February 20 – it was like walking across the continental United States

A bus breaking down is a life-changing moment for London and Londoners.  This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

What a great London story this is.

It’s February 20th, 1935. You live in a bedsit in Horseferry Road. You’re a portraitist. One of your more distinguished clients, Lady Veronica Knott, has invited you to a dinner party at her house in Maida Vale. Bristol Gardens to be specific. You get on a bus at Victoria Street. The bus breaks down at Warwick Avenue. A ways from Bristol Gardens. And you don’t want to be late. You get lost. It doesn’t help that it’s raining. You do finally find your way to Bristol Gardens and Lady Knott’s house. But you’re late. Embarrassingly late. The other six guests are already poised over their asparagus soup. What do you do? Well, you make your apologies of course. But what do you do? Vow to take a taxi next time? Even though you can’t afford it. Just grin and bear it because there’s nothing you can do about it. 

Well, that’s probably what the rest of us would do. But not this newly divorced 28-year-old woman who lives in a bedsit in Horseferry Road.

She says, I’m going to do something about that.

She decides to create the famous London A to Z. What does that involve? Well, in the first instance she goes to Foyles to get some London maps. She’s horrified to discover that the latest map – which is also the best map – the Ordnance Survey Map, is already nearly 20 years old. And thus seriously out of date. The suburbs had almost doubled in size since it was published in 1919. There are 9,000 streets that aren’t on the Ordnance Survey Map.

That’s the point at which most of us would pack it in. But not Phyllis Isobel Pearsall. When the going gets tough the tough get going. Without further ado she starts getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning.Sets out at dawn. Every morning. Yes, she walks London every day. Her walks are a bit longer time and distance-wise than London Walks. She walks 18 hours a day. She walks 3,000 miles. That’s like walking across the continental United States, from Washington DC to San Francisco. She checks the names of the 23,000 streets of London. Compiles a 23,000-card alphabetical index of streets, which she keeps in shoeboxes under her bed

A year later she’s created the world’s first comprehensive city A to Z. Publishers didn’t want to know – none of them would touch it. That business decision was a little bit like turning down the Beatles, saying they’ll never amount to anything. Nothing daunted by all those rejections, Phyllis prints it herself. And in short order founds the Geographers A to Z map company.

The first editions were in black and white but in no time at all Phyllis’s artistic instincts took over. She began to print them in colour. A-roads were coloured orange. B-roads were coloured yellow. And so on. And before long the street colours entered the vernacular of London cabbies, who referred to them as “oranges and lemons.”

Final thought. 

We all caught a break when that bus broke down that raining cold ropes February evening in 1935. Permit me to make a suggestion. At dinner tonight, raise a glass to the magnificent Phyllis Pearsall, who gave us the also magnificent London A to Z street atlas.

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin for February 20th. 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: 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 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. See ya next time.

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