Guided walks help a tourist understand London's byways. Tours may be literary, or they might uncover the seamy side of a city

THERE are many Londons in London, from Roman origins to the pubs of Shakespeare to Victorian poverty to the lairs of the rock world. The city is steeped in 2,000 years of overlapping history, and practically every step is significant for one reason or another. Figuring out what happened where and why by doing extensive research on your own can take time, and can cramp your style while sightseeing. This is where guided walks come in. Given by such companies as City Walks, Guided Walks of London, and Streets of London, there are usually at least two walks through specific areas or neighborhoods every day. The walks are led by gregarious guides who have been thoroughly briefed in the subject. Sometimes guides may have even done the research themselves.

Refinement and riches

There are tours of the more refined and wealthy facets of London. You can see where Dickens lived and worked, follow the Sherlock Holmes Detective Trail, explore a 16th-century dining hall where Elizabeth I dined, or find out more about Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group of artists and writers.

The only tour that was available the day I went was more offbeat: Jack the Ripper's Victorian London. While the tour did take us to the spots where the women's bodies were found in 1888, it was more of a look at the city during that period of time than of grisly fascination. Ten of us met our guide, Susan, outside the Aldgate East Underground stop at 11 a.m. to see downtrodden East London. It was a perfect day for our topic: dreary and damp.

As Susan, a perky cockney, progressed through the 1-mile walk, she drew us into figuring out the crime for ourselves.

While the case has never been solved, she says, there is a school of thought that believes that the five or six women, who were prostitutes, were killed because they were holding for ransom the illegitimate child of Queen Victoria's errant grandson (``a real creep,'' says Susan). As the theory goes, the royal family doctor was dispatched to silence the women.

There was an aura of secrecy about the case, and the records were officially sealed for 100 years. Susan said that her attempts at researching the case were mysteriously blocked at every turn. The 100 years is up this year, by the way, which might make it an interesting time to go on this walk.

Publicity helped somewhat

The tour is packed with general information about the 19th century which puts the case into perspective. The murders focused the attention of a horrified nation for the first time on that locale, right under the nose of the mile-square City of London. Susan tells us that East London in the 1800s was very poor; 50 percent of children under the age of 5 died, and prostitution and thievery were rampant. Because of the publicity generated by the case, measures were taken to help the poor.

One of the first stops along the walk is the Tower House, a dreary building that once was a debtors prison. It now houses the homeless.

As we approach it, our guide tells us firmly to avoid the tramps in the area. She takes us to the London Hospital, which figures in the case, where a guard is muscling a derelict man off the property. One of the earliest Salvation Army establishments is still here.

Near the Jack the Ripper pub is Christ Church. The park next door once housed many homeless families, who, because of anti-vagrancy laws, had to stay awake all night and could sleep only during the day.

Various eras represented

A good thing about a city tour is that you get glimpses not only of what life was like years ago, but also of later eras as well.

East London is dotted with modern buildings and rubbly vacant lots, because it was heavily bombed in World War II. The area continues to be a center for the textile industry. So while we're standing in a dank alley listening to Susan tell us about the incidence of pollution fog - called ``the criminal's paradise'' - nearby are modern-day barkers urging people to buy clothing in Petticoat Lane, a thriving outdoor clothing market.

This part of London is now largely Asian and Indian, with Tandoori restaurants on every block. One nameless church has adapted to the new influx of immigrants over the years; it has been French and Jewish, and on the day of the walk, groups of Arab men flocked in for a midday Muslim service.

Susan ends up the tour telling us what finally happened to all the surviving key players in the drama.

Along the way, Susan has kept up the suspense, weaving crime details and political and historical tidbits into a fascinating tapestry of an era.

Every time she advanced the story a little further and turned around and stalked down the street, the rest of us would trail after her, speculating as to what really happened.

Practical information

The guided walks happen, rain or shine. They begin outside Underground stations, cost about 2.50 (US$4.65) and last about 1 to 2 hours. They're taken at a leisurely pace, with frequent stops.

A list of companies offering walks is in the ``About Town'' section of Time Out, a weekly cultural magazine, easily obtained at newsstands in London.

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