London Walks connecting.
London Walks here with today’s London fix.
Story time. History time.
A potpourri, a mixed bag today. Little bit of history, little bit of London Walks news, and a little bit of taking stock.
It’s Monday, July 10th. The start of the second week of Wimbledon. I can shorthand it, can’t I. We all do.
Say Wimbledon and everybody knows you’re talking about the oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. The kingpin of the four Grand Slam tournaments.
Now history-wise, yesterday – July 9th – would have been the day to run a piece on the history of Wimbledon. Because it was on July 9th, 1877 that Wimbledon’s All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club raised the curtain on the first Lawn Tennis championship. The game was brand spanking new. The game had been invented – and patented – just a few years previously. Lo, let there be lawn tennis, said Major Walter Wingfield. the visionary who invented the game. The Major wanted to create an outdoor version of Real Tennis. He stirred in some elements of Rackets, including the scoring. He added the net from badminton. And the ball from fives. And he went classical Greek for the name. He called it: sphairistike. The Greek name for gymnastic ball games. That name didn’t stick. Well, it was known for a while, to its detractors, as “sticky.” Anyway, it was probably just as well that the Major’s friends persuaded him to give it an alias, to add the words Lawn Tennis to its name.
And so the stage was set for Wimbledon’s Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club to get in on the act. Which it did on July 9th, 1877. The first day of the first Lawn Tennis Championship.
So am I a day late with this podcast? I don’t think so. I wanted to find out how London reacted to this new phenomenon. So I went to the newspapers the next day, today, July 10th – I wanted to see how they reported it.
There wasn’t much to it, if we’re honest. The coverage was matter of fact. And brief. A minor item – just one paragraph – on page 10 in the case of The Times.
Similar coverage followed the rest of the week. But incredibly, the Times couldn’t see its way to giving some coverage to the outcome of the tournament.
For those of you who don’t know, that first Men’s Singles title was claimed by one Spencer Gore. He was better known as a cricketer. Played cricket for Harrow School. The following year, 1878, Spencer Gore unsuccessfully defended his title in the second Wimbledon championship final. And that’s his exodus from Wimbledon. His story ends badly. He and his wife had four children, one of the sons became a highly respected artist. Spencer Gore’s business failed. He deserted his family in 1906. Died two years later. His artist son, also named Spencer, was the only member of the family who maintained contact with the disgraced former and first Wimbledon champion. I suppose you could say that Boris Becker is the modern-day Spencer Gore.
Ok, that’s our Wimbledon news. Let’s move on to some London Walks news.
Guide Ian – the much acclaimed great Ian, the retired former senior partner of a prestigious City of London International law firm – Ian who donates all of his guiding fees to two charities – has created a hybrid Jewish London Walk. He’s created it to welcome the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies conference. The conference will take place in early August.
The walk is titled London’s Three Historic Jewish Quarters.
In Ian’s words, the walk Combines highlights of our “Old Jewish Quarter” and “Jewish London” walks and is for those who want to unlock the full thousand-year history of London’s Jewish Communities from the medieval to the twentieth century in 2 hours.
It’ll only run twice – so grab it while you can. It’ll take place at 10.45 am on August 2nd. And at 2.15 pm on August 4th. The meeting point is just outside the exit of Tower Hill Underground Station.
And finally, some stock-taking. The doyen of London walking tour guides – that word ‘doyen’ incidentally is cognate with the word dean and the biblical word tithe and the words decathlon and decade etc. It’s so old. It’s root is proto-IndoEuropean. It originally meant, a commander of ten. Anyway, the doyen of London Walking tour guides – I’ve been doing this for over 40 years – I quite often look back, take survey. Dear me. How it’s changed. When we – London Walks got started – back in 1968 – we were the only walking tour company in London. Indeed, the only urban walking tour company in the world. And then some competition did finally pitch up. They weren’t hard to see off. One of them was called Suburban Tours – surely the world’s worst name for a London Walking Tour company. The other was called Exciting Walks with Bertha. Which, as we joked, promised more than it delivered. But of course in due course that competitive market which had been a paddling pool turned into a shark tank. And that’s where we are now. We’ve responded in various ways. One of them I’m going to give you now. In the old days we just turned up and did our walk. Two hours with our walkers, love ‘em and leave ‘em, that was the be-all and end-all of a London Walk. Today, we have to do better than that. Do more than that. We’ve realised that in our shark tank of a competitive market we’ve got to disabuse people of the lazy and wildly inaccurate idea that a walking tour is a walking tour. That all walking tour companies are equal.
They’re not. They’re like London hotels. London hotels range from the Savoy and Claridges and Browns to fleabags in Earls Court. Same goes for London walking tour companies.
Given what our competitive environment has become – a shark tank – we now have to get it about that it’s just not true that a walking tour is a walking tour is a walking tour. Just not true that all walking tour companies are created equal. Like London hotels, they range from the top end – from the Savoy and Claridges – to fleabags in Earl’s Court.
Not to put too fine a point on it, for London Walks to survive in this competitive environment, we’ve got to get recognisable separation from our competitors. In the 21st century we’ve got competitors who aren’t patsies, they’re not Suburban Tours. Certainly not in the matter of marketing their wares. They don’t have guides the calibre of London Walks guides but they’ve got internet marketing savvy. So our job, really, is to get it across to people that London Walks is the walking tour equivalent of the Savoy or Claridges or Browns – the walking tour equivalent of the great London hotels. What separates those great hotels from every other London hotel is the five-star service they provide. There is, it goes without saying, a world of difference between the Savoy and a fleabag in Earl’s Court. So how do you get it across that going with London Walks is the walking tour equivalent of staying in the Savoy? The Savoy pulls out all the stops to look after its guests.
We’re starting to emulate that. With London Walks the guiding has always been top drawer – it couldn’t be otherwise given the muzzle-loading velocity of the distinguished professionals London Walks fronts its walks with. But the guiding’s not the whole story. There’s also the fixture and fittings – the accompaniment to the guiding. Our having a booking scheme – one consequence of the pandemic, we never had a booking scheme before – our having a booking scheme has made it possible for us to look after our walkers in ways that were undreamt of just a few years ago. By way of example – not all of the guides, but a lot of them, are now going the extra mile for their customers by sending them advancer emails – and sometimes follow-up emails – that perform a good service for, provide some extras for their walkers.
I thought I’d give you an idea of the kind of supplementary fare that quite a few London Walks guides are now regularly serving up for their walkers.
Here’s the Advancer email I send to my Hampstead Walkers on Saturday night, 15 hours or so before my Sunday morning Hampstead Walk.
Good evening Bennett (Bennett was on my Hampstead Walk yesterday morning, I’m sure he won’t mind standing up and being counted on this podcast)
Looking forward to seeing you on my (David’s) Hampstead Walk tomorrow morning.
Particulars: 10.30 am, Sunday, July 9th, Hampstead Underground Station.*
I’m easy to spot. I’m no petit four. Look for a big guy wearing red shoes, blue shirt, and topped to the north with a white Panama.
Thought I’d send along a couple of pre-walk tips and recommendations, any of which will stand you in good stead if you get there a bit early for the walk. And my contact details in case of any problems. And indeed the first part of the route if you do have to play catch-up. For the record, I usually allow about a five-minute period of grace – i.e., we won’t push off from the meeting point outside Hampstead Tube until about 10.35 am.
Recommendations if you get there early: 1. When in Hampstead do as guide David does. I always get there about 45 minutes before the walk starts. Why? Because St John’s, the parish church, is the most beautiful church interior in London. I put in there half an hour or so before the walk starts. To catch the choir rehearsal in that gem-like setting. I always sit in the very last pew. Just inside the door. And take it all in. That stunning interior. Those beautiful soaring voices. If you want to, come up a bit early and join me. I’m effectively a congregation of one at that time. Oh and there’s another amenity. The loo.
That said, sometimes of a Sunday morning I vary things a bit. The churchyard is the oldest surviving unspoilt churchyard in the London area. So when the weather’s exquisitely perfect I’ve been known to sit on one of the benches out in the churchyard. The choir rehearsal is still within earshot. But you can also hear the birds. And watch the squirrels playing. Occasionally I even catch a glimpse of the fox. Nature, squirrels, birds, God, choral music, a fox, how do you go wrong with that hand? And that’s my half hour or so before the start of the walk. That’s how I get in the mood. Get everything aligned. St John’s is at the western end of Church Row. It’s a two-minute walk from the Tube station. As for its setting, well, Church Row, Hampstead’s grandest street, is an almost perfect early Georgian ensemble.
Some directions for you. Come out of Hampstead Tube. kitty-corner – to use that delightful American expression – is an Oxfam book shop (very Hampstead, that –
they don’t just have an Oxfam shop, they have an Oxfam bookshop. Suffering as I do from an incurable case of bibliomania, it’s always my first port of call at walk’s end). Cross to that bookshop and facing the shop turn left. Church Row is the third turning on the right. The first turning is Holly Bush Vale. Then there’s a tiny alleyway called Yorkshire Grey Place. The next corner is Church Row. Turn the corner into Church Row and there, down at the other end, is the church. If you pass Ricky Gervais on the way to the church – he lives down there – be sure to say ‘good morning, Ricky’. He’s friendly. He’ll ‘Hello’ you back. So that’s one pre-walk possibility.
A second one is the Hampstead Community Centre. It’s at 78 Hampstead High Street. Come out of the Tube, turn left, walk down to the zebra crossing. Cross the High Street and turn left again. You’ll walk past the Waterstones Book shop and the old-fashioned Coffee Cup restaurant and the William IV pub (with the French crepes stand just outside) and then hey presto you’re at the Community Centre. They’re a moveable feast. The second Sunday in the month – tomorrow – is the Hampstead Clothes Market (“vintage, pre-loved and new”). Oh they’ve got one too, a loo I mean.
Another idea. How does breakfast in Hampstead sound? Fortify you for the walk. Any number of cafes there on the High Street – and indeed on Heath Street – but it’s hard to go wrong with the Coffee Cup. They’re old-fashioned. They’ve got outside tables. Their raisin toast is to die for. Let alone their scrambled eggs and salmon.
So that’s all pre-walk. Then we’ll do the walk. You buttonhole me at walk’s end and I’ll make some lunch recommendations. And après lunch – well, Hampstead is an Aladdin’s Cave of cultural and historical and pastoral riches.
And should you be late, here’s where we go at the start of the walk. We cross over to the old Fire Station (with the clock Tower) and turn right up Heath Street. Approximately 40 yards along or so there’s a set of steps leading to a footpath. Go up those steps and follow the footpath along. At the top it brings you out onto Holly Mount and the first of our six ‘viewing platforms’ – from them you can see all the way across London. London nestles in a bowl of hills. In Hampstead we’re ridge-walking. We’re moving along on part of the northern rim of that bowl of hills. On a clear day up on Holly Mount you can see the southern rim of that bowl of hills, 26 miles in the distance. From there we walk straight along on Holly Mount to the Holly Bush, the platonic ideal of a Georgian pub. A few yards further along we turn right out of Holly Mount into Holly Bush Hill which becomes Hampstead Grove. That’s a good few minutes into the walk. Eezy peezy catching us up. And if you’re way late, well, my phone number is… Or you can ring Mary at London Walks on 020 7624 3978 and she’ll make an instrument landing.
Finally, the reason I “take roll” before we set out. I wrote the chapter on Hampstead in London Walks, London Stories (the London Walks book) and everybody on the walk who goes on the walk gets sent a professionally produced pdf of that chapter.* It’s a good “fit” – complements the walk nicely. And if nothing else it’ll save you forking out a tenner to buy the book. But if people want to receive that bit of added value they need to identify themself and get a tick by their name in the register.
The walk normally runs to closer to 2.5 hours** than 2 hours and ends just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Tube.
Hampstead is so astonishingly ‘rich’ it’s impossible to do justice to it in 120 minutes. But it’s not like being in school – no one has to wait until class is dismissed.
And weather-wise it’s going to be a perfect early summer day. Weatherman is saying 65 F (18 C), with zero chance of precipitation.
That said, the forecast, whatever it is, is a why bother consideration because in four decades of guiding I’ve never once taken an umbrella.*** It doesn’t rain on my walks.
*Hampstead Tube Station is on the Northern Line, the Edgware Branch. Be careful not to confuse Hampstead Tube Station with Hampstead Heath Railway Station or South Hampstead Railway Station. You want the Underground NOT the Railways.
***Historically, the British public genuinely regarded the idea of not getting soaked when it’s pissing it down as ‘too French’, with accounts saying we called people a ‘mincing Frenchman’ if they were caught using an umbrella. For better or worse I guess I’m squarely in that tradition.
And here endeth the Hampstead Walk advancer email I send out to everybody who books that Sunday morning walk.
And, yes, if there’s something special going on in Hampstead on any given Sunday, it will get a mention in that email. My walkers get a heads-up. The aim is to do what I can to assist them with their planning.
You’ve been listening to the Today in London History 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: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won 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.