Exploring London's Historic Whitehall Road: A Visitor's Guide
Whitehall, although often referred to as a region of London, is in fact the main thoroughfare running from Trafalgar Square towards the seat of power in Parliament Square. But it's long been a term used to describe the administration of the British Government, largely because the road has for centuries been lined with many of the government's departments and ministries. It's also a name that refers to the old 13th century palace that once dominated the area.
Walking up Whitehall from Trafalgar Square takes you past some of the most important of Britain's government buildings. First up is the Admiralty, the older part of which was built by Thomas Ripley in 1723, while the domed building to the rear was added between 1895 and 1907. Beyond this is Horse Guards. On the opposite (west) side of the street is the Ministry of Defence, followed by the Banqueting House. Other important buildings are Dover House and the old Treasury building, now housing the Cabinet Office. To the right lies the little cul-de-sac with the famous name of Downing Street and home to No 10, the official residence of the Prime Minister.
Horse Guards Parade
Home to the Household Cavalry, the Horse Guards Parade contains a number of fine old buildings - including the Clock Tower belonging to the old Palace of Whitehall and the Admiralty building. The Cavalry consists of two separate regiments: the Life Guards, with their scarlet tunics and white plumed helmets (originally Charles I's bodyguard during the Civil War), and the Blues and Royals with blue tunics and red plumed helmets (originally a troop of Cromwell's cavalry). The new Guard rides from here daily and passes Buckingham Palace, with the famous Changing of the Guard and the Sunday Parade being among London's top tourist attractions. It's also the location of the famous Trooping the Colour, as well as the excellent Household Cavalry Museum.
Address: Horse Guards, Whitehall, London
Whitehall Palace and the Banqueting House
The Banqueting House was part of the old Whitehall Palace, the original 13th century London seat of the Archbishops of York and later the residence of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey during the reign of Henry VIII. After Wolsey's fall in 1529, the palace was enlarged and became a royal residence and was where Henry VIII died (1547), Charles I was beheaded, and where Oliver Cromwell died (1658).
The Banqueting House itself was completed in 1622 and has many notable features, including the nine allegorical ceiling paintings by Rubens (1635), and a bust of Charles I marking the position of the arch through which he walked to his execution. Not long after William III transferred his private residence to Kensington Palace, the old palace was destroyed by fire (1698), with only the Banqueting House being spared. Designed by Inigo Jones in the Palladian style, it was completed in 1622, replacing an earlier building of the time of Henry VIII, which was burned down in 1619. Following recent restoration it has recovered its entire former splendor and is considered one of the first Renaissance buildings in England.
Hours: Daily, 10am-5pm
Admission: Adults, £5.50; Children (Under 16), free; online discounts available
Address: Whitehall Palace, London
It's here in this quiet residential street that the great decisions of British government are made. No 10 has been the official residence of the Prime Minister since 1732, when George II presented it to Sir Robert Walpole who, although he didn't use the title, can be regarded as the first Prime Minister.
No 11 is the official residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and No 12 is the Government Whip's Office. Downing Street was built by Sir George Downing, who contrived to hold office under both Cromwell and Charles II and was knighted by the latter in 1660. Downing Street is closed to public access.
The Cenotaph and Other Monuments
The Cenotaph - meaning "empty tomb" - is Britain's memorial to the dead of two world wars and stands in the middle of Whitehall Road. The memorial bears the simple inscription: To the Glorious Dead. It was unveiled on 11th November, 1920, on the second anniversary of the 1918 Armistice, and in the years after the war men would raise their hats when passing (even when on the top deck of a bus).
The Cenotaph bears no religious symbols in recognition of the fact that the dead belonged to many different races and faiths, and instead bears the flags of the army, the air force, the navy and the merchant fleet. Every year on Remembrance Day at 11am a memorial service in honor of those who died is held in the presence of the Queen, Members of Parliament and members of the armed forces. Other notable memorials nearby include the Monument to the Women of WWI, and one to Bernard Montgomery, the country's leading general of WWII.
Churchill's Cabinet War Rooms
Situated only a few feet below ground level, the 21 Cabinet War Rooms were used during WWII by the British Cabinet under Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. The rooms contain all kinds of mementos of that time, including the telephone Churchill used for long conversations with President Roosevelt. The Cabinet Room, Map Room, Transatlantic Telephone Room and even Churchill's simple bedroom are all excellently preserved.
Hours: Daily, 9:30am-6pm (last admission, 5pm)
Admission: Adults, £17.50; Children (under 16), free
Address: Clive Steps, King Charles St, London
While numerous tour companies are available to help you get to the sightseeing attractions you most want to see, one of the best options, however, is to retain the services of a professional tour guide. Blue Badge Guides - holders of the UK's highest guiding qualification - can be selected based on their knowledge of a particular attraction, and making arrangements and payments, etc., is safe and professional. For details, visit the Guild of Registered Tourist Guides' website and simply enter the attraction you're most interested in. If going it alone, probably the most efficient way to tour Whitehall is to follow the road from Trafalgar Square (it's less than half a mile long).
Tips and Tactics: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Whitehall
The following Tips and Tactics will help ensure you get the most out of your Whitehall adventure:
- Shopping: Whitehall is located close to a number of London's most interesting shopping areas, including Covent Garden and Regent Street with its historic arcades. Iconic Harrods is nearby in Knightsbridge.
- Walking: There's a lot to see and do in and around Whitehall, so wear comfortable walking shoes and afterwards take a stroll along the banks of the River Thames or through nearby green spaces such as St James Park and Hyde Park.
- Food and Drink: There's no shortage of great places to eat and drink in Whitehall. It's a busy area thronging with tourists and business types, so if you can, try to time your meals outside of peak lunch and dinner hours (12-2pm, 5-7pm) - this will also enable you to take advantage of special deals and dining offers.
Getting to Whitehall
- By Underground (Tube): If beginning your Whitehall adventure at Trafalgar Square, head for Charing Cross tube station (Bakerloo and Northern lines).
- By Train: The nearest train stations are Victoria, Waterloo and Charing Cross. For details of links to London from across the country, visit www.nationalrail.co.uk.
- By Bus: Numerous public buses stop close by.
- By Road: Whitehall's location in the heart of busy London makes driving here difficult (it's also within the Congestion Charge zone, meaning charges apply). If you must drive, park at an outlying train station and take the train or underground.
- Parking: On street parking is limited, although some public parking lots are available (but often full).
One of the best things about London is the vast number of superb visitor attractions located in a relatively small area - so many, in fact, you'll need more than a day to see them all. For example, you'll find the following attractions all within an easy walk of Whitehall: Buckingham Palace, the London residence of the Royal Family; the Houses of Parliament; Westminster Abbey, the scene of many Royal Weddings; Tate Britain, one of London's largest art collections (the Tate Modern is located across the River Thames and connected by high-speed boat); and St James' Palace, a working palace that's home to royal pensioners.