London Walks connecting.
London Walks here
with your daily London fix.
Story time. History time.
Metier. Good word, metier. It means “an occupation or activity that one is good at.”
I found my metier – settled happily into it – 43 years ago. Showing people around London. Being a London Walks guide.
But here’s the thing, sometimes it’s a bit like freestyle rock climbing.
I don’t of course mean the danger; but I do mean the difficulty.
43 years on I’m comfortable with the row I’ve been hoeing. Am reasonably confident that I usually make a pretty good fist of it.
Though I have had my detractors. Thankfully few and far between. Going by the reviews anyway. What one of them – this was years ago – was unhappy about was that – I’m quoting now – “we learned about where people that us Canadians had never heard of had lived somewhere in the last 400 years.”
My response to that was: “Guilty as charged for those Canadians – I shouldn’t think there are very many – who haven’t heard of Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria, Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, T.S. Eliot, the great Victorian novelist Thackeray, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (as he was then, the Duke is of course the Prince of Wales today), Thomas Carlyle, Rudyard Kipling, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, Lord Tennyson, Admiral Nelson, Sir Francis Drake, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, etc.”
I went on to say “I suppose the walk does assume a minimal level of cultural literacy. And, yes, I accept that the walk is probably not right for someone who’s ‘never heard of’ the aforementioned. But I’m not sure that’s our problem.”
Well, I’m thinking I might revisit the rest of that riposte one of these days, not least because it’s a pretty good summation of who we are, what we do, and indeed the sort of people who right for London Walks.
But for today, I’m interested in that matter of ‘people we’ve never heard of.” It certainly wasn’t the case on the walk the Canadian reviewer took exception to.
But it can be the case now and then and here and there. By way of example, I’m looking at a News in Brief item on page 8 of the Times for this day 105 years ago. October 14th, 1918. It was a Monday.
Headlined Hussar Colonel Killed, the story begins Lieutenant-Colonel George Despard Franks D.S.O. Hussars was killed in action on October 8. We learn the Lieutenant Colonel was born in 1873 and educated at Repton School and Sandhurst. We learn that he served in the South African War. We learn that he was present at the siege of Ladysmith and was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Queens medal. And that ‘in the present war’, as the article puts it, he was mentioned in dispatches and gained the D.S.O. And that he’d married a General’s daughter and had an eight-year-old son. Now as it happens the Times wasn’t my first stop on this little tracking operation. My first stop was Who’s Who. I’d looked up Halkin Place because of my upcoming Belgravia Pub Walk. And there I discovered that the Lieutenant Colonel’s house was 3 Halkin Place. Bingo!
Because 3 Halkin Place was where Martin Michael Charles Charteris, Baron Charteris of Amisfield, was born on September 7, 1913.
Now here’s where all of this can be a little bit like freestyle rock climbing. Unlike Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill, Martin Charteris – let alone Lt Colonel George Despard Franks – is not a household name. But sometimes you find a tiny handhold on the rock face you’re climbing. A tiny handhold provided by, yes, television. In this case, the Netflix hit series, The Crown. Which, invariably, some of my walkers have seen. And they all remember that moment when the Secretary of Princess Elizabeth breaks the news of King George VI’s death to Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip while they were staying at Treetops Lodge in Kenya at the start of what was to have been their Commonwealth tour in 1952. That private secretary to Her Majesty – the man who had the sensitive task of breaking the news to the Princess – was, you guessed it, Martin Charteris, who was born in that house we look at in Halkin Place. So that’s our handhold. Where else do you go with that? Well, it turns out that Martin Charteris’s father, Captain Hugo Francis Charteris, Lord Elcho, was killed in action in April 1916. That’s two military fathers slain in two and a half years. Both officers, both upper class, both fathers of small sons. That house in Halkin Place knew some sorrow, knew some keening just over a hundred years ago. And from there where do you go? Well, Martin Charteris is, as they say in my old trade, good copy. He was educated at Eton. The boys’ maid who tidied his room had to dust his soap each week. He was in the military himself. Was posted to Egypt but contracted a virus and had to be invalided home. His hospital ship was torpedoed in the Bay of Biscay and he narrowly survived a prolonged period in the water. Charteris – all upper class stiff upper lip and British understatement – called it hydrotherapy. On another royal excursion the Queen was given a baby crocodile. It was harboured in Charteris’ bath on the royal yacht. He was famously outspoken. He memorably described the Duchess of York as ‘vulgar, vulgar, vulgar.’ And he described Prince Charles, as he was then, as ‘whiny.’ And he said the Queen Mother was ‘a bit of an ostrich…who doesn’t look at what she doesn’t want to see.’
Anything else you can do there on Halkin Place. Well, yes, it’s a 16-room house. So I impart that information. And it’s a Grade II listed house. And I sometimes go there, shed some light on what to foreign visitors is probably a fairly opaque term, “Grade II listing.”
Ultimately, I think what you’re trying to do is give your walkers a feel for a neighbourhood and the sort of people who live there. Its social and cultural matrix as it were. And to do that, this is an article of faith with me, you have to push the envelope a little bit. Not just talk what people already know. But the other half of the equation is the people on your walk. They have to be willing – be open – to being shown something that might be a tad unfamiliar. We grow in heart or mind by exposure to something new and unexpected.
Anything else? Where we’ve just been isn’t the entirety of my October 14th researches. I shant put this into the walk – but I can do it here. Back to our Lieutenant Colonel, dead on that battlefield in France – and pause and think for a minute how additionally numbing the timing factor must have been for his wife and little boy. The war will be over in less than five weeks. There’ll be jubilation across the land. But not in that house in Halkin Place. Lieutenant Colonel George Despard Franks came close. Just about made it home. But those two words – just about – what an unbridgeable gulf that is. That thought of course leads on to the death of the great World War I poet Wilfred Owen. He fell – that ostrich euphemism – exactly a week before the armistice. His life going out the holes machine gun fire ripped in his chest. But, back to the Lieutenant Colonel. I wanted to get an idea what was up ahead for his widow. And son. I looked at his probate documents. He left about 5,500 pounds. That’d be about £400,000 in today’s money. Not enough, really, to maintain a big house in London’s most exclusive neighbourhood. Halkin Place is just off Belgrave Square. And that’s why the Lieutenant Colonel’s widow and son moved on. They’re not there in the 1921 census.
You’ve been listening
to This is London, the London Walks podcast. Emanating from www.walks.com – home of London Walks,
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.
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
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,
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.