The NEW Hampstead Spies walk meets this Sunday 21st November, 10.30am at Belsize Park tube.
New walk. Instant classic.
Here’s why it goes straight onto the must-do list.
I.E. here’s what you get (well, some of what you get), what you see (well, some of what you see), what went into the walk (well, some of what went into it), and why you should go on it.
1. Guide first. Always. Because it all comes down to the guiding. Famously and uniquely London Walks fronts its walks with people of real substance, people who are accomplished – indeed, in several cases renowned* – professionals.
Stewart Purvis, who’s created and guides the Hampstead Spies walk, more than fits the bill. He’s the former Editor and CEO of ITN (Independent Television News) and the author of Guy Burgess The Spy Who Knew Everyone.
2. Spellbinding subject. Let’s turn the magnification up on that word spellbinding. The ingredients in the dish Spellbinding are: gripping, intriguing, important, fascinating, change-the-way-you-see-a-neighbourhood potency.
In this instance you’ve got – and this is just a lucky dip, a sampling – our biggest memorial to World War II (no, you won’t be able to see it without Stewart); ships (and tanks) made out of ice; sexual shenanigans that make your head spin; the letter “m” on a typewriter; a paparazzi-packed street; a famous actor or two (let alone that jazz musician); Agatha Christie; show-stopping (in its time) architecture; a street of spies; a whole neighbourhood that went “alien”; the “6th man”; a suicide note; a prominent member of a European dynastic family (let alone the very top of the British establishment); the American actress who never wore knickers and was given to doing cartwheels at dinner parties; the Archbishop of Canterbury; the Red Army; Cambridge; the stern admonition: “don’t tell the FBI”; a nest of spies building that Stewart’s secured access to (waiting outside to get in there is a Checkpoint Charlie moment in NW3); the woman who was one of the most important individuals in the history of British espionage; six nuns (the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone); putting the pieces of the puzzle together; what do spies do? how do they do it? why do they do it?
Speaking for myself (David) here – hand me a programme like that my instanta response is: beam me up Stewart; and make it a front row seat.
And all of this in toniest South Hampstead-Belsize Park. OMG, the goings on on the white cliffs of NW3!
3. The Platonic ideal of London Walks research.
Here’s Stewart: “these documents were off-limits – classified – [this said while he’s showing us some of them]. MI5 don’t release files by their age – 50 years, etc. They release whatever suits them whenever. I was tipped off [my italics] a year ahead that these files would be opened up in October 2015. I was down there in Kew [at the Public Records Office] like a shot as soon as that October day rolled round. Getting my hands on that treasure trove of MI5 documents – being the first person to see them in all those years – the first person to see them since they were “live” in the Cold War Stalin/Khruschev-Eisenhower era – I felt like Howard Carter peering into King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Getting my hands on them and going through them, I can’t tell you how exciting that was…there have been very good books written about that history and about Burgess, Philby, Maclean, etc. But they were written before these documents were released. There’s important stuff in those files – these documents being a case in point – vital information that’s cleared up questions those earlier biographers and historians weren’t able to answer because they didn’t have access to these materials, to those Top Secret, Classified files.”
Stewart adds: “I also went through the Electoral Registers for these streets. It was a spy hunt – that’s what you do.”
And I – David – add: he also did the digging that made it possible to “back story” these houses. Census Returns, Wills, Probate records, etc. In the interests of getting a wider view, getting perspective, getting a feel for this neighbourhood that ranged across several decades. What kind of neighbourhood was it, who was living in these places – what sort of people were here – before the spies moved in?
That’s the only way you get an idea of the iridescence of a house, of a neighbourhood. That sense that you’re peering into depths.
You add that sort of thing to the mix – put it together with the overpowering sense that in this neighbourhood again and again you’re touching the hem of the gown of history – the Cold War, World War II, the Red Army, the atomic bomb, the Nazis, a world in flames – well, it’s thrilling stuff. An immediacy that you can’t get out of a book. That you can only get from going over the ground, from a great walking tour. From going there and seeing the real thing, seeing where they lived. Immediacy. Sense of place. The way the quotidian can resonate. You don’t get that out of a book. You get it by going there, being shown it by someone who knows what happened there, who knows what he’s talking about.
And it doesn’t end there – I mean this walk being the Platonic ideal of great London Walks research. Which is by way of saying – and how perfect is this? – Stewart “door stepped” these houses. He went through gates and up steps and knocked on doors. “Are you aware that one of the most important individuals in the history of British espionage lived here?” Stewart did that not just to bring the remarkable tidings to the current occupants (and stop and think how set up are today’s residents, from here on out, for dinner party conversations about the “ghosts” in their house?) – but to get a feel for – get a better idea of how and where the dramatis personae lived. How did Churchill put it? “We make our houses and then our houses make us.”
But you have to love it – the former Editor and CEO of ITN door stepping houses in Hampstead. But Stewart was once a cub reporter – he’s got form.
4. Local knowledge. Stewart’s lived up here for 30 years. He’s a local. He’s known and trusted. That’s given him access. It’s opened doors – and memories. Local knowledge – you can’t beat it.
5. The Hampstead Spies walk has been trialled, been test-driven. I can vouch for it because I’ve been on it. With an American friend – a connoisseur of walking tours. The Yank pal – another David – has been on walking tours all over the world. We call him the Sommelier of walking tours. Because he’s so experienced, exacting and discerning. Really high standards. Doesn’t suffer fools – or shoddiness. Knows and wants – indeed, insists upon – highest quality. We try to get him to go on every new London Walk. His opinion is so valuable because of his exacting standards and because he’s disinterested, doesn’t have a dog in the fight.
Bottom line: if a walk works for David H. from Manhattan a walk works.
And David H.’s verdict? He loved Stewart’s Spies of Hampstead walk.
We both did.
For me – I wouldn’t have thought this was possible – there was this added bonus: the walk took me into Hampstead streets I’d never been in. I’ve lived up here for 40 years. I guide it (I’ll be thinking of you all on Sunday morning because I’ll be guiding my completely different Hampstead walk further up the hill at the same time – well, half an hour earlier). To take me into nooks and crannies of Hampstead that I didn’t know were there – I had to pinch myself, I thought “this has to be a mirage, Stewart’s conjured these backwaters up” – that takes some doing. Stewart did it.
And the material – see point 2 – was also completely new to me in the most spellbinding (that word again) sense of “well I never”, “good heavens”, “who’d a thought it?” moments.
6. This should go without saying – Stewart’s in complete command of the material. Assured, at ease – it’s a consummate performance. The hard won effortlessness of mastery.
7. Stewart’s got the other sine qua non in spades. He’s warm, friendly, gracious, at home with an audience, has the bearing, the marvellous voice, the infectious enthusiasm for his subject – the whole package.
8. Stewart’s got this…
Case closed – establishes bona fides – wouldn’t you say. And he’ll have some of them along on Sunday if any of you would like one.
9. Stewart will be happy to make après walk lunch recommendations. Local knowledge again.
Ex-ITN CEO, ex-Ofcom, now Channel 4 board director, co-author of 'Guy Burgess - the Spy Who Knew Everyone.
Coda: London Walks’ “signing” Stewart Purvis is absolutely of a piece with Donald Rumbelow – “internationally recognised as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper” – heading up our team of Ripper guides; of a piece with barrister Tom guiding some of our Legal London walks; of a piece with Intertidal Archaeologist Fiona – “the world’s foremost expert on this stretch of the Thames foreshore” – guiding our Beachcombing walks; of a piece with historian Hilary OBE guiding her specialist tours; of a piece with physician Barry guiding his Medical London tours; of a piece with actress-author-travel show presenter Karen – “the world’s greatest guide” as Travel & Leisure dubbed her – guiding whatever she turns her hand to, etc. etc.
In the lapidary words of that journalist, “if this were a golf tournament every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”
The NEW Hampstead Spies walk meets this Sunday 21st November, 10.30am at Belsize Park tube. Full details at www.walks.com.