Sewers, saints & rats

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

This is London Walks.

Streets ahead.

Story time. History time.


Good morning, London. It’s April 3rd, 2024. S.O.P. Standard Operating Procedure. We begin with a pin. A what’s going on in London news story pinned to front end of the London Calling podcast. In newsroom terms – I’m an ex-journalist of course – you can think of me as your copy taster. I’ve sifted and winnowed all the London news for you and singled one out for your delectation. Assuming that you’re maybe planning a trip to London and would like to find out more about the place, find out what’s of note, what’s going on in London. A news item that drills down into London in a way the bog standard tourist fare fails to do.

Bog standard indeed because today’s pin is the news about the Super Sewer. It’s been eight years and £5 billion pounds in the making and it’s now down and dusted. There are a few more final touches that have to be seen to. And it has to be tested. But basically the engineering, the construction is over the finish line and it’ll come on stream next year. And a welcome addition it’ll be. London’s Victorian sewers were designed to serve 4 million people. Now, nearly nine million people send a stinking amount of poo through London’s sewers daily. The Victorian sewers aren’t coping. With predictable and deeply regrettable consequences. The 25 km Super Sewer under the Thames will intercept those nasty spills. Will clean up our river for the good of London, for the good of its wildlife, and for the good of all of us – including you, our visitors. For many years as a guide I’ve described the great Victorian civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette’s Embankment and its sewerage system for central London as the greatest civil engineering project in London’s history. I think we can safely say that that title now belongs to the new 21st-century Super Sewer.

Moving on, today’s Random. And in the circumstances it’s anything but “random.” Where there are sewers there are rats. So, yes, it’s time to talk rats. I hate to break this to you but it’s their city as much as ours. They badly outnumber us. It’s been estimated that there are two rats for every human in London. To put a figure on it, the rat population of London is 18,851,244 rats.

The collective noun for a group of rats is a mischief of rats. Nearly 19 million rats, that some mischief. What else, well, you’ll be panting to know that a rat’s teeth are harder than iron. A rat can last longer without water than a camel. An adult rat weighs anywhere from 350 to 650 grams. That’s from eight-tenths to nearly a pound and a half. They eat 10 percent of their body weight daily. Say an average of 50 grams of food a day.

19 million rats each scoffing 50 grams of food a day comes to 950 million grams of rat nourishment every day. 950 million grams is just over 1,000 tons. What weighs a thousand tons. That’s 148 elephants or three Boeing 747 Jets or one cargo ship. A rat will poop 30 to 50 times a day. And even I don’t want to know how many tonnes of rat poop comes London’s way every day. And when they’re not pooping their pumping out rat babies. A pair of them can produce 2,000 youngsters a year.

And on that delightful note, let’s move on to our ongoing.

This is another in the Trafalgar Square redux series. This one’s a classic example of London Walks making the new familiar and the familiar new. Today I’m directing your gaze to the wonderful old church in Trafalgar Square. St Martin in the Fields. I thought long and hard about how we were going to open the London Walks book, London Walks London Stories. What I came up with in the end was the line, To see London you have to hear it. This is not an easy city to figure out. This is not Manhattan with avenues running north-south and streets east-west, everything on a grid pattern. London’s a different cup of tea. Everything’s higgledy piggledy here. And just generally, this is the most secretive, the most mysterious of all western cities. So given the mysterious, the opaque nature of London, I – as an incomer, that was 50 years ago – have worked really hard at trying to figure this place out. And in my half century here I’ve uncovered about 15 or 16 keys that help to unlock London. That help you to ‘read’ it. Primus inter pares of those 15 or 16 keys is place names. Places names are very often an x-ray of the past. And a second important key is parish churches, they can tell us a great deal about a neighbourhood. Now with St Martin in the Fields, those two keys work together. You can learn a great deal about this parish from the parish church, St Martin in the Fields. And ditto the other key, the name. The general point is that it’s the very often the case that church names in London aren’t a lucky dip, they’re not picked out of a hat at random. There’s very often a good reason why a church in a certain position will have the name it has.

So the name of Trafalgar Square church is St Martin in the Fields. What that name is telling us is that once upon a time the church out in the fields, out on the edge of town. Similarly, St Martin within Ludgate. It wasn’t in the fields but it was on the edge of town. It was just inside Ludgate, the western gate in the wall that circumscribed town.

Now what about St Martin? And for the penny to drop here I want you to get up close to one of the street lamp standards on the pavement outside the church. On it you’ll see a crowned red and gold medallion. The medallion shows a man on a horse and next to them a nearly naked man. The man on the horse is a 4th-century officer in the Roman army. In Tours. In what was Roman-occupied Gaul. France we’d say today. The officer had some business that took him out of the city. It was a cold winter’s day. At the city gate there was a street person, a beggar. The street person didn’t say anything. He didn’t dare. This was a mounted, armed Roman legionnaire. But there was a brief look exchanged. The beggar looked at the Roman officer in a certain way. The officer reached for his short sword. Imagine the drama of that moment. To put it in modern terms imagine a Bedouin peasant in Iraq coming face to face with a heavily armed and armoured 21st-century American soldier. Anyway, the Roman officer takes out his sword, grasps his cloak, cuts it in two and gives half of it to the shivering beggar. The business of his cutting it exactly in half is very interesting. Exactly in half because Rome – the state – owned half of everything. In giving the beggar half of the cloak the Roman officer is giving his all. He doesn’t have anything more to give. Rome, the state, owns the other half of the cloak. Anyway, the Roman officer goes on his way, goes about his business, and then at night returns to the city. He goes home. Goes to bed. Sleeps fitfully. He has a dream. A vision, really. In the dream Jesus appears before him. And the Roman officer realises that Jesus has the same face as the beggar at the gate, that that had been Jesus to whom he’d given his cloak. And that was the life-changing moment for that young Roman officer. He decided to get out of the army, get a job as a saint, and so on. And that’s why you would never name a church in the centre of a city St Martin’s. A church called St Martin’s has to be at the edge of a city because the critically important moment in the life of St Martin took place on the outskirts, at the city gate of Tours.

And that’s the wonderful moment depicted in that medallion on the lamp posts in the parish of St Martin in the Fields.

Well, there’s more to be done with this fine episode in world, ancient, ecclesiastical and London history and culture, but I’m going to save that second course for next time.

You’ve been listening to This… is London, the London Walks 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 accomplished, in many cases

distinguished professionals:

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 Aristocracy of Talent – its 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, a former Museum of London archaeologist, historians,

university professors (one of them a distinguished Cambridge University paleontologist); it includes

criminal defence lawyers,

Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *