Billionaires’ Row

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

This is London Walks.

Streets ahead.

Story time. History time.


Today’s pin is compliments of an American friend. Mississippian Jim Albriton, the American film-maker – his travelogue pieces are the platonic ideal of that genre – do yourself a big favour, check one or two of them out – his channel’s called Newsocracy…

Anyway, Jim wrote to us last night at 3.11 am his time. I think the poor chap’s being driven pillar to post by what’s going on over there. And of course the cherry on the Sundae is the election over here. On July 4th no less. Jim’s a huge anglophile so he’s like a cross-eyed boy at a three ring circus. Back and forth between the imminent election here and the endless electoral foreplay over there. A three-ring circus that’s feels like it’s going on while an earthquake is doing its thing underfoot.

Anyway, Jim’s written to say, in his rich southern accent: ‘What I can’t wrap my head around is “party manifestos”. Drives me nuts every time I hear it. Here, the only manifesto was written by the Unabomber and sent to newspapers from a cabin the woods. Manifesto versus platform: never has the divide seemed so great.’

Well, I’d add to that, Americans ‘run’ for office. Britons ‘stand’ for office. Right there – in the diction, in those two verbs – you’ve got the different energy levels between these two great English-speaking peoples. Americans are a lot more frenzied. Britons slightly calmer. Even though the place is coming apart at the seams. Stiff upper lip and all that. That said, my favourite political commentator over here says ‘these days in this country the only stiff upper lips you see are a botox operation that’s turned out badly.’

Ok, moving on, today’s Random. Let’s talk canals. London’s Inland Waterways. A couple of weeks ago the New York Times did that feature on living on a canal boat in London. In which they mentioned that London rejoices in a hundred miles of canals. All by itself that’s an impressive stat. But it’s even more impressive when you learn that Venice has just 26 miles of canals. London: four times more canal mileage than Venice. And a third more than Amsterdam, which is a distant second with just 65 miles of canals.

Ok, here’s today’s Ongoing.

If I were going to put this one in a cookie jar and slap a label on the jar I think the label might be ‘Wistful’. Or maybe ‘Sullen.’ Or perhaps ‘Slow burn angry.’ I’m talking about the announcement in yesterday’s Evening Standard that “speeding cyclists have forced Britain’s most expensive street – dubbed Billionaires’ Row – to close to the public.”

Frankly, the Standard piece reads like a sock puppet for the powers that be there. Here’s what the Standard says:

“Kensington Palace Gardens was shut to pedestrians and bikes this week after several “near misses”. It is understood officials fear cyclists using the tree-lined avenue alongside Kensington Palace are putting walkers, as well as diplomats and residents, at risk. The exclusive half-mile road that links Notting Hill Gate and Kensington High Street is blocked to cars but pedestrians and cyclists have always been free to use it. The Crown Estate owns and runs the avenue, where private homes cost an average of more than £35 million.

“It is understood that there were fears that security guards would have to deal with disgruntled cyclists who would want to walk their bike down the street, or prompt those riding electric hire cycles to dump them outside the gate on the public path unless pedestrians were also blocked from using the road.”

Give me a break. Speeding cyclists are a menace on every London street. By the logic of this closure cyclists and pedestrians would be banned/should be banned from every London. Which of course is ridiculous.

And as for “fears that security guards would have to deal with disgruntled cyclists” – cyclists who apparently take the attitude “if you’re going to ban me you also have to ban pedestrians.” Security guards might have to deal with disgruntled cyclists. Horror of horrors. What’s the world coming to. Bears repeating: GMB. Give me a break. AKA don’t insult my intelligence.

Billionaires’ Row – officially Kensington Palace Gardens – has always been ‘gated’. Securely so. Guards and police at both entry points. And no entry for cars, except for the cars of the Masters of the Universe – to use Tom Wolfe’s phrase – in other words, the Rollers and Ferraris of the Super Rich who live there – but pedestrians (and apparently cyclists, though I’ve never seen any two wheelers) have always had access. And it’s a lovely walk. Wonderful trees. A wide thoroughfare that mercifully car free. And those mighty 40 room mansions. With all that history and biography. Well, that’s all ground to a halt. No more access for the hoi polloi, the ninety nine percent. Catch a whiff of the fever-dream of the elite and it can be pretty acrid: namely a world in which they own and control ninety nine percent of everything and the vassals who do all the work are nowhere to be seen, happily subservient, never a problem. In fact, ideally, they’re not only not there, they’re not anywhere, they don’t exist. Machines are the hewers of wood and drawers of water.

If you think about it, it doesn’t get much more threadbare than specious claims about the safety of pedestrians on a car-free, wide expanse of street and security guards having to deal with disgruntled cyclists. And cyclists saying if you ban me you have to ban pedestrians as well. Whoever you are who’s doing the bidding of the Masters of the Universe, surely you can do better than that.

I opened this by suggesting a couple of labels for what’s in this jar. Wistful. Or sullen. Or slow burn angry.

Looking back over half a century, this is just the latest instance of this kind of manoeuvre, this kind of grab. Step by step it can lead to what’s called a behavioural sink. That’s a term social scientists use. They explain it by talking about what happens to rats who are overcrowded. One or two dominant rats will grab 95 percent of the available space for themselves. The 40 or so other rats are crowded into the remaining 5 percent. And their behaviour ‘sinks’. Bad things happen at that end of the experimental cage. Violence, cannibalism, etc. etc.

Laboratory rats, that’s an extreme example. But it’s probably a fair description of what can happen in a broken society, a society that’s come apart at the seams. This or that war-torn third world country, for example. It’s incremental, a kind of erosion, almost indiscernible to the casual observer, but those of us in this line of work – guides – stepping back, taking a long view over many years, we can see it happening. It’s a slow, gradual creep and it’s always in the same direction. A sort of 20th and 21st century version of the Inclosure Act of 1773. The Law that enabled “enclosure” of land, at the same time removing the right of commoners’ access.

Some examples. The famous one of course is Downing Street. When I arrived in London in 1973 not only could the public go into Downing Street. They could go right up to the front door and have their photograph taken next to the single, unarmed uniformed bobby. Then they were forced to stay on the opposite side of the street. And then they were stopped entirely from going into Downing Street. And in due course those extremely strong heavy gates appeared. But even then, those of us who knew, could get close, there was a good vantage point at the western end of Downing Street. But, predictably, that, too, was sealed off pretty soon.

The same thing happened with Westminster Abbey. Years ago the public had free access to the Great Cloister, the Dark Cloister and the Little Cloister and its exquisite little garden. I regularly took my walkers in there. It was magic. Through the looking glass and straight into the 13th century. The oldest door in England. Nowhere else like it in London, perhaps in the world. And then BAM, no more access.

And there are any number of other instances. Years ago you could walk along tiny Cardinal Cap Alley that runs along the side of the oldest house over on the Bankside, the house that legend has it Christopher Wren lived in while he watched his masterpiece, St. Paul’s, directly over the river rise from the ashes of the mediaeval cathedral destroyed in the Great Fire of London. No more. That’s gated and closed to us. Ditto a couple of evocative old alleyways off Carter Lane in the mediaeval quarter of the City of London.

Ditto – the excuse this time was Covid – public access to and through Staple Inn, the last surviving Inn of Chancery. Staple Inn, which Dickens sang the praises of in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. When I guided the Inns of Court we’d always go in there, walk through it. There’s no spot in London more delightful, more redolent of bygone London that Staple Inn. I’d get my walkers in there and quote the passage:

As follows:

“BEHIND the most ancient part of Holborn, London, where certain gabled houses some centuries of age still stand looking on the public way, as if disconsolately looking for the Old Bourne that has long run dry, is a little nook composed of two irregular quadrangles, called Staple Inn. It is one of those nooks, the turning into which out of the clashing street, imparts to the relieved pedestrian the sensation of having put cotton in his ears, and velvet soles on his boots. It is one of those nooks where a few smoky sparrows twitter in smoky trees, as though they called to one another, ‘Let us play at country,’ and where a few feet of garden-mould and a few yards of gravel enable them to do that refreshing violence to their tiny understandings. Moreover, it is one of those nooks which are legal nooks; and it contains a little Hall, with a little lantern in its roof.”

Alas, no more. We can stand just outside and look in, but we can’t go in.

And in about four hours we’ll be standing just outside the gates of Billionaires’ Row. Standing outside and looking in. But we won’t be able to go in. Yet another wonderful location that somebody’s just crossed off the public access list.

And that’s the way it is on this day in London, June 8th, 2024.


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 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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