There’s no better way to encounter London’s history than to walk it – and an experienced, eloquent guide makes all the difference. Whether you’re leading a school or college group, curating an exhibition, or just looking to give a party of friends or colleagues an out-of-the-ordinary experience, an expertly-led walk can be the beginning of a long and passionate love-affair with the city and its past.
Over the past decade I’ve written more than a dozen walks around the cultural history of health and medicine in London, and given hundreds of performances. In addition to a long-running collaboration with Wellcome Collection, I’ve led walks for the Museum of London, the Bloomsbury Festival, the Queen’s Gallery, the British Science Festival, UCL Medical School, Imperial College Medical School, Regent’s College, ACCENT International, the Royal College of General Practitioners, and many schools and colleges.
Below is a list of the guided walks I’m currently offering – all are around two hours long, and suitable for groups of up to 25 people. If you’d like to enquire about arranging a walk, drop me a line at richard [at] richardbarnettwriter [dot] com.
Sensational Bodies: London’s Golden Age Of Anatomy
Meeting point: Holborn tube
By the middle of the eighteenth century London was the most advanced and exciting centre of anatomical discovery in the world. Two Scottish brothers – William and John Hunter – were remaking anatomy in the image of the European Enlightenment. In ‘Sensational Bodies’ we’ll meet the Hunters, along with dozens of anatomists who began to explore the terra incognita of the human body, just as Captain Cook mapped the unknown islands of the Pacific. But as we’ll discover, anatomy was never just the private pursuit of physicians and surgeons. This was science conducted in the public gaze, and artists, aristocrats and the thrill-seeking demi-monde flocked to witness dissections, operations and lectures by the stars of the day.
Conspicuous Consumption: ‘Doctoropolis’ And The Art Of Making Money From Medicine
Meeting point: Great Portland St tube
In the early twenty–first century healthcare is widely seen as a basic human right, but this powerful idea has a deceptively short history. For centuries London’s medical landscape has taken the form of a marketplace, and in more recent times the streets around Harley Street – ‘Doctoropolis’ – have become a citadel of elite private medicine. Beginning in the mid–nineteenth century with the construction of large railway termini at Marylebone, Paddington and Euston, this area was home both to pioneering surgeons such as Joseph Lister and extravagant charlatans such as John St John Long, ‘King of the Quacks’. But the West End has also witnessed many other ways of making money from medicine – such as Georgian body–snatchers who desecrated graves in their thirst for profit. Conspicuous Consumption tells the story of London’s fascination with money and medicine.
Tall Ships And Tropical Diseases
Meeting point: Cutty Sark DLR
Greenwich, the ‘green’ or ‘rural port’, is London at its most graceful. Quirks of geography – the sublime, sheltering curve of Greenwich Hill, the flat riverside terrace, the power and depth of the river at this point – made it a perfect place for a maritime settlement. And its distance from the medieval city made Greenwich a haven for aristocrats and merchants seeking to escape from London’s squalor and delinquency: for centuries this isolated village was home to palaces, mansions and monasteries. But as Britain extended her global reach through trade, conquest and exploration, and as the city grew outwards, so Greenwich took on a new role as London’s window on the world, the oracle of global time and a notorious hotspot for spies, saboteurs and pleasure-seekers. Join us for a walk around this exotic entrepot – half port, half palace – and get a rare breath of London’s historic sea air.
Meeting point: Reception, Wellcome Collection, Euston Rd
For more than a century Bloomsbury has been synonymous with London’s literary life: novels and essays, gossip and back-biting, genius and wasted talent. But this outpost of highbrow taste has also witnessed a prodigious assortment of diseases, addictions and obsessions. Dead Famous offers an unashamedly nosy glimpse into the private lives of Bloomsbury’s most talented residents, their predecessors and successors, from Lindow Man via Charles Darwin’s chronic flatulence and W.B. Yeats’ attempts to regain his lost potency to the sexual revolution and ‘Carry On Doctor’. It also examines some of the more eccentric physicians and therapies available in Bloomsbury over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – such as Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System for ‘rational dress’.
Last Rites: Bodies And Burials In The Ancient City
Meeting point: Holborn tube
More than three hundred thousand people work in the Square Mile each day, but their numbers are dwarfed by the dead beneath their feet. London is a great city of the departed, its oldest districts – Holborn, Fleet Street, the ancient City itself – built on two thousand years of bodies, bones and dust. Last Rites tells the shockingly lively story of London’s nameless dead and their part in the making of the modern city. From Sweeney Todd to the ‘She-Wolf of France’, from murderers dancing the hempen jig at Newgate to plague victims dumped in mass graves at Charterhouse Square, we’ll uncover tales of forgotten tombs and their (not so) quiet inmates. Prepare to join the great majority …
In Sickness And In Health: Medicine For The Poor In Bloomsbury’s Golden Age
Meeting point: Russell Sq tube
Bloomsbury in the early twenty–first century is quiet, elegant, leafy – the epitome of a university quarter. But all is not as it seems. Well into the nineteenth century, much of this area was a marsh, famous for weekend duck–hunts and duels. Even after the arrival of the railways brought new life and new opportunities, the northern part of Bloomsbury was desperately poor, crammed with slums, workshops and Dickensian dust–heaps. Its inhabitants were often desperately ill, riddled with chronic disease and prey to typhoid or cholera – and, for this reason, Bloomsbury also became a crucible of medical reform. From Enlightenment health spas to the Modernist utopia of the Finsbury Health Centre, In Sickness And In Health reveals the voices and stories of Bloomsbury over the last three centuries.
Liquid History: A Walk Along The Fleet
Meeting point: Argyll Sq, 5 min from Kings Cross / St Pancras
London has many lost rivers, but the greatest of them all is the mighty Fleet – a prehistoric tributary, a Roman trade route, a medieval moat, an eighteenth-century eyesore and a Victorian sewer. The history of the Fleet captures both the potent symbolism and the stomach-churning reality of London’s relationship with dirt. Join us as we paddle – metaphorically – in the Fleet’s lower reaches, exploring the experiences of those who have lived and died beside it over two thousand years of urban history.
Death By Water: John Snow And Cholera In Victorian Soho
Meeting point: John Snow pub, Broadwick St, Soho
Through the late 1840s John Snow, a Soho GP, watched helplessly as dozens of his patients succumbed to cholera. In 1854, working against the grain of contemporary medical thought, he used pioneering medical detective work to argue that the disease was transmitted by polluted water from a communal pump on Broad Street. But Snow’s Soho had also witnessed the adventures of Marx, de Quincey, Casanova, and thousands of poor immigrants seeking a new life for themselves in the greatest city on earth. Join us as we walk in the footsteps of Snow – and some less savoury characters – to uncover the story of dirt and disease, pleasure and revolution in the grubby heart of the West End.
Dutch Courage & Mothers’ Ruin: The London Gin Craze
Meeting point: Steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Sq
Eighteenth-century London was awash with cheap, fiery gin. William Hogarth and Henry Fielding railed against it; and doctors blamed it for destroying the health of the nation. But what was the truth behind this notorious epidemic of gin-fuelled depravity? Find out on this walk into the darker side of Enlightenment London, and the gin hotspots of Soho and Covent Garden.