London is the world’s top tourist destination, and so it should be. There are far more beautiful great cities, regarding their natural settings – Cape Town, Sydney, Rio – and more beautiful cities architecturally – Venice, Amsterdam – but there is no place as historically and culturally exciting as London.
When I recently saw a tourist list of the top ten things to do in London I thought it would be fun to compile a list of the top ten things to do in Shakespeare’s London, as though I were a travel agent in the Elizabethan era. And here it is:
1. You could spend whole days just walking through the narrow thoroughfares or strolling along the banks of the Thames, the great river that rises in the Cotswolds and snakes its way more than two hundred miles to London, and through the city, to the sea. You will encounter all kinds of domestic, farm or stray animals – cats, dogs, ducks, pigs, rats, goats, cows – and a jumbled mass of humanity. You will come across jugglers, sailors, blacksmiths, prostitutes, chimney sweeps, magicians, artisans of all types, milkmaids, merchants, minstrels, pickpockets and muggers. You will see perfumed and bejewelled ladies and gentlemen. You may even see the Queen herself, heading a convoy of carriages. You may have to step around horse dung and rotting corpses, avoiding the wagons that are loading them up. Whatever your emotions, you will have a most stimulating time.
2. Make sure you don’t miss a walk across London Bridge, constructed between 1176 and 1209. It’s the only bridge that connects northern and southern sides of Elizabethan London, although boats are available to ferry travellers across the river. Shops on which houses are built line both sides of the bridge. Above the traffic lane in the middle are passageways (resembling overpasses above modern streets) connecting buildings on one side of the bridge with those on the other. You will be able to buy a range of things while viewing the impaled heads of traitors as a reminder that you should be careful not to become involved in politics.
3. Hire a ferryman to take you on a trip down the Thames and that’s well worth the time spent on it. The river is a vital artery in the life of London, crowded with rowing boats, barges, and commercial sailing ships. Human excrement and rotting food will wash past you, stimulating your olfactory nerves, as people empty their chamber pots from their windows and recent rain washes the waste into the river from dung piles, ditches, cesspits and streams.
4. A visit to Southwark is essential. It’s wild and vital –a place for drunks, prostitutes, con men, gamblers, and thieves. There are scores of inns and taverns for you to choose from, where you could drink gin and ale (cheaper than drinkable water) to your heart’s content, then join the drunks staggering around the streets. You would also have a choice of the popular blood sports that abound. And, of course, the theatres are there too.
5. Then, as now, London was the world’s best shopping venue. Do not miss the Royal Exchange on Threadneedle Street, the world’s first shopping mall, uncannily similar to the modern mall. It is a huge arcaded building with banking facilities and accommodation for more than two hundred shops and thousands of businessmen. The building surrounds a courtyard where four thousand bankers and tradesmen conduct their business. Elsewhere in London there are no zoning regulations so you will find shops alongside inns, homes, churches, workshops, stables, and markets. You will find anything your heart desires – wigs, jewellery, perfume, hats, shoes, breeches, shirts, ruffles, feathers, silks, drugs, wine, spices, paper, ink, candles, toys, and anything else you could think of.
6. Something universally loved, including by the Queen herself, is bearbaiting, a sport in which a tethered bear is taunted to the cheers of spectators. You will find those performances in Southwark. You can also see dogfights and cockfights there. Get there early if you want a good view. And watch out for pickpockets.
7. If you happen to be in London on Michaelmas Day, September 29th, you will be able to see the Lord Mayor’s Parade – the street parade that follows the election of the Lord Mayor of London. Passing you will be the whole range of tradesmen in their liveries – cloth workers, drapers, fish merchants, haberdashers, goldsmiths, ironmongers, grocers, mercers, skinners, salters, vintners, and all the rest. London’s sheriffs and constables will also be parading in all their finery.
8. Although White Hall Palace, the main residence of the Queen, is not open to the public you should take a look at it. You will not see the private facilities introduced by the Queen’s father, Henry VIII – the bowling green, indoor tennis court, cock fighting pit, and jousting tiltyard – but you will be able to gaze on the largest palace in Europe, with over 1,500 rooms, larger than the Vatican and the Palace of Versailles.
9. If you are interested in watching a public execution you have a choice. You could go to Tower Hill on the offchance: that’s where the upper class condemned are beheaded. It would be better to ask around because it doesn’t happen every day. If you went to Tyburn or Smithfield you would be sure to see some executions of ordinary traitors and common criminals. You may get tired of seeing people hanged, one after the other, but if you’re lucky you may see someone being drawn along the ground to the execution spot, hanged until barely conscious then cut into four pieces while he is watching it happen to him. It’s a specialised taste but very popular.
10. Pride of place goes to the most well attended event: a visit to the theatre! You would have to cross London Bridge to Southwark, where the theatres are situated. There are more than twenty to choose from, including the Newington Butts Playhouse, the Rose, and the Swan. Take a look at the Globe, where you may see a play by the famous Master Shakespeare, the most popular playwright. If you are very lucky you may actually see Master Shakespeare in a minor role.
That’s it. Enjoy your visit to Shakespeare’s London!