The May 21, 2024 London Walks Podcast – Kensington Palace & William III

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

This is London Walks.

Streets ahead.

Story time. History time.


Good evening, London. It’s May 21st, 2024. Today’s pin – I’ve never seen anything like it – every newspaper in the newsagent has same headline: A Day of Shame for the British State. As The Guardian subtitle put it, “deadly cover-up of the blood scandal finally exposed.”

Today’s Random: we touched down briefly on British newspapers. What about the other side of the Atlantic. Their front page story, day in and day out, is the Trump trial. Here’s a show-stopper stat for you Yanks: more than half a million trees are used every Sunday to produce America’s Sunday newspapers. That’s more than 26 million trees a year. And that’s just the Sunday papers.

Moving on, today’s Ongoing.

As long as we’re on the subject of trees…

Ever notice how a row of saplings, they all pretty much look like each other.

Old trees, though. Oh my goodness. No old tree could be mistaken for any other old tree. Each of them is its own fantastic individual self.

And I think that sort of goes for what I call the two types of guiding.

A lot of university campuses – during orientation week for new students and their parents – the guides giving those tours are student guides. And, yes, it’s rote guiding. Those student guides are given a script to memorise and a route to follow. And if you think about it, that’s what you’d expect. Some of those student guides have only been on that campus for nine months. None of them has been there for more than just over two years. They’re very young. They don’t have a lot of life experience. And they haven’t had time to read very much. The worst guide I ever had was a young lady – she was maybe twenty years old – it was a summer job for her – she was guiding an old gold or silver mine in Colorado. She’d obviously memorised a script. And she thought guiding was shouting and emphasising every single word, including a, and an, and and, and the. It was painful. It was like having a rapid-fire steam hammer pounding away on my ear drums. Fifteen minutes of it and I began to lose the will to live.

So that’s one end of the spectrum. Though I don’t think spectrum’s the right word. The kind of guiding a great guide does isn’t even on the same spectrum. It’s a different ball game, a different kettle of fish altogether.

We often hear – and we like hearing this – “you can go on the same London Walk with two different London Walks guides and they’re going to be very different. So first of all, there’s of course no script. We proudly say, like Homer we’re working in an oral tradition. But the main point is we want every guide to make the walk his own walk. And every guide’s different. They have different interests and passions. They’ve had a lifetime of reading and they emphatically do not read the same books and articles. And just generally, there’s all that experience. We regularly – every few years we do this – we regularly ask the guides, how many years have you been guiding? The last time we put that question to them the collective total number of years came to something like 1500 years. That’s a lot of experience. 1500 years on the London timetable gets us back to the twilight years of Londinium, the end of the Roman era.

So the walks are fantastically different. Guide by guide. Compare a London Walks guide with a youngster who’s doing it as a summer job – and, yes, that kind of guiding does exist in London – well, put that comparison in culinary terms it’s the difference between Macdonalds and what you get from a five Michelin star chef.

Walking tours are like everything else. Like restaurants. You get what you pay for. And you just as surely also get what you don’t pay for.

So in Michelin terms it’s top quality ingredients, superb presentation, distinct flavours. In a word – well, two words – outstanding cooking. In four words, a great culinary experience.

You could call the route of a great walking tour the first step of the presentation. But that’s not what I’m interested in here. What I’m interested in here is the ingredients. And choosing them, selecting them, that’s an art in itself. What do you include? What do you leave out?

On a February day in Hampstead in 1818 the great romantic poet John Keats dashed off a letter to his friend John Taylor in which he set out a few of his axioms – yes, he used that word – about poetry.

I personally hold in the highest esteem Keats’ first axiom. He says, “I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity.”

That has so much applicability to what we do. To use a baseball idiom, you could say that the “fine excess” is the sweet spot. The trick is to find it. If you just talk about what your walkers already know, well, that’s the equivalent of serving up Macdonalds. On the other hand, if you prattle away about something that’s all Greek to them, that doesn’t work either. It has to be something that has some familiarity but then goes beyond that. There has to be something in it that’s new to them. That’s the fine excess.

Over nearly half a century of guiding I’ve been reviewed thousands of times. And my favourite review of all was a really critical one of my Kensington Walk. Brian from Ontario’s Highlands in Canada took me to task for – I’m quoting now – “showing us where people that us Canadians had never heard of had lived sometime in the last 400 years.”

I replied, “The problem with the internet is that anything you say online can be used in evidence against you. If you say lots of foolish things it makes you look like a fool. So I’ll just stick to the facts. The reviewer says, “we learned about where people that us Canadians had never heard of had lived somewhere in the last 400 years.”

Guilty as charged if Canadians haven’t heard of Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria, Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, T.S. Eliot, Prince Charles [as he was then], John Stuart Mill, William Makepeace Thackeray, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Thomas Carlyle, Rudyard Kipling, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, Lord Tennyson, Admiral Nelson, Sir Francis Drake, Beatrix Potter, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, etc.

I suppose the walk does assume a minimal level of cultural literacy. And, yes, I accept that the walk is probably not right for someone who’s ‘never heard of’ the aforementioned. But I’m not sure that’s our problem.”

Brian then went on to say the best walk was a [so-called] ‘free one’ and ‘we gladly tipped the tour guide as we thought they work extra hard because they don’t have ten pounds in their jeans to start’.

To which I replied: “‘Free’ walks. Well, they’re not ‘free’ of course. They use the word ‘free’ as a hook to lure the credulous into an extractive operation. Anybody who thinks they are free is labouring under a massive misapprehension. How could they be free? They’re run as businesses. They have identifiable costs. The guide has to pay the company a per-head levy for everybody who goes on the walk. And it should go without saying that you can’t attract and keep high-quality guides – many of them distinguished professionals – by turning them into beggars. Be that as it may, we of course accept that their ‘product’ is right for some people. If someone’s on a very tight budget, for example, the appeal of ‘free’ is obvious. The trick of course is not to cave in to the massive pressure to ‘tip’. Not they’re tips. Which is easier said than done. And I suppose for the hard of understanding it should also be stressed that basically what those outfits have done is to redefine the word ‘free’ and indeed the word ‘tip’.

But beyond that, it really is a matter of the ‘fit’ – the right guide, the. right sort of guiding, right walking tour company for any given individual who wants to go on a walking tour. We want our London Walks community, our market to be made up of bright, well-educated, urbane, sophisticated discerning people. People who are not taken in by that crude advertising ploy. And perhaps most important of all, people who recognise that the exuberance of a ‘guide’ who’s all of 20-years-old is often the product of an emptier head. Emptier heads are right for some people. They’re not right for the sort of people who go on London Walks.”

And that’s all way of a preamble. A name conspicuous by its absence from that long list of famous people Brian hadn’t heard of was William III. And it’s an interesting question how you surprise by a fine excess with William III. The problem of course is you’ve only got a minute or two because there’s so much other ground you’ve got to cover, so much else to see.

And that’s where these podcasts have in a sense come to the rescue. It’s a bigger canvas. I’ve got more elbow room, more time. So just for fun – and perhaps by way of getting under the bonnet, so to speak, of a walking tour – I’m going to set out here what I do say about William III. Some of which, I’m sure, is sweet spot stuff, does surprise by a fine excess. And then I’ll go a bit further and touch on points that I’d make if I had more time on the walk. It’s of course your call whether, in your view,  I’ve made the right selection of ingredients.  A few weeks another reviewer – Pamela, who loved the walk – spoke of what she called – we loved this – the white glove treatment. She was talking about the detailed advancer email I send my walkers. And the other bookend, the follow up email, which basically amounts to a professionally produced pdf of the chapter on Kensington in the London Walks book. I wrote the chapter so of course the copyright is mine. And I send along three or four other ‘for further study’ documents. This podcast will be joining that company precisely because I’m going to make some important points in it about William III that I simply don’t have time to bring up on the walk.

Anyway, here’s what I say. The cue is the fine statue of him that stands in front of the state apartments of Kensington Palace. I begin by telling the group that the statue was a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm to Edward VII. And that in my estimation in some ways it tells us more about Kaiser Wilhelm than about William III. For one thing William III had something of a hunchback. You can’t see that in the statue. I show the group a miniature of William and Mary and the astonishing thing is they have identical hair styles. I make the point that mores – norms – are fascinating matters. And that of course over time they sometimes change. So, for example, when William married Mary he was 26 and she was 15. Today, a 26-year-old man bedding a 15-year-old girl, that’s going to land him in prison. 340 years ago they weren’t fussed about that in the least. What they were fussed about was that she might marry a Roman Catholic. That was the taboo.

I then make the point that we have William III to thank for Kensington Palace. It was originally a Jacobean country house, called Nottingham House. It was the Duke of Nottingham’s House. William III didn’t like Whitehall. It was down the on river. He was asthmatic. It was unsuitable for him. Mary also hated it. She said, “at Whitehall, all I can see is wall and water.”

So he bought Nottingham House. It was a country retreat. They hired Wren. He converted it. And then not long after – December of 1698 – Whitehall burned down. So that meant Kensington Palace was the only palace in the London area. I then hasten to add, ok, I’m misleading you slightly. There was St James’ Palace. But it’s frightfully pokey. It only has 160 rooms. Kensington Palace has 547 rooms.

I then fish out an illustration that shows them exactly what it looked like in William’s day. And then out comes a 1960 floor plan that shows which royal was living in which apartment in those days. And then I get out a couple of good aerial shots that show them the three courtyards and who’s living in those royal apartments today. All of which the hundreds of tourists moving around Kensington Palace are blissfully ignorant of – the Kensington Palace I show my walkers is not the Kensington Palace that casual visitors get to see.  Those formal gardens that you can see in the old illustration of William III’s Kensington Palace come into the William III story. The end of the William III story as it happens. He was out riding at Hampton Court and a mole caused his horse to shy and rear. He was thrown from the horse. Landed awkwardly. Broke his collarbone. It’s a difficult break to heal. He ordered his attendants to remove him from Hampton Court and take him to Kensington Palace. He was Dutch and he was homesick and there was a formal Dutch garden in front of what is today the State Apartments. The State Apartments are still there of course, the Dutch garden is long gone. But we see it in that old illustration. Show them that, it’s like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. And I make the point that he wanted his recovery bed to be placed in front of one of those windows so he good look out and see his beloved Dutch garden. And then he went too far. He didn’t just want to see those flowers, he wanted to smell them. So he had the windows opened. Well, he got more fresh air than he bargained for. He got pneumonia and died.

And of course the payoff line there is that Scots still drink a toast to the little gentleman in the black velvet coat. The little gentleman in the black velvet coat being the mole that caused William’s horse to rear, threw him, broke his collarbone, the which mishap led eventually and inexorably I suppose to his death. A matter of celebration for Scots – for some Scots anyway – because William III effectively ended the Stuart line and the Stuarts were of course Scots.

Now all of that, interesting as it is, is small change. We can’t leave it at that. It’s looking at the rubber ducks in the pool and not seeing the elephant behind them.

And that’s by way of saying, William III and the titanic forces he unleashed were world-changing. Let’s put it this way. He was Dutch. Let’s say he was the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. He pulled his finger out of the dyke and a world-historical tsunami crashed through.

It was on Guy Fawkes day 1688 that he pitched up. The shorthand for that event is the Glorious Revolution. Protestant William came over and Catholic James II beat a hasty retreat into exile. Seems pretty major that event but you don’t know the half of it. You want to get the real measure of it you need to say, Europe invaded England on Guy Fawkes Day in 1688. William’s forces included Dutch, German, Danish, French, Swedish, Polish, Greek and Swiss troops. Oh, and let’s not forget the Finns, in bearskins no less. They disembarked from 500 ships. Let that sink in. 500 ships. That’s more than twice the number of ships in the Spanish Armada. Not until D-Day in June of 1944 would there be a bigger seaborne invasion of a European shore. They landed in Torbay. They were welcomed with apples and cider. It was a pleasant enough greeting but if truth were told the Dutch could hardly believe their eyes. They’d landed in what today would be called a third-world country. The Dutch couldn’t believe how filthy the place was.

In the words of one historian, this backwater was a European laughing stock. What was set in motion that day – Guy Fawkes Day, 1688 – would, over a couple of centuries, transform these weak, turbulent islands – that European laughing stock – transform it into a global super-power.

So it was part conquest, part liberation. And every bit as important, arguably more important than William the Conqueror’s invasion in 1066.

Now what was the crux of the matter? In one word, France. The France of the Sun King, Louis the XIV.

It’s possible to illustrate the matter in a single glance on that Kensington Walk. We look at Kensington Palace. And I show them that late 17th-century illustration of the palace, William III’s Kensington Palace. And then I show a couple of photos of Versailles, which, conveniently enough, was pretty much completed by 1688. There’s no comparison. It’s the difference between a humble little parish church and a mighty cathedral.

The power and magnifcence and might and untold wealth and grandeur and glory that was France – checking it, rolling it back – that was what William and his allies were seeking to do.

They were dreamers. Grasping at straws, seeking a miracle. But the die had been cast. Any help they could get, from whatever quarter, they were going to scrape it up, enlist. And so they came to Torbay, to weak, filthy, England. Nineteen years later, it was no longer the laughing stock of Europe, it was no longer England, it was the United Kingdom of Scotland and England. And in due course of Ireland. And what ensued came to be known as the second Hundred Years War. In the words of Britain’s foremost expert on French history, Robert Tombs, “a Franco-British duel through six great wars between 1689 and 1815 was fought”, a duel that scorched the whole planet and left the two main participants utterly changed. France would find its dominance of Europe unexpectedly challenged and undermined, its role outside the Continent stubbornly countered and then destroyed, and eventually its state and society revolutionised. Little England was no more: the next three centuries would see unremitting efforts to ‘punch above its weight’, and make its will prevail in Europe and the wider world.”

And that’s why it’s important to get to know William III. That’s the elephant in the pool. History lessons don’t come any more important.


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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