Trafalgar Square Unveiled

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

Story time. History time.

Streets Ahead.


New year. And something new for the London Walks podcast. Two somethings actually. Going forward most of the podcasts I do – interviews, etc. excepted – are going to have a new feature, a new element. I’m going to call it a random. Yes, that’s right, I’ve just turned an adjective into a noun. So what’s a random? It’s a soupçon, a scrap of quirky, unusual, interesting, didn’t-know-that information. Often said scrap will be London or London Walks-related. But not always. It might be just something that caught my fancy. Something out of left field. Something off the wall.

And here’s our very first, our inaugural random. It’s one of those American-British cultural comparisons. Has to do with royal protection. As opposed to presidential protection. The United States Secret Service is the federal law enforcement agency charged with protecting the president. American Secret Service officers are empowered to hurl the President to the ground should it be necessary to do so to get him or her out of harm’s way.

A fairly useful manoeuver, I think you’ll agree. But it’s not in the armoury of Royal Protection Officers. All they’re permitted to do is to advise – strongly if necessary – a change of course. Translation: “we need to get out of here, your Royal Highness.”

In which connection, I’ve pretty much decided there’s no way I’m packing in this job. I’m going to keep this as long as I can. For lots of reasons. One of them of course is that London is the very negation of monotony. Another reason – one that’s not so obvious, it’s the Cinderella of reasons why I’m a London Walks guide – is the wonderful people you get to meet. And the things you learn from them, the stories they have to tell. I’m thinking right now of a lovely young Indian couple who walked with me a few days ago. And who told me about the Queen of Vietnam. I’d never heard of her, never heard the tale. But it made my day. The Vietnamese Queen in question lived hundreds of years ago. Her Majesty inspired awe. And fear. If you made the mistake of touching her, of brushing up against her, it was off with your head. Well, unintended, meet consequences. Her Majesty was on a boat. Something went wrong. The boat sank. Her Majesty was drowning. She desperately called for help. Her calls went unheeded. Extend your hand to pull her out of the drink – touch her – no way, Jose.

Ok, that’s our random for this podcast.

And for our main fare, something else that’s new.


I thought we’d take a look at one famous London address. And riff with it.

Do a whole series of podcasts on just one address. And then move on to another address. And so on. Explore London one address at a time. To start with, Trafalgar Square. I don’t know how many episodes this will run to. We’ll have to see. But it’ll be a good few because there are rich pickings in Trafalgar Square. A lot of stories to tell. You stop by and drink at this well for a few times, well, London’s most famous square will never look the same. So let’s roll this one out and see where it goes.

And for the record, I’ve picked it because Trafalgar Square is where both of our Christmas Day London Walks get underway. The one I do – do with six other guides – is the afternoon walk. The Charles Dickens Christmas Day London Walk. And the switch I throw to get lift-off on that walk is a brief observation that Charles Dickens once made in a piece in All the Year Round, the weekly periodical he launched in 1859. And edited until the day he died in 1870.

Anyway, Dickens’s pitch-perfect observation was, “What inexhaustible food for speculation the streets of London afford.”

Personal note here, those ten words have been the pole star of my life. For half a century now I’ve set my course by them. Their my version – well, Dickens’s version – of my fellow guide Ronnie’s dictum: “London is the best place in the universe.”

Dickens’s phrase is, well, it’s my Excelsior. Remember Longfellow’s immortal line: A youth, who bore, ‘mid snow and ice, A banner with the strange device,. Excelsior!  The strange device on the banner this youth bares is “What inexhaustible food for speculation the streets of London afford.”

Never were truer words spoken.

And let’s seriously mix our metaphors here.

That little ten-word sentence is a much-loved, trusty steed. It’ll carry you here and there, never let you down.

And you shouldn’t gloss over it. Shouldn’t be casual about it. You take a close look at it, you’re going to be rewarded. “What inexhaustible food for speculation the streets of London afford.” I said it’s a trusty steed. But now watch it come over all Ovid – Ovid the Latin poet of the great narrative poem Metamorphoses. Come over all Ovid because that trusty steed is also a handsome piece of wood – every word contributing to its grain, shape and colour. And the knot in the wood – the bit you can’t stop looking at – is the word speculation. Let’s zoom in, take a closer look at the knot. Let’s savour it. Almost goes without saying that the word speculation is cognate with the word inspect. They’re cousins, those two words. Trace their lineage back you get the proto-Indo European root spek, meaning to observe. From that tap root the word builds up almost like a coral reef. In the late 14th century the linguistic ancestor speculacioun pitches up. It means ‘intelligent contemplation, close observation, rapt attention, a spying out. From the word speculation you get what etymologists call a back formation. You get the word speculate. And an early meaning of the word speculate is “to pursue truth by conjecture or thinking.” And in Shakespeare’s day it also carried the meaning, “to view as from a watchtower.”

London’s full of watchtowers. All of those viewing platforms up near the top of the London rainforest of tall buildings. We love going up to those observation decks because of the views they afford us. Those views – the London they make it possible for us to see – are food for speculation.

Well, the stuff a guide knows – and imparts – can be a watchtower. Makes you see London differently. So that’s the build-up. It’s time to eat. Time to feast. Remember, the streets of London aren’t just a matter of speculation. They’re food for speculation. Inexhaustible food for speculation.

And our first Trafalgar Square dish – there are going to be a lot of courses to this feast – our first Trafalgar Square dish is the Trafalgar Square that never was. Or I should say, the Trafalgar Squares that never were. The Trafalgar Square that is, is the Trafalgar Square with Nelson’s column. The latter-day London Maypole. The great phallic symbol. It won through. Saw off the contenders. But the time has come for us to replay that beauty pageant. Here they are, the finalists in the Miss Trafalgar Square Contest. Though given how masculine the entrants are, I think you have to say this beauty pageant

is the Miss Trafalgar Square in Drag Contest. But anyway, you be the judge. Here they are. Cast your eyes over them. Mark your scorecard. What do you think? Would you rather one of them had taken the honours and was forever preening itself in Trafalgar Square instead of Nelson’s column? I think you’ll agree London wouldn’t look the same.

But that’s enough drumroll. Here’s the first entrant.

Picture it – Trafalgar Square with a twice life-size model of Nelson’s flagship the Victory with every member of the ship’s company in exactly the position he was in when the French sniper’s musket ball scythed down the Admiral, rendered him an instant quadriplegic. And it’d be built to last, the Trafalgar Square HMS Victory. It’d be made out of stone. And the crew members cast in bronze! My first reaction, well, that would be endlessly fascinating. And endlessly gory. A goodly number of Nelson’s crew were already dead or mutilated by then. So you need a strong stomach. Because the decks would be awash with blood. And strewn about with bronze corpses and body parts.

But it’s time to tear away your horrified gaze.

Here comes the second entrant. What do we have here? Ladies and gentlemen give a warm welcome to an exact replica of the Parthenon. No need to go to Athens when you’ve got the Parthenon right here smack dab in the centre of London. And the Trafalgar Square Parthenon comes with a little something extra. Yes, up there, can you see him? That’s Nelson up there, riding high, up on the very top of the Parthenon.

It’s like a dreamscape, this Trafalgar Square. Because look what’s wheeling into view.

It’s our third entrant. A Gothic Cathedral. And sure enough, there he is again. Nelson. Up on top.

And our fourth finalist is – wait for it – a stone globe. A model of the world. And where’s Britain? Do you have to ask? There it is, right at the top, ruling the roost. But of course. How could it be otherwise. And up there, bestriding the world like a colossus, right where London is, there he is – you guessed it – the Admiral himself. Lord Nelson. He could be surfing along on a beach ball.

There’s more. The Trafalgar Square that never was is the greatest show on earth.

Planning a trip to Egypt? To see the Great Pyramid? No need to go all that way. Save yourself a lot of trouble. Just come to London.  To Trafalgar Square. Because sure enough, there’s the Great Pyramid. Filling the square. Same height as the top of St Paul’s Cathedral. Take survey of the actualite of Trafalgar Square. The Trafalgar Square we’ve got. Nelson on his column. The pyramid would have been twice as high as Nelson’s column. Twenty-two layers to the top. Why 22? Because the Napoleonic Wars lasted 22 years and the pyramid is a memorial to the dead of those wars.

And one more. One for the road. Howzabout a replica of the Colosseum. Yes, that’s right. Welcome to Rome. Welcome to one of the wonders of the world. Welcome to the largest ancient amphitheatre ever built. Still the largest standing amphitheatre in the world. Welcome to gladitorial contests and public spectacles and animal hunts and mock sea battles. Well, evocations, thoughts of those things. Actually what they were going to do was make it a Colosseum of the Arts. The London Centre for artists and sculptors and architects and scientists and surgeons and all the learned societies. It would usher in, so the argument ran, a new Golden Age of educational progress and advancement in every field of human endeavour.

The Parthenon, the Colosseum, the Great Pyramid, the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome, the enchantment that Egypt. And that’s before that twice-life-size HMS Victory, cannons ablazing, draws alongside.

Bears repeating: Trafalgar Square, the greatest show on earth.

And that’s just our first look. I said this was something new for the new year. I introduced the word random.

We’re going to close out with another word: whorl. Whorl means a pattern of spirals. So we’re starting with the centre of London. Trafalgar Square. And we’re going to whorl in Trafalgar Square. Do more on the Square. And then whorl on out from there. See where this takes us. What inexhaustible food for speculation the streets of London afford.


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 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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