The Big Bang Moment – Guide David’s first 90 minutes in London

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

This is London Walks.

Streets ahead.

Story time. History time.


Good morning, London. It’s April 14th, 2024. Today’s ‘pin’ is the best place to live in London. This is a lift – and a major abridgment – of the just-published annual Sunday Times Best Places to Live in the UK guide. A major abridgment because I zeroed in on how London fared in that nation-wise survey. Didn’t take the big one – the front runner of the 72 best places to live in the UK – that honour went to the Scottish seaside Town of North Berwick in East Lothian.

But I suppose you could say a London neighbourhood came second. There are ten regional winners in the Sunday Times survey and Clerkenwell took the honours for London in the regional competition. The skinny on Clerkenwell – according to the Sunday Times judges – is that it embodies all that is best about life in London, with culture covered by the Barbican and Sadler’s Wells and cosy pubs, cool cafes, lively bars and some of the city’s best restaurants. So there you go, if you go on our Clerkenwell Walk – we call it London’s Secret Village – you can see for yourself why Clerkenwell romped home. And it makes a pretty good diary entry – or an email to a friend – “what’d I do today, I got to know the London neighbourhood voted the best place to live in London.”

And in case you’re wondering, the Sunday Times judges personally visited all the winning locations and assessed factors from schools to transport to broadband speeds to culture as well as access to green spaces and the health of the High Street. I’m going to write to the Sunday Times. Give them a bit of a scolding. “Look, is a neighbourhood on the London Walks map, that certainly should be one of the criteria whether it’s one of the best places in London.”

Moving on, our Random for the day. Yesterday, Ann did her brilliant monthly niche walk – Cat Tails – A Feline Take on London History. Got me wondering how many dogs there are in London. Turns out London is the only place in the country where cats are more popular than dogs. For the record, there are 13 million dogs in the UK. That’s about 33 percent of UK households. As for London, there are more than 300,000 dogs in London in 251,000 households. That’s a staggering nine percent of London households have one or more woof woofs.

Well, you know what they say about the English and their four-legged chums. Oh and in case you’re wondering, Labrador Retrievers are the most popular dog in the country. Don’t know but I suspect that’s not the case in London. Size being the decisive factor, I’d wager. Last point, I realised a while ago that you can tell a great deal about a neighbourhood by taking survey of its dogs. Hampstead being a perfect case in point. Hampstead dogs are all fluffy and cute and spoiled no end. There are no Rottweilers in Hampstead. You can draw your own conclusions from this London Walks guide and Hampstead resident’s anecdotal evidence and observations.

Ok. Here’s today’s Ongoing. This one’s going to be personal. It’s recollection time. Memory time. My first impressions of London. This was September 1973. I came here to study. Did a PhD on Dickens at the University of London. Flew Air Icelandic. Because it was a little bit cheaper. I was a student. I was broke. Iceland had an airline but it was an island out in the middle of the Atlantic. Luxembourg didn’t have an airline but it did have a tiny piece of ground toward the northwest corner of the European continent. So those two little countries clubbed together. Air Icelandic flew to the continent, its continental home port of call so to speak being Luxembourg. From Luxembourg I took the train to Brussels and then to Amsterdam. Spent a couple of days in Amsterdam. And then took the night ferry to the UK. Crossed from the Hook of Holland to Harwich. The night ferry – there’s a pattern here – because it was a bit cheaper. Then I took the train to London. There were three of us. Myself, my orange backpack, and my typewriter. Yes, a couple of years I typed my doctoral thesis. All 400 and some pages of it. Three copies. Compliments of carbon paper. Good thing I was a good typist. It was a big job but hey, it was a matter of penury again. I was a hard-up student. Couldn’t afford to farm it out, have it professionally typed.

Anyway, let’s get me to London. Took the train off the ferry in Harwich to Liverpool Street. I remember rolling through East London. It seemed to take forever. I was tired. Hadn’t slept a wink on that overnight ferry from Holland. And I wasn’t all that impressed with the London I was seeing out the window of that train. It went on and on. And to me it seemed pretty nondescript. I began to wonder. Have I made a mistake? I’d come from the University of Wisconsin, which has a beautiful campus. It’s almost like a resort. Exceptionally attractive. Well, when the weather’s perfect. Which of course it is only about three weeks out of the year. Two months of snow two feet deep and a wind chill factor of minus 35 degree Fahrenheit is no fun. Nor are blisteringly hot July and August days in Wisconsin. Blistering hot days that are muggy and that feature the Wisconsin state bird, mosquitos the size of your clenched fist.

Anyway, be that as it may eventually we rolled into Liverpool Street Station. I can’t begin to tell you how clueless I was about London. Didn’t have a map. Hadn’t the foggiest where I was. I knew one person in London. Daniel. A graduate student. He’d given me his telephone. “Ring me when you get to London – you can stay in my flat until you get settled.” I rang him but it was Sunday morning. He’d taken the phone off the hook. No problem, I thought, I’ll just walk. Now here’s the thing, Daniel lived in Belgravia. I was at Liverpool Street Station. You arrive in a college town in America you can probably walk – find your way – from the downtown bus station or train station to the campus. Just set out, ask people to give you a steer. That’s how much of a greenhorn I was. I thought I could walk from Liverpool Street station to Daniel’s place all the way across London in Belgravia. Hoisted the backpack up onto my broad young shoulders, picked up my typewriter and marched out of Liverpool Street station. It was Sunday. I walked straight into Petticoat Lane Market. I didn’t know it was Petticoat Lane Market. I’d never seen anything like it. My head was full of Dickens. I thought, “my God, this is London, it hasn’t changed in a century. Dickens’ London is today’s London.” Anyway, soon enough I realised I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know where Daniel was, the penny dropped that wherever he was I wasn’t going to be able to find my way there, wasn’t going to be to walk to Daniel’s flat. I beat a retreat back to Liverpool Street Station. Rang Daniel again. Tuppence it cost, by the way, to make a pay phone call in those days. This time he’d surfaced. The phone rang. He answered. “Where are you?” “I’m at Liverpool Street Station, I’m going to walk over to your place, can you tell me how to get there?” “David, you can’t walk from Liverpool Street Station to Belgravia. What you do is you take the Tube to Victoria Station. At Victoria Station get a taxi. Tell the cabbie you want to go to Ann’s Close,  which is off Kinnerton Street, which is off Belgrave Square.” And that’s how my first trip across in London went down. I remember so vividly – it was a fine autumn day – remember so vividly, sitting in the back of that black London cab – listening to the quiet hum of its diesel engine – and the cabbie turned into Belgrave Square – there I was, going round Belgrave Square, and I remember leaning back and feeling a wave of deep satisfaction and thinking, “I can live here.”

Little did I know of course that we were wheeling round the most expensive square in London. Anyway, two minutes later we were in Kinnerton Street. Got out just off the little Close at the end of which was Daniel’s flat. I take my walkers there when I guide my Belgravia Pub Walk. One of the best pubs in London is right there. It’s our second port of call on that walk. And of course I had no way of knowing at the time, but directly over the way is the mews house – Ghislaine Maxwell’s mews house – where her close friend, Prince Andrew, was photographed with the 17-year-old American girl. Prior to taking her to bed, in her account of what happened that evening. Prince Andrew of course denied it. Said he’d never met the young American woman, Virginia Roberts Giuffree.  Said he was at a Pizza Express in Woking on that night. For her troubles though he did generously give his accuser £12 million pounds. A so-called out-of-court settlement. That will have been the most expensive visit ever to a Pizza Express. Or if you think the photograph and Ms. Roberts were telling the truth, it would have been one of history’s more expensive wham bams, thank you mam. Anyway, the photograph of the Duke of York with his arm around the young lady, with Ghislaine Maxwell looking on, the two of them, the Duke and the American teenager just outside the top front bedroom of the mews house, is one of the most famous photographs of recent royal history. I whip it out on that Belgravia pub Walk. And take no little satisfaction in pointing to the house, saying that’s it, just up there, on the first floor is where the famous photo was taken. Well, that was all in the future, though. This was 1973. And I was 90 minutes into my lifelong love affair with my adopted city.

Here endeth today’s Ongoing. there’ll be more of these in the future. It all comes down to the guiding. London was founded by immigrants. It was built by immigrants. It’s a city of immigrants, of incomers. A lot of London Walks guides didn’t get their start here. Like me, they came here in their youth. I think of Adam, arguably the most gifted guide in London, perhaps in the world, being Scottish through and through, coming down here 30 years ago to see what all the fuss was about. And like me, being bowled over by the place. Stayed. Became a Londoner. Couldn’t be more of a Londoner. Or my little English rose, Mary, from a village in Kent. Though she was always in London practically from the get-go. Because she was a classically trained dancer. Coming up here for her dance training. And going to every ballet she could. And Stephen. From Liverpool. A hugely gifted actor. The best mimic in this country. Naturally he had to come to London. This after all is the world capital of theatre. His company, the Royal Shakespeare Company, is here. Ok, it’s also in Stratford. But all Stratford did was breed Shakespeare. London gave him a stage.

So there are going to be more of these. You’re hearing about London Walks guides, what brought them to London. What their first impressions of the place were? How they feel about it today. What’s special about it to them. How would they describe their London. And I’m going one further. If any of you – the third leg of the stool –

the other two legs being London and London Walks guides – if any of you, the third leg of the stool – London Walkers – want to send in a piece and tell us about your first trip to London, your first impressions, what you made of it. Fire away. I can’t promise but chances are we’ll be able to put it up here. Give you some air time. Background it a little bit. Tell us about yourself as well as about that first trip to London and your relationship with London. Send it in as a voice piece or as a letter. If the latter, I’ll write it up and voice it for you. We’re all interested in London. And we’re all interest in people. It’s a can’t-miss combination.

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.

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