Subtitle: Two very old photographs and an ancient place name – David gets back.
A rumination about how London changes. And how our understanding and appreciation of it changes. Narrowing the focus, it’s about Kensington. And zeroing in even closer, it’s about the place name Kensington. David’s the narrator (and guide and author). His Sights & Secrets of Kensington Virtual Tour is the jumping-off point.
Funny the memories we retain, the stuff that sticks around in our mind. Sometimes for a very long time.
Some of them, it’s easy to understand why they’re, in the attic of our mind. Others – no accounting for.
I think of that very expensive education I had – all those hours in university lecture halls and classrooms. Being, well, lectured at. Dutifully “taking notes.” Plowing through the reading. Writing the papers. Cramming for the exams. And how much of what was being shovelled in actually stayed in? Very little, if truth be told. Pretty much in one ear and out the other, but I think I enjoyed it while it was going through.
Anyway, yes, this is leading up to a London Walks matter. For some reason I was thinking about a Philosophy course I took as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. Remember the professor. Ivan Soll. He was out of Princeton, as they say. Had done his doctorate there under the tutelage of Walter Kaufman, who was quite a big deal, I believe, in American academic philosophy circles back then. I remember Professor Soll saying to us on Day One, “Please forgive me if I accidentally slip into German – I’ve been in Germany all summer.” My God, were we – a bunch of, for the most part, wide-eyed innocents from deep in the heart of the American Midwest. In due course I got a little older, a little savvier, perhaps a little bit more sophisticated myself and then I’d got it, he’d put a move on us. And it had worked. Anyway, no harm done.
But thinking about Professor Soll’s course – this over half a century ago now – I’ve realised his throwing us that Googly – that’s a cricket term, my fellow Yanks, that’s my own version of I might accidentally break into German – anyway, I’ve realised Ivan Soll’s springing his Ich bein Berliner number on us is one of only three things he said that semester that’s still with me. Happily the other two are, yes, philosophy points. I remember him saying, it was an important moment in the history of western philosophy when some Greek philosopher (was it Heraclitus?) said, “you can’t step in the same river twice.” Reason being “universal flux” – must be careful about that pronunciation – everything’s always changing. The river you step in today isn’t the same river you stepped in yesterday,
And then Professor Soll wowed us by telling us a few centuries later another Greek philosopher had a light bulb moment, he realised “you can’t step in the same river once.” Because – it’s obvious isn’t it – love it that it took a few centuries for the idea to gell – can’t step in the same river once because even in the act of stepping in it it’s changing. The river you submerge your ankle in is not the same river your toe entered a half-second before.
Well, that was fun. Glad I remembered that. And I think about it in relation to what I do now and have been doing for the last four decades. London Walks.
The simple fact of the matter is a walking tour is like a river. It’s in a sense a living, organic thing. It’s changing all the time. Unless it’s paint-by-numbers guiding. Which we don’t do. To use a ‘big’ word I’ve got a weakness for – we eschew that sort of guiding. We’re not 20-year-old college students who are given a script and a route and told to “get memorising.”
So, thinking of my Kensington Walk. Which now has an altar ego, so to speak – my Kensington Virtual Tour – anyway, thinking of my Kensington walk, even I am impressed at how much it’s changed over the years. London Walks had a Kensington walk when I joined, as a guide, in 1980. It was guided by Tony. Friendly Australian. Civil servant. Nice guy. I went along on his walk and, yes, pretty much learned the ropes from him. Truth be told, I didn’t rate it very much. But then I don’t think Tony really had his heart in it – of all of us, he was, by a fairly good margin, the least committed guide. Didn’t stick around too long.
So, anyway, yes, I had the bare bones of a Kensington walk, from him, from Tony. And then it just took off. Not dramatically so. It wasn’t an overnight conversion. It almost crept up on me. I just kept finding out more and more about Kensington. And the more I found out the greater its hold on me. My interest in the place just went right on ripening. And of course I started experimenting with the route. Modifying it. Changing it. The which is absolutely par for the course. Walks are living things. They talk about sculptors finding the sculpture, the figure, the form in the block of stone. Or pianists exploring a score. That passage, what if I play it this way? Isolate this note ever so slightly. Well, it’s the same thing with a walking tour. And with a walking tour guide. You can’t step in the same river twice, you can’t – or you don’t – do the same walking tour twice. Huge advantages to that of course. For you, the guide, it keeps the flame of your interest alive, keeps it burning. Keeps you engaged. Keeps it fresh for you. And that’s all to the good for your walkers. Getting stale, losing interest in what you’re doing, in the material – just phoning it in as the saying goes – that’s the kiss of death. You shouldn’t be doing. It’s not good for the walk. Not good for your walkers. Not good for you.
And that brings me to the home stretch – and two specific points – about that Kensington Walk. Both points are – here we go again – universal flux points. Foot in the rivers points. Yes, rivers plural. There’s no such thing as the same river. No such thing as the same Kensington.
Universal flux in Kensington slapped me up the side of the head earlier this year when I had the good fortune to find two very old photographs of the same stretch of High Street Kensington. I show them, in succession, on the Kensington virtual tour. They are jaw-dropping artefacts. Especially in juxtaposition. The older photograph was taken in 1865. The second one was taken in 1897. Let that sink in. They’re just 32 years apart. In the scheme of things that’s not a particularly big span of time. But OMG – oh my god – they’re barely recognisable as the same scene. The only thing that gives the game away is the curvature of the street. Everything else about them is different. We compare and contrast them. Go through them point by point. It’s a good exercise. It’s a revelation. It’s like watching a time-lapse film of, say, a foetus developing from a sperm cell and an egg to a baby. A major major eye-opener. How could High Street Kensington have changed so much in just over 30 years. And why? What were the drivers behind that? Well, suddenly the lights go up, the understanding comes flooding in. All down to the differences in those two pictures.
The other point has to do with the name Kensington. Now I’ve already done a podcast about this. When I was working the Kensington walk up into a virtual tour I was digging around in Kensington’s early history. And it’s common knowledge that the name Kensington is very old and several derivations have been advanced. But anyway, I came across one that was new to me. And it was love at first sight. It was just so perfect. Not least because of the “fit” with what I was saying about Kensington Palace. So that “new to me” derivation of the name Kensington was the one that found its way into my Virtual Tour. With the rider attached that nothing’s definite – everything about that name is an educated guess.
Anyway, I eventually got around to looking back at where I was with that name 15 years ago, when we wrote the London Walks book. Kensington was one of the five chapters I did in the book. And of course I well knew that back in 2006 I did not know about my 2020 discovery that Kensington very well could have as its root two old old Anglo Saxon roots meaning, when put together, “royal victory”. I wanted to see what I was saying about the name in 2006. The whole shebang another reminder that walks change, our appreciation and understanding and view of any given London neighbourhood is not set in cement.
So I dug out the book. Reread the chapter. And was very pleasantly surprised. Surprised first of all because it’s – in my opinion, and of course yes, I’m biased, I’m an interested party – anyway, pleasantly surprised because, yes, it’s stood up. Most guidebooks have a shelf-life of a year or so. This one’s 15 years old now and it’s still a good read.
The fruit, that, of its conception, its underlying framework. We wanted it to be a good “read” first and foremost – rather than a bog-standard guidebook.
And I was also pleased – and, truth be told, relieved – that it’s still doing us proud because I had our designer produce a handsome PDF of the Kensington chapter of the book and I send it out to my virtual walkers at walk’s end. A little prezzie, a forget us not, if you will, a token of our appreciation that they’ve gone on a London Walks virtual tour, that they’ve had our back during this desperately tough time for a walking tour company.
And I was also bemused to discover that back in 2006 I’d put the derivation of the name at the end of the chapter. Something counter-intuitive about that. You’d think the name would be what you’d lead with, the opener, the first move on the chessboard. But in the event it wasn’t. It was how I closed out the chapter. How I brought it in for a landing.
And I think it works. It’s only four short paragraphs. So I’m going to read it to you to close out this podcast. Anyone who’s listening and who one day perhaps goes on the virtual tour of Kensington, well, you’ll have two chocolates in the box to choose from as regards that magical London name, Kensington. Magical because of its evocative powers. As I’m confident this passage from the book demonstrates. This the very end of the Kensington chapter. Here goes…
[And then at this point – to wrap up this podcast – I read those four short paragraphs that close out the Kensington chapter of our book London Walks, London Stories]