What makes a great walking tour – the Kensington Walk

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

This is London Walks.

Streets ahead.

Story time. History time.


Good morning, London. It’s April 27th, 2024. Today’s pin – what is it about that curious institution – a crowned head. The monarchy. We’ll be looking at a palace on a walk I’m doing this afternoon. Kensington. And I’ll introduce it – Kensington Palace – by saying, I’m a Yank and believe me, this institution, monarchy, doesn’t come naturally to me. I find it perplexing, a little bit bizarre, I’m at sea with it. But I’m also a London Walks guide. And there’s no question but this institution is of huge importance in this country. And not just historically important. It’s a very big deal today. And today’s newspapers are a perfect illustration of that. It’s front page news that the King, as the Independent puts it, has been given the green light by his doctors to go back to work. “Work” being snipping ribbons and opening hospitals and meeting strangers and just generally being regal.  It’s the front page on every single newspaper this morning, the Financial Times excepted. On a lot of the papers it takes up the whole of the front page. And where does that leave me as a Yank? A Yank who’s the doyen of London walking tour guides. Where it leaves me is I have to try to get up to speed with this institution that doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to – and I do – read widely about the monarchy and the royal family generally, past and present. I do my best to get au fait with it. And some of the most revealing stuff – the best bits – find their way into my walks. And look, if I were backed into a corner about the matter, I would readily admit that I’d much rather have the late Queen Elizabeth II as the Head of State than, say, Dubya (George Bush the younger) or Donald Trump. Where I’m coming from, that one’s a no-brainer.


Moving on, today’s Random. And you have to admit, this follows readily from what I’ve just set out – it turns out that King Charles III – this was also the case when he was the Prince of Wales – has his shoelaces ironed every day. A nugget of information like that, that’s what makes all that reading about them worthwhile. What gets it sharply into perspective of course – we should never forget this – what gets it into perspective is the thought that in every case, these are ordinary people leading extraordinary lives. They’re no different from us, folks. It’s just that they have their shoelaces ironed every day. Ever since I read that I’ve been sorely tempted to ask Mary if she would iron my shoelaces but something tells me, “no, whatever you do, don’t go there, David. That’s not a good idea. You’ll be sorry.” Watch this space. If the urge overwhelms the little voice warning me against said course of action and I take the plunge I’ll get back to you with the outcome.


And that brings us to today’s Ongoing. To borrow a phrase, some walks do have ‘em. Or do have it. “It” being the qualities – the pedigree, the component elements – that make the walk a thoroughbred. An out-and-out winner.

Kensington is one of those walks. I always send what I call an advancer email to my Kensington walkers. Gives them a couple of recommendations if they get there early. And gives them a foretaste of the walk.

Here’s how I start that advancer email. I’m offering this up because it’s a guide’s eye view of this activity, this craft. Just as you, the walker, are taking stock: evaluating, appraising any given walking tour, we, the guides, are doing that as well. We have our favourites. We like some walks more than others. And in many cases, that’s not just an instinctive reaction, it’s been thought through. What is it about this walk that sets it apart, makes it so special? And I thought it might be useful for you to see the thing from the guide’s point of view, what it is that we rate in a walking tour.

Here’s what I say.

I’m hardly a disinterested party but you’ve made a good choice. My two key criteria for a great walk are density of excellence and are there goodly stretches of the walk that go where cars can’t go? Kensington romps home – gets an A grade – on both counts. The place is endlessly fascinating – chockful of interest and beauty. You’ll see lots and learn lots that you wouldn’t be able to “access” or “get across” off your own bat. By 4.15 pm you’ll know Kensington and its rich history far better than people who’ve lived there all their lives. The walk builds your ‘grasp’ of Kensington piece by piece. Piece by piece because I’ve broken the village down into four ‘sub-villages’, three of them effectively ‘hidden,’ each of them with its own distinctive flavour and characterVisiting them in turn, we effectively hopscotch through centuries of bygone Kensington.

And we’ll also tackle the High Street, which is bewitching if you know where to look and what to look for. Basically we’ll prise out the ‘meaning. A bit of help from me and recourse to some antique maps and a rare, very old photograph and Voilà We Have Meaning! Oh and I bring along multiple copies of the maps and old photograph so you’ll be able to examine them closely.”

Here endeth that bit of the advancer.

The takeaways are of course: density of excellence and car-free stretches. I note in passing that “car-free” is akin both in sound and sense to the word “carefree.”

“Density of excellence” is a matter that can be adumbrated – there, always wanted to use that word – in relation not just to the Kensington walk but every walk. And one day I’ll do that here. But as it’s Saturday morning and I’ve got to saddle up and head off to Kensington pretty soon, I’ll just say here that we’re going to be spending those two hours this afternoon almost entirely in some of the best bits of the past. We’ll thread our way through groves of the 17th century, the 18th century and the 19th century. And in places there’s trace evidence that catapults us much further back, way way back – catapults us back 1,000 years, to Anglo-Saxon Kensington. And it’s not just shards and pieces and bits and bobs, there are instances where a whole terrace is a masterpiece – I call it the final flowering of the Restoration idiom (Restoration idiom being the domestic housing that is the fundamental building block of London). We look at the particulars that make it a masterpiece and then we turn a corner and voila we’re seeing something starkly different.

And it’s fun – and telling, revealing – to compare those two types of domestic housing, note the differences.

And hey, when the 20th century does peer round the corner and say “here I am, don’t forget me” – it too is worth looking at, assessing. Pinpointing, discerning the architectural particulars that lead on to what I call the “meaning” of the two twentieth-century buildings in question.

You’ve been listening to This… is London, the London Walks 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 £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, a former Museum of London archaeologist, historians,

university professors (one of them a distinguished Cambridge University paleontologist); it includes

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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