Trafalgar Square Redux 11 – the keystone in the arch

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

This is London Walks.

Streets ahead.

Story time. History time.


Brevity is the soul of it today, February 29th, 2024.

The pin for the day – the news story that gets the show on the road – is the announcement that the Fitzrovia landmark, the BT Tower, is going to be turned into a luxury hotel. Built by the General Post Office, the 177 metre-high landmark is no spring chicken. It was opened in 1965. It’s practically a pensioner but it holds its own with any and all of today’s upstarts, London’s 21st century high rises. It’s never looked its age. It certainly didn’t in 1965, when the 1950s were still hanging there on the coat rack. And for sure it doesn’t look its age today. Put it in a line-up with the likes of the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater and the Shard, any number of people who didn’t know better would pick it out as the most modern one of all. So you can imagine, with the rest of London’s skyline hugging the earth in the 1960s how extraordinary it must have seemed. Something straight out of the futuristic Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Something extraterrestrial, some alien star voyager touched down in what to it must have seemed like a Lunarscape: plain, old style, humdrum, nothing out of the ordinary central London.

Back in the early 1970s when I moved to London I remember orienting by the Post Office Tower (as it was known then) – because it was unmissable, you could see it from anywhere in central London.  Its topside revolving restaurant – targeted by the IRA in 1971 – will eternally be part of London lore. My hunch is it’ll make a comeback when it launches into its new career as a luxury hotel. What is a sign of the times – these times, this day and age – is that it’s getting a new lease of life as a luxury hotel. That seems to be the order of the day for 21st-century London. Think of the Old War Office on Whitehall. Those old war horses – old working London buildings – they don’t fade away, they don’t get put out to pasture; they become luxury hotels.

Moving on, today’s Random. Let’s go ab ovum. First impressions of London. Back we go thirty years. To our first webbie. An American. Well, actually back to his grandmother. When he told his grandmother he was moving to London she said, ‘London, it sounds so important.’

And then there’s V.S. Pritchett’s short but utterly brilliant disquisition on the name London. This passage can be found near the beginning of his prose poem, London poem, London Perceived, which just might be the best thing ever written about London. Pritchett says, “One’s first impression is of a heavy city, a place of aching heads. The very name London has tonnage in it. The two syllables are two thumps of the steam hammer, the slow clump-clump of a policeman’s feet, the cannoning of shunting engines, or the sound of coal thundering down the holes in the pavements of Victorian terraces. Lie down on the grass in the middle of a London park, far away from any street and from the numerosity, and the earth rumbles and trembles day and night. The note is low and ruminative and, in this, resembles the quiet but meaning voices of the people who hate drama more than anything else on earth and for reasons that do not totally bear inspection. As Londoners, we are – you see – drama itself and have no reason to whip ourselves up into states with sirens and altercations. We like the police to be quiet, the ambulances discreet and the fire engines jolly.

This weight of the city and its name have other associations, mainly with the sense of authority, quiet self-consequence – known among us as modesty – unbounded worry, ineluctable usage, and natural muddle. These are aspects of a general London frame of mind. If Paris suggests intelligence, if Rome suggests the world, if New York suggests activity, the word for London is experience. This points o the awful fact that London has been the most powerful and richest capital in the world for several centuries. It has been, until a mere 15 years ago [aside here: Pritchett wrote this passage in the early 1960s]…it has been, until a mere fifteen years ago, the capital of the largest world empire since the Roman and, even now, is the focal point of a vague Commonwealth. It is the capital source of a language now dominant in the world. Great Britain invented this language; London printed it and made it presentable. At the back of their minds – and the London mind has more back than front to it – Londoners are very aware of these things and are weighed down by them rather than elated. The familiar tone of the London voice is quick, flat-voweled, and concerned. The speaker is staving off the thought that hope is circumscribed and that every gift horse is to be looked at long in the mouth. He is – he complains – though no fault of his own, a citizen of the world. Half his mind, like that true Londoners, Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, is with his galleons overseas.”

Brilliant isn’t it. I love the way he hears those names. And what he hears in them. Those two heavy syllables of the name London. The very name has tonnage in it. And comparing the name for our city with that of the French capital. Especially if you pronounce Paris the way the French pronounce it. Paree… it’s evanescent, just so much breath. No weight, no tonnage in the name Paree.

Well, I was going to use that as a lead-in and a tie-in. A lead-in to one’s first impressions of London. For some probably daft reasons I like to ask people what their first impressions of London were. I like to compare them with my first impressions. But I think I’ll save that for a future podcast. What I will say here and now is that the Post Office Tower – today’s Pin – was one of my earliest impressions. To be exact, my fourth main impression of London was the Post Office Tower. And University College London – my college – was my fifth main impression. I was going to wax eloquent – well, I hope wax eloquent – about a quirky feature of University College. But I’m going to save that. I’m going to be very self indulgent and do a whole podcast on my first five impressions of London. But UCL came to mind because William Wilkins, the architect who designed the National Galley, also gave us the main UCL building.

And that, tidily, that mention of the National Gallery, gets us to Trafalgar Square. Gets us to our Ongoing. Gets us to my, yours, London Walks’ ongoing obsession with London.

I see this one as the keystone to the Trafalgar Square arch. It’s a eureka moment. When you finally see it every everything suddenly snaps into place

Basically, this observation makes the subliminal break the surface. The subliminal is the sense of wholeness or harmony about Trafalgar Square. The way it just feels right. How does that come about? What’s the driver of that sense of harmony.

Well, take a look at the National Gallery. Look up. Look at the roof. At the balustrades running along the roof. Now move your eye to the right. To St Martin in the Fields. See em? Yup, you got it. Balustrades. At the same level, the same height, as the balustrades on the National Gallery. Now keep panning your eye to the right. To the Golden Cross building – aka South Africa House. It houses the South African High Commission. And sure enough, there it is. The continuation of the balustrade. The Golden Cross building is on the eastern side of Trafalgar Square, the side toward the Strand. Now look across Trafalgar Square. Look at the western side. You’re looking at Canada House. And absolutely to the point here, you’re looking at yet another balustrade at the very same height as all the others. And look at the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. The new addition to the National, it’s the architectural link between the National and Canada House. And sure enough, there’s just a hint of a balustrade.

Those balustrades, they’re like a necklace round Trafalgar Square. And they’re the secret sauce. They’re what gives the Square that sense of order and balance and symmetry and harmony and wholeness.

A pretty fitting – and is that ever the right phrase – a pretty fitting subject for our Leap Day 2024 London Calling podcast. Seeing those balustrades you bound – you leap – into a new appreciation of the very heart of this great city. Subliminal London has just surfaced.

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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