Strand begins at Trafalgar Square; it runs for 3/4 of a mile or so until it becomes Fleet Street. I’ve been fascinated by Strand for years (I’d always heard it called “the Strand,” but that’s incorrect. It’s just “Strand”). Perhaps it’s because I was obsessed with the Restoration and 18th century for a while, and Strand features many of the places named by Pepys, Boswell, Johnson, and others. That being said, on one hand, Strand isn’t the most interesting street in appearances. Much of Strand was rebuilt in the 19th and 20th centuries; contemporary concrete blocks compete for attention with elegant, finely-detailed structures (always remember to look up over the shopfronts!); clothing chains and chemists stand next door to 200 year old tea shops, ancient churches, and Neo-classical palaces. But this is part of what makes London so fascinating—the juxtapositions between ancient and modern, sacred and secular.
Strand began as a road stretching along the banks of the Thames from Westminster into the City of London. In the middle ages, wealthy and powerful people lined Strand with their homes—many of those houses, although rebuilt, remain today and many streets and courts maintain names from the families or structures). Houses built between Strand and the river included water gates that enabled residents to travel on the river directly from home. The creation of Victoria Embankment (between 1864 and 1870) removed this access, but several buildings still have their original water-stairs, and a stunning water gate–the York water gate, designed by Inigo Jones–stands in Victoria Embankment Gardens. In the 18th century, when landowners began developing residential squares in the West End, many families who had lived in Strand moved to those squares. Strand was then populated with taverns, coffee shops, tea houses, hotels, theaters, banks and eateries, which is pretty much how it remains today. Sadly, I can’t access all of my Strand photos just now, so this post is largely written rather than illustrated.
Just down from Trafalgar Square, in the forecourt of Charing Cross Railway station, stands an elaborate memorial. It’s a Victorian Gothic replica of a memorial cross created by King Edward I for his wife, Eleanor of Castile. The original cross had stood where the equestrian statue of Charles I now stands, and had been destroyed by Cromwell’s army in the English Civil War. (Aside: I had been told that “Charing Cross” was called such as Eleanor was Edward’s chère reine (dear queen), but apparently that’s a back construction, and this area had been called “Charing” for centuries before Edward and Eleanor existed).
Just past Charing Cross station, before McDonalds, there’s a small street that slopes down toward this river. This is Villiers Street, named for George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, who had a palace, York House, on this spot. At the bottom of the street, near Charing Cross tube station, you’ll find Embankment Gardens. The Watergate for that palace remains—you can see just how far up the embankment the river came. (writers John Evelyn, Richard Steele, and Rudyard Kipling, lived on Villiers Street).
By the narrow, half-timbered Port House, a bar, a slim alley leads away from Strand. This leads to Exchange Court, the site of the New Exchange (AKA Britain’s Bourse) in the 17th You visited New Exchange for clothes, hats, ribbons, books, and so on. Pepys was a frequent visitor to the “New ‘Change” The building was demolished in the 18th century.
There’s been a theater on the site of the Adelphi for the past two hundred years; its name is come a residential development by the Adams brothers in the 18th Unfortunately, that structure was largely dismantled for redevelopment in the 19th century.
At number 80, Strand, a grand facade is what remains of the Cecil Hotel, a late 19th century building that was largely demolished and rebuilt Shell-Mex House.
A bit further down, you find Somerset House, which is fairly spectacular. Built in the 16th century (rebuilt in the 18th-19th), it’s been a royal residence (Elizabeth I lived here for five years while a princess), the headquarters for Cromwell’s army, an exhibition space, government offices, the headquarters for the Admiralty, and more. Currently, it houses the Courtauld Institute of Art, which is associated with the University of London.
St. Mary le Strand is the first of two “island” churches on this street. This church stands where Londoners had erected a maypole following the restoration of the monarchy. St Mary Le Strand, designed by James Gibbs (St Martin-in-the-Fields) and consecrated in 1723, is one of the Queen Anne churches. They’re so named as, during her reign, Parliament instituted the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches. People paid for the churches through a coal tax. St. Mary le Strand is also one of the churches threatened with demolition in the early 20th century. Developers wished to make way for contemporary roads and buildings. There was quite an international movement against this destruction (see T. S. Eliot’s Wasted Churches for a bit more on that). Charles Dickens’s parents married here.
Right across from St Mary Le Strand is a ghost station- discontinued since the early 1990s. Strand Station (AKA Aldwych Station) opened in 1907. In the second world war, this station provided protection to the Elgin Marbles and other precious works. Later, it became a popular movie, television, and music video set.
St Clement Danes is the second island church. It has a fascinating history as it’s the site of a church founded by the Danes, who had sacked London in the 10th century. The present church was designed by Christopher Wren, with work completed in 1682,
The Royal Courts of Justice, just across the street, is an example of High Victorian Gothic. It’s not uncommon to see journalists and TV crews standing outside.
Two other notable places are The George pub, which is a delightful half-timbered building. Samuel Johnson was a regular here and, according to legend, used this pub’s postal address as his own. Horace Walpole and Oliver Goldsmith also frequented The George. The nearby Twinings flagship shop has stood here for three hundred years.
Shortly after passing these establishments, a dragon stands in the center of the road; he marks the border between the City of Westminster and the City of London, and here Strand becomes Fleet Street.