Guiding a great London building

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

This is London Walks.

Streets ahead.

Story time. History time.


It’s April 11th, 2024.

Our pin for the day – the news story that gets the show on the road – is a London tabloid classic. Cockney through and through. Well, faux cockney. And quite magnificently trashy. It’s the front page story for The Star. The huge headline – all in caps – reads: BOFFS GIVE COWS THE RIGHT HUMP.

In itself, that headline is a cultural and linguistic masterclass. The accompanying illustration turns it into a paint-by-numbers cultural and linguistic tour de force.

Element number one of the illustration is a mad scientist. He’s a representative boff. Boff is of course short for the slang word boffin. Then there’s an angry looking cow. It’s gritting its teeth in a right bovine rage.

And lording it over the cow, a couple of braying camels. There’s the visual connection with the word hump in the headline. And the quick linguistic-cultural lesson is that in Brit speak to give someone the hump means to irritate them, get their back up.

Then we’ve got a subtitle – Oxi Uni Eggheads – there are your boffs – Oxi Uni Eggheads predict camels could replace mooers because they fart a lot less. It’s a Splash of a production! In American baseball terms, a four-bagger, a home run. First base is the illustration. Second base is the main headline. Third base is the subtitle. And home plate is the opening graf, which reads: Cows may one day be replaced by camels because they guff less and could help save the planet, say super clever Oxford Uni boffins. There, you cross home plate and for your efforts you’re rewarded with another vulgarism, another dollop of slang. Speech is hot air so I suppose you could say you’re rewarded with another air biscuit. I’m talking about that word guff. It’s slang for fart. Welcome to the UK, folks. Welcome to London. A split-second glance at the front page of a London tabloid and you’ve improved your vocabulary – you can enter the lists knowing that guff means fart.

Moving on, today’s Random. The other day we went clock spotting. Did a clock count. The 1600 royal clocks. That’s just over one clock for every minute in a day. So howzabout another royal inventory. A Buckingham Palace royal inventory. The ticker tape a guide might well throw the switch on – run by you – when Buckingham Palace first comes into view. You ready for it. Here goes. Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms. That includes 19 state-rooms, 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms. You heard right. 78 bathrooms. That’s eight bathrooms for every room under the roof of Chez London Walks. To paraphrase the great American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘the royals are different from the rest of us.’ Well in one sense they are. In another sense they’re not. Like the rest of us, they’re ordinary people. Ordinary people living extraordinary lives.

And closing that door behind us brings us to our Ongoing. Yet another piece of London. London history. London today. A certain – in this case – London address. Yes, I’m going to guide a London building today.

X marks the spot.  Just a stone’s throw away from Trafalgar Square. Yes, there it is again, Trafalgar Square. One of London’s grandest hotels – the Corinthia – is down there.

Now, about the sensitive subject of London hotels – all 4,000 of them. That’s 50 London hotels for every bathroom in Buckingham Palace. Or 2,000 London hotels for every bathroom under my roof. Anyway, yes, the tread softly – the sensitive – subject of London hotels.

They’re not cheap. Prices vary terrifically of course. But – for what it’s worth – says the average cost of a night in a London hotel is about £350. That’s average. Some are more. A lot more. Some are less. Let’s get down and dirty, let’s get practical for just a minute. If you’re an overseas visitor – you’ve got two major outlays for your trip to London. Your flight and your hotel. Combine those two and divide by the length of your stay in London it’s probably costing you a minimum of £500 a day to get here and stay here for a few nights. In other words, now I lay me down to sleep in a London hotel is going to be an expensive snooze. Cost you about a £1 a minute. That’s a £1 a minute for being unconscious. To get that into perspective, a London Walk is about ten pence a minute and you’re fully conscious the whole time – fully conscious and feasting on London. That price and experience differential is why a London Walk is such good value, makes so much sense.

At no little risk of belabouring the obvious, at £500 a day your time in London is really precious. It’s important to use it well, not fritter it away. To cut to the chase, as the saying goes, that’s why you get a good guide. We’re just back from Padova. One of the three evenings we were there we booked a private wine-tasting tour. Sure enough, Mario took us to really special places – wonderful places – we never would have found off our own bat, told us things we never would have known. For three hours we weren’t tourists wandering aimlessly around, we were locals, with all the advantages that privileged status confers. Best possible use of three precious hours. The liberating moment is when you realise that the extra spend for the tour was the sine qua non – the booster rocket that got you off the launch pad and into a really special orbit. And that if you hadn’t made that extra investment the hundreds of pounds the evening was costing you – what you paid to get to Padova and your hotel room – that was money that wasn’t well spent. You didn’t get off the launch pad. You forked out hundreds of pounds for a damp squib. Maybe made worse because you know it’s somewhere there you just didn’t know exactly where, didn’t know how to access it. Close but no cigar.

Yes, the booster rocket of a great guide. It’s how you slip the surly bonds of being a tourist.

The other thing about this craft of ours – and is there anyone who’s thought more about this than I have, given that I’ve been a London Walks guide for 44 years? – the other thing about this craft of ours – the great unspoken – is the route.

The obvious thing everybody latches on to is the information. But without the route a walking tour is like a mammal without a vertebrae. Without a route you’ve just got an amorphous mess. You might as well sit in the lobby and have the guide blather out to you what he knows. In other words, you don’t see anything, you don’t go anyplace.

Now all of that is common sense. But it’s common sense it doesn’t hurt to spell out from time to time. And now let’s get specific. One London address. Or maybe two. Let’s guide it. And by yourself, it ain’t gonna happen. It ain’t gonna happen because you’re not going to make the time investment. And you don’t know where to start or where you’re going. You don’t have a route. Or if you do know where you’re going, yours won’t be the best way of getting there, won’t be the best route, the most interesting and rewarding way of getting there.

Our address is the aforementioned Corinthia Hotel. Down on the corner of Whitehall Place and Northumberland Avenue.

The Corinthia is one of the top luxury hotels in London. We get to it on a walk I’m doing here’s what’s on my palette. You probably won’t hear all of this, but this is what I’ve got to draw on. The cheapest rooms – they call them Deluxe – will set you back over a thousand pounds a night. Going up the scales from Deluxe it’s Executive then Junior Suites then Premium Suites then Penthouse. The Penthouse – the Whitehall Penthouse, for example – is from just over £8,000 a night. They say about it, “Designed for guests who habitually wield power and influence, this Penthouse evokes grandeur.” Oh my goodness, I habitually wield power and influence. I spend £8,000 a night on a stay in a hotel, I’m a big shot. I hate to tell those movers and shakers but I’m pretty sure they’re not top rung. If memory serves they very pinnacle of the Corinthia will set you back £25,000 a night. But you do get a butler and a chauffeured Rolls.

Anyway, while you’re absorbing that – or perhaps reeling – let’s do a little bit of Corinthia history. And the splendid thing is, a little bit of Corinthia history is also some good London history. Indeed, in a couple of instances good world history.

And no, it’s not all plucked from the Internet. Even if it were you going to feed the meter a pound a minute for screen time? Those aren’t just grains of sand – grains of time – draining out of the neck of the hour-glass. They’re grains of money. Indeed, grains of your life. Looking at a screen when you could be out looking at London, you need your head examined.

Ok, let’s X-ray vision the Corinthia. Let’s guide it. It opened in 1885. It was called the London Metropole. And already you’ve opened the floodgates of history. History. One thing leading to another. In this instance, Charing Cross railway station, which had opened 20 years before, in effect midwived the London Metropole Hotel. And always, location, location, location. The South Eastern Railway line had a terminus at London Bridge. They secured permission to extend the line over the River Thames and into a terminus between Waterloo Bridge and Westminster Bridge. What a coup that was. It took the South Eastern Railway right into the heart of London. Charing Cross is the most central of all the London railway stations. It was ideal for travelers bound for the West End’s shopping meccas and theatres. The great double constellation – the Castor and Pollux – of royal London and parliament were right there. Clubland was there. And of course beau monde travelers from the Continent – from Paris and Vienna and Berlin – Charing Cross was the portal through which they stepped to enter the great world of London. A palatial hotel, right there – it was always on the cards once Charing Cross Railway Station opened. And fit for a king it was. It was a port of call for the future Edward VII. He had a reserved box in the ballroom. He used the Royal Suite.

Go to the main entrance in Whitehall Place. Look up at the bow-fronted windows. The rooms behind them, there was the Royal Suite.  Or so we’re told.

You can see London history as a card game. A card game with any number of players. Each player gets dealt a hand. If the Corinthia – originally known as the Metropole Hotel is a player in history’s card game, it’s been dealt a hand of nothing but face cards. By way of example, the Metropole was the gathering point, in 1896, for the first London to Brighton run, the world’s longest-running motoring event. It kicked off at the Corinthia. That first run, incidentally, was known as “the Emancipation Run”. Held to celebrate the recently passed Locomotives on Highways Act 1896, which liberalised motor vehicle laws in the United Kingdom. Liberalised not least because of the speed limit – the 1896 act bumped the speed limit up from 4 miles per hour in the country and two miles per hour in town – bumped it up to an astonishing 14 miles per hour.  In short, before 1896 you got there quicker, in town at any rate, if you walked.

Fast forward to 1914 – the run-up to World War I – the government requisitions the hotel to provide accommodation for government staff. And not just government staff. Come August 1914 – the eve of the British Expeditionary Force heading off to the continent at the outbreak of the Great War, the two British Commanders in Chief, Field Marshals John French and Douglas Haig, spend the night there before embarking before France.

And from there on out the Metropole’s history gets outsize indeed. It becomes the headquarters for the Ministry of Munitions of War. That ministry employed two and a half million workers and 12,000 civil servants. It was the biggest purchasing and industrial employer in the world. That’s 12,000 civil servants when the Ministry got into high gear. By the end of the war that figure had more than doubled. And sure enough, enter Winston Churchill. On July 17, 1917 the prime minister, Lloyd George, unilaterally appointed Churchill the minister of munitions. Thrust him into that job against a chorus of disapproval. The Morning Post raged, “although we have not yet invented the unsinkable ship, we have discovered the unsinkable politician. We confidently anticipate that he will continue to make colossal blunders at the cost of the nation.”

For his part, Churchill likened his ministerial position to “riding comfortably on an elephant, whose trunk could pick up a pin or uproot a tree with equal ease, and from whose back a wide scene lay open.” Well, be that as it may the point that has to be made here is that it was in his capacity as Minister of Munitions that Churchill did the most to promote the tank as the decisive weapon it proved to be. And if you’re guiding the area, this is the point where you nip round the corner and pay obeisance to the Royal Tank Regiment memorial.

And while you’re at it, you of course mention the British army officer who came up with the idea of a bullet-proof, tracked vehicle that would become the so-called tank.

A vehicle that would be more than a match for enemy machine guns. And as for its plain, homely name, tank, well, any guide worth his salt is going to mention that tank was the vehicle’s code name, chosen because its hull resembled that of a water carrier.

And while you’re there, thinking about Major-General Swinton coming up with the idea of the tank and Winston Churchill bringing the idea to fruition, you might spare a thought for the Major-General’s daughter, Grace. She died in a road accident – she was killed by a tank in the Woodstock Road in Oxford during the Second World War. The malignancy of history. Sometimes it’s like a vulture, perched up there, waiting. Biding its time.

And a fitting end for this podcast is Winston Churchill standing at the window of his Ministry of Munitions office – today the Corinthia Hotel – standing at his window in the run-up to the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. Churchill recalled, “I stood at the window of my room looking up Northumberland Avenue toward Trafalgar Square, waiting for Big Ben to tell that the war was over…And then suddenly the first stroke of the chime. I looked again at the broad street beneath me. It was deserted. From the portals of one of the hotels absorbed by Government departments darted the slight figure of a girl clerk, distractedly gesticulating while another stroke of Big Ben resounded. Then from all sides men and women came scurrying into the street. Streams of people poured out of all the buildings. The bells of London began to clash…Flags appeared as if by magic. Swarms of men and women flowed from the Embankment. They mingled with the torrents pouring down the Strand their way to acclaim the King.”

Well, there’s a lot more to that building on Northumberland Avenue. We’ll be back there. We’re not done with the Corinthia yet. But a defining moment of the 20th century, that’ll do for a finale for this episode of London Calling.

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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