Washington DC burns down, Londoners read about a mermaid

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with today’s London fix.

Story time. History time.

It’s August 24th, 1814. The big ticket item is of course what’s going on in Washington DC. The British army has captured the city. And they’re putting it to the torch. Burning a lot of the buildings down, including the White House. That’s the one that’ll go into the history books for August 24th, 1814. It’s like a trophy that goes into the On This Day in History Hall of Fame. Or Hall of Infamy if you prefer.

Does it still happen, that old wedding tradition of tying tin cans and old shoes to the back of the car the bride and groom drive off in en route to their honeymoon? A tradition that proclaimed Just Married as loudly and ostentatiously as the flinging of confetti on the couple when they came out of the church.

Well, the grafting is a bit bizarre – the getting up of a historical Frankenstein of sorts – but I’d like to tie a couple of historical tin cans and old shoes to that main historical event for August 24th, 1814. Namely what was going on in London when the British were burning down the White House.

Not much of any note, as it happens. More a case of what Londoners were reading about that day rather than very much that was going on in London that was out of the ordinary. Newsworthy. August 24th, 1814 was a quiet news day in London history. There was of course the inevitable reports on the goings-on of members of the royal family. We learn – as Londoners did – that the Princesses Sophia and Augusta had gone for an airing, gone for a ride at Windsor Great Park.

Mainly, though, how Londoners must have goggled at a couple of watery stories that were splashed all over their morning papers.

One of them was a tale out of Scotland. A tale that if anything trumped the Scottish one that’s become a fixture, the Loch Ness. The tale Londoners were reading out on August 24th, 1814 was an account of several sightings of a mermaid.

Extraordinary to think, isn’t it, that that’s what they were reading about in London when, 3662 miles away, the White House was being burned to the ground. That news – out of DC – wouldn’t reach these shores for weeks to come. Today, needless to say, we’d be across it, be following it in real-time. We’d be watching it happen as it happened.

But let’s let DC burn, let’s go a mermaid-ing. Rafted there by the London Courier and Evening Gazette.

Citing a letter they’d received from Ardsheal in Argylleshire, the Courier and Gazette set out the tale as follows: Our curiosity has been greatly excited by the appearances of a Mermaid on this coast. I dare say you will give an incredulous smile, but really we have had such distinct accounts of it from different people, that we can have no doubt of the fact, though we are all very anxious, you may be sure, to have ocular demonstration. The last time she was seen is nearly a fortnight ago; since that the weather has been very stormy. When it settles we may have a chance of seeing, or at least having more accounts of this strange animal, which I hope has not left our shores. She was first seen, very early one morning by a lad lying on the shore at Ardsheal. He was at a considerable distance, and thought it was some person hiding himself in the seaweed, with an intention of frightening him, but on coming nearer he saw that though the upper part was like a human being, the lower part was like an immense fish. He was so frightened that he ran off: and when he mentioned what he had seen, people only laughed at him and thought no more about it.

Near a month afterwards, some children were gathering blackberries, on the top of a rock, immediately above the sea, about a mile further down than Ardsheal. They thought that they saw a woman drowning and trying to get on the rock; some of them ran home to tell, and the rest stayed to see what would become of the woman, as they thought.

But on looking more attentively, they discovered that it was not a human being: they gave a very distinct account of what they saw. The upper part was exactly like a woman, the skin appeared very white and a good deal of colour in the cheeks, and very long darkish looking hair.

The arms were well proportioned above but tapered very much toward the hands, which were no larger than a child’s of eight or ten years old. The tail was like an immense large cuddy fish in colour and shape. By the time the people of the farm came, it was about a gunshot from the shore, sitting quite upright on the water. One of the men proposed to shoot her but the rest opposed this, so he did not do it.

He whistled, on which she turned round but did not go away. She remained in sight above two hours, at times making a hissing noise like a goose. When she disappeared she laid herself very gently down on the water.

She was seen a little distance from shore twice after this, always early in the morning, and when the sea was calm.”

So, a Scottish mermaid. What’s not to like.

Beats reading an account of fighting men doing barbaric things in Washington DC.

Well, Londoners reading about – and being agog about mermaids at exactly the moment their countrymen are burning down the Whitehouse isn’t the last scene of all that ends this strange, eventful day in history.

I’ve got a couple more up my sleeve for August 24th, 1814. But they’re going to have to wait. I’ve got a walking tour hoving into view. I’m guiding Old Westminster this afternoon.  So let’s get the mermaids voiced and I’ll do a follow-up in due course about a certain Thames episode that day – remember I spoke of watery episodes plural – more than appropriate that because the White House was badly in need of water, lots of it, on this day in history. And I’ve got a tale I want to tell about a Londoner, an old man, who made his living by picking up bones off Tottenham Court Road.

Watch this space. Stand by.

You’ve been listening to the London Calling podcast. Emanating from www.walks.com – 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 peanuts – for McDonald’s wages. 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 distinguished


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

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.

The London Walks All-Star team of

guides includes a former London

Mayor, it includes barristers (one of

them an MBE); it includes doctors,

geologists, museum curators,

archaeologists, historians, criminal

defence lawyers, university professors,

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 Londoning one and all. See ya next time.

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