Wimbledon Tennis, Rock Stars, 999, Bicycling to Australia

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

This is London Walks.

Streets ahead.

Story time. History time.


Good evening, London. It’s July 2nd, 2024.

Today’s pin – The Wimbledon Tennis Championship 2024 is underway. And here’s a sidebar report from Day One. Our son Sam is a keen tennis player and a Spanish pal of his is in town so the two of them toddled along to SW15 for some first-day action. They were after and they got what’s known as a Ground’s Pass. Though it took some getting. It’s not so much the price – a Ground’s Pass costs a very reasonable £30 – it’s the demand. They rolled up at the famous venue – the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club at 8.40 am. They knew there’d be a queue and they wanted to get there nice and early. Arrive later in the morning that queue stretches out to the crack of doom. But even with an 8.40 arrival – that’s an hour and twenty minutes before the gates open – even with an 8.30 arrival they didn’t get to the gate, get their pass, get onto the ground until two o’clock in the afternoon. To be specific, Sam had 8,359 people ahead of him in the queue.

Now a word about the British and their passion for queueing. The official queue for Grounds’ Passes for the opening day, Monday, July 1st, the official queue opened up the day before, Sunday afternoon at 2 pm. Sam spoke to someone who’d got there nice and early on Sunday afternoon. Got there, to be precise, at 1 pm on Sunday afternoon. There was already an unofficial queue that had formed. He was the 700th person in the unofficial queue.

So get this straight, at Wimbledon there’s an unofficial queue to join the official queue. Oh and in case you’re wondering, the individual in question had brought a tent. He camped out, outside the All England Lawn Tennis Club in the unofficial queue. Arrived early Sunday afternoon, camped out Sunday night. He rolled up 21 hours before the gates opened, was 700th in the queue. Bears repeating, the English and their queueing. Sam’s Spanish friend was nothing short or amazed. Taking note of how orderly the queue was, Guillermo said, “In Spain, this is impossible.”

Final thought: we get a lot of tennis in this house. Mother and son are both very keen. All of that goes back many years. Mary’s great aunt was the President of the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Her husband, Mary’s great uncle, was a close friend and mentor of the Duke of York – the future George VI – and indeed partnered His Royal Highness in a first-round Doubles match at the 1936 Wimbledon Championships. So as far as tennis goes, Mary’s to the manner born.

When she was a child she and her Mum always got comps to the Wimbledon championship. And her feeling and fondness for the sport just took root. She watches all the Grand Slams on the box. And for good measure catches the occasional minor tournament. Anyway, with all that tennis exposure we invariably notice – and comment on – the fact that other tournaments aren’t nearly as well attended. It amazes us that there are often quite a few empty seats at some very big tournaments. Mary always shakes her head and says “you never see that at Wimbledon.”

My theory is it’s a combination of tradition and aesthetics. Tradition: the Wimbledon championships are nearly 150 years old now. The roots go down deeper. None of the others have been around that long. And as for aesthetics: it’s lawn tennis. All that green grass at this time of the year. It’s hypnotically beautiful. More so, surely, than that rusty, dusty look of clay court tennis.

My lad – my son Sam – has a different theory. He says Brits are the champion spectators of sport. He says, “it’s an extraordinary relationship we Brits have with sport: we invent it, we watch it, we just can’t win it.”

Well, so much for the world’s most famous tennis tournament


And for today’s Random… another jaw-dropper from that John Higgs book on the Beatles and James Bond that I keep raving about. It’s page after page of OMG, I didn’t know that. Yesterday Mr Higgs took me through the horror show of the benighted views – benighted views is putting it politely – of some of our all-time greatest rock stars. I’m steering clear of – I’m not going to say those words here, even quoting him – steering clear of Eric Clapton’s infamous racist rant at that 1976 concert in Birmingham. But I am going to grit my teeth and quote David Bowie’s remarks in that same year. Namely, and I’m quoting here, “I believe very strongly in fascism.” For good measure young David – Londoner through and through, born in Brixton, grew up in south London – for good measure, I call him young David Bowie but he was old enough to know better – for good measure young David Bowie aka Ziggy Stardust – let us all know, and, yes, I’m quoting – let us all know that “Adolph Hitler was one of the first rock stars.” I think it’s the book of Daniel in the bible that spells the matter out: the God of brass has feet of clay.


Moving on. Today’s Ongoing was going to be yesterday’s Ongoing. Yesterday, July 1st, was a rather good London anniversary. But I fell amongst thieves. Didn’t make it on the anniversary date. But no matter. A day late, who cares.

Anyway, here we go: The world’s first emergency call telephone service was launched in London, 87 years ago, yesterday, on July 1st, 1937. So thank you very much for that London – that made the world a better place.

It was in response to a house fire in Wimpole Street nearly two years previously. A house fire which killed five women.

The back story is a neighbour had tried to telephone the fire brigade but was held in a queue by the Welbeck telephone exchange. The good samaritan was so outraged he wrote a letter to the editor of The Times. That letter prompted a government inquiry. And in due course – 20 months later – that 999 emergency call number was rolled out.

The initial scheme just covered a 12-mile radius around Oxford Circus. It took nearly 40 years for the scheme to reach full maturity. It was extended to major cities after World War II. And to the rest of the country in 1976.

And for the record, the emergency call number got its first notch in the belt so to speak just a week after it came on stream. A burglary was foiled and the perp was arrested.

As long as were at it, let’s name names. On July 8th, giving evidence in the trial that resulted, John Stanley Beard, an architect and Hampstead resident, said he’d been awakened by a noise outside his bedroom window. His wife called 999. Mr Beard said an almost instantaneous connection was made with the police station and in less than five minutes this man was arrested. This man was the defendant, a 24 year-old-labourer named Thomas Duffy. Arrested and charged with attempting to break into Mr Beard’s house. Mr Beard said, “it struck me as a householder and a fairly large taxpayer that we were getting something for our money and I was very much impressed by it.” Our item in the Times ends, “The defendant was remanded in custody.” Wonder how all that came out.

Now why 999. Those were the days of rotary telephone dials. You dialed 0 for the operator. 999 was chosen because the 9 digit was easy for a partially sighted or blind person – or somebody dialing in the dark – easy for them to find that number on the dial. Imagine if the emergency number had been, say, 486. Nothing like stacking the deck against somebody desperate to get through to the police or the fire department.

Anything else to add? Yes. Wikipedia gets this one wrong. They say the service was introduced on June 30th. Don’t believe them. I looked at the newspapers for that summer. They all say, July 1st.

The wonders of modern – well, 1937 modern – communications.

A couple of months later the Telegraph runs a story headlined Dial ‘ASK’ for information. The GPO – the Post Office – is really on a roll. They’re going to set up what today we’d call an Information Service. This is 1937 Google.

The story opens, “Information on all manner of subjects, from how to take out a dog license to the cost of air mail letters to Shanghai, is to be made available at the post office by a turn of the dial. Yes, it’s a Central Information Bureau, with a Special Staff of Experts ready to come to your assistance, ready to shed light on any number of pressing matters. As the Telegraph’s Special Correspondent says, There are so many things that the Post Office’s clients want to know:

How long it takes a letter to reach San Francisco.

How to address a letter to a bishop.

What forms must be filled in to apply for the old age pension.

Would a paper parcel containing jam, tomatoes and rifle cartridges be a danger to other mails.

And my favourite:

Does a gun license entitle the holder to shoot burglars?

You can see the householder’s dilemma with that one? He hears a burglar trying to break in does he dial 999? Or A-S-K – ASK – to ask, does my gun license entitle me to shoot him?

A piece of the London palimpsest, on my Hampstead Walk we see the faded old telephone number for the long since gone the way of all flesh Leonard’s Eastern European Delicatessen. There it is, if you know exactly where to look, HAM 9932. Ham for Hampstead. Something’s been lost with digitalisation. You dialed HAM 9932 you knew you were ringing somebody in Hampstead. A lost London world.

Wish I could time travel. Dial HAM 9932 and order up some Houska, aka Czech/Bohemian Braided Egg Bread with Raisins.

Which I’d contentedly munch on while I looked at my Atlas and traced out the road ahead for 22-year-old John from Chelsea, 22-year-old William from Uxbridge, and 25-year-old Leonard from Finsbury Park. Those three young men set off yesterday, July 1st, 1937 on a trip to Australia. To Brisbane. A bicycle trip to Australia. They figure it’ll take them a year and a half to get there. Their route: London to Dover; boat to Ostend; across Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iraq, Persia (we’d say Iran today); India, Burma, Singapore, by boat to Darwin and thence to Brisbane. They’re carrying £40 each, a tent, three sleeping bags, an axe and a camera.

You go guys. I hope you made it.


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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