Shakespeare – 16th Century London

Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, in 1564. Very little is known about his life, but by 1592 he was in London working as an actor and a dramatist. Between about 1590 and 1613, Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays and collaborated on several more. Many of these plays were very successful both at court and in the public playhouses. In 1613, Shakespeare retired from the theatre and returned to Stratford-upon-Avon. He died and was buried there in 1616.

Today we will wander along the south bank of the Thames and take in the sights of Shakespeare’s London. In the 16th Century this area was popular as a place of raucous entertainment outside the formal regulation of the City of London on the north bank; the south became home to home to prostitutes, beggars, thieves, bear pits, bull fights, bare-knuckle prize fights, gambling, disreputable inns and, of course theatres.

The Walk

Start: St Pauls Tube

Finish: Monument Station

Distance: Approx 2.5 miles

Start at St. Pauls Tube – take exit 2, turn left down Payner Alley and right onto St Pauls Churchyard. Walk all the way around to the other side of the cathedral and cross at the lights to the pedestrianized St Peters Hill. Cross Queen Victoria Street just beside the College of Arms. Walk straight to the Millennium Footbridge and over the River Thames.

Head for the Globe Theatre which is  ahead of you.

The Globe Theatre
The Globe Theatre

Globe Theatre – Box Office: 0207 401 9919

It was near this site that the original Globe Theatre stood, before it was destroyed in a fire in 1613 after a spark from a canon fired for dramatic effect caught in the thatched roof.

Shakespeare invested in theatres including the Globe in which he owned 12.5%.

The theatre you see today is a reconstruction, completed in 1997. The campaign to rebuild the Globe Theatre was led by American actor Sam Wanamaker who spent nearly 3 decades to bring his idea to life.

Shakespeare’s Globe is built as close to the original design as historical architects can surmise and is the only thatched-roof building in the entire capital (thatched roofs being outlawed after The Great Fire of London in 1666).

Admire the outside,take a peek at the courtyard,wander through the shop and exhibition areas, or book a ticket for the full tour or even see a play.

When you are done, turn right, walking east along the river footpath, and turn right shortly into Bear Gardens, named after the Davies Amphitheatre which was the last bear-baiting pit in London.

Bear baiting - a popular past time in Shakespeare's London
Bear baiting – a popular past time in Shakespeare’s London

Bear baiting was a huge attraction in the 16th and 17th centuries, even enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth I. The spectators sat on benches in the round arena. The bear was tethered to a stake in the middle of the ring, able to move only a short distance before being drawn up sharply when it got to the end of its tether. That’s where the phrase ‘at the end of my tether’ comes from. Dogs would be released to taunt the bear, and the excitement came from the tension between the bear and the dogs. The most agile dogs would be able to spring away, out of the bears range, but any mistakes would be fatal: a bear would kill several dogs before itself occasionally becoming the victim. The crowd would roar its encouragement to the bear.

Some of the bears were unfortunate enough to have long and bloody careers, becoming stars in their own right. Sackerson was one such animal and was immortalized in Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor.”

Look out for the Ferryman’s seat – built into the side of a Greek restaurant.

The Ferryman's Seat - one size does not fit all!
The Ferryman’s Seat – one size does not fit all!

No-one knows quite how old the seat is, but what we do know is that it was used as a resting place for the Ferryman who once operated a water taxi service across to the north side of the Thames and back. This was once a thriving trade, especially up until 1750 when London Bridge was the only other means of carrying passengers and goods across the river.

Turn left into Park Street, passing a plaque marking the original site of the Rose Theatre on the left. The Rose, built in 1587, was the first Elizabethan Theatre on Bankside and was where Shakespeare learnt his craft. Remains of the Rose Theatre are protected and  there is an exhibition, accessed from Park Street.

The Rose has Open Days on the site every Saturday from 10am to 5pm where you can see a film presentation about the history of Bankside and the Rose Theatre. Entry is free but donations are kindly received.

Carry on walking along Bankside until you reach the Anchor Pub.


The Anchor Pub
The Anchor Pub – Bankside’s oldest surviving tavern.

This pub is the sole survivor of the riverside inns that existed here in Shakespeare’s time It was frequented by many actors from the neighbouring playhouses. It is supposed that Shakespeare himself enjoyed a pint of ale or two within the walls of the Anchor. It is where diarist Samuel Pepys saw the Great Fire of London in 1666. He wrote that he took refuge in “a little alehouse on bankside … and there watched the fire grow”. The original building survived the Great Fire of 1666, however ironically burned down sometime later when a fire devastated the area. It was then rebuilt around 1770.

The pub contains a room dedicated to the ‘Clink’ prison, which can be found nearby in the aptly named Clink Street.

It is said that Doctor Samuel Johnson drank here. As the single most quoted English writer after Shakespeare, Doctor Johnson wrote many essays, poems and books, including his dictionary of the English Language.

Walk under Southwark Bridge. At the end of the street turn left, then immediately right down Clink Street, passing the old prison site, now a museum. 

The Clink Museum - not for the faint hearted!
The Clink Museum – not for the faint hearted!

  With all the vice and illegal behaviours taking place south of the river, it’s no wonder there has been a prison located on this site since the 12th century! The Clink is the original prison of this name, lending it’s name to a slang-term that can now mean prison. Easily the oldest prison in England, the Clink was run by the Bishop of Winchester and prisoners here were kept in the worst possible conditions. Prisoners could beg through the iron gratings on the ground (which you can see) to passers by or family and friends who could bring them food, blankets and goods and slip them between the bars into the subterranean cells. The Clink Prison was the first prison in which women were regularly confined. Although this location is accurate, the Clink Prison Museum that stands on this site is in a modern building, as the original Clink burnt to the ground during the Gordon Riots here in 1776

The cobbled streets take you past the ruins of Winchester Palace.

The ruins of Winchester Palace
The ruins of Winchester Palace

The town of Southwark belonged to the old Diocese of Winchester when the Hampshire city was the capital of Saxon England and was a handy base for the Bishop when he needed to visit London for royal or state business. Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester  decided to construct the palace in the 12th century as a permanent base. The palace included a Great Hall, prison, wine cellar, brewery,butcher, tennis courts,bowling alley and gardens. 

The palace remained in use for nearly 500 years but was largely destroyed by fire in 1814. Today, all that’s left is part of the Great Hall with is stunning rose window and the gable wall with doors leading to the pantry, buttery and kitchen.

Follow the  path as it meanders through Pickfords Wharf, passing a replica of Sir Francis  Drakes ship – The Golden Hinde.

The Golden Hinde
The Golden Hinde

Golden Hinde Open daily 10.00am – 5.30pm Admission Charges)

Here you are looking at a replica of a 16th century ship captained by Sir Francis Drake. Drake’s ship navigated the globe, taking his crew of around 80 men all the way around the southern tip of South America. It was on board the Golden Hind that Queen Elizabeth I bestowed a knighthood onto Sir Frances Drake despite his notorious reputation as a pirate. Take a minute to appreciate how small the ship is and imagine living on board for months at a time with 79 other people.

As the path bends to the left, you will see Southwark Cathedral ahead of you.

Southwark Cathedral
Southwark Cathedral

Walk through the doorway of the cathedral and take an immediate right into the old church

Shakespeare moved to this side of the river from Bishopgate in 1599, to be close to the Globe Theatre. He lived in property owned by the Bishop of Winchester’s estate, the Liberty of the Clink, and would have been near here. This church was where Shakespeare would have worshipped, and he is commemorated by a stained glass window and statue in the south aisle. The window was designed by Christopher Webb and it replaced the one that was destroyed during the Second World War. The window depicts characters from some of Shakespeare’s works. Beneath the window is a recumbent alabaster figure of Shakespeare, carved by Henry McCarthy in 1912. Every year a birthday celebration is held here in honour of Englands greatest playwright.

There has been a site of worship at this location for more than 1,000 years, but the Cathedral you see today was built between 1220 and 1420. The gift shop here has a hidden treat for visitors: a glimpse of a Roman road that was uncovered on this site during renovations to the side of the Cathedral.

Leave by the exit opposite to the one that you came in by, and turning right up the steps and left out onto Cathedral Street.

To either side of you is Borough Market. The wholesale market opens every morning from 2 a.m. but the retail market is Wednesday Saturday 10am to 5pm.)

A shop sign in Borough Market
A shop sign in Borough Market

This is the largest and oldest food market in London, dating back to 1014.

In the early 1600s Borough Market wasn’t the well organised, nicely contained place we know today. Before it relocated to its current home in 1755, it was known as the Guildable Manor Market and sprawled along Borough High Street. It had been there for centuries, drawn by the heavy flow of people across London Bridge, then the only route across the river into the City. Traders consisted mainly of farmers from Kent, Surrey and Sussex, who arrived from the countryside with grain, vegetables and livestock, and sold their wares alongside local bakers, poulterers and fishwives. This crowded, chaotic market, which ran four days a week, stretched for hundreds of metres down the highway. Its safe to say that Shakespeare would have shopped here.

Walk on the main road ahead, Borough High Street, and turn right. Cross Southwark Street and then cross Borough High Street. Turn right. Shortly on your left is the George Inn. ( Is open daily 11.00am – 23.00pm

The George Inn
The George Inn

The last remaining galleried coaching inn in London, now looked after by the National trust.

Built in the medieval period. It was formerly known as the George and Dragon.  In 1677, the George was rebuilt after a serious fire that destroyed most of medieval Southwark. There had been many such inns in this part of London because London Bridge closed its gates at night and those trapped on the south bank needed refreshment and beds.

We do not know for sure if Shakespeare ever partook in ale here but we do know that galleried Inns were the inspiration of the original theatres, that the players were on a dais in the courtyard with the standing audience next to them and that those paying a premium would be in the Galleries with a better view. So maybe Shakespeare put a play on here.

One great British writer that did visit here was Charles Dickens and even referred to it in Little Dorrit.

The ground floor of the inn is divided into a number of connected bars. The Parliament Bar used to be a waiting room for passengers on coaches. The Middle Bar, was the Coffee Room, which was frequented by Charles Dickens. The bedrooms, now a restaurant, were upstairs in the galleried part of the building.

Retrace your steps up Borough High Street – this time heading towards the Thames. Cross the river into the city over London Bridge.

Before you cross the bridge look out for a piece of modern-art: a tall, large spike sticking out of the ground. This is to commemorate the fact that previously, in medieval times, there were 30 spikes placed on London Bridge, displaying the heads of traitors against the crown.

The Southwark Needle
The Southwark Needle

If you walk to the middle of the Bridge you can get stunning views of the City, as well as Tower Bridge.

View of Tower Bridge taken from London Bridge
View of Tower Bridge taken from London Bridge

Turn right at Monument Street where you will find Monument tube Station.

I hope you have enjoyed this walk.




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Historical self guided walks around London