Red Letter Day, July 13th – Mary goes to Buckingham Palace, the Same Day Queen Victoria First Crossed Its Threshold

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with today’s London fix.

Story time. History time.

Timed to perfection, Mary. As per usual.

For those of you who don’t know, Mary’s the boss, the capo, the little English rose who keeps the show on the road.

And what’s timed to perfection is her trip to Buckingham Palace today.

She’s been several times. Always by invitation. Which is the preferred route. Going in there to gawp as a tourist is ok, but it’s snazzier – a lot more fun, vastly preferable – to go by invitation. For starters, you get to see parts of the Palace that are off-limits to the tourist hordes.

And all of that of course comes in handy when you’re guiding the place. You’ve got ‘insider knowledge’ – you’ve seen some of the palace precincts that most people don’t get to see.

And every visit inevitably throws up a story or two. In Mary’s case, my favourite tale is her first visit to the Palace. It was for her Dad’s award, his MBE. Mary’s father was Charles Chilton, the legendary BBC broadcaster and yes, no surprise this, he got a gong, as they say in this country, got an MBE for services to the broadcasting industry. Mary was 16 years old. Sweet 16. And beside herself with excitement. She was going to Buckingham Palace with her mum and dad for her father’s investiture ceremony.

Now to get the point of the story what you need to know is that Mary’s a dancer. Has been from the time she was 8 years old. Still is. Still goes to pros’ dancing classes three times a week. Still dances professionally very occasionally. Last time was that prequel to the Game of Thrones extravaganza. They wanted some older dancers, Mary was one of them.

And what you need to know is that when Mary’s happy – or excited – Mary dances. She can’t help it. She just does.

So you’ve got this happy, over-the-moon, gorgeous 16-year-old at Buckingham Palace – beside herself with excitement, thrilled to be there – and, well, I’ll let her father take up the tale. Preface it by setting the scene. What you need to know is that there’s an amazing – a magnificent – staircase in Buckingham Palace. I’ve seen it myself, seen it first hand. Yes, I landed one of those much sought-after, much-coveted invitations to the palace. This was eleven years ago. I was hoping I’d get to see the staircase because I’d heard about it so many times, heard Mary’s dad – one of Britain’s great raconteurs – tell the tale. And I was in luck, we were taken to the staircase, ascended the staircase. The whole time I was picturing the scene – Mary and that staircase when she was a sixteen-year-old.

Here’s how her dad told the story.

“She was so excited about being in Buckingham Palace that when we got to the Grand Staircase – she danced up one side, danced across the top, and danced down the other side. There were Life guards – in their scarlet tunics – on either side of the staircase. As she danced by them, each one of them gave a low wolf whistle.

Well, Mary’s dad may have embroidered the tale a little bit but it’s a glorious story.

Anyway, yes, she’s paying a return visit today. I’ve been teasing her: “you know, darling, for old time’s sake, you really should do it: dance up the Grand Staircase, dance across the top, and dance back down again on the other side.”

Now, why has Mary timed it to perfection? And here’s your Today in London History condiment. Today is July 13th. It was on July 13th, 1837 that Queen Victoria became the first British monarch to live in Buckingham Palace. They’d spent nearly a million pounds doing it up, getting it ready for the young Queen. She was just 18 years old, had been Queen for less than a month. Her predecessor, William IV, had died on June 20, 1837. Victoria’s coronation was a year in the future – June 28th, 1838. But into the magnificent new palace she went on this day in 1837. Wonder if she was given a tour? Did she ever see all of it? All 775 rooms.

Anyway, watch this space. Mary will be reporting back. We’ll see how today goes. Find out what she got to see.

And on that note, a couple of London Walks recommendations. Yes, the obvious one: our Royal London Walk, which goes every Wednesday morning. It’s a right royal walkabout. See what’s behind the balcony (well, see with the mind’s eye – but some of the guides show a picture of a king’s eye view of the balacony). See the guard change from the best vantage point. It’s got a lot going for it, that walk.

That’s the obvious recommendation. The other one’s anything but obvious. It’s Ann’s new walk: Cat Tails – A Feline Take on London’s History. Runs next Wednesday, July 20th at 10.45 am from Westminster Tube Stop, exit 4. And it’ll go again on August 8th. And the nice thing about it is the London cats Ann celebrates aren’t cute, cuddly balls of purring fur. They’re cats to be reckoned with. You know, the ones who are right at the apex of all creation. The ones to whom effortless superiority comes naturally and who’ve wrought a fair old amount of mayhem and got away with it. As superior beings do.

It’ll be a fun walk. Any walk with Ann Jones – she of the wry sense of humour and very English eye for the idiosyncratic, let alone her finely attuned radar for the absurd – well, any walk with Ann Jones is a joy.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History 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 distinguished


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

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.

The London Walks All-Star team of

guides includes a former London

Mayor, it includes barristers (one of

them an MBE); it includes doctors,

geologists, museum curators,

archaeologists, historians, criminal

defence lawyers, university professors,

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 Londoning one and all. See ya next time.

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