London Walks connecting.
London Walks here with today’s London fix.
Story time. History time.
And here we go again. Mount Everest has six base camps. London has a milky way of base camps. An untold, unquantifiable number of them. As many base camps as there are days in London history. As many base camps as there are Londoners and London visitors throughout history. Indeed, as many base camps as there are London stories.
And, yes, nearly two weeks ago I pitched up at a London base camp and didn’t leave it until now. I was resting up. Went down to Cornwall for a few days. Was set upon and given a good thrashing by a ruffian – a hideous toothache. So, yes, just stayed in that last base camp for nearly a fortnight. But I’m venturing out today. Out continuing this ascent – the London Walks ascent – of our Everest. London. The story I tell today will be our route. The finished product will be our next base camp.
Let’s drive the first piton into the side of our majestic mountain. The fissure we’re putting it in is this day, August 20th. But it’s an old – very old – fissure. It’s August 20th, 1701.
Roped to that piton in that fissure we can see a bit of the Everest called London that’s pretty much virgin territory.
I suppose you could say we see a frozen body. A largely forgotten frozen body. It’s the body of Sir Charles Sedley, 5th Baronet.
And Sir Charles Sedley, 5th Baronet, is worth getting to know. If you like your London fare rough and ready and raunchy that is.
The fifth baronet’s frozen body is here, August 20th, 1701, because that was the day he died.
But let’s run the newsreel backwards. Let’s make the acquaintance of Sir Charles Sedley, 5th Baronet.
He’s a Londoner through and through. He’s born in 1639. Baptised on March 5th, 1639. Baptised at St Clement Danes in the Strand. That would have been his wealthy family’s parish church. Close by his family’s townhouse in Shire Lane. It’s wonderfully appropriate that Sir Charles Sedley was born in Shire Lane. Even in its early days it was a – shall we say – colourful place. It was known as Rogues Lane. And our 5th Baronet was certainly a rogue. A very upper-class rogue but a rogue through and through.
The future Sir Charles was educated privately. And then at Wadham College, Oxford. He wasn’t 18 years old when he married the wonderfully named Catherine Savage. She was the sister to the widow of Sir Charles’ brother Henry. The teenage couple set up house in Great Queen Street. And in due course Sir Charles moved to ever so fashionable and brand new Bloomsbury Square.
Aside here: this is one of the pleasures of prospecting these lodes of London history. When I’m in Great Queen Street or outside St Clement Danes or in Bloomsbury Square or in Covent Garden it’s something of a dopamine hit for me to think, ‘ah, yes, I can see a ghost here; his name is Sir Charles Sedley. Fun to think of what he’d make of being talked about on a London Walks podcast some three centuries after he had his day in these parts. You’ have to explain London Walks to him. And podcast. But I expect he’d be intrigued. He’d appalled of course at my dress sense. Where’s your wig, your sword? that sort of thing.
Anyway, Sir Charles became a great favourite of King Charles II. Sir Charles was witty. He was a man of fashion. He was debauched. Exactly what the king was looking for in the way of people to hang with. It also helped that “he never asked the king for anything.”
One measure of how well connected those two teenagers were was that their daughter, Catherine, yes, she was named her mother – their daughter Catherine became the mistress of the Duke of York, the future King James II. In due course James II made her the Countess of Dorchester.
Anyway, two more quick stops before we get to the main dish.
Sir Charles was pals with the Restoration playwright George Etheridge. And indeed he sat for the portrait as it were of the character Medley in Etheridge’s comedy The Man of Mode. It’s a complimentary portrayal. It shows Sedley in his prime as a man of wit and pleasure.
But Sedley’s charm offensive didn’t always cut it. A couple of years later the following satiric portrait of him was making the rounds
Expecting supper is his great delight,
He toils all day but to be drunk at night;
Then o’er his cups this chirping nightbird sits
Till he takes Hewitt and Jack Howe for wits.
Sedley’s end – well, high living and generosity took its toll on his finances. He pretty much went through the family fortune. He wasn’t broke but everything was heavily mortgaged.
He died in Hampstead. Died, it was said, “like a philosopher without fear or superstition.”
But that’s not where we’re going to part company with Sir Charles.
No, we’re going to flashback nearly 30 years. June 16th, 1663. Sir Charles is 24 years old. He and two companions – Lord Buckhurst and Sir Thomas Ogle – are at the Cock Tavern in Bow Street. In Covent Garden. They’re making merry. That’s putting it mildly. They’re making so much merry they provoke a riot. Truth be told, they were pretty obnoxious. But if you want a single instance that crystallises the tearaway nature of youthful Restoration bucks – their arrogance and the contempt they felt for the hoi polloi – you can’t do better than take a ringside seat and watch that Cock Tavern scene unfold. The aristocratic threesome is up on the balcony of the Cock Tavern. They strip down, get bollock naked. A London crowd forms up down below and takes offence. Sedley, Ogle and Buckhurst – I mean, these names, Ogle, Buck-hurst, Cock Tavern – no novelist would have dared invent those names for this scene – anyway, Sedley, Ogle and Buckhurst taunt the crowd. They moon them.
But let’s go to a prime source. Let me hand over here to the great diarist Samuel Pepys. Pepys says,
Sedley ‘showed his nakedness – and abusing of scripture and as it were from thence preaching a mountebank sermon from the pulpit, saying that there he had to sell such a pouder as should make all the cunts in town run after him, 1000 people standing underneath to see and hear him, and that being done he took a glass of wine and washed his prick in it and then drank it off, and then took another and drank the King’s health.’
For good measure, Sedley and the others pissed in bottles and emptied them on the angry crowd down below.
Shaughan is of course the wittiest of London Walks guides and when I told him the story many years ago, Shaughan quipped, “ah, so he pissed on the populace, did he.”
Anyway, that’s the grit in the oyster for this day, August 20th, in London history. Your call whether it’s a pearl or just plain downright nasty grit.
How you call it of course will say something revealing about you.
You’ve been listening to the London Calling podcast. Emanating from www.walks.com – 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 peanuts – for McDonald’s wages. 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
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
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.