Discover Shakespeare’s London

London from Southwark, c.1630. Old London Bridge is in the right foreground and old St Paul's Cathedral on the skyline to the left. This is one of the few remaining pictures showing the city before the Great Fire. photoS: Credit: Digital Image Library / Alamy
London from Southwark, c.1630. Old London Bridge is in the right foreground and old St Paul's Cathedral on the skyline to the left. This is one of the few remaining pictures showing the city before the Great Fire. photoS: Credit: Digital Image Library / Alamy

Follow our guided tour from St Paul’s to London Bridge for a vivid glimpse of the city in Shakespearean times

WORDS David Thomas

Start at St Paul’s Station. Take exit two from the station and walk south past St Paul’s Cathedral and on to the Millennium Bridge. Look about you as you stand in the centre of the bridge: in the 16th century, the river would have been bustling with small craft very much like the Grand Canal in Venice today. Looking towards Southwark on the south bank, to your right along the bank would have been the bear pit, a tall circular building, much like the theatres of the day, with a flag flying if they were running an event that day. To your left along Bankside, huddled together, would have been the many brothels, or ‘stews’ as they were called, and numerous taverns with the theatres towering over them.


Continue your walk across the bridge. Turn east along Bankside, which has been a thoroughfare since the 13th century. When you get to the Globe theatre, go down the steps and walk to the buildings to the right of the Globe museum. Between the houses, which are of a later date, is a tiny blocked off alleyway with its nameplate declaring
it is Cardinal’s Cap Alley. In the late 1590s and early 1600s the alley led to a tavern called the Cardinal’s Hat. It was popular with people from the theatre. Edward Alleyn dined there in 1617 and John Taylor, the poet, later ate there with some players.

Globe theatre

Retrace your steps a few metres so you are in front of the Globe theatre with its thatched roof and its whitewashed lath and plaster body. The original Globe theatre was situated 274m southeast of the current Globe. It was slightly smaller than the building you see today. The current Globe was built in 1997 following the design of a 16th-century theatre; it offers a very authentic reproduction of the Shakespearean theatre experience. You can stand in the pit to watch a Shakespeare play at a matinee during the summer months, although it is pricier than the 1d (or penny) it cost in Shakespeare’s time. Or you can sit on a bench under cover for rather more money. The museum is open to the public and theatre tours are available or you could book to see a play and taste the full experience. Within the Globe complex is a smaller theatre, called the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which is
a replica of an early Jacobean theatre, like the Blackfriars across the river, and is lit by candles for productions.

Bear Gardens

Keeping New Globe Walk to your right, continue east along Bankside. At the corner of Bankside and Bear Gardens turn right into Bear Gardens. Soon after turning, on the left in the wall by the Real Greek restaurant, is the last surviving example of a ferryman’s seat. The seat would originally have been much closer to the riverbank, next to the stairs down to the river where the ferries were moored.

Rose theatre

Halfway down Bear Gardens just before the junction with Park Street, is the site of Davies Bear Gardens, one of the well-known bear gardens of Elizabethan Southwark. Turn left out of Bear Gardens into Park Street; number 56, beyond the Globe Education Centre on your left, is the site of the Rose theatre. It was the first of the purpose-built theatres to be constructed in Southwark.

It was not as large or as popular as the Globe or the Swan theatres, which were built nearby and, in 1605, its lease ran out. It closed and was probably demolished in 1606.

Walk a little further on and immediately after walking under Southwark Bridge on the left is One Southwark Bridge, home of the Financial Times. The northwest corner of the building is thought to be the site of the Elephant Tavern, mentioned in Twelfth Night. The remains of the original Globe theatre were found in 1989 at 123 Park Street on the south side of the street. The outline of part of the walls and layout is marked out on the paving in the small open area that backs on to Anchor Terrace.

Elizabethan and Jacobean London entertainment

Bankside was the entertainment centre of Elizabethan and Jacobean London and offered all kinds of leisure activities including drinking establishments, stews, playhouses and bear baiting. Many taverns lined Bankside in Shakespeare’s time. The Anchor, at 34 Park Street, is sometimes said to be the only one that remains, but although there was a pub there in earlier times, by Shakespeare’s day it had become houses.

Clink Street and The Clink

After the Anchor pub, Bankside turns right. Follow it and take the next left under the bridge into Clink Street. This is an original, narrow street from Shakespeare’s time and is named after the infamous jail that was located there. Immediately in front of you to the right, where the road narrows, is the Clink Prison Museum. This is now a tourist attraction, but in Shakespeare’s time there was a jail nearby in the basement of Winchester Palace, the palace of the Bishop of Winchester, just to the east of this building. By the 16th century, the jail was used for religious prisoners who did not follow the teachings of the Church of England. The current tourist attraction is based in a 19th-century warehouse building. The Clink was so feared its name has become slang for prison.

Sir Francis Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind

Follow the road round into Cathedral Street. Moored in St Mary Overy’s Dock is a replica of
Sir Francis Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind, which circumnavigated the world in 1577-80.
In Shakespeare’s lifetime the original Golden Hind was a tourist attraction; it was beached in Deptford but eventually the ravages of weather and souvenir hunters meant the wooden ship completely disintegrated. The replica can now be visited for Tudor fun days, battle experiences or an overnight stay “with Tudor-style dinner and continental breakfast”.

Southwark Cathedral

Turn left following Cathedral Street. At a small junction take the right fork. Southwark Cathedral can be accessed through the gate in the railings on the left. This 13th-century church became a cathedral only in 1905 but was a large parish church in Shakespeare’s time, dedicated to St Saviour and has numerous connections with the Bard. Shakespeare paid for the funeral and burial of his actor brother, Edmund, in the church in 1607. There is a ledger stone to mark Edmund’s death aged 27. In the cathedral there is also an alabaster monument to Shakespeare (installed in 1912) and, above it, a stained glass window depicting many of his famous characters (unveiled in 1954). Many of the actors of the King’s Men company, to which Shakespeare had belonged, lived in the parish and probably worshipped in St Saviour’s Church every Sunday.

London Bridge

When you have seen the cathedral, turn left, and continue across the churchyard. Climb the steps to London Bridge. At the top of the steps turn right, away from the river. You are now in Borough High Street, which was historically the main thoroughfare to London
from the south. At 63 Borough High Street, a plaque set up by the Historic Southwark Society marks the place where the White Hart Tavern stood. This was the pub Shakespeare names as the rebel Jack Cade’s headquarters in Henry VI, Part II.

George Inn

Continue walking south along Borough High Street until you reach the George Inn. The present building dates from 1677, but there was a George Inn on the site in Shakespeare’s time. It is an authentic example of a galleried 17th-century inn. Only the south side of
the inn survives, the rest having been demolished to build railway warehouses in the 19th century.

Marshalsea prison

Continue walking down Borough High Street. Between Newcomen Street and Mermaid Court stood the notorious Marshalsea prison. In the 16th century it housed prisoners of all types. Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson, was incarcerated there in 1597 because he was the joint author of the play The Isle of Dogs, which was described to the Privy Council as a “lewd plaie that was plaied in one of the plaie houses on the Bancke Side, contaynynge very seditious and sclandrous matter”.

Cross Bones Graveyard

Walk back up Borough High Street on the west side. Turn left at Union Street and walk towards Redcross Way. On the north side of Union Street, just before you reach Redcross Way, is Cross Bones Graveyard. This was an unconsecrated burial ground for prostitutes and their children in Shakespeare’s time and later a graveyard for paupers. In recent years a local group has cared for the graveyard and made it attractive. Turn right into Redcross Way and follow the side of the Cross Bones site on your right.

Borough Market

Turn right into Southwark Street and, at the junction with Borough High Street, cross Southwark Street to the north side of the street. As you walk north up Borough High Street towards the river, Stoney Street and Bedale Street, to your left, lead to Borough Market, which might be worth a detour. In Shakespeare’s time this was a general market for meat, seasonal fruit and bread. Nowadays Borough Market is known as a popular, speciality artisan food market open most days of the week. Today, the market is covered but, in the
16th and 17th centuries, the stalls were open to the elements.

After crossing Bedale Street to your left and going under the railway bridges, walk north towards the river. Cross the road after you have gone under the railway bridges just before passing Southwark cathedral on your left.

Cross London Bridge and turn right into Monument Street and right again into Fish Street Hill. At the bottom is Lower Thames Street. Cross Lower Thames Street at the traffic lights to its south side and enter the Church of St Magnus Martyr, slightly to your right.

Church of St Magnus Martyr

St Magnus Martyr was on the northeast end of Old London Bridge. As you came over Old London Bridge into the City, the church would have been to your right at the clearing called St Magnus Corner. Like the bridge approach on the south side, this was a place where crowds gathered and jostled with seasoned travellers and Londoners crossing to Southwark to visit the playhouse, the taverns, bear baiting or a night out with a prostitute. Empty farmers’ carts pulled by horses waited to get on to the bridge with milk-maids’ empty pails dangling from the yokes across their shoulders and peasants pushing market barrows trudging back to the villages of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe. This corner was the place where, in Tudor times, the mayor could order public proclamations to be pronounced, with the knowledge there would be a large audience.

The medieval church burned down in the Great Fire of London, which started a stone’s throw away, and was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. The portico arch under St Magnus’s tower formed the pedestrian entrance to Old London Bridge when it was enlarged in 1763. By that time the shops and houses on the bridge had been demolished and an additional pedestrian lane added, in a vain attempt to prevent traffic jams building up at the crossing. The Church of St Magnus the Martyr still has links to the Old London Bridge.

There are two stones from the old bridge which you can see a few metres beyond the church’s portico in the churchyard, while embedded in the archway of the tower (to your right as you pass through the arch) is a wooden strut, part of the Roman wharf found across the road in Fish Street Hill in 1931. This discovery demonstrates how the Thames was much wider in medieval and Roman times. A model of Old London Bridge from about 1450 can be viewed inside the church (to the left of the west entrance).

Cross back over Lower Thames Street and walk north back up Fish Street Hill (away from the River). When you reach the large intersection of roads at the top of the hill to your right is Eastcheap, sometimes called Great Eastcheap. In Shakespeare’s time there were
a number of famous taverns in this street, none of which remain.

London Stone

Turn left into Cannon Street and continue along to Cannon Street Station, opposite which on the north side of the street is London Stone, an irregular piece of limestone standing about 50cm high. It is secured in the wall of a branch of WH Smith.

This stone was considerably larger and more imposing in Tudor times and, until 1962, it was left open to the elements. Souvenir hunters have taken their toll and now it is enclosed behind an iron grille, making it barely visible from outside the shop. Go into the shop and look behind the shelves by the door for a good view of the stone enclosed in its glass case.

London Stone was a very famous landmark in Shakespeare’s lifetime on the south side of the street, then known as Candlewick Street. It represented the heart of London, the place where oaths were sworn, debts redeemed and contracts agreed. The stone is wreathed in myth and tradition. It may have been placed nearby in Roman times as the point in Londinium from which distances were calculated. According to folklore, London is safe as long as the stone is safe. It was certainly in Candlewick Street in 1188 when there is
a written reference to Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londenstane, the first Lord Mayor of London. Jack Cade, in the 1450 uprising against King Henry VI, is recorded to have struck the stone when he entered the City of London. Shakespeare dramatised the event in Henry VI,
Part II
. Jack Cade strikes the stone with his staff and says of himself: “Now is Mortimer lord of this city. And here, sitting upon London-stone, I charge and command that, of the city’s cost, the pissing-conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign. And now henceforward it shall be treason for any that calls me other than Lord Mortimer.”

Continue west along Cannon Street. At Mansion House Station junction, where Queen Victoria Street crosses Cannon Street, cross Queen Victoria Street on the north side (on the opposite side from the underground station entrance). A few yards along the west side
of Queen Victoria Street on the left is a narrow street called Watling Street, which was one of the main thoroughfares of Shakespeare’s London. It traces its origins back to the Roman period and has probably not increased in width since the 16th century, and gives
you an idea of the claustrophobic warren that was the maze of streets that made up Shakespeare’s City of London. You may catch a glimpse of St Paul’s Cathedral at the end of Watling Street.

Groveland Court

From Watling Street take the first right into Bow Lane. Investigate the court on the left, which is Groveland Court with Williamson’s Tavern at the end. The old City was made up of many shady, dead-end courts such as Groveland Court where there were shops, dwellings and taverns crammed together.

St Paul’s Cathedral

Return to Bow Lane and, off on the right, is another lane, Well Court, which, if you follow it through leads to Queen Street. Return through Well Court to Bow Lane and turn left into St Mary-le-Bow churchyard. With St Mary-le-Bow Church to your right and the statue of Captain John Smith behind you, turn left out of St Mary’s churchyard into Cheapside. At the end of Cheapside you will see St Paul’s Cathedral towering above you. Cross New Change towards the cathedral. The entrance to St Paul’s Station is on your left.

This is an edited extract from A Visitor’s Guide to Shakespeare’s London by David Thomas (Pen and Sword, £12.99).