Tour De Foot

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A New Year's vacation in London did not begin well for Loretta Cosman and Marcy Phalen of Beecher, Ill. A rare snowstorm greeted the sisters on their first night, and a visit to Oxford the next day had to be scrubbed when their tour bus got stuck in traffic for three hours. By the time they got to Stratford-upon-Avon, it was too dark to see. So at the urging of others, the pair decided to take a guided walking tour of Westminster and London's West End.

For two hours, through winding streets, a learned guide fed them delightful minutiae about Parliament, Big Ben and St. James's Palace. "We got a close-up look at the city that we never would have from a bus," exclaimed Cosman. Agreed Phalen: "It was delightful. We're only sorry we didn't have time for other walks."

Growing numbers of discriminating travelers eager to get a fuller sense of London agree. Snuggled in slickers and scarves, they are discovering the joys of poking through back alleys and neighborhoods, prowling palace lawns and windswept heaths to gain an appreciation for the history and tradition of the great city. The tour de force of the walks is the guides, many of them academics or thespians with an intimate grasp of London's history. How better to capture the pulse of Shakespeare's day than to trek down narrow, cobblestone streets with a literary historian who can bring the raunchy splendor of those times to life?

Walking tours, which snake through nearly every borough and neighborhood, have long been popular in England. But with Britain's rail system beset with problems and grueling traffic tie-ups almost the norm, their appeal has grown. More of a leisurely stroll than a hike, the walks usually run two hours, and at a price of [Pounds]5 (about $7.50), and [Pounds]3.5 for seniors and students, they are a great bargain in this pricey country. And they are catching on beyond England. Similar excursions are thriving in Paris, Rome, Prague, New York City and San Francisco.

In London, a handful of companies offers a potpourri of more than 200 walks, among them specialty excursions for mystery and architecture buffs and theater lovers. By far the largest and most successful company is Original London Walks, a firm headed by David Tucker, a Wisconsin-born Dickens scholar, and his British actress-wife Mary. "Today's travelers cherish details and feeling a part of the city that they don't get sitting on a bus," explains Tucker.

Walking tours appeal to nearly anyone who has had an unfulfilled foreign vacation or left a city feeling that its essence had eluded him or her--especially London, where centuries of history cry out for interpretation. Says San Francisco travel agent Charlie Graham, who touts walks for his clients: "To meander about aimlessly, even with a guidebook or acoustic guide, can be a stupid waste of time." Guided walkers, though, become more participants than mere observers. "The tours take you down alleyways where you'd never dream of going," says 10-year veteran walker Joan Rubenstein, a retired ad saleswoman.

The array of tours and the span of interests they cover ensure adventures for all. Walks operate at all hours, without reservations--or regard to weather. A good beginning might be a stroll through the old central city, home of the Tower of London. Move on to historic Chelsea and Greenwich, explore literary Bloomsbury, then follow the footsteps of Jack the Ripper with a leading crime historian. Sample the pubs along the Thames; prowl the Mayfair world of Princess Diana--maybe even run into a royal; rub elbows with gowned barristers at the Inns of Court and then finish the day with a black-caped guide leading you down shadowy West End streets in search of ghosts of centuries past. "It was like taking a half-step back into the culture, and almost as good as living there," observes Jeff Marsee, 51, a California management consultant. Perhaps a modest step back, but it is a feast for the senses every stride of the way.