London History Bulletin – December 31

The chimes at midnight. The BBC first broadcast Big Ben tolling in the New Year on December 31, 1923. This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Ah, yes, one of my favourite lines in all of Shakespeare. It’s Falstaff’s great line in Act III scene ii of King Henry IV Part II.

Do you remember the line? Let me refresh your memory.

We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Robert Shallow

The chimes at midnight.

And we’ve been hearing them since December 31st, 1923.

So the BBC tells us. 

That was the first time the chimes were heard outside their immediate environment. It’s a pretty big ballpark, Big Ben’s immediate environment. That bell can be heard within a radius of up to five miles.

But that five-mile barrier was broken on December 31st, 1923. The BBC broadcast “the chimes at midnight” to the nation. To herald the New Year. And so the tradition – tonight will be its ninety-ninth year – got underway. 

Mary and I and Richard and a hundred or so London Walkers will be up on the roof of London – up in Hampstead – the best seat in the house to watch the fireworks, see the old year out, the new year in. Will we hear it from up there? I’ll let you know. There’s almost too much to take in – because from that Skybox you can see the fireworks all the way across London. You’ve got the big panoramic up there. It’s an eagle’s eye view – in addition to the big show you can see the bombs bursting in air here, there, and everywhere – right across greater London – all the outlying fireworks displays – London’s local luminescences. 

On the way up to the summit we’ll go past Keats’ house. Past where he wrote half a dozen or so of his greatest poems, including Ode on a Grecian Urn. In the last stanza of the poem Keats, addressing the urn, says, Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought As doth eternity.

I’ve always loved that phrase “doth tease us out of thought” and it’s always what comes to mind when I think of Big Ben doing its thing on New Year’s Eve. That first bong tonight, that’ll be midnight – but will that be 2022 or 2023? Which of course prompts the question, was it 1923 or 1924 that the BBC first broadcast the chimes at midnight to the nation? 

By my reckoning the chimes, the lead-in, come a few seconds before midnight. The first bong is on the stroke of midnight. So it’s your call whether that’s 2022 or 2023. If there were such a thing as a timeless instant – but of course there can’t be – but if there were such a thing, well, that timeless instant would simultaneously be 2022 and 2023.

See what I mean, reckoning with that first stroke of midnight – it doth tease us out of thought. No question though but everything that follows – the next eleven strokes – they’re in 2023. They’ve gone over, it’s gone over, we’ve all gone over. We’re in 2023. 

Happy New Year everybody.

You’ve been listening to the London History bulletin for December 31st. 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: 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 tomorrow.

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