All About the Old Westminster Walk (spiced with Kissinger and Oscar Wilde)

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

Story time. History time.


And so it’s farewell Henry Kissinger. My best guess is on the way in he’s going to meet Oscar Wilde on the way out. To paraphrase that wire Groucho Marx sent to a Hollywood Club he had joined. “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept Henry Kissinger as a member.”

I mention Oscar Wilde because he died today – November 30th, 1900. Died in that little dump of a hotel room in Paris. His may have been the wittiest death ever. But what else would you expect from Oscar Wilde? Oscar’s dying words, “either that wallpaper goes or I go.”

For the record, I’ve been in that hotel room. Paris Walks – with their great contacts – was able to get us in there on that memorable day. Still a hotel but oh my god has it gone upmarket. These days it’s very swish, very posh, very expensive. What one wouldn’t give to hear Oscar pronounce judgement on its decor today.

My burning question – the adjective comes to mind because it’s Henry Kissinger who’s on his way to the infernal regions – my burning question is, in the hereafter do they celebrate everybody’s Death Day.

On that note, having given Kissinger’s chariot of fire a shove to speed it on its way and, for an ablution, having remembered Oscar Wilde with an outpouring of fondness and love let’s get to London. To Westminster in particular. Which I’ll be guiding in four hours.

Now about today’s Old Westminster Walk. And about London Walks generally. You’ve been doing this as long as I have – 43 years – you can get the big picture. See how things have changed.

Changed for the better for the customer. And, yes, for us, too – though we work a lot harder now than we did 40 years ago.

Let’s do a fast-forward from 1980. See where we were back then, what it was like. And then hit the trail. The Long March over nearly half a century. Where it’s taken us.

It was so easy back in 1980. A dream of a job. You just turned up. Did your two-hour walk. And that was all there was to it. Different story today. The level of service, so to speak, is off the charts compared to what it was 43 years ago. There are, I think, three main reasons for that. One of those reasons is technology. In 1980 ease of communication with our walkers was undreamt of. Oh, they could telephone. Or write a letter. Remember those things, letters? But unless we had a mailing address – or a telephone number – we had no way of contacting them. They were out there but we had no radar that could pick them up. They only swam into our ken – to use Keats’ line – when they pitched up to go on the walk.

The second reason was the pandemic. It was – in that hackneyed phrase – a game changer. For the first fifty years of its existence London Walks didn’t operate a booking scheme. We’d produce a schedule. And the guide and some walkers would turn up at the appointed hour. They’d find each other outside the designated Underground station and the walk would happen. It was simplicity itself. The model couldn’t have been more basic.

The pandemic sure upset that apple cart. We had to be able to track and trace. The law forced us into that straitjacket. We didn’t have any choice in the matter – we had to go over to a booking scheme. Once we crossed that huge divide…well, we saw that there were big advantages. The booking scheme made it possible for us to provide a much better service.

And the third reason? It had nothing to do with technological developments. Nor was it forced upon us from without, by the powers that be. It was self-generated. I remember thinking it through with reference to London hotels. Thinking, we’re London Walks, we want to provide a five-star service, look after our customers the way the Savoy or the Ritz look after their guests. As opposed to the level of service a cheapo fleabag in Earl’s Court provides. Apart from fronting our walks with great guides, what can we do in terms of customer care – both after-sale service and pre-sale – that will differentiate us from the knock-offs. What can we do that proclaims – makes it manifest – that London Walks does it better, from first to last, than any of the also-rans. I remember thinking, how would the Savoy do it if its schtick was walking tours? That’s the level of service we have to aim for.

And what followed from all of that was what I’ve taken to calling the advancer email. And the follow-up email.

And look, to be fair, not every London Walks guide has answered the call. But some have. And it’s met with a lot of approval. I remember talking it over with several guides when I was gearing up to sending out my first advancer. And some of them said, ‘oh no, you shouldn’t do that. People get too many emails. They’re not going to like that.”

Well, the nay-sayers were way wide of the mark. The response has been 100 percent favourable. I remember thinking, if I were in, say, Venice or Berlin and getting ready to go on a walking tour I’d love to get an email like this from the guide. And in any case, nobody has to open the email I send them. It takes less than a second to delete it. So it’s not roping them into anything. It’s an optional extra.

Anywhere, here’s what I sent out to my seven walkers today. Two of whom are Susan and Jim.

Good morningSusan and Jimmie,

Guide David here from London Walks.

Looking forward to seeing you on this afternoon’s Old Westminster walk (2 pm Thursday, November 30th, just outside exit 4 of Westminster Tube).

Thought I’d send along a couple of pre-walk tips and recommendations, any of which will stand you in good stead if you get there a bit early for the walk. And my contact details in case of any problems. And indeed the first part of the route if you do have to play catch-up. I usually allow about a five-minute period of grace – i.e., we won’t push off from the meeting point outside exit 4 of Westminster Tube until about 2.05 pm.

Exit 4 of Westminster Tube is the exit that’s directly across the street from Big Ben. If you arrive by Tube it’s very easy to find Exit 4 because all the exits are signposted. If you arrive by foot, taxi or bus my recommendation would be to go down into the station and look for the overhead signs. Lock on to the Exit 4 sign and follow the arrow. Eezy peezy as my ankle-biters used to say.

I’m easy to spot. I’m no petit four. Look for a big guy who’s wearing red shoes, a grey moleskin coat, a green belt, and a scarf with a splash of colour. The whole garish production topped to the north with a brown fedora. Another giveaway is the red Daunts Books tote bag I’ll be carrying.

You won’t be looking for a large group. Small, select is more like it. Three bookings, seven people so far. In academic terms a seminar rather than a crammed full lecture hall.

Recommendations if you get there early. Lots of good possibilities.

Come out of Exit 4, turn left and walk the 30 yards or so to the Embankment (the street that runs along on the north side of the River Thames). Cross the Embankment. Directly ahead of you will be Westminster Bridge and the magnificent statue of Queen Boadicea driving a chariot.  When you get on the river side of the Embankment – with Boadicea right in front of you – turn left. Walk along a ways and very soon there’ll be, at regular intervals, a series of handsome park benches. Should you want to chill, have a sitdown, look at the river and the river traffic, look at the London Eye directly across the river, look at Westminster Bridge, look back at Big Ben, people-watch, etc. – well, you’re in the clover seated there on one of those handsome old benches. Do notice the Egyptian iconography, the sphinxes they’re decorated with.

And right along there, just ahead of you, is that magnificent memorial to the Battle of Britain heroes. It’s not a one and done job. Glance-wise, I mean. It’s big, it’s full of splendid detail. I go down there I always spend at least 20 minutes taking survey of the riches of that memorial.

And if you want to know about that chapter in this country’s history, well, see the Postscript down below. Maybe peruse it when you’re there, looking at the memorial.

Moving on, If you get to the walk nice and early, well, how does Fish & Chips at St Stephen’s Tavern (the MP’s ‘local’) sound? It’s also easy to find. Come up the steps and out of exit 4 of Westminster Tube and turn right. You’ll walk past a Tescos shop and then voilà, straight ahead of you is St Stephens Tavern.

And if you want to “spend a penny” – as the old euphemism put it – i.e., go to the loo, just go in that side door of St Stephen’s Tavern, once through the door bear to the right, go through that small room where people will be shoving themselves outside their grub, carry on through the far door and there’s a staircase. Go down the steps and the loos are right there. And yes, you can use them even if you don’t buy a drink. Just be breezily confident. Sail in there and through that door to the staircase that leads down to the loos. For all they know you could be one of their customers who’s been drinking outside. No problemo. There is a loo down in the station but you’ll have to part with 50 pence to use it. The loos in St Stephen’s Tavern make more financial sense. For the record, one of the first things we do on that walk is go into the pub and walk through the front room. They have a Division Bell in there and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t take people in there to see it.

Other provisions. Well, you can obviously get sandwiches and other munchies and drinks in the Tescos, which is right there, not ten yards from where we meet. And there’s a Café Nero coffee bar right there (five yards along if you turn left and walk toward Boadicea and the Embankment). And beside it there’s yet another sandwich and sticky buns outlet (the name of which has yet to imprint on my grey matter). And for that matter, there’s also one down in the concourse of Westminster Station.

The walk will take a little over two hours and it’s effectively circular. We’ll finish directly in front of Westminster Hall, historically the most important part of the entire complex. No other building in this country crystallises its history like Westminster Hall. And it’s only a 30-second walk from Westminster Tube Stop. If anyone wants post-walk recommendations, well, I can give you any number of good steers.

Going on this walk you’ve turned up trumps. The area is full of surpassing interest and great beauty. And the walk is the most wonderful mix of “the public face” of Westminster (the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St Margaret’s [the parish church of the House of Commons], the Supreme Court, the Jewel Tower, Methodist Central Hall, the aforementioned Westminster Hall, etc.). But we also explore “the private face” of Westminster. That extraordinary little nest of Georgian back streets, where all the political salons are. We have them to ourselves. They’re completely hidden – undreamt of and beyond the “reach” of the great unwashed swarming over the public face of Westminster. It’s deeply satisfying getting back in there and uncovering that residential area’s rich history.

Beyond that, well, you’ll see things that nobody else gets to see (unless they’ve been on my walk). I’ll save the specifics for this afternoon but not to put too fine a point on it I’ll show you things that will have your jaw tilting toward hanging open in wonderment. Things that haven’t been seen by anybody – my walkers excepted – in over a century. I’m a journalist (and a re-treaded academic). I research. I dig. I’ve made some nifty finds. I’ve worked same into the weave of my walk.  So, yes, you’ll get to see stuff that nobody else – whether or not they’re on a walking tour – gets to see. That’s an important aim: I want my walkers to see things they won’t see anywhere else.

First part of the walk, well, we’ll go along to St Stephen’s Tavern. I’ll spend a couple of minutes outside the pub explaining what a Division Bell is and where to look to see it when we go in the pub. Then we’ll go in – go in that same door that you enter if you’re going to get some grub (or indeed go to the loo). Once through the door we’ll turn left and walk through the front room (the pub bar will be on our right); I’ll direct your gaze to the Division Bell. Then we’ll exit the pub (through the front door). Go along to the corner of Parliament Square. Cross Whitehall (the street on your right that runs from Parliament Square right up to Trafalgar Square). Carry straight on – along the street that has the red telephone boxes in it. As far as the crosswalk. We’ll cross over into Parliament Square. I’ll guide the Churchill statue and the David Lloyd George statue and the Jan Smuts statue and the hugely important Palmerston statue and the Derby statue and the statue that killed a man. Then we’ll leave Parliament Square; we cross over to the Abbey. I’ll guide the West front of the Abbey. Then we’ll go through the arched entryway into Dean’s Yard and be on our way to the private face of Westminster. And if you were late and haven’t caught us up by then, well, you’ve missed the first few courses of the feast. My recommendation would be to take another run at it, do it another day and catch it from the beginning.

Here’s a Londoner’s tip for you. To gauge how long a Tube journey in central London takes Londoners allow an average of three minutes between stops. So if the station you’re starting your journey at is five stops away from your destination station you should allow fifteen minutes for that journey. 3 minutes x 5 stations = 15 minutes. And so on. A destination that’s seven stops away you should figure 21 minutes for that Tube journey.

That said, should you be late, my phone number is – here I give them my phone number. And you can also reach Peter or Fiona or Mary at London Walks on 020 7624 3978. If worse comes to worse, they can liaise – make “an instrument landing.”

Finally, the reason I “take roll” before we set out. I wrote the chapter on Secret Westminster in London Walks, London Stories (the London Walks book) and everybody on the walk who makes themselves known gets sent a professionally produced pdf of that chapter. It’s a good “fit” with the walk – complements it nicely. And if nothing else it’ll save you forking out a tenner to buy the book. But if people want that freebie nugget of added value they need to make sure I put a tick by their name in the register.

Weather-wise, looks like it’s going to be perfect walking weather. Forecast is a crisp 5 C (41 F), with zero precipitationIn short, a classic London autumn day. That said, the forecast, whatever it is, is a why bother consideration because in four decades of guiding I’ve never once taken an umbrella.* It doesn’t rain on my walks.

You want a deep draught of the subject, kick back with our richly satisfying (and eye-opening) London Weather podcast. [And yes, here I set them up with a link to the podcast] –

Jerusalem, Gibraltar, Rome, Rhodes, etc. all get more rainfall than London. New York gets twice as much. London is one of the driest cities on earth.

It’s the last thing you’d expect but that’s London for you. This is the most mysterious – the most secretive – city in the western world. Shapeshifting, belying its reputation is par for the course for London. This town specialises in pulling the wool over people’s eyes. Literally and figuratively. And literally-figuratively. Literally-figuratively “the wool” is “the low London sky.”

So allow me to see off the rain bogeyman once and for all. No need to have him calling the shots ever again, not in London at any rate. He’s all hat and no cattle, as they say in Texas.

Cue London Walks tag team moment: “I divorced weather forecasts five years ago. Have given them a miss for five years. It’s like being unchained from a lunatic. You might as well look at a horoscope as pay any heed to UK weather forecasts” (thus spake London Walks guide, Adam, Visit England Superstar Finalist 2022).

See you in a few hours, Susan and Jimmie.

*Historically, the British public genuinely regarded the idea of not getting soaked when it’s pissing it down as ‘too French’, with accounts saying we called people a ‘mincing Frenchman’ if they were caught using an umbrella. For better or worse I reckon I’m squarely in that tradition.

Now here’s that Postscript about the Battle of Britain monument. The monument rightly underlines the fact that the Battle of Britain was an international effort. Airmen and women from many different countries came to the aid of this country. So, for example, aerial combat was something in which Canadian pilots excelled. Canadians provided the backbone and the most effective elements of Britain’s Royal Flying Corps, later to be renamed the Royal Air Force. Over the course of the war 25 pilots were credited with 30 or more victories. Ten of the 25 were Canadians.

And believe me, it wasn’t just the Canadians who mucked in. About one out of every six RAF pilots was from outside the United Kingdom. Men from the Commonwealth made a hugely important contribution. There were many New Zealanders. Of 22 Australians, 14 were killed. Irishmen, Frenchmen, South Africans and yes, the aforementioned Canadians were all represented. The Poles, numerically second only to British airmen, gained a reputation for ferocious bravery. The most successful ace was a Czech pilot.

Some flyers had journeyed at their own expense from the far side of the world.

One pilot, Flying Officer John Bisdee, had very fond memories of the Yanks he flew with. He said, “we had three Americans in our squadron – Red Tobin, Andy Mamedoff and Shorty Keogh. [They could only be American, those names] Shorty Keogh was an ex-professional parachute jumper and barnstormer. These three had volunteered for the Finnish air force when Finland was fighting the Russians in 1939, but Finland packed in. They had then volunteered for the French air force but the French packed in. They had got to Bordeaux, I think, where they were taken pity on by the skipper of an English freighter and brought back to England…They went to drown their sorrows in a pub in London, where they met an air commodore one night. They explained their sad predicament to him and he said, ‘Get in touch with me tomorrow.’ They got in touch with him the following morning. By noon, they had been commissioned in the Royal Air Force and sent off with some money to buy uniforms and that kind of thing…They were a grand lot, very picturesque characters. Red Tobin, a long, gangly chap, used to dash out to his aircraft with his long legs, shouting, ‘Saddle her up boys. I’m riding!’

And now for me, it’s saddle up, this boy is walking. Downstairs I go to put on my red shoes and tie ‘em. All the while, entertaining the thought, what must it be like to have your shoelaces ironed? The way King Charles III does. Every day. Don’t think I’ll be asking Mary any time soon could she iron my shoelaces.

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

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 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,

university professors,

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.

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