Trafalgar Square Redux 7 – the National Gallery’s Foul Air Vents

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

Story time. History time.

Yes, London Walks.

AKA Streets Ahead.

It’s Sunday morning, January 28th, 2024.

Today’s Pin – the news story – yes, it’s another helping of barmy Britain. A dwarf hamster named Hammington – that’s Hammy for short – having gone to Hamster Himmel, has not gone after all. Hammy’s owner found solace for her heartbreak by having a local taxidermist turn the little fellow into a pole-dancing stripper. Hammy is wearing a bright pink thong that’s stuffed with dollar bills and yes he’s clinging to a stripper pole. Hammy’s owner has positioned him on her bedside table, so a hamster wearing a pink g-string and doing his bump and grind while holding onto a stripper pole is the last thing the young lady sees before she drifts off. It’s sweet dreams and that pink G-string strung Hamster stripper is the first thing she sees in the morning. Gets my vote.

And today’s Random… the great London historian Peter Ackroyd – though biographer is probably the better word – says ‘without the poor there would be no rich.’ Poor in London was certainly no picnic. Recruitment drives for the Boer War in 1899 found that almost four in every five working-class Londoners were unfit for army service. The American writer Jack London could hardly believe his eyes. He said, “the air the Londoner breathes, and from which he never escapes, is sufficient to weaken him mentally and physically, so that he becomes unable to compete with the fresh virile life from the country hastening on to London Town. It is incontrovertible that the children grow up into rotten adults, without virility or stamina, a weak-kneed, narrow-chested, listless breed, that crumples up and goes down in the brute struggle for life with the invading hordes from the country.” Jack London wrote that in 1902. That’s just a little over a decade after Jack the Ripper came out of the midnight shadows of 1888. In other words, those are the Londoners Jack the Ripper was moving amongst. And preying on.

Ok, that’s today’s Random. Here’s our Ongoing. It’s Trafalgar Square Redux 7. We’re going to take a look at the roof of the National Gallery. Those two curious upthrusting excrescences that you can see up on the roof of the Gallery. Toward either end. They’re not chimneys. And they’re certainly odd. Dickens described them as pepper pots without pepper.

Wait for it: they’re foul air vents. Well, foul air vents after a fashion. William Wilkie, the architect of the National Gallery, was given a set of objectives, a set of requirements, he had to fulfill in the design of the building. One of those requirements was that the appearance of the roof had to echo the roofline of the building that had stood there previously. Which was the Royal Mews. Ok, here we go – to see London you have to hear it. That word mews. Every Briton knows what a mews is, most foreigners don’t. It’s a stables. London has over 250 mews. With only two exceptions – one being the royal mews – they’ve all been converted to upper-middle-class housing. So, yes, there are thousands of well-heeled Londoners living in stables. Well, converted stables. And they’re delightful, absolutely full of charm.

But let’s drill down deeper. The natives know what a mews is. What they don’t know is the origin of the word. For that, we time travel. We go back 500 years. The time of Henry VIII. There was a royal stables in what today we call St John’s Wood. It caught fire, burned down. But they were able to get the horses out. Didn’t know what to do with them. Somebody had a bright idea. Mr Bright Idea said, “why don’t we put them in the mews.” The mews was a large building and grounds complex that stood on the north side of what is today Trafalgar Square. It obviously wasn’t Trafalgar Square then, the Battle of Trafalgar was still centuries in the future. It was called a mews because it was where the royal birds, the falcons, were kept. And the falcon, when it’s moulting or shedding its feathers, makes a kind of mewing sound. Meiou, meiou, meiou.

Well, suddenly, you had horses in a place called a mews and by one of those curious processes of linguistic osmosis, a mews came to be known as a place where horses were kept. A stables in other words.

Now as to those curious structures on the roof of the National Gallery, they’re echoes of the foul air vents that were at either end of the roof of the mews. The bird manure – initially, and subsequently, the horse manure – would be shoveled into a cart, taken to either end of the mews, dumped, allowed to dry out, and then they’d set fire to it. The smoke and the smell of animal excrement would go up and out those foul air vents.

So, there, I’ve really done it for you now. You’ll never again be able to go into the National Gallery and look at a Reubens without thinking of bird shit.

There’s more to be done with those foul air vents. There’s another Trafalgar Square Redux up ahead that will shed some more light on the matter. Watch this space.

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 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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