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Following unexpected Colonial footprints

By Julie Flavell
Globe Correspondent / August 15, 2010

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LONDON—Take a walk through this city and discover Colonial America’s biggest living history museum. The one-time capital of the 13 Colonies has enough Colonial landmarks to rival Boston and Philadelphia combined. Just a two-mile walk from Trafalgar Square to the heart of the Old City brings you to hidden corners of Georgian London that were favorite haunts of men like Benjamin Franklin.

A perfect jumping off point is the Benjamin Franklin House on Craven Street, where Franklin lived as spokesman for the Colonies for 17 years until their independence. Half of the street was destroyed in the blitz, but Franklin’s Georgian brick house survived.

The Franklin House is easily reached from Embankment Tube Station. Exiting from the Tube, turn your back on the 21st century to head north up Villiers Street, then left into The Arches, a vaulted stone Victorian passageway that takes you beneath Charing Cross Station. The Arches morph inexplicably into Craven Passage as you continue up a flight of stone steps flanked on both sides by the Ship and Shovell, London’s only pub in two halves. Pass between its twin bars and enter Craven Street.

Here Franklin lived at Number 36 for most of his years in the city. The first ever site outside the United States to gain a Save America’s Treasures designation, it is a must-see for lovers of the United States’ Colonial past. The first show of the day — an innovative Historical Experience with an actress to guide you — is at noon, and lasts under an hour.

Next head up Craven Street toward the busy Strand and Trafalgar Square, just a few minutes’ walk away. Although Nelson’s Column now dominates the scene, this was the quarter of Franklin’s London where America’s first great artists got their start. The art school was in tiny St. Martin’s Lane, just off Trafalgar Square.

The school is gone, but the beautiful church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, built in the 1720s, still overlooks the square. It was at this church that young colonist Elizabeth Shewell married Pennsylvania artist Benjamin West in 1764, after leaping from the upper story window of her home in Philadelphia and eloping to England.

Now head away from Nelson’s Column up the Strand toward Fleet Street. A 10-minute walk along the busy Strand brings you to Somerset House on your right. Designed by Sir William Chambers, it is a Georgian masterpiece. Its grand entrance leads you out of the Strand into a quiet, spacious 18th-century courtyard.

In Franklin’s day the Strand block of Somerset House was where West presided over the Royal Academy of Arts. Here West taught fellow Americans Gilbert Stuart and John Trumbull, earning the title “father of American art.’’ Today the rooms once used by the Royal Academy house the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, one of Britain’s most important collections. If you visit the gallery, be sure to stop in at the shop to check out the elegant gifts and souvenirs inspired by the artworks on display.

Leaving the gallery, reenter the courtyard. Now fully restored, until a few years ago it was used by the British Inland Revenue as a parking lot — a typical English arrangement in an ancient city where heritage is often mixed with utility. Surrounded by neoclassical buildings that date to the days of King George III, the Georgian elegance of the courtyard is a fantastic backdrop for the periodic cascades of the Edmond J. Safra Fountain, installed in 2000. Cross the courtyard to visit Tom’s Terrace at Somerset House. Enjoy lunch or a tea break at this outdoor restaurant that overlooks the Thames River, with views of the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament.

This is a charming reminder that the Thames was once London’s busiest thoroughfare. In 1766 Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey drifted happily past Somerset House on a summer boating excursion with Franklin and Benjamin and Elizabeth West, all unaware that another 10 years would see him and Franklin together again, signing the Declaration of Independence.

Now leave the peace of Somerset House and head up the Strand to busy, gritty Fleet Street, where Dr. Samuel Johnson once held court in the old pubs that still line the street. As you walk down the street toward St. Paul’s Cathedral, notice the Old Bell tavern on your right. Built in 1678, it has a back entrance that leads directly to the church of St. Bride, whose famous spire was once used as a model for wedding cakes. When it was hit by lightning in 1764, Franklin attracted some unfriendly fire by arguing with the king over the best type of lightning rod.

Carry on down Fleet Street to Ludgate Hill and St. Paul’s Cathedral, just a few minutes away. St. Paul’s has remained on the list of top 10 tourist attractions for Americans in London since 1689, when Salem witchcraft trial judge Samuel Sewall went to see it under construction. Benjamin West, who ended up as history painter to George III, is buried under a slab in the crypt.

Tourists leave at 4:30 p.m. but you can linger for the Evensong service at 5, normally sung by the cathedral choir. Divine service has been sung on this ancient site for over nine centuries. Steal a moment of peace and reflection in the midst of the busy city.

Leaving the cathedral, look out for Temple Bar on your right, an elegant archway designed by architect Sir Christopher Wren that once stood at the end of Fleet Street, and was rebuilt here in 2004. In the 18th century, five future signers of the Declaration of Independence walked through it daily to study law in London’s Inns of Court. And the town crier stood beside it in 1783 to read the king’s proclamation of American independence to a crowd.

Pass through Temple Bar into Paternoster Square, where Dolly’s Steak House once stood. Thomas Jefferson dined here on steak, beer, and bread for a shilling. Today you can stop at the Paternoster Chop House for your evening meal. Don’t be fooled by the modern architecture. Watercress soup with horseradish, beef cottage pie, and sticky toffee pudding with cream are just a few examples of what’s cooking in this traditional English restaurant where the menu changes daily.

If you want to finish your tour on a pint and a patriotic note, head for a pub called the Old Tea Warehouse. It’s a mile on foot, up Cornhill to tiny Creechurch Lane on your left. Quicker and easier is the underground from St. Paul’s Tube Station to Aldgate. The pub is within the walls of an old warehouse that was used to store the tea that was shipped to Boston in 1773, sparking the Boston Tea Party. Sit back and savor the pub culture that has been part of the London scene since before American independence.

Julie Flavell, author of “When London Was Capital of America,’’ can be reached at julie.flavell4@gmail.com.

If You Go

Benjamin Franklin House
36 Craven St.
www.benjaminfranklinhouse.org
St. Martin-in-the-Fields
Trafalgar Square
www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org
Somerset House
Strand
www.somerset-house.org.uk
St Paul’s Cathedral
www.stpauls.co.uk
Paternoster Chop House
Paternoster Square
www.paternosterchophouse.com
The Old Tea Warehouse
4-8 Creechurch Lane
www.oldteawarehouse.co.uk