London Walks connecting.
This… is London.
Story time. History time.
You never forget your first time.
For me, it was a Dickens Walk from Tower Hill on a fine October day in 1980.
It was always on the cards that it was going to be a Dickens Walk. Ian, who owned London Walks at the time, had dragged his feet a little bit about whether it was right to have a young American to guiding London Walks. But I knew something about Dickens. Indeed, I knew quite a bit more about Dickens than any of his other guides. I’d done a Ph.D. on Dickens at University College London. So Dickens was my entree into London Walks. And now I own the company. Have done for 33 years. So this podcast is a retrospective. A look back at London Walks 43 years ago. And the road it’s taken since then.
London Walks had form, so to speak, when I joined. It was already well-established, by far the oldest walking tour company in London. It pretty much had the field all to itself. Didn’t have any competition to speak of. There was a one-woman operation called Exciting Walks with Gertrude, which, in Ian’s words, ‘promised more than it delivered.’ And there was something called Suburban Tours. I ask you, was there ever a less inviting name for a walking tour company? Anyway, neither of them could lay a glove on us. We had the guides, we had the pedigree, we had the name, we had the gold standard reputation, we had that sterling endorsement from Mr New York Times himself, Johnny Apple. He was the New York Times London Bureau Chief when he emblazoned that 24-carat review. And we were already a fixture on the London scene – we’d been around since the 1960s. As we said then – and have been saying ever since – London Walks is the grandpappy of them all, the first and oldest urban walking tour company in the world.
Somewhere deep in the London Walks podcast attic there are a couple of pieces about London Walks’ and its earliest days. I tracked down Keith Baverstock, the Australian who founded London Walks back in the 1960s, and got him to ransack his memories, tell us about London Walks when it was a newborn colt, just getting to its feet and learning to, well, walk.
But that story’s already been told. Let’s get us to 1980. Keith went back to Australia in the early 1970s. Tried to run it from Australia. Those were – needless to say – pre-email days, pre-fax days, pre-What’s App days. International phone calls cost an arm and a leg. International communication for a little walking tour company was by letter. Keith would write a letter in Australia. Airmail it to London. It would be delivered a week after he posted it. Ian’s reply would take a week to get from London back to Australia.
It just wasn’t doable. So there was a palace revolt, so to speak. Ian jus took the company over. He was a successful City of London banker. As he went up the corporate ladder he had less and less time to guide. And indeed have very much at all to do with London Walks generally. His wife Pat took up the reins. Ian and Pat had two young children. They lived up in Hertfordshire. Pat’s involvement in the day-to-day running of the company was necessarily pretty limited. But in those early days a very light managerial touch was all that was needed.
I remember it well. Pat and the dozen or so London Walks guides would have quarterly meetings at The Sun pub in Long Acre in Covent Garden. Pat will have drawn up a programme for the next three months – in those early days it was probably about twelve walks a week – and the dozen of us would sit around a table and take turns signing up for this walk or that walk as Pat took us through the next quarter’s schedule. And who were we? Well, there was the actor, Robert. We called him, behind his back, the poor man’s Richard Burton. There was June, the former City of London stockbroker. We all thought of her as the London Walks version of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. Like the Wife of Bath June was bawdy and gap-toothed. It was June who dazzled the legendary New York Times man, Johnny Apple. He was the New York Times London Bureau Chief at the time. June died in Bali. She was cremated on a beach in Bali. That was June for you,
hugely prismatic, larger than life, in character to the very end. Including her exodus. There was David Goldsworthy, a headmaster, who was plagued half to death by a little old London lady who was, frankly, a sot. Much to the headmaster’s chagrin, she’d turn up on every London Walk he guided. He called her, unkindly but true, ‘the phantom pisser of Fleet Street.’ There was Neil, another City of London banker, who met his future wife, on a walk. She was an American and took him home with her and we never saw him again. There was Graham, also a City of London banker. Graham guided for nearly 40 years. He was our direct connection with the Australian founder of London Walks. He’d been hired by Keith. It was Graham who served up the lapidary phrase, which said it all, really, “Keith was fed up with the banality of typical London tourist fare, so he started walking tours, started London Walks.”
There was Ann Murray, the pretty successful BBC actress. There was Anton, the Cambridge University classicist and author of the still-in-print, many years later, very fine book, London Walks. There was Joan, the larger-than-life Australian woman who started pub walks.
That’s a rumbustious story. Joan came up with the idea, wanted to do pub walks. Ian didn’t think they were a good idea, didn’t want to have anything to do with them. But Joan wore him down. Terrier-like, she got her teeth into him and shook him like a rag until he finally gave up and said, “ok, I’ll put one in.” Famously, she rang him that first night and said, “Ian, you better send another guide, there are 80 people here.” Needless to say, it was an instant conversion, that first-ever pub walk made a believer out of him.
Joan was inimitable. She’d take over any pub she went into. Get up on a table and address not just her walkers but the whole pub.
Ah, yes, London Walks in its rough-and-ready frontier days.
And everything was tickety-boo for about five years. And then it all went pear-shaped.
And that’s where I’ll pick up the tale on the next podcast.
Time for me now to prep tonight’s walk, the Along the Thames Pub Walk. From the get-go it was one of my two favourite London Walks. And there’s a story of course behind all of that. Which will be part and parcel of that forthcoming podcast.
I’m very much looking forward to this evening’s stroll Along the Thames. For various and sundry reasons it’s been several years since I’ve guided that much-loved walk. So I’m practically jumping up and down with excitement about getting back in the saddle. And looking forward to some of the changes. One of which is going to be the fruit of the picture research I’ve done. That all came about because of the pandemic, the lockdown. We were a walking tour company that wasn’t allowed to do walking tours. So we created all those virtual tours. And that got me hooked on images. Nearly 40 years of guiding behind me and I’d never had recourse to images on my walks. Then suddenly I was working with them for the virtual tours and, well, it was a revelation. I thought, ‘some of these images are just magical.’ I’m going to blow them up to poster size, laminate them and wheel them out at critical junctures on my walks. So tonight my Along the Thames Walkers are going to see things that their predecessors didn’t get to see. Some of them – the images, I mean – so special, so remarkable they’re in effect game changers.
And the other thing I’ve done is to rustle up a professionally produced PDF of the Thamesis chapter in the London Walks book. Yes, the Thamesis chapter – that’s its title – the great wide sweeping history of London in relation to its river. I wrote that chapter and if I say so myself it’s the magnum opus chapter in the book. It opens the book. It’s three times as long as any of the other chapters. Anyway, each of my walkers tonight is going to get that nugget of added value. When I get home I’ll wing an email off to them and that chapter will be in the email. Some bedtime reading for them after their evening walking along the Thames and sampling its finest pubs. What’s not to like?
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.