Saturday, 31 December 2011

It's A London Thing No.58: Happy New Year!

It’s a London Thing is our series in which we turn the spotlight on a unique aspect of London – perhaps a curious shop, sometimes an eccentric restaurant, a hidden place, book or oddity. The subject matter will be different every week. The running theme, however, will remain constant: you have to come to London to enjoy it. It’s A London Thing.

London Walks Guide Adam writes…

For many, there’s a ho-hum quality to Big Ben. We’ve seen it a million times. It’s like when Hey Jude by The Beatles comes on the radio – it’s so much a part of the aural furniture that many of us hardly even pay attention any more.

Yet Hey Jude is still a great song. More than great. Maybe you could make it a New Year resolution to listen to it more closely next time it comes up on shuffle or on the radio,

Similarly, Big Ben is a really great clock. A fantastic clock. In fact, let’s not mess about – especially at this time of year – it’s the finest clock on God’s green earth.

There. I’ve said it. I’ve got a bit of a thing about Big Ben. In many ways it’s not just A London Thing… it’s THE London Thing.

A cliché? Absolutely. If any lazy filmmaker wants to establish that we are in The Big Smoke, he can do so with one frame of Big Ben. My own personal New Year’s Resolution is to stop using the clapped out epithet “iconic” – but given as how it’s still 2011 as I type, here’s one last turn around Parliament Square for the tired old cliché: it’s a London icon.

But it’s the sound of the bell, rather than the look of the thing that truly floats my boat.

For a year or so, many years ago, I lived in Pimlico. And in the dead of night, with the wind blowing in the right direction, I could hear Big Ben chime the hours. The sound made every dark night of the soul just that little bit lighter.

To this day I find it reassuring: I know I am home. Home in London. I love leading London Walks from Westminster that meet at the top of the hour – it gives me a chance to hear the bell again. I never tire of that sound.

At six o’clock on BBC Radio 4 the chimes of Big Ben herald the news. To me, it is a familiar and kindly old friend preparing me gently for the tales of war and fiscal calamity to come.

If I’m not in the room when the bell chimes, my four-year-old daughter calls for me so that I don’t miss it. Often I’ll switch the wireless off after the bells, not wishing the news to besmirch the warm feeling engendered by my two favourite sounds: my daughter’s voice and London’s most famous bell.

Just this very evening, as I typed this piece at the computer, my wife turned up the volume on the kitchen radio so I could hear it at the other end of the house. It was a lovely New Year gift: exactly what I wanted.

I’m setting this post to publish at 11.59p.m on the 31st December 2011. The last minute of the old year. A minute later, Big Ben will chime in London’s third Olympic year, the fireworks on the Thames will burst into life and the revels will begin. Amid the chaos I will hear the bell and smile to myself and be thankful. Thankful that I am a Londoner, and that Big Ben is my local town clock.

Big Ben: It’s A London Thing. Happy New Year.


Poetry on New Year's Day

Pictured above is a statue (erected in 2007) in the forecourt of the National Theatre. The smarties amongst you might know that that is Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet but do you know which speech from the play he is declaiming?

This is one of the many interesting facts you can learn on Lance Pierson’s guided poetry walk on New Year’s Day. The walk winds its way from Waterloo Bridge to Westminster Bridge and visits many sites of poetic interest along the river bank. At each stop Lance will talk about the landmark and read the poem connected with it. Featured poets include Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Donne and Burns but also features stops involving Gilbert and Sullivan, the Festival Hall and the London Eye.

A Poetry-in-Performance Walk – Shakespeare to Wordsworth meets at Embankment Station on Sunday 1st January at 2.30pm.


Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Ladies And Gentlemen We Present The Lord Mayor Of London and The Duchess Of London Walks!

This from London Walks guide Jean…

"On my Dickens Christmas Carol Walk on Christmas Eve, I'd just got to the bit about "The Lord Mayor in the stronghold of the mighty Mansion House gave orders to his fifty cooks and butlers to keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor's household should....." when who should appear but the Lord Mayor himself. He said he wished he had fifty cooks and butlers, and greeted the walkers. Though you might like the picture. Best wishes, Jean."


Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Fairyland, SW1

The Old Palace Quarter. At this time of year this must be the prettiest of all London Walks.

It doesn't start till 2.30 which means that on a typical London winter afternoon an hour or so later the light, what there was of it, is beginning to fade and the old gaslights in Green Park start to emit their dim, misty, mysterious glow.

That's just the Nature bit. Then we plunge into the restrained, electric glamour of Jermyn Street, and just off that we enter Fairyland! The Piccadilly Arcade with its red and gold decorations and streams of fairy lights is simply, stunningly, well… Fairyland.

And to crown it all there, on Piccadilly itself, is the grande dame of retail, Fortnum and Mason. Its window displays are always unique, sometimes eccentric, and this winter the theme is ever so slightly and gloriously mad: The Folies with purple and rose, powdered and feathered showgirls filling the windows.

The Old Palace Quarter goes every Wednesday at 2.30pm meet at Green Park Tube, Green Park exit (meet in the park, by the fountain)


Sunday, 25 December 2011

Happy Christmas!

Here's David…


It's as perfectly round as three pairs of sleigh bells.

And where's it come from?

As in 888 what?

In a word, years. 888 years.

And in another word, the word itself: Christmas.

Christmas, the word, put in its very first appearance in English 888 years ago - in 1123.

In English. Well, Old English actually.

Here it is, that first time, that first glimpse.

Her on Þisum geare to Xpes mæssan heold se cyng Heanrig his hired on Westmynstre.

Translation anyone? "In this year at Christmas the king Henry held his court at Westminster."

And I wouldn't be too troubled if I were you by that X in Xpes (akin of course to Xmas). The X is the Greek letter for Chi, the first letter of course in the word (or name if you prefer) Christ.

So: 1123. 888 years ago. Christmas. Westminster. The King and his court.

And at no little risk of belabouring the obvious, 888 years down the pike all of them - in one form or another - are still very much with us!

But do we have anything else? Anything tangible, anything straight from back then as if 1123 was, well, yesterday?

Boy, do we ever!*

Behold, St. Bartholomew's the Great, the old church over Smithfield way. A good chunk of it is Norman. Indeed, it's the second finest example of Norman architecture in London (the Tower of course takes the Gold).

And the year? You got it: 1123.

A year to remember. Indeed celebrate. The year the word Christmas enters the language and London gets its finest Norman church.

*It's a London thing - symmetries with this sort of muzzle-loading velocity.



Saturday, 24 December 2011

Being A Few Notes & Thoughts In The Wake Of Most Enjoyable London Walks Christmas Party At St Martin-in-the-Fields

1. It's official. There are 350 languages spoken in London. (Rex – who's in a position to know stuff like this – casually mentioned this one in passing at the London Walks Christmas Party on Monday.)

2. LW star guide Nick has landed a dream role with the Royal Shakespeare Company: Sir Toby Belch in Twelfith Night.

3. Speaking of Nick, this year he produced another cracker of a Christmas Quiz for "the party". Keep an eye out – it'll go up here in due course. It was a Foodies' London job and sure enough, Ann's table romped home. Took the gold.

4. A vignette from my (David's) Hampstead walk on Sunday: we turn the corner out of Flask Walk and a lovely Israeli couple on the walk let fly – they're giggling for all they're worth. I ask 'em, "what's up?" They say, "we just passed a couple of Israelis who were jabbering away in Hebrew while they were putting up Christmas decorations". That's London.

5. Tuesday's Guardian had a piece whose thesis is: as consumers "the British are more powerful shoppers than ever before, but at work they're becoming less independent". Piece goes on to cite research findings that in a future workforce "only 10-15 percent of us will have 'permission to think'. The rest of us will merely carry out their decisions...graduates will end up on the white-collar equivalent of a factory line".

Now to "cheerify" that note – that ain't us (London Walks guides). And it ain't the people who steer clear of bus loads of packaged tourists – who want no part of that scene, thank you very much. It ain't, in short, you guys – our walkers, the people to whom the London Walks website is dedicated. Here's the word for word: This website [] is dedicated, with respect and admiration, to the modern Marco Polo: to all of you - the tolerant, curious, bright, determined, durable, friendly, funny, switched-on, and ever-gallant London Walkers!


Friday, 23 December 2011

Happy Christmas!

London Sight & Sound – The Daily Constitutional Podcast from London Walks will be available for download in the New Year. In the meantime, here are the first two installlments…


Streets Ahead – Christmas Lights Time

Streets Ahead is the occasional column from London Walks' Pen David Tucker

Christmas lights time. So why not shine some light on the question we field every day. Especially from newbies.

“What will we see on the walk?”

You got two hours?

Two hours because that’s about how long it would take to answer that question.

It’d take that long because “what you see” isn’t what you’d see by yourself. Even if you were walking along the same street and looking at the same objects. The reason for that of course is what the guide brings to the party. The guide’s input “informs” what you see; And yes, let’s assay that word “inform”. It’s a two element job: “in” and “form”. Put ‘em together and you’ve got form from within. In short, it’s not just a question of pointing something out – it’s illuminating it, shaping it, lighting it up from within.

The information’s terrific.

And so’s the route. The route’s part of the spun gold of a great walking tour – it’s also what you’re getting, what you’re paying for. It’s the filament the beads get strung on.

And there’s one other “control” the guide’s working in this regard: vantage point. Which turn you take to get into an alley, the side of the street you’re on ¬– those things matter. Get it wrong by a few yards and what you’re looking at is a ho hum. Get those few yards right and it’s sharp intake of breath time – as in, “Wow! Look at that!!

The other thing to stress is a London Walks isn’t just big ticket items seen from the best possible vantage point and illuminated by stunning “Wow, that’s interesting – never knew that” colour gels of information.

It’s also tiny little details that you’d never see – never find – off your own bat.

“What will we see on the walk?”

Here’s part of a two-minute sequence (so less than one percent of the whole) of my (David’s) Along the Thames Pub Walk.

There’s the big ticket item above.

And then – delightful change of register – there’s this.

And this.

And this.

All three of the itty bitties are high up on buildings on a tiny little alleyway that we go down right after the walk starts. Can you see the leopards on the first one? It’s a “hallmark”. Indeed, it’s the oldest hallmark in England. Got started in 1300. It’s the hallmark of the Goldsmiths, the time-honoured London guild. It’s presence high up on the building in question – you have to know exactly where to look to see it – indicates that the Goldsmiths own the land on which the building stands.

And the lads with, respectively, the compass and the pen and paper? They’re over the way from the Goldsmiths-badged building. Their building’s 1871 – Victorian Gothic. It was built for a stationer, John Nichol. Thus the “look” of the medallions – the lads are holding emblems of their trade. (There’s actually a third medallion, but two’s enough for us to be getting on with.)

And how satisfying is this?, You’ve just seen three fascinating little details – and had them illuminated – that Londoners who walk down that little alleyway five days a week will be completely clueless about. Will never have spotted – let alone understood.

And that’s just part of the tapas that gets served up on one tiny little stretch of that walk. And it’s not even the whole story about those particulars. The curious, fascinating history of the word “stationer” is another colour gel of information that gets switched on in the “live performance”.


Friday, 16 December 2011

The Friday Postcard From London – 16th December 1938

Dear Mr & Mrs Walker,

I'm sure you'll be heading along this way at some point over the next week – Oxford Street! Just as packed with buses then as it is now!

Season's Greetings!



Thursday, 15 December 2011

It's a Dog's Life, Being A Turkey…

It's Foodie Time again this Saturday. Here's Ann…

As you draw up your Christmas dinner cooking timetable, spare a thought for the turkey. They’ve been around in this country since the 16th Century – Henry VIII had one at his Christmas dinner. But before the arrival of the railways the only way to get them to the London market was to walk them there. Daniel Defoe, travelling in East Anglia in the 18th Century, was told that 150,000 turkeys a year were brought to London by drovers. Each flock consisted of between 300 and 1000 birds, making their slow way to Smithfield, feet sometimes dipped in tar and sand to protect them from the road. Not that we’re talking about the tarmac of the A12.

For young birds there were carts with three or four layers, drawn by two horses, which could make the trip to London in a couple of days.

How drovers carried on their trade is a subject now confined to history. But there are still drovers’ roads crisscrossing the countryside. And lots and lots of pub names remember drovers – my current favourite being the Drovers’ Thai restaurant in Powys.

For more foodie thoughts, join my walk this Saturday December 17 – From Pie Crust to Upper Crust – starting at 10.45 am at Embankment tube.


Wednesday, 14 December 2011

It's A London Thing No.57: Big Tree!

It’s a London Thing is our Wednesday series in which we turn the spotlight on a unique aspect of London – perhaps a curious shop, sometimes an eccentric restaurant, a hidden place, book or oddity. The subject matter will be different every week. The running theme, however, will remain constant: you have to come to London to enjoy it. It’s A London Thing.

It’s a London Thing, the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree. This simple inscription from the base of the tree tells the whole story:

This tree is given by the city of Oslo as a token of Norwegian gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during the years 1940-45. A tree has been given annually since 1947.

And you can join London Walks TWICE on Christmas Day in Trafalgar Square for our famous Christmas Day Walks.