London Coffeehouse Tour

Unreal City Audio’s Coffeehouse Tour covers two of the Londonphile’s favourite things: London and coffee. Historian and tour leader Dr Matthew Green conducts these tours around the old City, explaining how a gritty and bitter Turkish drink transformed the capital. Ably assisted by a small troupe of actors and musicians, he brings the City’s old coffeehouses to life – no mean feat considering that they no longer exist.

Appropriately enough the tour commences outside St Michael’s Cornhill – in 1652 Greek entrepreneur and coffee-lover Pasqua Rosee started the city’s first coffee stall here in the churchyard. People queued up all the way down St Michael’s Alley to get their caffeine fix from dishes of coffee sold from a wooden shack, while the church pews sat empty. Over 600 dishes a day were sold.

The old and the new.

One of the most fascinating – and fundamental – aspects of the original London coffeehouses was that they were not a solitary experience, as is so often the case today. Instead, they were an opportunity for people (read: men) to talk to strangers, strike deals, and generally impart news, information and mis-information. The early coffeehouses were so strong a feature of London life that they survived not only the Great Fire (which destroyed all 82 coffeehouses in the City) but the wrath of King Charles II, who attempted  – and failed – to shut them down with a 1675 proclamation.

The tour takes you to the sites of some of the earliest coffeehouses – most of which came to be associated with a particular business, such as insurance, auctioneering and stockbroking and were essentially to become the birthplaces of these industries. So as Matthew points out, it’s no coincidence that this same area has since housed Lloyd’s of London, The Royal Exchange and the London Stock Exchange. Along the way you also get to explore some of the City’s quaint, hidden back streets and churchyards. And as for whether or not you will need your coffee fix before the tour: you may still want to partake beforehand as although you will get opportunities to taste it, the old style coffee is quite different and won’t be to everyone’s liking – even though it’s served in a diluted form!

Check Unreal City Audio’s website for future dates – and be warned that they often sell out quickly. There is an email list you can join for advance notice of tours. They will also be running a Chocolate and Coffeehouse Tour on Saturday 7th April for Easter.


Seven Noses of Soho Walk

In short, anything that Peter Berthoud doesn’t know about London (or more specifically, Westminster) probably isn’t worth knowing. He’s a trained City of Westminster Guide and the person behind the wonderful Discovering London blog and – luckily for Londoners – your personal tour guide on his Seven Noses of Soho Walk.

So just what are these mythical noses? Some time ago people started noticing plaster noses affixed to walls around London. Inevitably a number of theories regarding their origins started doing the rounds. Taxi drivers in particular are said to have promulgated many of the myths surrounding the Admiralty Arch nose, which has been variously claimed as Wellington’s, Napoleon’s, et al….Most importantly, it was said that it you could locate all of the noses, infinite wealth would be yours. Or some such.

Then just last October artist Rick Buckley outed himself in the Evening Standard as the creator of said noses, which he revealed he had placed around London (not just Soho) all the way back in 1997 as a statement against the proliferation of CCTV (get it: nosey!). The noses vary from quite realistic looking ones to much larger, inflated protuberances, though all are apparently taken from a cast of the artist’s own nose. The high placement of some certainly suggest clandestine, night-time visits with a ladder. Needless to say, the buildings’ owners were not consulted, and not all of the noses have lived to tell the tale (Buckley claims he affixed 35 in total). Many are painted the same colour as the wall to which they are attached, making spotting these noses more of a challenge. And this is where the walk comes in…

However, Peter’s tour isn’t just about the seven noses. You will also get to see a fake nose, a missing nose, an ear and some fingers. And if all these body parts aren’t enough there is also a very tall door (with a singular purpose), a delightful community garden and a surprising amount of street art. Without giving away any of Peter’s secrets, I’m fairly confident that if you do the walk on a Wednesday you will see something at a large art institution that you have probably never seen before…

One of the joys of this walk is that Peter also weaves in snippets about Soho’s history and cultural life – but in a far less dry manner than a standard historical tour – so if you’ve always wanted to know more about this fascinating area of London this could be the walk for you. Upcoming walks that still have places available are on Sundays 5th and 19th February, at the very civilised hour of 2pm. But keep an eye on Peter’s website, as more dates are sure to be added: