Sundries & Update on ITN Editor Stewart Purvis’s Spies of Hampstead Walk

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

This is London Walks.

Streets ahead.

Story time. History time.


Good morning, London. It’s April 26th, 2024. Today’s pin – a couple of days after the fact – is that extraordinary tale about the runaway horses in central London. Not so much the story itself as the way it’s a paradigm – I think that’s the word – for something that’s quintessentially London. And at the same time, personal. Basically, I’m going to set out here where my mind was off and running to when I saw those horses.

And that’s by way of saying, every street in London being what historians call ‘a site of memory’ an event like that always sets in train no end of associations. The one horse was white so I immediately thought of Lady Godiva, riding naked on her white horse through the streets of Coventry.

And John Collier’s famous painting of that scene immediately surfaced because in the painting the horse has a red cloth draped over it and the most striking thing about Tuesday’s scene was the terrified white horse – it was heart-breaking – soaked in blood.

How the mind raced seeing that badly bloodied white horse. Because it also immediately put me in mind of those horses (and Life Guards) who were killed and wounded by that IRA bomb in Hyde Park over 40 years ago. And that of course triggered the further memory that their commanding officer (this is mostly largely forgotten now) was Colonel Parker Bowles, the then husband of ‘our’ then future Queen. And here I’m afraid I’m going to be a bit scurrilous, do a Private Eye turn. Private Eye being the satirical and current affairs rag famous for taking no prisoners. Prince Charles, as he then was, and Colonel Parker Bowles were both members of Whites, the oldest and most exclusive gentlemen’s club in London. It’s one of the stops on our Friday afternoon Old Palace Quarter walk. Anyway, the Private Eye scurrility is the club members knew long before the great unwashed [the rest of us, the public] knew that His Serene Highness was shagging Parker Bowles’ wife. The word round the club – in the plummiest, cut glass (upper class) English accents imaginable – was, “Parker Bowles is a man who would lay down his wife for his country.”) Whatever you make of my lèse majesté, what is a thing of wonder is the speed of the human mind. That train of thought was a lightning flash, it happened in less than a second when I saw that blood-drenched white horse running down a London street.


Moving on, today’s Random. And this is quite magnificently random. I was delighted to learn yesterday that in 1997 a Harvard professor identified eight different French gestures that signified a lack of interest or concern. That by way of illustrating Simon Kuper’s point about the variety and muzzle-loading velocity of French communication. Kuper says they use eyebrows, shrugs and pouts – facial expressions and body language – so that you often get the message before the other person begins to speak.


And hey presto, here we are at today’s Ongoing. London Calling has been AWOL for a few days. I’ve been otherwise engaged. Busy putting together and putting out the London Walks May Newsletter. Am well and truly stunned how it’s taken off – has over 14,000 subscribers. We’ve always known that London Walks has a loyal following – that there are a good few people out there for whom we’re right. They’re London and London Walks aficionados, they like what we’re doing, want to ride along with us, go where we’re going. But if I’d had to guess I would have said “oh there are probably a couple of thousand of them. Well, that guess is a serious underestimate. It’s 14,000 and climbing. Every single day there are two or three more people who sign up for the Newsletter.

Anyway, so getting back into the saddle, today’s is a scoupcon or two of London Walks programme and guide news.

One announcement I made in the last podcast was that the Legal London Walk that’s guided by a lawyer has become a weekly walk instead of an occasional. Course correction here. I said it’s become a weekly – every Friday. I should have said, from June 14th it will take place every Friday. Right through to the end of September.

And quickly, just to reinforce a couple of the main thrusts we put in the Newsletter. The “Specials” – the one-offs – we do are a good indication of the time of the year. In May we’re doing 62 ‘specials’ – that’s way up on the number we done this April. It’s a pleasing, surefire indicator that we’ve at last got shot of the English winter. Spring is here. And summer’s coming soon. Was it the great poet John Betjeman who said the most beautiful words in the English language are, “summer afternoon.”

And that other surefire indicator of that good news, the out-of-town trips – to The Cotswolds, to Cambridge, to Oxford & the Cotswolds – are now well and truly underway.

Guide news. CPD news to use the acronym. Stands for Continuing Professional Development. Mary is one of a handful of our Blue Badge Guides who have recently completed a course that’s given them a ticket to guide the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace.

And so we come to our most celebrated guide, Stewart Purvis CBE, the former Editor of Independent Television News. Stewart guides our Hampstead Spies Walk. Subtitled: the KGB in NW3. I remember when we signed Stewart up, an American pal who’d lived over here for a few years and was pretty well acquainted with London and the London scene…

my American pal exclaimed, “you got Stewart Purvis to guide Hampstead Spies, that’s like getting Dan Rather to guide Dealey Plaza.”

Anyway, Stewart’s walk is such a big draw that from June it’ll go twice a month instead once a month.

Every time he gets a rave review or two. The last one came in a few days ago. I alerted him, I said, ‘hey Stewart, you just got another rave review.’

Loved his response. He said: “I also have to thank the walkers. Partly by luck we had the daughter of a spy, the granddaughter of a man who hired a spy, and an expert on Orwell. And they all did a turn.”

That’s of course the secret sauce of a London Walk. They always attract fun, interesting people. A London Walk is never just about London and the guide. The third leg of the stool is the people who go on the walk. They’re an unending source of joy to us, the guides. We learn so much from them. Sometimes it’s stuff completely and entirely pertinent to the subject at hand. Which was certainly the case on Stewart’s last outing. Two different people with personal spy connections and an Orwell expert. Orwell’s germane to the subject because he lived in Hampstead and because of his correct read of Stalin and the totalitarian state. So three of them on one walk – and, as Stewart says, they all did a turn – that’s the walking tour equivalent of a perfect bridge hand. And frankly it’s also a joy for the guide when they, the walkers, are coming from someplace else. It’s not Hampstead or Kensington or Westminster Abbey or Spies that the walker knows about – it might be that they’re a virologist or a radiologist (had a radiologist on my Hampstead Walk last Sunday) or a dog walker or a forensic accountant or a priest or someone who lives in a remote town in Montana or a sophisticated family from Chile or a beekeeper… well, you get the idea. Something that’s under the radar for everybody except for us guides – is that one of the best things about being a London Walks guide is the people you get to meet. People you’d never meet were it not for your being a London Walks guide.

And it’s not just a guide-walker interaction. Another very nice thing about this thing of ours – walking tours – is that walkers meet walkers. Acquaintances get made, friendships get struck up – recommendations get passed along. It’s a completely natural social setting. Doesn’t have any of the baggage that goes with, say, chatting up somebody in a wine bar. And on that note…

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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