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Author Charlie Higson traces Young Bond`s steps around London

23-Aug-2007 • Young Bond

Author Charlie Higson traces his protagonist's footsteps around London, with sons in tow for The Guardian.

In my latest Young Bond adventure, Double Or Die, James has to follow a trail of clues around 1930s London. My brief is to take my kids in his footsteps for a slightly different day out in the capital. The only problem is that I'm not much good at organising days out with the kids. For a start, I couldn't get them all to come with me. The oldest, who is sliding into teenagerdom, said he had something vague and unfathomable to do, so I was down to two, Jim (12) and Sidney (eight).

In the book, James starts at Regent's Park and moves from the prosperous West End to the old East End before ending up in the docks. I decide to kick off at Regent's Park, which is something of a Bond landmark, as it's here that Fleming locates Universal Exports — the cover name for MI6.

My kids, sensing that a walk might be on the cards, complain that it would be a waste of time going there, as there's nothing to see. Fleming made it all up, after all. (The real MI6 headquarters are now hidden inside a huge Lego building on the Thames cleverly called the MI6 headquarters.) There are other things to see in the park, though. You could try pointing out the beautiful white stucco Nash terraces that surround it, but if your kids are anything like mine, I wouldn't bother. So, we scrap our visit and have an extra hour in bed.

Our new starting point is Highgate East cemetery, (entry £2), which doesn't open until 11am (10am weekdays). There is a perfectly spooky gothic atmosphere to the place. With its overgrown graves, toppling statues and crumbling tombs, it's like the set from a Hammer horror film. Even in the 1930s, when young Bond visited, it had started to fall into ruin. My wife remembers sneaking in here as a teenager and finding skeletons removed from their mausoleums and propped up among the gravestones. Nowadays, you can only enter parts of it on a guided tour.

The kids grumble at first — if you suggest they do anything at the weekend other than play computer games, they moan — but once they see the centrepiece, an extraordinary ruined Egyptian temple that leads through a gloomy tunnel into a sunken circle of vaults their grumbling ceases and they are won over by the mystery of the place.

From Highgate, we travel across town to Lincoln's Inn Fields. It's here that Bond visits the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons, (free admission, closed Sundays). This is probably the most gruesome place in London, beating the London Dungeon hands down. If you really want to freak your kids out this is the place to bring them. It's full of medical curiosities, from the brain of Charles Babbage (inventor of the computer) to a giant's skeleton, weird three-headed foetuses in jars and video footage of a brain operation. It's a fascinating place and a great reminder that we are all flesh.

From here, we head off in search of the East End. Of course, if we really wanted to go there we'd probably need to go as far as Thetford in Essex, where most of the genuine cockneys were shipped years ago. Spitalfields and the area around Brick Lane are still interesting to visit, though, especially on a Sunday when the markets are in full swing. It's a happy mixture of arty boutique stores, cutting edge bars, Bangladeshi shops and restaurants and people selling their old clothes. There's a genuine life and character to the area, so rare in London these days. Though it's not what it once was before much of the place was swallowed up by the bland corporate money spreading from the city.

I try to show my kids Hawksmoor's beautiful Christ Church in Spitalfields (underneath which James boards a secret pneumatic railway in the book), a real East End landmark, but they are more interested in buying toy guns. As the writer of James Bond books, I can hardly argue.

We stop for lunch in the fantastic Arkansas Café (Unit 12, Spitalfields Market, 107b Commercial St), where Bubba, the American owner, prepares authentic smokehouse cooking. In his funky wooden shack he serves the best ribs, burgers and barbecue chicken in London. Like so much else that is good around here, though, he will be soon be forced out, so go while you can.

From nearby Tower Bridge, we get the Docklands Light Railway to Canary Wharf. Arriving on this diddy electric train at the mirage that is the new Docklands is a totally Disney World experience. You arrive at this unreal shiny little modern city sitting there in the middle of nowhere. They used to say you could walk from one side of the Thames to the other across the decks of moored ships, now you'd probably be run down by a banker on a jetski. Whatever, it's an exciting place to stroll around and the excellent Museum in Docklands (West India Quay, admission £5, under 16s free) gives you some idea of what the area used to be like, with the aid of some atmospheric reconstructions and a few well-chosen exhibits.

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