Exploring London Through Blue Plaques

By | September 5, 2015

Bertrand RussellWhat Are All The Blue Plaques?

You can’t stroll very far in Central London without spotting a Blue Plaque on the wall. It’s easy to walk on by, but next time you’re in town take the time as you walk around to have a look up at the Blue Plaques and you’ll learn plenty of history and add some fun to your visit.

The Blue Plaques celebrate the interesting. Mostly they are interesting people, but there’s a few interesting organizations, businesses and events too. You will have heard of lots of the people and things celebrated by the Blue Plaques, but there’s plenty that will mean nothing to you until you have a read, those are the ones that can really spark your imagination.

I love Blue Plaque spotting, it cheers up even the grimmest day, and doesn’t cost anything. I certainly haven’t spotted all 869 of them (yet) but I’m giving it a good go. You can either just enjoy the serendipity of spotting Blue Plaques as you travel about, or try a guided walk along the King’s Road to see some that you want to tick off.

 Take The Happy Go Lucky Route

I’m a “happy go lucky” Blue Plaque spotter. I keep an eye out for them as I walk around. That way I get to see all sorts of unexpected plaques from the home of Lady Nancy Astor, the first female Member of Parliament, to that of Israel Zangwill, writer and philanthropist.

Some take me by surprise, such as the one on Millbank, which commemorates the site of an old prison, which is quite interesting, but that also identifies the steps that people from that prison walked down to get on the ships to transport them to Australia – the punishment for all sorts of crimes in the 19th Century.

Some hint at all sorts of fun, I remember giggling at one which identified the house of a “Literary hostess and patron of the arts”. That sounded a lot like a euphemism to me, but that could just be the way my mind works.

Some are just sad. The site of the first Doodle Bomb explosion in WWII for example. One is lost forever. The home of Alfred, Lord Tennyson was marked by a Blue Plaque from 1914, but it was blown up during the Blitz in WWII.

This guide will help you make the most of your Blue Plaque Spotting, giving you a little potted history for each, which saves you having to remember them to look up later.

If your attention span is short and your traveling trouser pockets already bulging, then this guide is small and cuts to the chase quickly.

I cheat and take photos of the ones I don’t recognize and then forget to look them up later.

Planning a Guided Route

It’s easy to plan walking routes that take in Blue Plaque sites that match your interests. You can use thisonline map to search for them. Most people opt for literary walking routes, it’s fun to see where famous, and infamous literary types lived and worked, but there’s plenty of Blue Plaques for professional firsts. Take the Kings Road walk around Chelsea to catch up on Oscar Wilde plaques.

You can easily plan a medical route, London has plenty of medical firsts and experiments of note, so look out for pioneering nurses, anaesthetists, surgeons and scientists. You can plan a lawyerly route or an educators one. There’s sporting heroes galore, as well as the sites where many sports were first codified. London is jam packed full of famous designers, pop stars and cultural folk of note.

Military strategists can look up their heroes (and villains), royalists can explore the city from an aristocratic perspective and fans of politics have plenty to go at.

You can enjoy your Blue Plaque spotting by downloading an app to guide you.

If your phone service is from another country you might want to consider picking up a cheap “pay as you go” SIM card locally so you can still enjoy mapping and local info, but don’t have to sell your first born to pay the roaming charges.

Who Gets a Blue Plaque?

There’s no hard and fast rules, you do need to be a person or site of interest and importance. Right now English Heritage are in charge of “official” Blue Plaques, but as their funding has been cut they’ve paused the programme.

Previous Blue Plaques were issued by the local authority, but London is still a great and powerful city, and the UK government under Margaret Thatcher sought to curb its power by breaking up the Greater London Authority, killing its Blue Plaque programme in the process.

Some people just make their own Blue Plaques. That’s not really in the rules, and they won’t be listed in the guides, but they’re still fun to spot. I haven’t made one for my house (yet).

Not all of the plaques are in glamorous settings
Not all of the plaques are in glamorous settings

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