The Westminster, St. James, and Mayfair walking tour in Moon London Walks takes travelers to some of the city’s most iconic sights. But I wonder how many visitors pause to imagine what the area looked two centuries ago. It is my hope that providing some historical context will add to your exploring pleasure.
To research my Regency mystery series (the newest of which is On a Desert Shore), I have spent countless hours tramping all over London and resurrecting ghosts of the past. First in our ghostly procession has to be the man who gives the period its name: the recklessly extravagant prince who ruled England as Regent between 1811-1820 (later George IV). Unfortunately for George, he has gone down in history as a wastrel and a scoundrel, but he was also a noted patron of the arts.
So to begin. As you cross Westminster Bridge, you might recall the poet William Wordsworth’s description of the view he saw one early morning: “Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie / Open unto the fields, and to the sky; / All bright and glittering in the smokeless air” (from “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”). Keep in mind that in Wordsworth’s day, to get a breath of pure air in coal-begrimed London would have been a miracle!
Well worth careful exploration is Westminster Abbey, where the Prince Regent barred the door to prevent his despised wife Caroline from attending his coronation (he’d already attempted to divorce her). After you tour the Abbey, you might stop in to St. Margaret’s Church next door to see the beautiful East Window, a fine example of pre-Reformation stained glass. In the Crucifixion scene, be sure to look for the angel carrying off the penitent thief’s soul to heaven and the demon bearing the soul of the unrepentant thief on its back. This demon reminds me of the 19th-century criminal slum or rookery called Devil’s Acre, which lay practically in the shadow of St. Margaret’s and the Abbey. This was the sort of place my sleuth, Bow Street Runner John Chase, would have gone to collar a thief. By the way, the Bow Street Runners were London’s first professional policemen: a tiny band of semi-freelance detectives working out of the magistrate’s court in Bow Street, Covent Garden.
In Trafalgar Square, you certainly won’t be able to miss Nelson’s Column. Admiral Horatio Nelson was the hero of Trafalgar, a triumphant naval battle against the Spanish and French in 1805, and one of the most celebrated men of his day. Those really were the days when Britain ruled the waves. While you’re in the area, be sure to visit my favorite London museum, the National Portrait Gallery. It’s so much fun to read character in the faces! You will encounter Nelson’s portrait, along with the intimate pencil and watercolor sketch of Jane Austen done by her sister Cassandra. And keep an eye out for the glamorous poet Lord Byron, who has a cameo role in my book Blood for Blood! Byron was once called “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” by his scorned—and married—lover.
As you walk up St. James’s Street, pause to have a look at the exterior of White’s with its bow window, where the Regency dandies would sit to see and be seen, leveling their quizzing glasses at passers-by. White’s was, and still is, an exclusive gentlemen’s club, and a dandy was a man of fashion whose life was dedicated to social polish and dress.
By now you’re probably ready to rest your feet and enjoy a swanky afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason, after which a stroll through the Burlington Arcade should prove entertaining. Both of these sites were around during the Regency.
Toward the end of your tour, the route takes you down Bond Street, which has been a high-end shopping district since the 18th century. During the Regency, ladies could do some shopping during the morning hours, but the late afternoons and evenings belonged to the gentlemen. Nowadays you come across any of the Bond Street loungers—dandies such as the famous Beau Brummell—who often promenaded through Mayfair. Brummell was entirely representative of his era: a man of style and wit who rose to high society, only to suffer a disastrous fall.
Truly, the past is all around us here. For this American writer, London has been—and continues to be—a great source of inspiration. May it be the same for you!