London History Bulletin – January 4

27 barrels of gunpowder exploded near the Tower of London on January 4th, 1650 – with catastrophic consequences. This Today in London History bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Your daily London fix for January 4th coming to you from Paris. So this one’s a tale of two cities.

Yes, a bit of Paris for a warm-up act. Busman’s holiday for us. Went Paris Walks’ Marais walk this morning. Guided by the vivacious, half-English, half-French Bridget. Here’s a rough-hewn 20-second taster. Rough-hewn because I didn’t have the microphone with me. Bridget’s talking about what looks like a round black hole in the front wall of a Parisian townhouse.

[Brigeat piece]

Two other quick points in relation to our Paris Walks bumble. EU flags everywhere. In tandem of course with the tri-colour. All very poignant because of today’s news about Croatia joining the EU. So much for the club falling apart. But the point for us is, there goes our star. The EU’s not going to have to produce new flags compliments of Brexit. Croatia’s just joined and is happily taking over our star. 

The other passing observation from this morning’s walk was the thought that guides as walkers – as customers – well, they really have to restrain themselves. Otherwise they’re the walker from hell. My best American pal, David – his name’s David as well – David from Manhattan (Manhattan when he’s not in Madison, Wisconsin) David from Manhattan and Madison quite often lays claim to that title: the walker from hell.

I realised this morning, he isn’t. Far from it. David’s very bright and fun and friendly and he always does his homework – reads up on the subject of the walk before he goes on it. So he’s always full of questions.

Well, qwestions, schmestians.

A couple of questions – even thoughtful, well-informed questions – those are rookie numbers. In NFL quarterback terms you’d say that’s Trent Dilfer’s level of play. You want to lay legitimate claim to the title Walker from Hell – you want to be the Tom Brady of the category – you gotta go a lot further than a couple of considered questions.

By way of example, at one point this morning Bridget said, “in the 14th century the English were always invading France,” Between stops I whispered in her ear – between stops because there was no way I was going to corner her with this one in front of her walkers, that really would be the walker from hell, anyway, I whispered in her ear, “hey Bridget, in the 14th-century the only English who mattered thought they were French. So it wasn’t the English who were always invading France. It was the French who were always invading France.”

Henry I, for example – who like several of his successors – didn’t speak a word of English – Henry I was head of the most powerful empire in Western Europe. The map that shows the King of England ruling lands from Scotland to the Pyrenees isn’t depicting English-held lands; it’s the empire of a Duke from Northern France who counts England among his many territories. As every historian of the people will tell you, the history of England for several centuries after 1066 is the story of a territory ruled from abroad. The historian John O’Farrell has a lot of fun with this in relation to the Plantagenet king Richard the Lionheart who, in O’Farrell’s words, “somehow managed to become something of an English hero, which is quite impressive for a Frenchman who visited England twice.

But hey, we also have a Frenchman to thank for our Parliament. 

And come to think of it, all of this is an opening in the never-ending – and fascinating – struggle to understand the English. People talk about the British empire – the fact that this place was until quite recently the richest country in the world and the only superpower and it ruled the largest empire the world had ever known and that was just a few generations ago. But to that you have to add that the English – except they weren’t English, they were French – had form in these matters. Being the wealthiest and mightiest was exactly the case seven centuries ago as well as two centuries ago. So no wonder there can be an innate sense of superiority and exceptionalism and entitlement. The problem is our era isn’t just post-Plantagenet, it’s also post-empire – we’re not a superpower anymore. We’re more or less the equivalent of Denmark. And not accepting that and coming to terms with it, well, how’s that sage old folk wisdom go, something about if you’re in a hole, stop digging. Pride and over-extension cometh before a fall – at least that’s how it seems to this retreaded Yank who loves this country dearly and has cast his lot in with his now fellow Brits.

Now what about January 4th and London History? And this by the way is exactly what I was hoping would happen as a consequence of a slight retooling – and renaming – of the Today in London History podcast. I was hoping there’d be days when I could put up something short and sweet. Not have to keep my nose to the grindstone of a 15-20 minute piece day in and day out. That was the case with yesterday’s podcast. And, the other side of the coin, hoping that the retooling would free me up to range further afield when the spirit moved me. Which is what has happened today.

Anyway, yes, today’s – January 4th’s – Today in London History bulletin. The year is 1650. 

And brace yourself because it’s not pretty, this one.

Basically there was an arsenal – well, 27 barrels of gunpowder – stored by the wall of All Hallows Barking by the Tower. 

Yes, I’m afraid so. You’ve guessed right. An arsonist, a prankster, a stray spark – we don’t know. But it did what fire invariably does when it meets up with gunpowder. What was essentially a massive bomb exploded. At least 67 people were killed. 50 houses were destroyed. London wouldn’t suffer the effects of a blast like that for 350 years. Not until the first Blitz. The world War I Zeppelin and bombing raids.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History Bulletin. 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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