London Walks connecting.
Story time. History time.
We did it again yesterday morning. We summited. On my Hampstead Walk. There we were, up on the roof of London. I told my seventeen walkers, “you’re standing where the great artist John Constable stood. From up here he could see forever. London of course. And points beyond. From right here, where you’re standing, Constable, could see all the way down the estuary. The wind touselling his hair, Constable could see, far in the distance, the great white billowing sails of ocean-going vessels bound for beyond, bound for the farthest-flung corners of the greatest empire the world had ever known.”
And then I take some soundings for them – that up here we’re 435 feet and seven inches above sea level. Or 16 feet and seven inches above the top of the cross on top of the dome of St Paul’s cathedral. Yes, if you choose them with care, statistics can light a fire in the mind. And as long as we’re at it, let’s throw a couple more bits of kindling on that fire. We’re 435 feet above sea level. Down below us, the Palace of Westminster – Parliament – is ten feet above sea level.
But it’s all about perspective. Up there, up on the roof of London, we’d still have a ways to go if we were climbing the Great Pyramid in Egypt. We’d still be fifteen feet from the top of the greatest tomb the world has ever known.
And handbrake turn coming up. As long as we’re on Hampstead Heath, let’s do some vocabulary acquisition.
The next time you have the privilege of holding a little person, a six-month-old baby, you could knowingly ask mum and dad, “has she started to get her baby Hampsteads?” Yes, Hampsteads. That’s the London word for teeth. Baby Hampsteads – baby teeth. When I say London word, I mean cockney rhyming slang.
This is like TikTok scrolling that actually has rhyme and reason to it. Tik Tok scrolling because we’re up on Hampstead Heath, looking up at the apex of the Great Pyramid and whoosh, suddenly we’re cuddling a baby. How do we get there? We pause on that phrase Hampstead Heath, that’s how.
Heath rhymes with teeth.
Drop the word that rhymes – I mean, this is London, after all, it’s important that it be a bit subtle, a bit opaque – drop the word Heath – which rhymes with teeth – and that leaves Hampsteads – plural – as your cockney rhyming slang word for teeth. Makes perfect sense. And the vistas that opens up – well, Hampstead will never look the same. By way of example, “You been to the Smithsonian, seen George Washington’s false Hampsteads?” Or “she decked him, hit him with a monkey wrench, knocked out his front Hampsteads.” Or how about Waterloo Hampsteads – dentures made with an ivory base set with real human teeth. Waterloo because some of the teeth were scavenged from dead soldiers on battlefields.
And that’s all by way of a preamble. But it got me where I wanted to get to: words. The wonder of them. What they can do. What they range across.
Many years ago Londoners were canvassed for entries in a proposed spoof book of advice to foreigners in London. A spoof “When in London Do as Londoners Do handbook. Everybody’s favourite entry was: “On entering an Underground train it is customary to shake hands with every passenger.”
The consternation – the ruckus – the apple cart upending – that would have set in motion if thousands of unwitting tourists had taken it as gospel and acted on it…well, it hardly bears thinking about.
But what I have been thinking about – and acting on – for several years now – is doing the thing that’s not done. I sometimes break that London taboo. I talk to strangers on the bus. Selectively of course. Not once have I regretted it. It’s always been rewarding. I got over the wall about five years. Spoke to an African man who was sitting next to me. It turned a routine 16 bus journey into something special. I’ll never forget his proudly telling me he had six daughters and each of them was named after a gemstone: diamond, emerald, ruby, etc.
Anyway, yesterday, seated next to me, a young black woman. She closed her book and I said to her, “I suffer from an incurable case of bibliomania, may I ask what you’re reading. She showed it to me, said, “it’s a book about faith.” We chatted amicably away and then my hop-off stop approaching I said, “I get off at the next stop, are you aware that when we say ‘good bye’ what we’re saying to each other is, “God be with you. Good-bye is a contraction of “God be with ye.”
Well, that sort of thing is the rainbow end of the word spectrum. The other end can be rather more grim-visaged, hard-bitten, hard-case. I’m thinking about Jackspeak – British naval slang. Thinking about it in particular in relation to Winston Churchill’s observation that ‘Americans and British are one people divided by a common language.’
And what a minefield that quote-unquote common language can be.
By way of example, the word Gronk. An American hears the word Gronk and he thinks Rob Gronkowski, the great American tight end, American football player. Gronk is retired now but he’s keeping his brand well burnished. He says – we’ll see if it happens – that he’ll be trying out for a place on the American flag football team in the Los Angeles 2028 Summer Olympics. The LA Games are where Flag football will make its debut as an Olympic sport.
Well, that’s Gronk on the other side of the Atlantic. Gronk over here – in Jackspeak, in British naval slang – means a lady of less than perfect countenance or physique. Yes, I know, it’s repugnant but there’s no use in pretending that tars were other than they were. Even more disgusting was the Jackspeak axiom that booze was invented so that gronks could have an even chance.
And in the full ripeness of the great American sporting season, the so-called fall classic – the baseball World Series – is about to get underway on the other side of the Atlantic. The American term for a bases-loaded home run is of course a grand slam. Should there be a grand slam in the World Series it will undoubtedly be a highlight of the Fall Classic.
But a grand slam in Jackspeak is nothing like as appealing. Not to put too fine a point on it, a grand slam in British naval slang is losing control of all three sphincters when drunk.
A bit of Jackspeak that I am very partial to, though – it’s how I reply every week to the email from the Nigerian oil minister who’s got a million dollars for me, he just needs my bank details so he can deposit, in my account, what Tony Soprano would call the ‘rock.’
I drop the minister a two-word reply: Foxtrot Oscar, which is of course the classic, phonetically expressed invitation to investigate sex and travel.
You’ve been listening to This is London, the London Walks podcast. Emanating from www.walks.com – home of London Walks,
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.
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
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 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, archaeologists, historians,
criminal defence lawyers,
Royal Shakespeare Company 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.