The Today in London History Bulletin (December 28)

Westminster Abbey was consecrated on December 28, 1065. Such is the stuff of this Today in London History Bulletin.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It wouldn’t surprise me if plans are already afoot. 

Ok, getting ahead of myself.

Yesterday, December 27th, London did me proud. Well, did me and my walkers proud. I did a private Hampstead Walk for a lovely family from Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. And perfectly timed – yesterday was the 114th anniversary of the opening of Peter Pan. And of course Hampstead is awash with Peter Pan associations because Gerald du Maurier, the great actor who created the role of Captain Hook was born in Hampstead, lived in Hampstead, is buried in Hampstead. So it was entirely satisfactory to light that little anniversary candle.

And sure enough, London’s done it again. Does this place ever let you down? Not if you love it and serve it well. Anyway, London’s done it again because later today I’m giving one of my rarities – it only comes up once or twice a year – The London in Poetry Walk. And inevitably a few of the poems are, well, Westminster Abbey poems.

And sure enough today, December 28th, is the 957th anniversary of the consecration of Westminster Abbey. Yes, that’s right, Westminster Abbey was consecrated on this day, December 28th, in the year 1065.

So the big anniversary was 1965. That was the 900th anniversary. But we’re more than halfway to the really big one – a thousand years. December 28th, 2065 – that’ll be the day. And that’s where my head was when I said it wouldn’t surprise me if plans were already afoot. I mean, they spent 11 years cleaning and restoring Westminster Abbey in preparation for the 900th anniversary. There’ll be youngsters on the Abbey staff today who will be greybeards and/or grandmotherly come 2065. I mean, 43 years, that’s significantly less than two generations. Given that the standard figure for a generation is 25 years.

Anyway, that’s the Today in London History bulletin for this day, December 28th. But now, in this relaxed, different format, I can play a bit. Don’t have to do a full-scale podcast about the consecration.

And I’m going to play by turning to one of those Westminster Abbey poems. The greatest of them, in my estimation.

And you’ll see immediately how I’m putting up two fingers to the pernickety, strait-laced, academic purist approach to these matters.

I readily, I cheerfully admit, I go off-piste when I get into poetry’s realms of gold. A fine example of same, as far as I’m concerned William Butler Yeats’ wonderful poem Lake Isle of Innisfree is a London poem. Let me, quickly, put the case. The Lake Isle of Innisfree is an uninhabited island on Lough Gill, in the southwest of Ireland. How could that possibly be a London poem?

Well, let’s push the boat out by hearing the poem.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

It’s the most wonderful poem. In great poetry we talk about the sound of sense and the sense of sound. Listen to the first and last lines of the first stanza: 

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.


Listen to those sounds: arise…Innisfree…alooooonnnne…bee-looouuud glaaaade. You can hear the hum of those bees. The sound reinforces the sense.

But it’s utterly about rural, southwestern Ireland, you say. How could this possibly be a London poem?

Here’s how. In 1888 Yeats was walking along the Strand – the most London of streets. He was feeling homesick. Yeats was of course Irish. 

Suddenly, through a shop window, Yeats saw what he called a water feature. It was a little fountain with a tiny ball merrily bouncing about on top of its jet. And just like that he was put in mind of lake water. As a child Yeats had spent his summers at Lough Gill. That little water feature in that shop window on the Strand carried him back, carried him to the Lake Isle of Innisfree. Something he saw in a London shop window triggered those memories, transported him.

Keats in his Ode to a Nightingale talks about the viewless wings of poesy – the power of poetry to make it possible for him to leave the world unseen, and with the nightingale – the song of the nightingale – fade away into the forest dim.

Well, it’s not the power of poesy that jumpstarts Yeats to the Lake Isle of Innisfree. It’s the power of London. It’s that little water feature in that shop window on the Strand. It may sound like sacrilege, but the Lake Isle of Innisfree is as much a London poem as it is a County Sligo poem. 

And by that same token, John Ormond’s little masterpiece The Cathedral Builders is very much a Westminster Abbey poem. Even though the Abbey is not a cathedral…strictly speaking it’s a royal peculiar, which means it belongs to the ruling monarch and is not governed by any diocese of the Church of England. Extraordinary thought, isn’t it, King Charles III owns Westminster Abbey.

Anyway, we needn’t trouble ourselves about the peculiarities of the Royal Peculiar, at least not in relation to this poem. And again, be sure to listen to the poem not just for its sense but also for its musicality. The way the sound reinforces the sense, the way the sound knits elements of the poem together. 

For example, those two half lines near the beginning of the poem:

defied gravity,

deified stone.

With the half lines he’s writing the silences. Those two words – defied and deified – so close in sound, hang there and resonate, they meld into each other, precisely because Ormond has written the silences. Those two words reverberate like bells.

Here’s the poem. We’ll end with it. Just the usual London Walks sign off at poem’s end.

The Cathedral Builders

They climbed on sketchy ladders towards God,

with winch and pulley hoisted hewn rock into heaven,

inhabited the sky with hammers,

defied gravity,

deified stone,

took up God’s house to meet him,

and came down to their suppers

and small beer,

every night slept, lay with their smelly wives,

quarrelled and cuffed the children,

lied, spat, sang, were happy, or unhappy,

and every day took to the ladders again,

impeded the rights of way of another summer’s swallows,

grew greyer, shakier,

became less inclined to fix a neighbour’s roof of a fine evening,

saw naves sprout arches, clerestories soar,

cursed the loud fancy glaziers for their luck,

somehow escaped the plague,

got rheumatism,

decided it was time to give it up,

to leave the spire to others,

stood in the crowd, well back from the vestments at the consecration,

envied the fat bishop his warm boots,

cocked a squint eye aloft,

and said, ‘I bloody did that.’

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History bulletin. 

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: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won 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. See ya tomorrow.

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