Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Ring In The New

One last look over our shoulder before we stride forth into 2015…

This post is reblogged from 2011. It's our editor Adam with his love letter to Big Ben.

Happy New Year to you all and we look forward to seeing you both here on this blog and "out there" on a London Walk in 2015.

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.

A London Walk costs £9 – £7 concession. To join a London Walk, simply meet your guide at the designated tube station at the appointed time. Details of all London Walks can be found at

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2014 In 12 Blog Posts: December – Henry Cole, The Christmas Card & More

The last post in our review of 2014 on The Daily Constitutional… In December David looked at the life and work of Henry Cole…

Regular Daily Constitutionalists will know that we are posting a Christmas card from London on our blog every day until Christmas Eve.

Henry Cole is the man credited with originating the tradition of the Christmas card, but there's a whole lot more to the man than that.

David Tucker writes…

Let’s meet the ancestors.

Well, an ancestor.

A cultural ancestor.

King Cole.

Here he is.

A merry old soul, think you?

How’s the nursery rhyme go?

Old King Cole was a merry old soul
And a merry old soul was he;
He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl
And he called for his fiddlers three.
Every fiddler he had a fiddle,
And a very fine fiddle had he;
Oh there's none so rare, as can compare
With King Cole and his fiddlers three.

Well, I don’t know about merry. And it may be a stretch to see him calling for his pipe and calling for his bowl. I’d say he looks like he means business. Looks earnest. Determined. Looks like he’s taking stock. Looks – in a word – Victorian.

His name is Henry Cole. And this is as good a time as any to meet him. Because amongst other things – amongst many other things – Henry Cole invented the Christmas Card.

Here’s the very first one, the Ur Christmas Card. It went out in 1843.

Ok, it was 177 years ago and for sure Christmas cards have changed a bit. Not just colour  – they’re all-singing, all-dancing digital these days. Well, some of them are.

That said, the essential elements are here. In this first ever Christmas card. Christmas of 1843.* There’s family and food and drink and a festive time being had by all.

The Christmas card’s just an entrée. Of much greater interest is King Cole himself. And what he accomplished. The difference he made.

And yes, they really did call him King Cole. It was an acknowledgement of his power in the small kingdom of South Kensington.

He was born Henry Cole. (He died Sir Henry Cole.) The bookend dates are 1808 and 1884. He started life in Bath. Son of an army officer, he was educated at Christ’s Hospital school. Upon leaving school he got a job as a clerk, in the Record Commission. Fell out with his employer over his, Cole’s, salary. Decided to tip the whole damn apple cart over. The Record Commission at the time was a hotbed of corruption and jobbery. Cole went public with the shenanigans. An unlimited dirty linen hangout in a series of articles for The Examiner. Cost him his job. Temporarily. Parliament was embarrassed into doing something about the mess and when the reforms were put in place Henry Cole was reinstated.

The important thing – the big picture thing – was that he’d found his calling. He was formidable. Wouldn’t be put off. Had some vision. Was one of the great organisers of the age. Abilities fuelled by boundless reserves of energy.

Here’s a checklist. The London – and indeed the country, the culture – that Henry Cole built. I think you’ll agree the Christmas card was small beer in comparison with the biggies in this list.

• Along with Rowland Hill, Henry Cole was the prime mover behind the introduction of a national prepaid postage system.

• He was a mover and shaker in  the world of Victorian railways. Produced a series of railway charts and wrote articles on railway excursions. Campaigned for the introduction of the uniform narrow gauge and the separation of freight from passenger traffic.

• Authored a series of illustrated children’s books. And campaigned for an adequate education and good occupational opportunities for girls.

• Was at the centre of the group that organized the 1851 Great Exhibition. He was promoter, publicist and administrator. He was the guy who sorted it. Allocated space for the 14,000 exhibitors from Britain, 11 colonies and 14 foreign countries.

• Then led the fight to save the Crystal Palace from dismantlement after the GE was over.

• The Great Exhibition turned a healthy profit. The money was used to buy land in Brompton, just south of the Great Exhibition site in Hyde Park. Prince Albert, the Great Exhibition’s royal figurehead hoped the site could be used to carry on with the work of the Great Exhibition: “the promotion of industry and the arts.” Henry Cole was the man who turned the vision into reality – he spent the next 20 years of his life turning South Kensington into a national centre for the arts and sciences. The V & A, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the Geology Museum, etc. – it’s surely the greatest museum complex in the world. We’ve got Henry Cole to thank for it.

• He did important work for the schools of design that had been set up in the 1830s. Just for the fun of it he designed a tea service that won a Society of Arts prize.

• After “retirement” he set up the National Training School for Music. And the National Training School for Cookery.

• He was the driving force behind “the nation’s village hall” – the Royal Albert Hall.

Sewage, army reform, copyright, patent law also came under his purview. In his spare time, that is.

Well, you get the idea.  Thomas Carlyle once said, “I have found that the Portrait was a small lighted candle by which the Biographies could for the first time be read, and some human interpretation be made of them.” Bearing that in mind – and having taken survey of Henry Cole’s life’s work – maybe now scroll back up to the “portrait”, the bust. King Cole, indeed. Henry Cole was, to borrow the Marlene Dietrich character’s line about Quinlan (played by Orson Welles) in the great film Touch of Evil, “some kind of man.”

*That may have been the second most memorable Christmas of all – because it was also the year of Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol.

A London Walk costs £9 – £7 concession. To join a London Walk, simply meet your guide at the designated tube station at the appointed time. Details of all London Walks can be found at

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Dickens – 'e's Not Just For Christmas

Indelibly associated with the English Christmas, Charles Dickens had a word or two to say at New Year, too. Here’s Trotty from The Chimes (1844)…

“‘Why! Lord!’ said Toby. ‘The Papers is full of obserwations as it is; and so’s the Parliament. Here’s last week’s paper, now;’ taking a very dirty one from his pocket, and holding it from him at arm’s length; ‘full of obserwations! Full of obserwations! I like to know the news as well as any man,’ said Toby, slowly; folding it a little smaller, and putting it in his pocket again: ‘but it almost goes against the grain with me to read a paper now. It frightens me almost. I don’t know what we poor people are coming to. Lord send we may be coming to something better in the New Year nigh upon us!’”

And while “God bless us every one!” may be the more famous cry (published a year earlier in 1843), we wish you a HAPPY NEW YEAR with these closing lines from The Chimes:

“‘I couldn’t rest on the last night of the Old Year without coming to wish you joy. I couldn’t have done it, Meg. Not if I had been bed-ridden. So here I am…’

So may the New Year be a happy one to you, happy to many more whose happiness depends on you! So may each year be happier than the last, and not the meanest of our brethren or sisterhood debarred their rightful share, in what our Great Creator formed them to enjoy.”

A London Walk costs £9 – £7 concession. To join a London Walk, simply meet your guide at the designated tube station at the appointed time. Details of all London Walks can be found at

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2014 In 12 Blog Posts: November – Harry the Hat

Back in November we blogged about hats. Harry lead the way…

With winter on the way, the thoughts of London Walks guides and London Walkers inevitably turn to… warm clothes!

A while ago we blogged about our favourite walking shoes – you can catch up with our recommendations HERE.

This month, we're at the other end of the spectrum: hats.

Harry Jackson is first up, reminding us of the old maxim, "If you want to get ahead… get FIFTEEN hats."

(It is the mark of a London Walks guide that he or she will ALWAYS go the extra mile.)

We're particularly fond of these pics. They look like the gallery section in the biography of some illustrious spy where we get to see the master of disguise in full spate.

For preference? We think the beret is tops. Although, paradoxically, the top hat is also "the berries".

Harry adds, enigmatically… "There are some of us who just suit a hat. Sadly, there are some who don’t."

Harry, there's only one possible response to this: we take off our hat to you… 15 times.

Can you recommend a good hat? A good hat shop? Or do you just have a face for hats? Send us your thoughts, send us your pictures please!

Harry is a Cockney, a Scouser, a character - how could he be otherwise? - and a professionally qualified Blue Badge Guide.

Harry leads The Unknown East End Walk every Sunday at 2:00pm 

A London Walk costs £9 – £7 concession. To join a London Walk, simply meet your guide at the designated tube station at the appointed time. Details of all London Walks can be found at

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