and the next you can see St Paul’s Cathedral – there aren’t too many places in the world that hold that honour.
So I’m going to take a look back at some of the historical and modern landmarks that I’ve explored on my walks and keep an eye out for some photos that I’ve previously not shared on the blog!
From tremendous towers and stunning skyscrapers to incredible icons and awe-inspiring architecture, here are ten of my favourite.
The very first walk on my blog was back in 2016 when I walked from Victoria to Green Park. On this walk I strolled past the superb and quintessentially British Buckingham Palace.
Buckingham Palace has been the UK’s sovereign’s residence since 1837 and is the headquarters (an office!) for the Monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. The palace has 775 rooms including 78 bathrooms, 52 royal & guest bedrooms and 92 offices. It’s 108 metres long, 120 metres deep and 24 metres high.
Originally known as Buckingham House, the townhouse was built for the Duke of Buckingham in 1703 on a site that had been in private ownership for at least 150 years.
It was acquired by King George III in 1761 as a private residence for Queen Charlotte and became known as The Queen’s House. During the 19th Century it was enlarged, principally by architects John Nash and Edward Blore, who constructed three wings around a central courtyard. Buckingham Palace became the London residence of the British monarch on the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837.
I normally take Buckingham Palace for granted as I’ve walked past it so many times, but whenever you do, there are always many excitable tourists taking snaps of it, which just highlights what an icon it still is throughout the world.
If ever there was a landmark that epitomised the changing face of the modern London skyline, it’s The Shard! Back in 2016 I walked from it to Monument, and every time I go past it my head is encouraged to look up and gaze at just how vast it is. It seems like wherever in London you are, you can see – whether that’s on Stave Hill or Hampstead Heath to Alexandra Palace or in South London, it’s towering over the capital.
Standing at 309.6 metres (1,016ft) high, it’s the tallest building in the UK and the sixth tallest building in Europe.
The Shard’s developer was Irvine Sellar, who had an ambitious vision to create an architecturally striking building that incorporated retail, offices, hotel, apartments, restaurants and a public viewing gallery. In November 1998 Sellar acquired Southwark Towers, occupied by PwC, and in May 2000 he arranged a lunch in Berlin with award-winning architect Renzo Piano.
Interestingly, Renzo said that he hated tall buildings! But he loved the energy of the railway lines at London Bridge and the Thames nearby. He sketched his vision of the building we see today, and The Shard was born! The inspiration of the design came from the spires of London’s churches, the masts of tall ships depicted by the 18th Century Venetian painter Canaletto and the masts of sailing ships.
There were testing times for The Shard ahead due to the lengthy planning process, high-profile public inquiry and investment problems as a result of the global economic crash. However, in 2008 the State of Qatar came on board with much needed investment.
The construction came under great challenges with sub-zero temperatures, gale force winds and The Thames breaking through the protective dam. Nevertheless, in 2012 it was complete and opened by the Prime Minister of Qatar. Since then, its restaurants, hotel and viewing gallery have been opened to the public and tenants occupy the offices.
I’ve been lucky enough to go up The Shard a few times, and each time the view gets better and better!
It’s not just the views across London that are impressive, but looking down on the trains coming in and out of London Bridge station is very mesmerising – here’s a brief time-lapse I did of them!
St Paul’s Cathedral
My next historical icon could be recognised worldwide, just for its dome-like features! In 2017 I began my walk from St Paul’s Cathedral and went all the way to Moorgate, but it was St Paul’s that was the star of the stroll.
St Paul’s Cathedral has had a dedication to Paul the Apostle (St Paul) on its site since AD 604. The cathedral we see today is at least the fourth to have stood on this site. It was created by one of Britain’s most famous architects, Sir Christopher Wren between 1675 and 1710, with its predecessor having been destroyed in The Great Fire of London in 1666.
The cathedral stands at 365 feet (111m) high which made it the tallest building in London from 1710 to 1963, which is remarkably small when you consider The Shard is the tallest building now at 1,016 feet (309.6m)! After Liverpool Cathedral, St Paul’s is the second largest church building in the UK.
Even though over the years London’s skyline has changed, St Paul’s is always one of the landmarks you can instantly spot and as new glass skyscrapers are built, its historical significance and architectural brilliance always impresses me.
The London Eye
One of the most unique additions to the capital’s skyline was The London Eye, which I discovered on my walk along the Southbank back in 2016.
Designed by Marks Barfield Architects and opening in 2000, it’s Europe’s largest cantilevered observation wheel standing at 135m high. Interestingly, the wheel only had planning permission in its current location for five years with a plan to move it to a new location. However, due to its popularity it remained, and has now become Britain’s most popular paid for visitor attraction, and a marvellous addition to the London skyline!
It takes 30 minutes to go around the London Eye with a view of 40 km in all directions. There are 32 capsules to represent the 32 London boroughs with each weighing as much as 1,052,631 pound coins. Although, there are 32, for superstitious reasons they are numbered 1-33, with 13 being left out, as this is seen as an unlucky number.
The London Eye can carry 800 people in each rotation, which is the same as 11 London red double decker buses. And don’t worry about the pace of the rotation, it goes at a speedy 26cm per second… twice as fast as a sprinting tortoise!
One of the most notable events each year on it is the spectacle fireworks display on New Year’s Eve, and back in 2015 I was lucky enough to be there to bring in the New Year.
Although, I began this blog in 2016, the first time I walked around London and took photos on my old digital camera was back in 2008. Recently I’ve been trying to find photos of London in my family’s photo collection from our old disposable cameras and came across a few, like this one of The London Eye back in 2003! I do love looking at older photos and seeing what people of the time were doing. One aspect I enjoy of this image is that because it’s 2003 – a time before smartphones – no one has stopped to look at their phones, either looking at the sights or just walking along Westminster Bridge.
When you think of London or ask anyone to tell you the most famous landmark in the capital, you’d be pretty confident many would say Big Ben! In 2018 my walk from Westminster Abbey to Vauxhall Bridge went past Big Ben, which then and even now, is looking a little sad with the scaffolding around it.
On the end of Parliament Square you find Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Known as The Clock Tower, or since 2012 as the Elizabeth Tower to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, Big Ben was completed in 1859 and designed by architect Augustus Pugin. The reference to ‘Big Ben’ actually doesn’t refer to the tower itself, but to the clock tower’s largest bell which weighs a staggering 13.5 tons!
The name for the bell, Ben, has some conjecture about it as there are a few accounts of who it’s named after. One being Benjamin Caunt, a heavyweight boxing champion, whereas another is Sir Benjamin Hall, a Welsh Civil Engineer who was involved in the bell’s construction. While Big Ben is the nickname of the bell, it is officially called the Great Bell.
Towering over the city of London, Big Ben is 96 metres (315 ft) high, and has 334 steps if you fancy walking up it! The time on the clock is known for its precision and accuracy, and has been both the largest and most accurate four-faced chiming clock in the world.
The clock’s face has 23 lightbulbs illuminating it with each of them enjoying a lifetime of over 60,000 hours and a life span of seven years. With an exterior which is renowned throughout the world, only residents of the UK can go within it and must arrange a tour through their Member of Parliament in advance. To ensure accurate time keeping, workers hand wind the clock three times a week, with each winding taking workers about 1.5 hours to complete.
The clock experienced its first and only major breakdown in 1976 when the air brake speed regulator failed, it caused significant damage to the clock and required a shutdown for a total of 26 days over 9 months. The tower’s belfry houses 4 quarter bells which are tuned to G-sharp, F-sharp, B, and E.
At the moment most people will recognise that Big Ben is having a bit of makeover. Work on the renovations began in August 2017 and are expected to finish in 2021, which means there will be no chimes during this time, apart from major events such as New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Sunday.
This is the first significant work to the tower since 1983-1985, with the landmark’s current renovations installing its first toilet, a lift, having a clock face repainting and re-gilding, as well as replacing broken panes of glass and replacing the dials.
I do have an image of Big Ben looking happy and scaffolding-free which I took back in 2013. It’s going to be lovely to see it back to its beautiful splendour soon!
Walkie Talkie – Sky Garden
When I walked from The Shard to Monument in 2016 I went over London Bridge and got a great view of one of the most popular new buildings in the capital, the Walkie Talkie! Officially known as 20 Fenchurch Street, it was designed by architect Rafael Viñoly and completed in Spring 2014 with the Sky Garden in it opening in January 2015.
The 38-story building is 160 m (525 ft) tall, however, it was originally proposed to be 200 m (656 ft) tall but its design was scaled down after concerns about its visual impact on the nearby St Paul’s Cathedral and Tower of London.
Although, early on in the building’s life the sunlight reflected off its surface and started fires and melted nearby cars, so to combat this permanent sunshades were added.
The Walkie Talkie isn’t just an office block, but on its top floor you can enjoy the famous Sky Garden which provides a 360 degree view of the capital amongst trees and plants, with a restaurant there too. I went to Sky Garden back in 2017 and the views across London are spectacular, and it gives you a very different perspective than The Shard as you get a slightly lower and flatter look of the capital.
When I was at The Shard back in 2013, the Walkie Talkie was still under construction, so it shows just how far the London skyline has come. That’s one aspect of London that I really do find fascinating is that every year the skyline changes with new high-rise buildings appearing and it looks unrecognisable from what it looked like even five years ago.
When I visited Big Ben in 2018 I began at another historical classic, Westminster Abbey, which is a Gothic church dating back to the 960s when Saint Dunstan and King Edgar installed a community of Benedictine monks on the site.
Between 1042 and 1052, the Abbey, named St Peter’s Abbey, was rebuilt by Edward the Confessor to provide himself with a Royal burial church. Completed around 1060 it was the first church in England to be built in a Romanesque style, and was consecrated on the 28th December 1065 a week before Edward’s death, and who was subsequently buried in the church.
The Westminster Abbey we see today was constructed in 1245 by Henry III who had selected it as the site for his burial. Work on Westminster Abbey continued between 1245 and 1517 with it being completed by architect Henry Yevele. In 1503 Henry VII added a Perpendicular style chapel which was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 1540 Henry VIII gave Westminster Abbey cathedral status which would spare it from the destruction or dissolution.
Nicholas Hawksmoor was the mastermind behind building the two Western Towers at Westminster Abbey which were constructed between 1722 and 1745 and which were inspired by a Gothic Revival design. The walls and floors of the Abbey are made from purbeck marble, with it being 69m (225 feet) high, with a width of 26m (85 feet) and a floor area of 32,000 square feet.
Since the coronations of both King Harold and William the Conqueror in 1066, Westminster Abbey has seen every English and British monarch crowned there (except Edward V and Edward VII who were never crowned). The King Edward’s chair is the throne on which English and British sovereigns are crowned. The chair is now located within the Abbey in the St George’s Chapel near the West Door and has been used for every coronation since 1308. Since 1066 there have been 39 Coronations!
The most recent Coronation at Westminster Abbey was that of Queen Elizabeth II who was crowned Queen at the age of 25 on the 2nd June 1953 after the death of her father King George VI on the 6th February 1952. The Coronation took place more than a year after King George VI’s death because of the tradition that holding such a festival is inappropriate during the period of mourning that follows the death of a monarch. During the service Queen Elizabeth II took and subscribed an oath to govern the people’s according to their respective laws and customs. This was the first coronation to be televised with 27 million people in the UK alone watching it, plus millions from overseas.
To date there have been 17 Royal Weddings at Westminster Abbey, with the most recent being when Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, grandson of Queen Elizabeth II, married Miss Catherine Middleton on the 29th April 2011.
Since 1760 most Kings and Queens have been buried in Westminster Abbey with over 3,300 people being either buried or commemorated there. Included in this are 17 British monarchs and influential figures including Isaac Newton, Edward the Confessor and Charles Dickens.
The Cheesegrater – The Leadenhall Building
Back in 2016 I explored many of London’s markets when I walked from Leadenhall Market to Old Spitalfields Market, but I also strolled past two modern icons of the capital’s skyline – The Cheesegrater and The Gherkin.
122 Leadenhall Street, or the Leadenhall Building, or as it’s affectionately known as ‘The Cheesegrater’, is a 225m (737ft) building that opened in July 2014. Designed by Graham Stirk of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, developed by British Land and Oxford Properties, and built by Laing O’Rourke, it covers 70,000 square metres of glass; the same area as 9 football pitches! It has 48 floors and houses many corporate firms.
The nickname of The Cheesegrater came when the City of London Corporation’s chief planning officer, Peter Rees, commented to Richard Rogers, a senior partner of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, that he could ‘imagine his wife using it to grate parmesan’, and the name stuck! It also is slanted to have less impact on the protected view of St Paul’s Cathedral, and I have to say the architecture of it is… grate…!
The Tower of London
From the towering Cheesegrater to the Tower of London, which back in 2019 I walked from to the Limehouse Basin.
Since the Tower of London was built in 1066 by William the Conqueror, it has been used as a royal residence, a treasury, an armoury, a zoo, the Royal Mint and the home of the Crown Jewels.
The Tower wasn’t originally built as a prison, although it became convenient to keep state prisoners there due to it being near to the courts of Westminster. Since 1066 only 22 executions have taken place in the Tower of London, with the last of these taking place in 1941. One of the most famous inmates within the Tower was a young Princess Elizabeth who was imprisoned by her half-sister Mary I who feared Elizabeth was plotting against her. Elizabeth arrived at the Tower in March 1554 and entered through the Traitors’ Gate, and was released into house arrest in May 1554 after a lack of evidence.
The White Tower, which gives the entire castle its name, was built by William the Conqueror in 1078. The rest of the Tower of London was built around the White Tower within two concentric rings of defensive walls and a moat. There have been several phases of expansion over the years mainly under King Richard the Lionheart, Henry III and Edward I in the 12th and 13th Centuries respectively. The castle has three ‘wards’, which are the innermost ward, inner ward and the outer ward.
The White Tower is the strongest structure and contained lodgings for the King or his representatives and has been described as ‘the most complete 11th century palace in Europe’. Not including its projecting corner towers, the White Tower measures 36 by 32 metres at the base, and is 27 metres high (about the height of 6 double decker buses stacked on top of each other).
At the top floor of the White Tower sits a Torture at the Tower, which still has its original executioner’s block of the 18th century, with an accompanying axe from the Tudor times. These were wrongly labelled as implements used to behead Anne Boleyn, as she was actually beheaded by sword in 1536 for treason against Henry VIII. There’s a myth that she still walks around the Tower with her head under her arm! The White Tower basement was the site of torture and interrogation for prisoners including Guy Fawkes and the Jesuit Priest John Gerard.
One of the most notable aspects of the Tower of London is that The Crown Jewels and 140 royal ceremonial objects are kept in there. These include regalia and vestments worn by British Kings and Queens for their coronations and have been a symbol of the monarchy for 800 years. The Tower of London has been home to precious jewels since William the Conqueror, with there being over 23,500 currently housed there. The value of the jewels including their worth to the Monarchy is over £25 billion, although the actual value is priceless. It’s still officially a royal residence of Her Majesty The Queen. Within the Tower there’s a house onsite called ‘The Queen’s House’ which she may live in if she wishes.
Quite remarkably there was a zoo in the Tower of London too! Founded by King John in the early 1200s, for over 600 years there was a royal menagerie in the Tower of London, which was filled with exotic animals given as royal gifts. The first animals to arrive in the Tower of London were lions, an elephant and a polar bear. Later animal occupants were tigers, kangaroos and ostriches! In 1835 the menagerie was closed by the Duke of Wellington with the animals becoming the basis for London Zoo in Regent’s Park.
The Mint at the Tower of London made the majority of the country’s coins for over 500 years. It was installed by Edward I (1272 – 1307) in c1279 and up until 1810 most of the coins of the realm were made there in a dedicated area that became known as Mint Street. If you were guilty of tampering with the coins you’d receive the threat of horrific punishments given that it was an act of treason.
The Tower of London is guarded by The Yeoman Warders, also known as ‘Beefeaters’ and who are selected for their meritorious service to the Armed Forces. Legend has it the nickname ‘beefeater’ comes from their position in the Royal Bodyguard, which permitted them to eat as much beef as they wanted from the king’s table. Yeoman Warders are a detachment of the ‘Yeoman of the Guard’ and they have formed the Royal Bodyguard since at least 1509, with their origins stretching back to the reign of Edward IV (1461 – 83). Each of their uniforms costs over £5,000 and includes gold thread. Every evening at 9.53pm a ceremony takes place to lock the Tower of London with the ceremony keys.
One aspect the Tower is known for is its ravens. The old saying goes ‘If the ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall!’ Today there are seven ravens who live there; Harris (Male), Merlina (Female), Munin (Female), Rocky (Male), Gripp (Male), Jubilee (Male), and the sisters Erin and Hugine (Females).
They’re looked after by the Ravenmaster who has to be a Yeoman Wander before he or she can be appointed. The final deciding vote on who’s appointed the Ravenmaster is made by the ravens themselves! The current Ravenmaster Chris Skaife was put in the cages with the ravens to test his chemistry with them. Chris had to study for five years under previous Ravenmaster Derrick Coyle before taking over the job. The duties of the Ravenmaster include letting them out at first light, feeding them and cleaning their cages. The ravens eat roughly 500 grams of meat a day, which comprises of mainly chicken and mouse, and are out during the day before being put to bed at nightfall.
Right next to The Cheesegrater – and the final landmark I’m going to look at – is The Gherkin or to give it its official title 30 St Mary Ax. Opened in 2004, it’s 180 metres (591ft) tall with 41 storeys, and was designed by Norman Foster and Arup group.
You do feel as if The Gherkin was kind of a trend setter for buildings in London as it was the first of the new influx of skyscrapers to be completed, as following that we had The Shard, The Cheesegrater and The Walkie Talkie. It’s also the first to incorporate the quirky designs and names that modern day buildings are now associated with – gone are the days of boring, corporate looking architecture with dull names!
Well I hope you’ve enjoyed my look back at some of the historical and modern London landmarks that I’ve explored on my walks! Which one was your favourite? Or do you have another landmark that you enjoy visiting? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section!
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