1600 clocks, vaginal tautness, Wiry Sal

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

This is London Walks.

Streets ahead.

Story time. History time.


Good morning, London. And points beyond, far-flung, near flung, it doesn’t matter, you’re listening to this you’re answering the call of London. You’re one of us. Welcome aboard.

Now for anyone stopping by for the first time, here’s the London Calling flowchart. It’s crystallised in the acronym PRO. P – R – O. P for Pin. Pinned to the front end of the London Walks podcast is a news story. Usually a London news story. If you’re not here, it helps get you here. “Oh, so that’s something that Londoners have got their eye on today.” But it’s for me as much as for you. I’m planting a flag for archiving purposes.

So that was something that was going on in the London World at large on the day we hared off in a direction most people don’t go.

PRO. P – R – O.

R is random.

It’s something that’s just caught my fancy.

Might well be out of the blue. Or more probably out of my reading. But my reaction to it was, “oh, I didn’t know that, now that is interesting. That’s going into the London Walks podcast.”

And finally, O. P-R-O – PRO. O is for Ongoing. Our Ongoing investigation into the wonders and mysteries and history and odds and ends of London.

So there you go, PRO – Pin, Random, Ongoing. That’s our flowchart.

So it’s March 30th, 2024. Today’s pin – the news story pinned to the front end of today’s podcast –  is a tale of more than 1600 clocks. And the servicing they’re going to get this weekend. But first, let that figure – 1600 and counting – sink in. There are more than 1,600 clocks at the King’s official residences. It’s a horology of clocks. Musical clocks, astronomical clocks, miniature clocks, you name it. To put some more figures on it, there are some 450 clocks at Windsor Castle. 350 clocks at Buckingham Palace and St James’s Palace in London, and 50 at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. And that just gets the royal clock count ticking.

Anyway, all of those royal clocks – all 1600 plus of them – are getting a seeing to this weekend. And why is that? Because British Summer Time begins, that’s why. The clocks go forward by one hour at 1 am on March 31st. “The clocks go forward by one hour…” Oh how that phrase ticks merrily along. But of course strictly speaking – and here I am going to be pedantic – they don’t go forward of their account do they. They get put forward. Put forward by three horological conservators who will be working round the clock this weekend. Working round the clocks round the clock. Three horological conservators, 1600 clocks from London to Windsor to Highgrove to Holyrood to Sandringham to Edinburgh to Balmoral and elsewhere. That’s a race against the clock.

And on that note, our clock has ticked here. Tick tock it’s Random time. It’s no exaggeration to say that sometimes a walking tour can be life-changing. And I’m not talking about boy meets girl on a walking tour and they end up falling in love and getting married. And teasing their youngsters for ever afterward. “I hope the three of you know how lucky you are your mum decided to go on that Hampstead Walk that Sunday morning in 2010. And that I happened to be in London that weekend and decided to go on it myself. The three of you owe London Walks big time.”

Does happen. We used to keep a running count of the number of marriages London Walks sparked.

But no, I’m talking about London Walks that are life-changing in a slightly more run-of-the-mill fashion. A walk you go on that sparks and quickens an interest. Maybe even becomes an obsession. I hope it’s all right if I give you a personal example. It was just a year ago that the distinguished former diplomat Lisa Honan joined us. Became a London Walks guide. A guide just for her one specialty: the East India Company. Which she does for us two or three times a month. And look, here’s an exciting bit of London Walks news. A year on, Lisa’s created a companion piece walk to her East India Company. She’s calling it Empire in a Cup – the History of Tea. And it debuts on Monday, April 1st. 10.45 am, Bank Underground Station. Exit 1 (underneath the clock – how everything hangs together – underneath the clock of the No. 1 Poultry Building). I’ll be there. Just as I was there for her first East India Company Walk. And omg – Oh My God – was that walk ever a life changer for me. I was breathtakingly ignorant about the British Empire. I knew it was big. I knew the sun never set on the British Empire because even God wouldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark. As that hoary old chestnut of a bad joke puts it. But that was about it. Those two hours with Lisa on her East Company walk changed everything for me. It was transformative. Lifted the scales from my eyes. One small step – a two hour walking tour – that turned out to be a boundless leap. Yes, Lisa’s East India Company walk lit a fuse in me. By walk’s end I had a new obsession: the British Empire. I was hooked, I was away. Have read avidly, voraciously. Can’t get enough of it. And that’s our Random for today. A taster from the book I’m currently devouring: Ronald Hyam’s Understanding the British Empire.

Here are two jaw-dropping paragraphs from Professor Hyam’s Introduction.

“Put simplistically, much of the rest of the world has traditionally had attitudes towards sex which were open and uncomplicated, and accordingly were regarded by the West as libertarian, to put it mildly. The Eurocentric imposition on the rest of the world of its own local code – with Judaeo-Christian prohibitions about sex – has had a profound impact on other traditions. Sometimes this has been positive in terms of human rights, especially for women. Sometimes, however, Western sexual chauvinism has led to entire indigenous male-to-male systems being wiped out,

amounting in China and Japan, in the opinion of some historians, to ‘a cultural vandalism’ of the first order. Of course a degree of agency must be allowed to non-Western peoples for their moral choices in the modern world, and they have had a degree of autonomy in reinterpreting European notions of sexual identity and sexual politics. But there is no doubt what has caused the choices to be made.

“Nowhere were divergent interpretations of sexuality more obvious than between the West and China. Westerners found two aspects of the Chinese tradition particularly hard to come to terms with. One was footbinding. The other was sodomy, endemic and openly indulged. Footbinding of girls was a painful deforming process, in which a child’s toes (except the big toe) were bent underneath and fused, forming a soft contoured arch and a protuberant big toe. Adult feet required daily bandaging. Footbinding has been described as an amazing piece of ‘physio-psycho-sociological engineering’, and it spread to all ranks of Chinese society. The preferred length of a woman’s foot was three to four inches. The ‘lotus foot’ could be reckoned more alluring than facial beauty, and it was a primary focus of sexual attention. The tiny foot, thus rendered highly sensitive by the compacting together of nerve-endings, could be sucked: ‘pedo-fellatio’ we might call it, and there were other podo-erotic delights too, such as phallic manipulation. The Chinese believed that footbinding increased female erogenous response by fifty percent, especially by improving vaginal tautness.”

OMG. I’ve read that passage about six times and there’s no getting over it. Gobsmacks me every time. And I defy you tell me the pickings at London Walks aren’t rich and varied and quirky. Aren’t – in a word – gob-smacking.

You heard it at London Walks. And please, don’t try it at home.

Moving on. Our Ongoing. Prefaced with a paint-by-numbers explanation why you get a guide.

It’s a question of seeing. And – appearances to the contrary – that’s not a simple matter.  When we say, “with a guide you’ll see things off your own bat” we don’t just mean setting eyes on something you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. That’s just the first step. And for sure, it’s an important step. “Oh, I never would have come here, I never would have noticed that” – that in itself is a crossing over. But it’s not the whole story. It’s the second stage of seeing that opens the floodgates. It’s seeing into the object or building or art work you’ve been led to. There’s a word for that further stage of seeing: that word is meaning. This place or object or thing I wouldn’t have otherwise seen, what’s its meaning? What does it mean? That’s the miracle a great guide performs. It’s turning water into wine. Turning the insipid into something rich and varied and taste bud bursting.

An easy and obvious example. The significance of colour in mediaeval art. Aside here, yes, I suppose this point does make this piece yet another Trafalgar Square redux. It’s a game-changer to go into the national gallery with an art historian guide and be told, let’s consider his – the mediaeval artist’s – pallet first. Blue was the colour of divine wisdom. Pink was the colour of joy. Red indicated love. Yellow-gold indicated royalty. Yellow was betrayal. Notice the colour of Judas’s cloak. White – the synthesis of all colours – is the colour of God. Yes, you’ve got it – Jesus’s robe.

Bears repeating, that second stage of seeing – the meaning stage – that’s the miracle, the water into wine transformation.

And you know something, there’s a third stage of guided seeing. The first stage is being taken some place you wouldn’t have gone off your own bat, having something pointed out that you wouldn’t have noticed. The second stage is the meaning stage – what does it mean this new thing that you’re showing me. The third stage is seeing the invisible, seeing what was there but is no longer there. But here’s thing – fundamental forensics, this – every contact leaves a trace. So chances are the invisible is still there, if you know how to see it. Here’s an example. More Trafalgar Square redux. The National Gallery and the National Portrait stand back to back. The National Gallery looks out over Trafalgar Square. Out of the main entrance of the National Portrait Gallery and to your left is Leicester Square. On the East side of Leicester Square – that’s the side to your right if you come out of the National Portrait Gallery, bear to your left and walk into Leicester Square – on the East side of Leicester Square is a big Odeon cinema. You’ve got a foreign visitor in tow you maybe mention to them that “this is red carpet territory. This is where new movies often debut. They put the red carpet out here. This is where the stars put in their appearance. But let’s do that old cinematic trick of tearing months off a calendar. Many calendars. Back we go to 1854. Standing here with something called the Royal Panopticon of Science and Art. It was British Empire stuff. The building was Moorish. It boasted two minarets. It had a huge dome and a fountain. And it was a failure. Nobody came. Scientific kit and state of the art machines didn’t float Londoners boats. Building was sold and reopened as a circus. And renamed, the Alhambra Palace. And that was more like it. A circus – now you’re talking, said Londoners. And the Alhambra was on its way. It got a license for music and dancing. Londoners like the spectacular and the Alhambra delivered. Londoners flocked to see the tightrope walker Blondin – he was just back from tightrope walking across Niagara Falls. And then there was ‘the daring young man on the flying trapeze.’ You heard of him. You probably have. But you didn’t know his name. Not so fast, you did know his name. Meet Monsieur Leotard. And, yes, he wore one. And he’s given his name to the garment. Walls, buildings, towers, palaces… they don’t last. Names do. Words do. They’re eternal. Or as close to as we’re going to get. And here comes the Forensics… every contact leaves a trace. Ballet shops – ballet shoes and leotards – this part of London is their neighbourhood. So when you go by a shop Freed of London – the home of professional dance clothing and shoes – it’s just round the corner in St Martin’s Lane, well, do spare a thought for Monsieur Leotard, the daring young man on the flying trapeze, at the Alhambra. In a very real sense he’s still here.

London is so weird and wonderful. So Strange. Strange, ah, that word, that name. It’s our secret password to some extraordinary London history. Leicester Square history. Alhambra history. In 1864 one Frederick Strange took over the Alhambra. He put on spectacular ballets. And now we’re going to pull everything together in that London way. This podcast made a whistle-stop tour to part of the British empire. China. We took a look at sexuality and the empire. In particular, feet. And now we’ve got to this empire-influenced and named building, the Alhambra. You want strange, here we go. Frederick Strange, the daring middle-aged manager, introduces a performer named Wiry Sal. Wiry Sal raises her foot higher than her head several times toward the audience. And, yes, chances are she was wearing a leotard. Anyway, the audience lapped it up. Contemporary accounts speak of Wiry Sal’s act – and that moment in particular – being “much applauded.” The authorities didn’t like it, though. It was feet every which way – over the head in Leicester Square and improving vaginal tautness in China. It was all too much. Strange was taken to court. He was fined. His license wasn’t renewed. The prigs must have been deeply satisfied when the Alhambra burned down in 1882. Note to self: try to track down Wiry Sal. Where did she go? What happened to her?

You’ve been listening to This… is London, the London Walks podcast. Emanating from www.walks.com –

home of London Walks,

London’s signature

walking tour company.

London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size

walking tour company.

And as long as we’re at it,

London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.

That’s the key to everything.

It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science:

you get what you pay for.

And just as surely,

you also get what you don’t pay for.

Back in 1968 when we got started

we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question:

Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world?

You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world

you do whatever you have to do

to attract and keep

the best guides in London –

you want them guiding for you,

not for somebody else.

Bears repeating:

the way we’re structured –

a guides’ cooperative –

is the key to the whole thing.

It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following,

a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases

distinguished professionals:

By way of example, Stewart Purvis, the former Editor

(and subsequently CEO) of Independent Television News.

And Lisa Honan, who had a distinguished career as a diplomat (Lisa was the Governor of St Helena, the island where Napoleon breathed his last and, some say, had his penis amputated –

Napoleon didn’t feel a thing – if thing’s the mot juste – he was dead.)

Stewart and Lisa –

both of them CBEs –

are just a couple of our headline acts.

Or take our Ripper Walk. It’s the creation of the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, Donald Rumbelow, the author of the definitive book on the subject.  Britain’s most distinguished crime historian, Donald is, in the words of The Jack the Ripper A to Z,“internationally recognised as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper.” Donald’s emeritus now but he’s still the guiding light on our Ripper Walk. He curates the walk. He trains up and mentors our Ripper Walk guides. Fields any and all questions they throw at him.

The London Walks Aristocracy of Talent – its All-Star team of guides – includes a former London Mayor. It includes the former Chief Music Critic for the Evening Standard. It includes the Chair of the Association of Professional Tour Guides. And the former chair of the Guild of Guides.

It includes barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, a former Museum of London archaeologist, historians,

university professors (one of them a distinguished Cambridge University paleontologist); it includes

criminal defence lawyers,

Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre actors,

a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the big one, the Guide of the Year Award)…

well, you get the idea.

As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament,

every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar

and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…

come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks.

And that’s by way of saying, Good walking and Good Londoning

one and all. See ya next time.

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