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Real World Guiding

With the prospect of lockdown lifting, I’ll be able to get back out into the real world and do some in person tours around the capital. The plan is to start in late June (assuming everything is quite safe by then). But what to do first? I’ve put together a very short questionnaire for you to choose which of my prospective walks most interest you.

Choices include Greenwich, the Blitz, the Rock n Roll history of Soho, the Great Fire of London, Whitehall and Westminster, War Memorials, the Southbank and Southwark, plus more. It would be great to hear what you’d like.

Go here to complete the questions

Eastcheap’s Camels

Eastcheap – from an old english word for market (and “east” to distinguish it from the original Westcheap, now ‘Cheapside’) – runs from Monument tube station towards the Tower of London; its name dates to at least anglo-saxon times.

At number 20 is a bar called Eastcheap Records, but look above the door and you will see a frieze of three laden camels being led by a Bedouin across a desert. The bones of a fourth camel might be made out in the centre foreground.

three camels led across the desert above the door of 20 eastcheap - "peek House"

Unsurprisingly, this has nothing to do with the current occupants of the building, but date to its time as ‘Peek House’ the home of tea and coffee importers Peek Brothers, established in 1810 by the eponymous brothers Richard and William. The company built number 20 in the early 1880s as a replacement for their earlier building, which had been demolished when the underground line was constructed.

They were a major player, handling around 5% of the total tea trade in London (and you know how much tea the Brits drink); in 1865 alone the company imported over 5 million pounds of tea (over 2,200 tonnes of the stuff). When the head of the firm, Sir Henry Peek, died in 1898 his estate was valued at over £400,000 – £45 million or so in today’s money.

Sir Henry it was who commissioned the sculptor William Theed to produce the frieze. Theed was an unusual choice, and one might say that he was slumming it a bit by taking on such ‘commercial’ work. He had produced busts of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria – in fact, he had been appointed by the queen to take the death mask of Albert – as well as the double portrait of Albert and Victoria in anglo-saxon dress that can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery. (A quite frankly risible sculpture – it would take a heart of marble not to burst out laughing when one sees it.) Theed also did the ‘Africa’ grouping at the foot of the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park. As this features in its centre a camel, perhaps this is what inspired Sir Henry to get him involved.  

Theed’s ‘Africa’ at the base of the Albert Memorial

(Rather confusingly, after moving to Liverpool in 1834 William Peek went into business with a new partner called Winch. His son, and the nephew of Mr Winch, formed a new company called Peek Brothers and Winch, which was in direct competition with the original Peek Brothers. The two Peek firms were reunited in 1895 and became a limited company, under the name Peek Brothers and Winch Limited. (From the London Metropolitan Archives) Another branch of the family were the founders of the biscuit company Peek Frean, inventors of the Garibaldi and the Bourbon.

Duke of York’s Column, St James’s

A couple of hundred metres from the much more famous Nelson’s column you will find the slightly more senior Duke of York’s Column (Nelson was unveiled in 1840, the Duke of York in 1834).

This commemorates Frederick, second son of George III, younger brother of the Prince Regent (who became George IV) and commander-in-chief of the British Army from 1795.

Frederick led the Anglo-Russian invasion of Holland in 1799 (yep, the British and their Russian allies invaded Holland who were allying with Revolutionary France in what became known as the War of the Second Coalition). Initial victories by the allies were overturned by defeats and the withdrawal of troops left the situation on land pretty much as it had been before the invasion – a fact satirised in the nursery rhyme: “The Grand Old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men, he marched them up to the top of the hill – and he marched them down again.”

This defeat, and problems in an earlier campaign in Flanders, seems to have spurred Frederick. He instituted a series of reforms of the army that helped professionalise and reorganise it, so it was a much more effective force in the subsequent Napoleonic Wars. Writing 100 years later the military historian Sir John Fortescue said that Frederick did “more for the army than any one man has done for it in the whole of its history”.

On the accession of his brother as George IV, Frederick became the heir presumptive, George’s daughter and heir Charlotte having died in childbirth in 1817. (This means that had George died first, Frederick would have succeeded him. As it was, Frederick died in 1827, and on George’s death in 1830 another brother became William IV.)

duke of york column st james's

The column was financed by all ranks in the army forgoing one day’s wages (how voluntary this was remains a little obscure) and the column (by Benjamin Dean Wyatt) erected in 1832, with the statue (by Richard Westmacott) raised in 1834. Frederick was an inveterate gambler and seems to have been perpetually in debt – the joke that went the rounds was that the statue was erected on such a tall column (it’s a little over 40m high) so that Frederick could keep away from his creditors.

Like the Monument, there is a staircase within the column and a platform at statue level. But this has been closed to the public for over 120 years (Vic Keegan managed to blag his way up a couple of years ago). Perhaps spending a few quid on making this safe and accessible would have been a better way to get people back into the west end than the turf covered scaffolding at Marble Arch; the views, certainly, would have been a lot better.

Holland House – Bury Street, EC3

There are quite a number of ‘Holland Houses’ in the capital – the remains of a Jacobean country home in Holland Park, Kensington; a school in Edgware; a student hostel near Victoria – but it’s only outside Holland House in Bury Street in The City (a stone’s throw from the Gherkin), that they still fly the Dutch flag.

This Holland House dates from 1916 and is sometimes called the first modern office block in London. Designed by the Dutch modernist architect Henrik Petrus Berlage, it was the first steel-framed buidling in Europe, with walls of green glazed terracotta bricks (shipped in from Delft) rising from a black plinth. (It is also said to be the first office block in Britain to have an atrium.)

Smoke pours from the funnel of the steamship as it breasts the waves on the Holland House sculpture

It was built for the Dutch shipping company Wm H Muller + Co, and its links to maritime trade can be seen in a lovely low relief sculpture on the corner of the building. This is by the Dutch sculptor Joseph Mendes da Costa, and is the front perspective of a steamship ploughing through the waves, a fitting symbol of both the source of the money that built Holland House and of the innovative spirit of the time.

Ottobah Cugoano

Much of the narrative on the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire is framed by the actions of the white British campaigners – Josiah Wedgewood; Wilberforce, Thornton and the ‘Clapham Sect’ – with the voices and deeds of former slaves either pushed to the background or disregarded entirely.

However, in recent years the life and works of Olaudah Equiano has become better appreciated. Equiano was a former slave from the Kingdom of Benin, who lived in London as a free man and who published an autobiography that helped publicise the horrors of slavery and of the slave trade to Georgian society.

And in November 2020, English Heritage unveiled a plaque on Schomberg House in Pall Mall (a building about which there are lots of stories, but those can wait for another time), honouring another former slave, Ottobah Cuguano.

The English Heritage plaque to Ottobah Cugoano on the wall of Schomberg House, Pall Mall

Cuguano was captured in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1770 when he was around 13 years old, and transported to Grenada in the West Indies. Bought by a merchant, he was brought to England, where he learnt to read and write and was ‘freed’. He later became a servant to the artists Richard and Maria Cosway, who then lived in Schomberg House (and whose next door neighbour was the artist Thomas Gainsborough).

Cuguano became active in the abolitionist group the ‘Sons of Africa’ (sometimes described as being Britain’s first black political movement) – and organisation (which included Equiano) of ‘educated Africans’, whose members campaigned against slavery through their writings, public meetings and correspondence in newspapers.

In 1787 Cuguano published Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species which called for the abolition of slavery and the immediate emancipation of enslaved peoples.

He is thought to have died in 1791 or 1792. It is perhaps typical of the times that his death passed unremarked and we have no knowledge of his grave.

London’s WW1 Memorials

A virtual tour from www.uktoursonline.com where I look at some of the capital’s most significant and most poignant war memorials from the First World War, including the Cenotaph, the memorials to the Machine Gun Corps and the Fusiliers, the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.

The Monarch’s Champion

If you ever have a tour of the Houses of Parliament it is in Westminster Hall where you meet your guide. This is the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster, dating back to around 1100 when it was commissioned by William II (William Rufus), the son of the Conqueror.

Inside Westminster Hall

In this hall, with its magnificent hammerbeam ceiling, kings, queens and commoners have lain in state before their funerals; great trials have taken place, including those of William Wallace, Sir Thomas More, Guy Fawkes, and ‘King and Martyr’, Charles I.

It was also the scene for the Coronation Banquets, celebrations after the crowning of the new monarch in the nearby Westminster Abbey.

The most lavish of these – so lavish in fact, that future monarchs did away with the tradition for fear of appearing too profligate – was in 1821 for the coronation of that most extravagant of kings, George IV. The former Prince Regent’s banquet cost over £25,000 (the equivalent of £2.5-£3 million today) – the total cost of his coronation was £238,000, or well in excess of £25 million.

This was also the last time that the King’s Champion made their traditional appearance. Riding into the hall in full armour, the champion throws down his gauntlet three times, challenging to trial by combat anyone who disputes the new monarch’s right.

As with much of British society, the role of champion is an inherited one, belonging to the feudal holder of the Manor of Scrivelsby in Lincolnshire, which has been held since the 1300s by the male head of the Cymoke family.

Although not part of coronations since the 1821 Banquet, anyone wishing to challenge a future Charles III to be ‘the right heir to the Imperial Crown’ might want to note that Francis Dymoke, the present champion, is a 66 year old chartered accountant.

Chasing the Mallard

To get into All Souls College Oxford, one has to take what has been called ‘the hardest examination in the world’. The college has no undergraduates, the members of it are Fellows, and over the past 100 years or so these have included Isaiah Berlin, Marina Warner, Joseph Stiglitz and Professor Cecile Fabre.

To be a Fellow of All Souls is therefore to be among the intellectual elite, the brightest of the bright.

Which is why the it is a little surprising to hear about the Mallard Ceremony, held every 100 years (that’s right, just once a century, the last one was in 2001 so we’re none of us likely to be around for the next one).

After a very good dinner in the college’s Codrington Library, the Fellows parade around the college holding flaming torches, carrying in a sedan chair a character called ‘Lord Mallard’, following a Fellow with a mallard (now a wooden model, in 1901 a dead duck, previously a live bird) on a pole.

They sing the Mallard Song, the first verse and chorus of which go:

The Griffine, Bustard, Turkey & Capon

Lett other hungry Mortalls gape on

And on theire bones with Stomacks fall hard,

But lett All Souls’ Men have ye Mallard.


Hough the bloud of King Edward,

By ye bloud of King Edward,

It was a swapping, swapping mallard!

The origins of the procession and the song are said to go back to 1437 when a giant mallard flew out of the foundations of the college as it was being built. As well as the centennial procession, the song is sung at the Bursar’s Dinner in March and the college’s Gaudy in November – although sans flaming torches and Lord Mallard.

It just goes to show that getting drunk, pratting about and singing daft songs can be excused anywhere and any time as long as you can claim ‘tradition‘.

The 1666 Great Fire of London

Just after midnight on 2 September 1666, the bakery of one Thomas Farriner in Pudding Lane near the north end of London Bridge caught alight. Fires – sometimes major conflagrations – were not unusual in the towns and cities of the time, but this one proved to be a class apart.

Fanned by a strong wind from the east, and with wooden houses tinder-dry from a long, hot summer, the efforts of the citizens, the King and his brother, the army and the navy, failed to halt the progress of the fire until the wind abated and fire breaks were made by blowing up streets in the path of the flames.

In the four days of devastation, over 80% of the City of London was left a smouldering ruin, around 13,000 homes had been destroyed (as had the magnificent medieval St Paul’s cathedral) and up to 80,000 people had been made homeless, many living as refugees in camps in the fields on the roads up to Highbury.

On 10 September John Evelyn wrote “I went again to the ruins; for it was now no longer a city.

Next week I’ll be giving an online talk about the fire on UKToursOnline.com, looking at how it started, its progression through the City and the destruction caused. We’ll look at the plans for the rebuilding from Wren, Evelyn and Hooke, how rumour spread throughout the city that the fire had been deliberately started by the Dutch, or the French, or Jesuits, and how a new city emerged from the ashes of the old.


Even with the recently announced lockdown relaxation it seems unlikely that there will be many guided tours, or indeed visitors, over the next few months.

That’s why a few friends and I have got together to offer virtual tours and talks, so that we can show you the best of London and the UK through the magic of the interweb. (See our trailer below)

You’ll find a complete list of what we have scheduled here. Some of our regular tours include the British Museum, Churchill War Rooms, the National Gallery, Bath and Roman London, and we’ll be adding more over the coming weeks.

Each talk is around 60 minutes, with time for questions afterwards, and each costs £10. We’ve done a ‘season ticket’ so you can choose five talks and only pay for four.

Anyway, go to UKToursOnline.com to find out more, and I hope to see you on one of our forthcoming events.