It doesn’t matter how well you think you know a city, there are always new aspects of it to discover. I recently took a guided walk of Kensington and Knightsbridge with Context Travel. Although I’ve been to London many times, I’ve yet to learn many of her secrets. Our docent was an immense help.
Kensington dates back to Anglo-Saxon times or beyond. It means “town of Kensing,” ton deriving from the Anglo-Saxon for town. No one knows who Kensing was, though.
We met outside the church of St. Mary Abbott’s. This Victorian building is its fourth reincarnation. It was built by a Victorian architect called Sir George Gilbert Scott, whose grandson, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, designed the red phone box. St. Mary Abbott’s has the tallest spire outside the City of London.
We then walked along High Street past Billionaires’ Row. Diplomats and extremely wealthy people live on this bit of Crown land, which means that however rich they are, they are still tenants of the Queen because they bought long leases. The entrance is heavily watched over by security guards armed to the teeth and security cameras. In stark contrast to this, the entrance to the private residences of Kensington Palace down the road is totally unassuming and apparently unguarded.
Kensington Place was originally the country residence of William III’s Secretary of State, built in 1605. King William acquired it and it became a royal residence. Although it is not as grand as other royal palaces, I found its proportions and design pleasing to the eye. Some rooms like the Queen’s and the King’s State Apartments are open to the public but, honestly, I’m nosy so I would really like to visit the private residences of current dukes and princesses.
Generations of nannies have brought their charges to play at the round pond of Kensington Gardens, across from Kensington palace. They inspired J.M. Barrie, also a frequent visitor, to write Peter Pan. I could almost see the Darling children and Nana frolicking in the park and feeding the swans.
At the end of an avenue of trees, on the right, the breathtaking Albert Memorial soars to the skies. The memorial was commissioned by Queen Victoria and designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott. Our lovely guide pointed out a few details, like Prince Albert holding a programme of the Great Exhibition of 1851, his brainchild, or the famous architects or painters sculpted in the frieze.
Crossing the street is the Royal Albert Hall from 1871. This concert hall was created to fulfill Prince Albert’s dream of promoting understanding and appreciation of the arts and sciences. All kinds of musicians have performed here. For instance, Eric Clapton has done 200 performances. Other artists, like Pink Floyd however, were not invited back. The Royal Albert Hall hosts the BBC Proms, a very popular series of concerts that take place very summer.
Prince Albert wanted to bring together arts and science and to educate people from all walks of life. He created institutions like the Royal College of Music, the prestigious Imperial College of London, Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum and Science Museum. The museum area on Exhibition Road is part of his legacy.
We went into the Victoria and Albert Museum. Our guide pointed at the bomb damage on the outside walls sustained during the Blitz. The museum left it as it is to show newer generations this sad chapter in English history. I learned that the V&A was the first museum in the world to have a café. Its walls are beautifully decorated with colourful tiles. The reason is that back then the museum was in the countryside, far away from the fire station. If a fire started in the kitchen, the tiles would prevent it from spreading.
After a restorative coffee and pastry (I had a most delicious custard tart,) we marched on to Knightsbridge.
Brompton Oratory, the grandest Catholic church in London, was, interestingly also used as a dead letter drop by spies during the Cold War. I thought this was frightfully exciting and conjured up images of men in hats and overcoats skulking about on a foggy night.
The guided walk ended outside Harrod’s, the iconic department store. Its history is loosely related to Prince Albert in that when the Great Exhibition was announced, Mr Harrod, a merchant, decided to move his shop here to take advantage of the crowds. What a visionary.
One last tidbit before I go: the famous Victorian author Anthony Trollope designed the first mailbox.