Trafalgar Square Redux 4 – the Reason Why

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks – streets ahead.

London Walks.

This… is London.

London Walks.

Story time. History time.


It’s January 17th, 2024.

And, as usual, PRO – P-R-O – is the order of the day. PRO – the London Walks acronym for Pin, Random, Ongoing.

As per usual, I get  us started with a today news story. I pin one to the front end of every London Walks podcast. Which means, if you think about it, you’ve got yourself a copytaster for London news.

Today, well, the front page stories are the royal medical stories – King Charles’ prostrate and the Princess of Wales’ abdominal surgery – and the nasty business that’s going on between Iran and Pakistan. But none of them is my pin. Instead, I’m going to go with a feature story. The £25,000 price tag for a burial plot next to Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery. Full marks – that’s marks m.a.r.k.s. – to the Guardian subeditor, who came up with the headline, “the philosopher would be turning in his grave.” And full marks to Zoe Williams, the Guardian journalist who dug up the story. Especially, the way she lays it to rest. “Ian Dungavell, the chief executive of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, says it is important to accommodate new burials, as they help keep Highgate a ‘living’ attraction. This presents us with a conundrum about death: is it a binary state, in which you are either dead or you aren’t? Or is it a sliding scale on which a person who died yesterday is less dead than Marx, say, who died in 1883? The extent of your death is probably determined by how many people still think about you, which makes Marx as undead as it’s possible to be.”

So much for today’s Pin.

Moving on, here’s today’s Random. Thinking for a minute about the pandemic. The Lockdown. We were a walking tour company that wasn’t allowed to give walking tours. Necessity being the mother of invention we created virtual tours. One set of floodgates that opened was picture research. And when the prison sentence was lifted and we were able to go out and about again, able to do shoe leather on pavement tours again, well, we took some of those pictures (and old maps) with us. Why not? Rather than describe them, we did the sensible thing, we showed them.

By way of example, on my Hampstead Walk I show my walkers a wonderful old photograph that hasn’t been seen in a century. It shows a million Londoners gathered on Hampstead Heath on that July day in 1925. They’re gathered there to celebrate the saving of the Northern Heights. It’s a thrilling image in that main regard. But there’s a cherry on the sundae of that photograph. Unintentionally, that old, yellowing photograph is a well-nigh priceless piece of social history. In the lower right front of the photograph there are two women standing side by side. One of them is an older woman. An Edwardian woman. The giveaway is her hemline. It’s right down on the ground. Next to her, the other woman, is younger. And there’s a lot of leg showing. And what I say to my walkers is, “when you’re looking at those pretty female ankles and legs, you’re looking at World War I. There were shortages of everything. Including cloth. They needed cloth for uniforms. So hemlines start going up.”

And that leads to, well, that leads to knickers. As Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces puts it, “In the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century female dress quite simply precluded wearing knickers. A huge hooped skirt meant that drawers were impractical if you needed to use the toilet without completely undressing. So ladies went commando, and squatted over a chamber pot when required. With the slimmer, looser, less cumbersome fashions of the Jane Austen or Regency period, though, women began to adopt the male fashion for wearing protective drawers beneath their lighter, diaphanous and potentially more revealing skirts.The earliest knickers had long legs, but even so were considered terribly racy.” Anyway, there were twists and turns but frillies – sexy, feminine knickers – were on their way. But sure enough, World War II spoiled the fun. Sobriety returned. In the shape of the hated ‘black-outs’ (also known as ‘passion-killers’ or ‘boy-bafflers’). In short, though ‘short’ is emphatically not the mot juste, ‘official-issue pants in khaki, navy or black that came with the knee-length skirts of women’s military uniforms.” Lucy Worsley says, “many pairs remained unworn, and were only brought out, ironed, for kit inspection.” Well, you go, women of World War II. As I said in the last podcast, what a difference a little bit of knowledge can make. I’m thinking of the Monument to the Women of World War II, just down Whitehall from Trafalgar Square. Those 17 individual sets of clothing and uniforms hanging there are never going to look the same to me again. I’ll be wondering if there are boy bafflers underneath those uniforms or have those passion-killers been left at home. And of course the World War II term black-outs – the “hated black-outs” – has got a new connotation.

And that brings us to our Ongoing: another chapter in the Trafalgar Square story.

I’m not done with Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar – but we’re going to have a ceasefire for a few days. I’m not lightly dismissing the battle that led to British naval supremacy for a century and more – but Trafalgar Square has other, almost equally important tales to tell. Not the least of which is, Trafalgar Square is the key that unlocks London. No mean feat, that. London’s not an easy city to figure out. How do you conceptualise a city that covers over 600 square miles and whose historical depths reach down 20 centuries?

To get that first figure into perspective, Manhattan comprises all of 23 square miles. Paris is 40 square miles. Vienna is 160. Madrid is 233. Well, you get the idea.

Trying to conceptualise London, it’s like swinging a sledge hammer and trying to ring the bell in that High Striker Carnival game. Nothing quite makes it. Some people have said London’s like Budapest, two cities separated by a river. It’s true as far as it goes. That river – the River Thames – is a tremendous psychological barrier as well as a physical barrier. If you live north of the river, south London’s a foreign country. And vice versa. And there are complications within complications. You can’t trust the Thames. Time and again it’ll pull a fast one on you. When you’re standing in Victoria Tower Gardens, just beyond the Houses of Parliament, you think you’re on the north side of the Thames. But you’re not. You’re on the West side. For the most part the Thames flows west to east. Making the left bank the north side of the Thames. But there by Parliament it’s flowing due north. Next time you’re down there in the afternoon, look for the sun. The sun sets in the west. It’ll set you straight. You’re not on the north side of the Thames, you’re on the west side. It’s a great party trick to play on a Londoner. Put the question to him. “You’re in Victoria Tower Gardens by Parliament, where’s south London?” He’ll fall for it every time. “Don’t be daft, mate, it’s just over there, on the other side of the river.” “No, it’s not, that’s East London. Look, the sun’s setting just behind us. The sun sets in the west.”

Anyway, nice try but it doesn’t ring the bell.

And for a second try? Well, London’s been described as the City of 100 Villages. These days a lot of people say, ‘the city of a thousand villages.’ And that’s true, too. But it doesn’t ring the bell either. Doesn’t get the teddy bear.

My stab at it – this was the tack I always took when I taught the history of London at university – my stab at it would be: think of London as the egg with the double yolk. Or if you prefer, the double nucleus. The double nucleus of the two cities of London and Westminster. Here again, you can apply that fundamental principle – it’s a kind of gyroscope – to see London you have to hear it. Let’s hear the word Westminster. If you crack the word Westminster open you get the munster in the West. Munster’s an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning cathedral. So, West Munster Abbey – Westminster Abbey – the munster in the west to distinguish it from the original, much older St Paul’s, over to the east, in that completely different city. London. So London and Westminster – they were separate from each other. Two completely different cities. Different ages. London’s much older. 2,000 years old. Westminster’s a comparative stripling, maybe about 1400 years old. Different locations. Different histories. They were separate from one another. Linked by three roads. High Holborn, the northernmost of the three roads. The Strand and Fleet Street, the middle road. The Strand and Fleet Street, it’s basically the same thoroughfare but it has two different names. Those two names underline this very business of London and Westminster being two completely different cities. When you’re in the Strand you’re in Westminster. When the name changes – when you’re in Fleet Street – you’re in London. And then, the most important street – most important for 85 percent of London’s history – the River Thames.

Now what’s this have to do with Trafalgar Square? Let’s do some orientation. I want you to find the statue of King Charles I. It’s the equestrian statue on the traffic island at the southern end of Trafalgar Square. The statue is looking down Whitehall, looking down toward the Houses of Parliament. Behind the statue is a small plaque that marks the official centre of London. Notice the adjective. The “official” centre. The actual geographical centre of London is down in Bermondsey. That’s fun to know. And it’s just SO London. SO London because the tendency is to think of Bermondsey as the back of beyond. We do three walks there. One of them – it’s a midweek, Wednesday morning walk – is called Undiscovered London.  The other two main dishes on that SE16 Smorgasbord are the Ahoy Mayflower and the Ships of Rotherhithe Walk and the Thames Sightseeing, River Cruise, Walk – Mayflower to Brunel outing. You see, even the post code – SE16 – makes that neighbourhood feel quite a ways out. And the people who go on those walks feel like they’ve ventured forth and found a corner of London that’s back of beyond. It’s a moment of jaw-dropping revelation for them when they learn that they’re in the exact geographical centre of London. And of course it’s easy to underline same when we get to the riverside leg of those three walks – because we look back and there’s the Tower of London, just that bit upstream. London’s good at deceptions like that. I’m convinced that the Transport system is the main contributing factor to the erroneous sense that when you go to SE 16 – to Bermondsey and Rotherhithe – you’ve ventured far afield. That neighbourhood wasn’t served by the Underground for the longest time and in consequence, it wasn’t easy to access, it was out of the way. Getting to it took some getting to – even though it’s not just fairly central, it’s the exact geographical centre of London.

But let’s get back to Trafalgar Square. Back to the “official” centre of London. Answer two questions here and you’re going to understand London a lot better than you did before you got here. One of them is pretty easy to answer. Namely, why bother having and demarcating – planting a flag on – a centre of London? Eezy peezy this one. London’s a big town. It’s forty miles across. If you’re mapping from, say, Birmingham to London or Glasgow to London you have to have a commonly agreed upon central point if you’re mapping distances are going to make any sense. Without that commonly agreed upon central point your distances on the map are all over the shop. You might as well put a chimpanzee in charge of your navigational coordinates.

That in itself is reason enough for an official centre of London. But there are plenty of supplementary reasons. London Weighting, for example. This is something Londoners know about but is off the radar of visitors. They – visitors – will have noticed that London’s expensive. And the centre is more expensive than the environs. London weighting is an allowance paid to key workers who are in the heat of the cost of living battle. In other words, workers – like teachers, police, civil servants, nurses, etc. who work in the centre of London where the cost of living is that much higher. Like everything else in London, it’s variegated but for inner London a 20 percent top-up of the regular salary is the usual ball park figure for London Weighting. Outer London it’s 15 percent. Fringe London it’s five percent.

And the official centre of London is the pole star from which the London weighting allowance is assessed.

Ok, those are the practical, obvious answers to the obvious “Why have an official centre of London?” question.

The more interesting question is, why is the official centre in Trafalgar Square. Why isn’t it in Bermondsey, in the exact geographical centre?

And here’s where history comes into it? Here’s where we make the connection. And guiding this city – helping people to make sense of it – it’s all about making connections.

The all important connection here is the double nucleus of London. The egg with the double yolk. The two cities. The older city, the one to the east, where St Paul’s cathedral is, is, remember, London. The one to the west, the younger of the two of them, the one where Westminster Abbey is, is the city called Westminster. Westminster is the royal city. The royal city because it’s where the monarch was. And still is. The monarch and the court. Parliament is still officially known as the Palace of Westminster because that’s where the court was.

As for the commercial capital, the people, they were in that completely different city over to the east. In that city called London.

And what do you know, Trafalgar Square is exactly half way between the crown and the people, between the crown and the commercial capital. So it was where the two halves met. Sounded each other out. London wanted to know what was coming its way in terms of governance or taxes, Trafalgar Square – it wasn’t called Trafalgar Square then of course – was where the City fathers would go to find out which way the wind was blowing from the palace. And vice versa. The Palace wanted to get a read on what the mood of the City was, what Londoners were getting up to, they’d head on up to that crossroads there in the fields – remember the church there is called St Martin in the Fields – that halfway house between London and Westminster – where they could cross paths and rub elbows with City burghers and merchants, have an exchange of views, find out what was going down in the great shipping and mercantile capital. Get a read on London.

And that’s why, ladies and gentlemen, the official centre – the beating heart of a city who’s main stock-in-trade has always been information – and who’s modus operandi has always been getting out in front of the curve, getting information first and acting on it – that’s why the beating heart of the great world city is right there, in Trafalgar Square, practically at the foot of Nelson’s column.


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, archaeologists, historians,

university professors,

criminal defence lawyers,

Royal Shakespeare Company 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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