When you think of the area of Borough in London nowadays, usually Borough Market springs to mind. Borough Market is an upscale food and drink market near London Bridge that has been in existence one way or another for the last 1000 years. In previous centuries, this area was definitely less pleasant and more dangerous… and home to Marshalsea Prison where a young Charles Dickens experienced poverty in Victorian England firsthand. While Charles Dickens family was imprisoned for debt, he was forced to work in a factory along with other poor Victorian children and live in a neighbourhood that would exemplify Dickensian poverty.
Poverty in Victorian England
Wealthy British philanthropist Charles Booth refused to believe that poverty in Victorian England was so bad that nearly a 1/4 of the population lived in poverty. He commissioned his own team of researchers in 1886 and their report was published in 1903, a 17 volume page-turner The Life and Labor of the People in London.
What did the report say about Victorian poverty in London? It was even worse than thought.
Nearly 30% of the population (1.8 million) was living in poverty.
Another 1 million were teetering on the edge of poverty – it would take as little as a debt being called in such as what happened to Charles Dickens family – to topple them into full-blown poverty.
Over half of the poor lived south of the river between Blackfriars Bridge and London Bridge (see map below) in the area of Borough in Dickensian poverty.
A plaque indicating where the Victorian London Bridge which is currently located in Arizona would have stood.
Debtor’s Prisons in Victorian England
In the 18th century, over half the people who were in jail were there because they couldn’t pay off their debts. And, every year, another 10,000 people would be thrown in debtor’s prisons in the Victorian Era.
If you were a merchant or trader then you could declare bankruptcy. If you were just running up personal debt, there was no way out of the situation short of (i) paying up, (ii) going to prison or (iii) fleeing to Europe.
Factories and workhouses provided work for the poor such as this Menier chocolate factory which is now a trendy residence.
Since the Middle Ages in England, you could be thrown in prison for owing money. For example, there are records in the nearby criminal prison, The Clink, for a man being jailed for owing £15 to a blacksmith in the 16th century. So any small amount could land you in jail – it wasn’t until 1827 that the law required your small debt had to be at least £20.
By the time of Dickens, you began to separate the criminal from the merely poor. You had 4 debtor’s prisons in London – Whitegate Street, Fleet Street, King’s Bench and Marshalsea. There was a pecking order among the prisons and Marshalsea Prison considered middling. Despite what Charles Dickens may have thought, it could have been worse!!
Debtor’s prisons were for-profit enterprises that were used to house people who couldn’t pay their debts. While in prison, they were charged for their time in jail! If they could pay prison fees, they could be sent to work and a part of their wages used to pay off their debt.
If imprisoned debtors couldn’t pay their prison fees, the fees just accumulated and got added to the original debt. It was a vicious cycle for the poorest of the poor. People actually starved to death in debtor’s prisons because they couldn’t pay for food.
Needless to say, living and working conditions in these prisons were harsh and corruption was rife. For example, jailers could chain up their prisoners and then remove their chains for payment.
One of the wardens of Marshalsea Prison was actually put on trial for the murder of prisoners. You know the brutality was bad, i the abuse actually rose to the level fo making it to the courts.
And, life went on as normal in many ways. Entire families were imprisoned together. People could carry on their trades in prison such as laundry services or sewing. People could also beg or get alms from visitors.
Some European countries had laws that debtors could only be jailed for up to a year but in Britain, debtors were jailed until their creditors were happy. When they closed Fleet Prison in 1842, they found two prisoners who had been there for 30 years.
Fun Fact! Britain did not outlaw imprisonment for debt (except for cases involving fraud) until 1869.
Dickens mentions debtor’s prisons in several books – Mr Pickwick got sent off to Fleet Prison, David Copperfield is at the King’s Bench and Marshalsea Prison appears throughout Little Dorrit.
The Class Divide of Victorian Poverty
Debtors prisons in Victorian England were set up to maintain hierarchy similar to the society at large. For example, at Whitecross Prison, there was a separate barebones facility for common prisoners and better accommodation for citizens of the city of London.
The Kings Bench prison even let you live outside the prison walls with a prescribed area if you were of a higher class.
Did you know? Emma, Lady Hamilton was reduced to poverty and subject to the Kings Bench prison. She was the mistress of Napoleonic war hero, Admiral Nelson, who died at the Battle of Trafalgar. She was left impoverished when the British government ignored Nelson’s request that she be provided for as if she were his widow. Lady Hamilton didn’t actually stay at the Kings Bench but was able to live nearby. Then she fled to France and continued to rack up debts.
So not only were there class divisions in debtors prisons, Victorian England also had different standards if you were upper class and profligate. Your family would just send you abroad to avoid the social embarrassment. A popular alternative was Boulogne in Northern France where nearly a quarter of the town were debt-ridden English people.
Opened in 1373, Marshalsea was a notorious prison south of the Thames River in Southwark. Only the ruins remain because Marshalsea was closed in 1842 and its prisoners divided between Bethlem Hospital (the infamous Bedlam) if they were mentally ill and other prisons.
A haunting reminder of the misery of Marshalsea and Dickensian poverty
The church of St. George the Martyr next door was used as the burial ground for debtors who died while at Marshalsea.
Charles Dickens Family Experience of Marshalsea
“Marshalsea is gone and the world is none the worse without it.”
– Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens’ father was imprisoned at Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison in 1824 when Charles was 12 years old. Charles’ father, John Dickens, owed a baker a little over £40.
Plaque on Bayham Street in Camden, London locating the site on which Charles Dickens once lived prior to being shown the underbelly of Victorian life south of the River in Southwark.
This traumatic event made a huge impression on the young boy who was sent to lodgings nearby and forced to work at a factory full-time to pay for his upkeep. His mother and sisters joined his father at Marshalsea Prison. Luckily for Dickens, his father was released after 3 months when he came into an inheritance.
Charles Dickens himself was put in a boarding house on Lant Street which is now where the Charles Dickens Primary School is located. He worked at Warren’s Blacking Factory near Waterloo Bridge where he worked putting labels on shoe polish bottles.
Fun Fact! Dickens met a Bob Fagin at his factory whose name was immortalised as the crime boss Fagin in his novel Oliver Twist.
During his lifetime, Charles Dickens family never mentioned the Marshalsea period. His first hand experience with Victorian poverty was only revealed to the public in a biography after he died.
At Marshalsea Prison, Charles Dickens family experienced the misery of Victorian poverty.
Dickens’ novel Little Dorritt is about a girl who is born and grows up in Marshalsea Prison. Her father is in jail and the family joins him. In fact, all three of the family’s children are raised in Marshalsea because the father is in Marshalsea for so long. Ironically the father could have gotten himself out of jail, but he’s gotten used to a certain lifestyle and respect at Marshalsea that he doesn’t want to trade for his (or his family’s) freedom.
A Charles Dickens Walking Tour of Southwark
For Charles Dickens poverty was an important theme in his novels and of which he had first hand experience. Charles Dickens’ childhood was marred by the time his father and the rest of his family was thrown in Marshalsea prison. In fact, the written descriptions of poverty in Victorian England were so vivid that the phrase Dickensian poverty immediately brings up images of hardship, crime and degradation a 100+ years later.
Despite having transformed into a trendy area, this DIY walking tour of some of the places in Southwark will give you a flavour for the world described in his books.
We did this Charles Dickens walking tour with children so I have mentioned both outdoor spaces and places where you can stop of for a snack/break. The places are relatively close together and the walking is easy. You can easily do this walk in a couple of hours if you are not dawdling like we were.
A map showing spots of interest for a Charles Dickens Walking Tour of Southwark London
The Ruins of Marshalsea & Environs
The surviving remains of Marshalsea Prison exist on Angel Place in Southwark (Borough tube stop on the Northern Line). The other prisons are also long gone and replaced with newer buildings including the nearby Kings Bench Jail on Borough High Street. Luckily, the association with Dickens and Little Dorrit has allowed for the location of the Marshalsea prison to remain as a homage to Dickensian poverty.
The gate and a wall is what remains of Marshalsea Prison
Travel Tip! The easiest way to find Angel Place alley, all that remains of Marshalsea Prison, is to look for it sandwiched next to the John Harvard Library! (Yes, THAT John Harvard of Harvard University fame who came from Southwark because his family owned an inn nearby).
The Church of St. George The Martyr is where the character of Little Dorrit was both baptised and married. The church has a stained glass window depiction of Little Dorrit.
The church of St. George the Martyr which is featured in Little Dorrit.
The Charles Dickens Primary School is over the site of the boarding house on Lant Street where 12 year old Charles Dickens would have stayed while his family was at Marshalsea Prison. He got taken out of school, separated from his family and sent to do factory work all in a short space of time.
The Crossbones Graveyard is located on Redcross Way (at the corner of Union Street ) and is the burial ground for people deemed undesirable by the Medieval church- the prostitutes and poor who lived in the neighbourhood. For hundreds of years, some 15,000 people were buried in this graveyard until it was closed in 1853. It’s not like these people got dignity in death either – the graveyard was a popular spot for body snatchers who would sell the bodies for medical research at St. Thomas Hospital nearby.
For hundreds of years, Crossbones Graveyard has been the final resting place for London’s prostituted and paupers.
Across from the Crossbones Graveyard is a former Victorian Ragged School (now a city council building). Ragged schools provided free education to poor Victorian children consisting of reading, writing, counting and Bible studies. Dickens was not particularly impressed with the schools because he thought they were too heavy on the relgion. A visit to London’s Field Lane Ragged School inspired Charles Dickens to write A Christmas Carol.
This former Ragged School had its outdoor space on the rooftop. Victorian social reformers believed in fresh air (not necessarily clean air and/or health and safety in parks).
Nancy’s Steps are all that remains of the 1831 London Bridge. This older London Bridge was sold in 1967 to an American and currently spanning Lake Havasu in Arizona. The newer version of London Bridge you see today would not be the one that Dickens wrote about.
The steps are on the corner of London Bridge and Duke Street Hill and leads you into Borough Market. In Oliver Twist, on these steps Fagin’s henchman overhears Nancy plotting against the gang’s interest (a betrayal that does not end well for poor old Nancy). You can surmise that Nancy would have ended up in the Crossbones Graveyard.
Nancy’s Steps at London Bridge named after the original hooker with a heart
Mint Street Park is the location of the former Mint Street Workhouse which Charles Dickens would have passed every day on his way to work in the shoe polish factory off Waterloo Bridge. It is believed that Charles Dickens modelled the workhouse in Oliver Twist on the Mint Street Workhouse. The Mint Street Workhouse was still in use until 1921 but today all that remains is a bit of a wall.
Across from Angel Place, the Little Dorrit Park is a former Victorian slum that was razed to create a children’s play ground and named after the Charles Dickens’ character.
The Red Cross Garden is an oasis in an otherwise bleak urban landscape. Set up in 1887 on the site of a former paper factory, it is overlooked by houses that were set up by Victorian social reformer, Octavia Hill. She was a big believer in having access to the outdoors for urban dwellers.
Did you know? Octavia Hill was also responsible for keeping our personally beloved Hampstead Heath from becoming a residential development and also one of the three founders of the National Trust.
Eating and Drinking
The George Inn is located at 77 Borough High Street. A National Trust property in London, the George Inn was built in 1677 and the only remaining inn in London with a galleried porch front. Charles Dickens frequented the George Inn and it is mentioned in Little Dorrit.
Borough Market is a foodies delight. If you want to keep in line with the Dickens theme though for a quick lunch, the Little Dorrit Cafe on Park Street just outside Borough Market is reputed to have the best bacon butty (sandwich) in London.
The Little Dorrit Cafe has great bacon sandwiches if you want to stop for a bite on your Charles Dickens walking tour.
If you are heading towards Waterloo Bridge, check outThai Silk which is one of my favourite authentic Thai places in London. It’s got a lovely outdoor space for nice summer days too.
Guided Charles Dickens Walking Tour
Prefer to have your Charles Dickens walking tour with a guide who knows where to go and explain it all? Check out these options!
SPREAD THE WORD! PIN THIS TO YOUR TRAVEL PINTEREST BOARDS FOR FUTURE REFERENCE!
See for yourself on this free and easy Dickens walking tour places from Charles Dickens childhood that inspired his interest in poor Victorian children.
When you think of the area of Borough in London nowadays, usually Borough Market springs to mind. But in previous centuries, this area was definitely less pleasant and more dangerous… and home to Marshalsea Prison where a young Charles Dickens experienced poverty in Victorian England firsthand. Discover the history behind Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison and what it has to do with Charles Dickens.
This site generates income via partnerships with carefully-curated travel and lifestyle brands and/or purchases made through links to them at no extra cost to you. More information may be found on our Disclosure Policy.
There aren’t many options for decent food, never mind good food, in the area between Waterloo and London Bridge. Located pretty much adjacent to Southwark station, Thai Silk stands out as a culinary beacon in this wilderness. Thai Silk is that rare beast – an affordable yet authentic Thai restaurant in London. With great food and service, this restaurant is a local Southwark treasure and attracts a neighbourhood crowd.
Authentic and affordable Thai cuisine near the Tate Modern Museum and the Imperial War Museum.
Authentic Thai Restaurant in London
We found the food appropriately spiced and tasty. We tried the Thai street food dishes which Thai Silk have recently started. The dishes include Thai sausages, crispy dried pork, Thai sour spare ribs and an assortment of salads.
Thai sour spare ribs
Minced Pork Cakes are part of the Thai street food menu.
By the way, when the menu says hot, they mean hot as in authentic Thai cuisine levels of hot and spicy. I found out the eye-wateringly hard way! My husband thought it was fine though.
Black bean and prawns
My standout favourite dish was the panaeng gae (lamb shank cooked in a rich red curry). Wow! The curry had layers of flavour and the lamb just melted in your mouth. The manager told us that we were not the only ones who love this dish. Thai tourists come to his restaurant for a taste of home.
Lamb shank in rich red curry sauce (photo credit: Thai Silk)
There is a good value lunch special of a starter and a main course served with rice or noodles. Alternatively, an early bird dinner before 7pm offers a similar deal but with an extra vegetable dish.
We did not take our children to lunch with us at Thai Silk. In the spirit of experimentation (and gluttony) we tried out a few dishes on the menu on their behalf. For example, we sampled the chicken satay and the pork noodles and decided our children would have liked them.
The Chicken Sate was grilled to perfection with a mild peanut sauce.
Thai Silk Bar, Lounge and Karaoke
More than just a restaurant, Thai Silk is a place to gather and make memories. The restaurant has got a great outdoor space with lots of tables. I can see this outdoor patio being a major summer hangout when the weather is good. In addition, there is a bar and lounge area with a DJ every Friday night.
The stylish bar area at Thai Silk Southwark in London
In addition, there are karaoke rooms upstairs with over a 100,000 songs in multiple languages. After a few drinks, who knows you may want to challenge yourself beyond Katy Perry and find yourself wanting to sing out the latest Thai hit song!
Thai Silk Southwark
Bought by the Royal China group, there had been initial plans to change Thai Silk into another Royal China outpost. Luckily the new owners realised they had a neighbourhood gem on their hands and kept the restaurant as is. They did bring in some of their staff from the Royal China in Marylebone to oversee the place.
If you are going to the fabulous Tate Modern Museum, you will get off at the Southwark tube stop. This restaurant is conveniently located right near the tube. Other nearby attractions are the Contemporary Applied Arts space (showcasing British craft), the Millennium Bridge, Imperial War Museums and the Imperial War Museums. By the way, my children loved the Imperial War Museums.
Thai Silk is located at 94-95 Isabella Street, London SE1 8DA. It is open for lunch and dinner, drinks and private functions.
I received a complimentary lunch at Thai Silk in exchange for this review. As always, this post and my opinions are my own.
You can spot the Magical Lantern Festival held at Chiswick House in London from several roads away. The bright colours in this Chinese light festival mark the inky sky over sleepy Chiswick in a striking gash much like a neon highlighter on paper.
The Chinese lantern festival marked to end of the Chinese New Year celebrations has come to London.
The Magical Lantern Festival
Although the Magical Lantern Festival in Chiswick is in its second year, this Chinese light festival took several years to plan. I could easily see why because the festival is very large and elaborate. It is part of the celebration of the Chinese New Year in 2017 which is the Year of the Rooster.
The Lantern Festival is traditionally held at the end of Chinese of New Year.
The theme this year is the Silk Road which were ancient trade routes that criss-crossed from China to Europe. The Silk Road only got its name in the 19th century because it sounded romantic and the first merchandise traded was silk. For thousand of years, these routes had no name but plenty of trading activity. As a byproduct of trading activity, the Silk Road brought ancient cultures in touch with each other.
Merchants and camels on the silk road.
The Magical Lantern Festival is on in London in January and February. I felt sorry for its neighbours – that’s a long time to have your night sky lit up in day-glo colours. Prior to its arrival in London, the Magical Lantern Festival spent time in other British cities.he Chinese Lantern Festival
History of The Chinese Lantern Festival
Chinese lantern festivals date back a couple of thousands of years. During the Western Han Dynasty (206BC to 25 AD), the festival was being celebrated with lanterns in temples. When the devout Buddhist Emperor Hanmingdi heard that Buddhist monks light lanterns to Buddha on the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese Lunar calendar, he ordered this practice countrywide. Later doing the Tang Dynasty, the use of lanterns spread to the palaces and streets.
The elaborate palaces of the Tang Dynasty.
When is the Chinese Lantern Festival?
The Chinese Lantern Festival starts on the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar. In 2017 and 2018, the exact date will be February 11th and March 2nd, respectively. The Chinese Lantern Festival ends the biggest Chinese festival, Chinese New Year (aka China’s Spring Festival).
What do you do at the Chinese Lantern Festival?
Participating in the Chinese Lantern Festival does not require much exertion. Basically, you go around and admire all the lanterns. Lanterns come in many shapes and sizes and themes. Lighting a lantern is a prayer for a smooth future ahead with all the best for the family.
How’s this for an elaborate lantern?
There are other ways to appreciate this Chinese light festival other than just admiring the pretty lanterns. Often the lanterns have riddles which people try to solve. If you solve the riddle, you give your answer to the owner. If your answer is right, then the owner will give you a small prize. Lion dances are another custom done during lantern festivals. The lion dance is a traditional folk dance which is used to ward off evil. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Chinese festival unless there was food involved. The traditional food eaten during the Lantern Festival are little rice dumplings called Yuanxiao.
A celebration of Chinese food
Where are the Major Lantern Festivals in China?
The biggest Lantern Festival in China is held in Quinhai in Nanjing which is supported by the local government who want it to be as big as the Harbin Ice Festival. The Quinhai festival is so famous it even gets a mention in an ancient Chinese novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber, considered one of the world’s classic books.
There are other major lantern festivals as well, including the major cities of Beijing and Shanghai. During the Cultural Revolution, lantern festivals were banned.
Red is a lucky color for the Chinese.
Magical Lantern Festival Photo Gallery
We went to the Magical Lantern Festival in Chiswick even though the temperatures were freezing. Although we spent an hour to walk around, we would have taken even longer if we hadn’t been losing sensation in our limbs! Luckily, the festival organisers had vendors selling gourmet marshmallows to toast as well as hot drinks which helped us out. We also munched on hot churros for warmth (or that’s our excuse!).
Toasting gourmet marshmallows over a fire to keep warm.
I know the Magical Lantern Festival touts the ice rink, the food vendors and the fun fair as activities for its visitors. On our visit, many people were foregoing these pleasures because it was just too cold.
What would a Chinese festival be without a cute panda?
A magical walkway of lighted lanterns
Swans are a popular symbol of love worldwide.
We thought this elephant was too cute.
Wonders along the Silk Road included dolphins?
I have no idea what fashion in Paris has to do with anything. Maybe the use of silks in fashion?
Have you been to a Chinese lantern festival? I’d love to hear what you think.
SPREAD THE WORD! PIN THIS TO YOUR TRAVEL PINTEREST BOARDS FOR FUTURE REFERENCE!
This site generates income via partnerships with carefully-curated travel and lifestyle brands and/or purchases made through links to them at no extra cost to you. More information may be found on our Disclosure Policy.
If you haven’t had a chance to visit London this Christmas, I’ve got a virtual tour of festive events that will have you planning to visit London next year in December! From the City of London to the West End, Londoners take Christmas very seriously.
A photo gallery of Christmas in London
The Christmas Makeover of Dennis Severs’ House
Dennis Severs was an American with way too much money and a love for period architecture. He restored a house in Spitalfields where the Huguenot silk weavers had settled in the 18th century after they had fled persecution for their faith from France. The house is now ‘still life drama’ with each floor showing how the fortunes of the house (and occupants) fared from the 19th century to the 20th century.
For Christmas the house is decorated like it would have been during the period portrayed included smells and noises. I really did feel like I had my own Ghost of Christmas past leading me through the house. Needless to say, the Victorian period did make you feel you were hanging out with Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol in all of their sad squalor.
The entrance to Dennis Severs’ House lit with gas lamps.
No photographs are allowed inside the house but the museum does have a YouTube video showing you what to expect.
The Most Festive Pub in Britain
The Churchill Arms in Notting Hill in London has been called the most festive pub in London. It’s got 90 Christmas trees strapped to its outside and is decorated with 21,000 lights. I would say having a pint (or two) inside counts as a festive event in London don’t you?
The Churchill Arms in Notting Hill is as festive as you can get.
The trees are all held up by netting. Let’s hope a strong wind doesn’t blow!
Harrods, the Christmas Experience
Harrods this year went with a very British fairy tale Christmas theme. The windows were decorated with mannequins of children and animals. I guess in times of world uncertainty it all goes back to children and animals (and very expensive accessories). I found it underwhelming – perhaps all in just too good taste. Let’s face it, no one goes to Harrods to experience good taste.
Geometric animals and expensive accessories in the Harrods’ windows.
One of the funniest things we saw in Harrods this year was a mother chasing her child who was wailing that she wanted her Elsa doll NOW. The 3 year old was too fast for the mother who was teetering around in heels. I’m sure the mother was thinking that quality time with her child was overrated.
The Santa Grotto at Harrods is in the massive toy department. The appointments open in August and it is usually full up by October. I remember taking my kids to the Santa Grotto each year and dreading having to go through the toy department. It definitely is a lesson in fortitude.
My daughter punching a very British festive fairy (inadvertently).
The Harrods Food Hall has great gifts if you need something easy to give someone you don’t know very well. It’s easily packaged and the Harrods name conveys that you care (enough to pay over the odds).
Harrods makes gift giving easy
The food hall decked out for the holidays to distract you from the prices of the products.
These prices are fine if you send your butler to shop for Christmas and you don’t see the bills.
Festive Window Shopping
Like in Paris, New York and other big cities, the big hotels and department stores do very creative festive displays.
The Mandarin Oriental Hotel decked out for the holidays.
The Harvey Nicks window displays were not as colorful as last year. They were more interesting though than Harrods. A certain Let Them Eat Cake attitude prevailed.
Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.
I have no idea why some of the stores in London and New York both insisted on having insects in their windows. I personally found it creepy even if the fashionistas declare that insects are a big thing for next season.
Because nothing says Christmas like giant creepy-crawlies.
Dolce and Gabbana went back to Sicilian roots with a decadent store front display.
I’ll take the bags, leave the cannoli.
The Lights, The Trees etc.
My favourite tree this year was in front of the art school, Central Saint Martins, in Granary Square in Kings Cross. The 17 foot Christmas tree with 1200 lights is frozen in resin created to look like a giant block of ice. The ice puddles into the fountains in which it is located in an effect created by 550 pounds of melted clear wax. It’s called “Fighting Fire with Ice Cream” by Alex Chinneck who is known for creating OTT public works of art.
It’s called Fighting Fire with Ice Cream because “Christmas Tree in Ice Block” would have been too bourgeois a name.
The Christmas tree in a block of ice: as cold as the spirit of the season captured in the heart of capitalist London (or something like that) Photo credit: Kings Cross.
For some more traditional Christmas festive events such as the ice rinks that dot the city and the lights at Oxford Circus, check out this video put together by the Visit London:
What do you think? Would you now consider coming to London in December? The days may be short and dark, but there is plenty of sparkle in the city nonetheless.
What you may ask is a gherkin? It’s a small pickled cucumber. The wit and wisdom of the British nicknamed the Swiss Re Tower at 30 St. Mary Axe in London as The Gherkin. In fact, everyone calls it The Gherkin, a name given to the Swiss Re Tower even when it was in its early planning stages. Now a London landmark and lauded throughout the world for its instantly recognisable design, I can’t imagine the city without The Gherkin. You can see it from lots of different angles with its fat tummy sticking out behind more slender buildings. Usually closed to the public, my family and I lined up at Open House London to get a peek inside this famous building.
Although usually closed to the public, the Gherkin offers fantastic views over London.
The Gherkin’s Architecture
Opened in 2004, the Swiss Re Tower was designed by British starchitect Norman Foster and his firm Foster + Partners as the headquarters for the insurance firm, Swiss Re. In addition to this insurance company, the building does have other office occupants as well. The Gherkin building stands on the spot of the former Baltic Exchange building which got bombed by the Provisional IRA in 1992.
The Gherkin looming over some more traditional architecture nearby.
A vase of flowers softens all the geometrical lines. The bathrooms are hidden behind the studded walls. No handles to ruin the lines.
The Swiss Re Tower uses eco-friendly principles to minimise its impact on the environment. For example, the use of clever air shafts allow the building to use passive solar heating in the winter. I appreciate that the Swiss Re building is not very tall. Although striking and hard to miss, the Gherkin does not dominate the skyline by towering over all the buildings near it.
What is The Gherkin Used For?
The Gherkin is an office building with the top three floors used as a private club. The building is located in the City of London Corporation (the financial heart of the City of London which is also known as the Square Mile). Confusing, right? As with many things in Britain, the names originated from historical context. For example, the City of London Corporation has its own Lord Mayor (different from the Mayor of London). Just go with it.
The Gherkin and Open House London
The Gherkin is not open to the general public except in certain circumstances. For example, Searcy’s at The Gherkin restaurant and bar occasionally opens its doors to non-members. You can also get a free peak inside the Gherkin during the annual Open House Weekend held in London every September.
The Swiss Re building has its own small plaza surrounding its entrance.
We had avoided The Gherkin on previous Open Houses because the lines to enter this building are notoriously long. This year was no different. When we got to the building on the Sunday at 9 AM, the line was already wrapping around the corner. Apparently the first people in line had gotten there by 6 AM. Now that’s dedication to architecture!
The Open House organisers had children’s activities on the plaza to keep the kids in line occupied. Here my daughter is sketching the Gherkin.
We stood in line for an hour and half before we were able to get inside the building. My daughter was completely over it but my son was determined to stay and get inside. We were ushered inside in small groups which involved more waiting for elevators. Once inside, we were sent straight up to the floor Searcys occupies. It looked like they moved all the furniture to keep tacky commoners from messing up the nice stuff.
Of course, we had all been waiting in long for so long, once people got inside, they headed straight for the bathrooms. We only had about 15 minutes for the visit before we were marched back to the elevators, and the line for the ladies’ room was going to take 10 minutes at least. I told my daughter that she’d just have to deal because we were not waiting in line for an hour and half just to use the restroom inside and not see anything else!!
Photo Gallery Of London From The Swiss Re Tower
The 360 degree view from the Searcys Bar is spectacular even on a cloudy day like we encountered.
More traditional architecture in the form of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
You can see the shard and the Walkie Talkie buildings from the Gherkin.
This building, the Mayor of London’s HQ, is known as The Testicle for obvious reasons.
The Thames winds its way to the Docklands financial centre at Canary Wharf.
A bird’s eye view of Tower Bridge and The Tower of London
Another view of the so-called Walkie Talkie building in London.
This is the new London building called The Cheese Grater.
I used to work here at Tower 42. It used to be the old NatWest headquarters. From above when the CEO landed on the tower’s helipad, the building was shaped like the NatWest logo.
Searcys The Gherkin
Searcys, the private members’ club, offers 360 degree views of London. The Gherkin restaurant is located on the 39th floor and the bar on the 40th floor. They do let non-members into Searcys Gherkin for specific occasions like the Diamond in the Sky Afternoon Tea for Christmas. Everyone gets a champagne flute, tea and scones for £65 a person Sorry, it’s already sold out. There are also the occasional lunches and dinners at the Gherkin restaurant starting at a reasonable £50 per person.
Fun Facts About The Gherkin in London
There are 41 floors of which 33 are office floors.
Even though the building is curved, there is only one piece of curved glass in the structure – the dome at the top of Searcys at The Gherkin.
The dome at the top of the Swiss Re Tower in London.
Each floor rotates 5 degrees from the floor below to give the triangular glass windows its diagonal swish.
Almost 7500 panes of glass and 35 kilometres of steel were used in the construction of the building.
The elliptical ‘gherkin’ like shape is a result of the structure been 180 metres tall and 178 metres wide at its widest part.
The Gherkin made an appearance in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.
I personally think The Gherkin in London looks like a bullet. Wouldn’t The Bullet have been a cooler nickname? In the USA, I’m pretty sure the nickname would have been The Bullet. Calling the building The Gherkin though is much more in line with self-deprecating British humour.
The Gherkin Building is easily spotted in London but not generally open to the public to view the inside.
Practical Info To Know Before You Go
The Gherkin is easily accessible by tube or train from Liverpool Street Station, Aldgate Station or London Fenchurch Street. You can’t miss it. Just look for it in the skyline poking out. If you are going to visit The Swiss Re Tower for Open House London, get there early. By noon on the Sunday of the Open House, we saw that the line to enter The Gherkin snaked around several city blocks.
If you are staying in the City of London Corporation, I have friends who highly recommend the Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell. The Zetter is also a family-friendly boutique hotel which provides interconnecting family rooms, baby monitors, cot beds etc. The buzzing creative neighbourhood of Clerkenwell has lots of restaurants, cafes and bars. In fact I used to live around the corner (before it became an epicentre of cool though). You can walk easily into the financial centre or the West End.
[easyazon_link identifier=”1590204328″ locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]Norman Foster: A Life in Architecture[/easyazon_link] by Deyan Sudjic [easyazon_link identifier=”1902910389″ locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]London Architecture[/easyazon_link] by Marianne Butler [easyazon_link identifier=”0415825024″ locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]London’s Contemporary Architecture[/easyazon_link] by Ken Allinson [easyazon_link identifier=”1447276272″ locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]This is London[/easyazon_link] by Ben Judah [easyazon_image align=”none” height=”160″ identifier=”1590204328″ locale=”US” src=”https://www.justgoplacesblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/41mhugjOa2L.SL160.jpg” tag=”jg20-20″ width=”107″][easyazon_image align=”none” height=”160″ identifier=”1902910389″ locale=”US” src=”https://www.justgoplacesblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/61sAeJh8drL.SL160.jpg” tag=”jg20-20″ width=”160″] [easyazon_image align=”none” height=”160″ identifier=”0415825024″ locale=”US” src=”https://www.justgoplacesblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/51C7EMAbiyL.SL160.jpg” tag=”jg20-20″ width=”113″] [easyazon_image align=”none” height=”160″ identifier=”1447276272″ locale=”US” src=”https://www.justgoplacesblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/41S8IOAoGL.SL160.jpg” tag=”jg20-20″ width=”105″]
This article contains affiliate links. Clicking on these links will have no additional cost for you but may earn us a small commission.