Today (December 6) in London History – something completely new in Europe

It wasn’t just a London first – it was a Europe first. A wonder of wonders pioneered by London. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

We’re going to put S.O.P. on hold for a minute. S.O.P. is Standard Operating Procedure. We’re going to put it on hold because this is December 6th, the day that marks the beginning of the Christmas season in so many countries, not least because it’s St Nicholas’ Day and St Nicholas of course transmogrified – there, I knew I’d use that word sooner or later – St Nicholas transmogrified into Santa Claus. And I think on his day it’s, well, worth going over the ground. I didn’t know the back story and I’m glad I got across it and I expect if you don’t you will be as well. So here you go. St Nicholas was the bishop of Myra. Myra, in case you didn’t know, I didn’t, is on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. 

And today, December 6th, is the day the bishop, Nicholas, the future saint, is believed to have died. I have it on good information that a lot of people will be visiting his ruined tomb today. Apparently his remains were exhumed in 1087 and taken to Bari, where they supposedly remain today. Though rival claims have been put in by the Venetians and the Russians. They both say, no, these bones are St Nicholas’ bones, and we’ve got them. 

Anyway, how do we get from a 4th-century religious figure to Santa Claus. Apparently Nicolas had something of a reputation for doing good deeds and performing miracles. The two biggies are associated, respectively, with gifts and with children. The first one, the gifts one – it seems that three sisters couldn’t get husbands because their hard-up dad didn’t have dowries for his daughters. Nicholas sneaked round to the house at night and dropped off three purses of gold. Well, he flipped them through a window. One of them landed in a stocking that had been hung up by a chimney to dry. Does that sound familiar by any chance?

And as for children – well, that would be the tale of the three pickled boys. There was a famine. The boys were out scavaging and got lost. They knocked on the door of a nasty piece of work who happened to be a butcher. He eyed them up and said, “do come in boys, lovely to see you.” He gave them something to eat, put them to bed and then murdered them while they slept. He butchered the lads and salted the flesh in a tub. This is worse than that naughty barber named Sweeny Todd. Happy ending, though. An angel ratted on the butcher. Told Nicholas. He went to the house and reassembled the lads and brought them back to life. 

Well, they’re potent tales, tales of a kindly old gentleman who loves kids and young people and performs miracles. Gifts are, after all, a kind of miracle. Especially if they’re brought by a kindly old gentleman who drives a sleigh pulled by reindeer, has lots of elves as helpers, and gains access by coming down the chimney.

So Happy St Nicholas Day, one and all. The Christmas Season has well and truly begun.

Ok, it’s back to S.O.P. Standard Operating Procedure.

I think I’ll introduce this by trotting out that observation that London isn’t a city, it’s a world. The whole world is here. Everything in the world is here. Well, just about everything.

And the other lead-in to what happened on this day in London history – December 6th, 1938 – is that old tried and trusty stand-by: London doesn’t have a taste or a weakness or an appetite or a hankering for novelty: London lusts after novelty. This place is like a big cat that rubs its side against the world and says, “go on, pet me, scratch me, make me purr in a way you never scratched me before. And it better be good.”

And so what is it today? Well, today, December 6th, 1938.  It’s a mountain covered with real snow. An indoor mountain covered with real snow. It is, in the words of the Telegraph’s double headline: Indoor Ski-ing Spectacle. Thrill at Earls Court Show.

It’s the first night of the Winter Cavalcade. And indeed, the first occasion on which indoor skiing on this scale has been seen in Europe.

Or as the Guardian put it, “It is a truism that wonders never cease, but indoor winter sports in real snow are something completely new in Europe. Huge, cheering crowds watched crack Norwegian ski-jumpers come hurtling down a snow-clad “mountain” that towered to the roof a hundred feet above them. 

Yup. London got there first. 

And oi vei was it popular.  

Londoners flocked to the Alpines in SW5. Some 350,000 of them in total attended the Winter Cavalcade.

And no wonder, what a scene it was.

When the curtain went up you were no longer in Earls Court, you were in the Alps, you were at the foot of a glistening, snow-covered mountain set in a decor of Alpine peaks, complete with chalets and fir trees.

To say nothing of dancing girls. A hundred of them. They were the warm-up act. The ski champions were the headline acts, though. They were from Norway and the U.S. and France. I think it fair to say that Norwegian skiier Sverre Christiansen Kolterud was the top attraction. One newspaper account said he took the audience’s breath away with a run from the top of the mountain and leap over a Christmas tree about ten feet high placed in front of the jump.

Finally, how did they do it? The mountain was constructed from 75,000 feet of steel tubing. It was 100 feet high and 250 feet wide. The pine trees were 30 feet high. The surface was blanketed with two feet of white crystals. Real snow storms could be turned on and off as required. Come to think of it, maybe the snow machines and the flurries they produced were the real stars of the show. Every ton of ice used by one of the machines produced 750 cubic feet of snow.

And again, I think from the vantage point of hindsight, there’s no question but that Alpine winter wonderland – all white and green – would come to seem like a lost world. Because their world – though they didn’t know it at the time – was already rushing down a different slope – World War II, drenched in its angry colours of red and black and yellow – was just a few months ahead of them. 

As for our Today in London recommendation – well, I lead with London’s ravening hunger for spectacle, for the new and different.

That was in 1938. It’s 2022 and nothing’s changed in that regard.

I think you best take yourself to London’s epic new viewing experience. Lift 109 at Battersea Power Station. It’s called Lift 109 because it takes you 109 metres to the top of the northwest chimney where you get stunning 360-degree views of London’s skyline. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History 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: 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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