Catching his 30 or so listeners off-guard, David Tucker throws a wine cork into the Thames and says this will help him explain why the Romans founded Londinium in 43 A.D. right about here.
As the cork quickly disappears in the glistening water this cloudy night, Tucker explains that though the Romans were ferocious warriors, smart traders, avid explorers and great urban planners, they could also take the easy way out when it came to sailing their ships.
In this case, when the English Channel's tidal force on the river ebbed about 60 miles inland, the Romans set up camp along the low hills that rose from the northern bank of the river. Londinium, we are here.
The history lesson, sans cork, is typical of the popular narrated tours that thread through London. Tucker is co-owner with his wife, Mary, of the Original London Walks. It is the largest and probably the best-known of these commercial operations, which help visitors understand this sprawling city by following knowledgeable guides on walks keyed to various themes.
London Walks, for instance, offers more than 100 tours, each usually lasting about two hours, costing 5 pounds (currently, about $9.30) and setting out from the exit of one of London's famous Underground (or "Tube") stops. The tours leave morning, afternoon and night, seven days a week.
This month I went on four walks that lasted up to three hours as the guides paused to embellish their basic scripts with anecdotes and gibes at royalty past and present. There also was an unscheduled detour to see a fantastic light sculpture hanging in the acclaimed Tate Modern museum. We even extended the planned stops in two pubs to warm ourselves against the evening's damp cold.
We strolled along the Thames at night, found quiet streets amid the bustle of Saturday shoppers in the Royal Borough of Kensington, roamed narrow streets and alleys that Charles Dickens would still recognize, and gazed at historic ships and royal buildings in ancient Greenwich.
Dramatic views, surprising sights
Tucker led the walk titled "Old Kensington _ London's Royal Village," and he seemed actually fond of revealing to his group of about 40 both its history and its quietude. The real purpose of such walks is to provide the participants with enough interesting places and bits of history to encourage them to come back on their own. Among the stops in Kensington worth a return visit:
+ The surprising, and charming, garden about seven stories above the retail avenue that is Kensington High Street. The 70-year-old garden has three planting themes, live Chilean flamingos in a pond and about 1,500 species of plants. The area designed to resemble a Tudor garden is paved with bricks dating back hundreds of years. Another section is designed to resemble the courtyard of a Spanish hacienda; the stucco curbs that border the plantings are decorated with inset painted tiles.
+ The two-story row house that was occupied in the early 20th century by Ezra Pound, who had as live-in guests, at various times, fellow writers Robert Frost, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams.
+ Tucker's nominee for "the best place in London to have tea" in pleasant weather: the cafe at the Orangery on the grounds of Kensington Palace. (This palace is where Princess Diana lived, and where the funeral bouquets stacked up after her death were estimated to number 1.3-million.)
Nearby is the Round Pond, where James M. Barrie met the boy after whom he would fashion Peter Pan, where Virginia Woolf sailed boats and where Percy Shelley sailed boats, too, except he fashioned his from paper currency.
+ The set of multistory brick homes built in the 1870s and named Kensington Palace Gardens because of their location across from the palace. One of the homes on what is now dubbed Millionaires' Row sold in the 1990s to a race car driver for a reported $60-million.
+ The fascinating cluster of residences, barely across another street from the palace, in which celebrities of two centuries lived: There is DeVere Gardens, where Henry James and Robert Browning lived in homes practically across the street from each other.
This is a few short blocks from the house in which Winston Churchill died. A couple of twisting streets farther on is Eliot's last home. His widow often leaves the ground floor curtains open, allowing passers-by to see the shelves with his books and their personal photos.
+ On Kensington Square, laid out in the 1680s and now ringed by four- and five-story homes, there are blue plaques that announce which historical figures occupied various homes. There is the home of philosopher John Stuart Mill, and Tucker also points out the house occupied by the actor who went by the name Mrs. Patrick Campbell. It was for her that George Bernard Shaw wrote the part of Eliza Doolittle.
Along the Thames
Impressive as it flows through the city, the Thames actually was about 50 percent wider until the second half of the 19th century. Until then, it was used as a sewer outfall for about 300 pipes.
The sewage and the heat of the particularly harsh summer led to 1858 being proclaimed the Year of the Great Stink. The smell was so bad that the House of Commons, which meets in the riverside Parliament, had to adjourn.
A plan was devised to build a number of furnaces to burn off the gases. But this was soon abandoned in favor of the construction of a 6-mile-long sewer pipe, placed beneath the newly filled area named the Embankment. There were also flood control levees built on the banks, further narrowing the river channel.
On either side of the Thames, you can stand in locales that shaped Dickens' dark outlook on the life of the underclass:
+ On the north bank, in Victoria Embankment Gardens, you can see the site where "at the age of 13, Dickens was kicked into Warren's Blacking Factory," declares guide Steve Newman, "and was putting labels on boxes of shoe-blacking."
"It was," former actor Newman adds theatrically, "ghastly." Except he pronounces it GAHS-tly.
+ After crossing the river by one of its footbridges, Newman eventually led his group of 15 through small streets and smaller lanes, past 1840s row houses known as "two up and two down," for the number of rooms on each floor. None of those four rooms included indoor plumbing.
Now, Newman said, these brown-brick homes, four blocks from the Thames in the Southwark neighborhood near Waterloo train station, are so desirable that the gutted and modernized versions easily sell for the equivalent of $825,000.
Yet the look is such that actor-producer Patrick Stewart in 1999 filmed a TV version of Dickens' 1843 classic A Christmas Carol using exteriors shot here, on Whittlesey Street and Windmill Walk.
+ From the south bank looking back across the bridge is an unimpeded view of legendary architect Christopher Wren's masterpiece, St. Paul's Cathedral.
Though a prolific designer, Wren probably oversaw the actual construction of just four churches. Of course, for the 35 years that St. Paul's was under construction, Wren visited the site an estimated 1,800 times; one tour passes the home he had on the south bank within view of the cathedral.
+ Near the Tower of London, on the north bank, is the Church of All Hallows, notable because it survived the Great Fire of 1666 and is where William Penn was baptized and John Quincy Adams was married.
+ There is a single pub in England licensed to sell U.S. postage stamps: On the south bank of the river is the Mayflower, from which the Pilgrims sailed down the Thames for the New World.
The important, the trivial, the fun
The tour guides leaven the significant with plenty of tidbits. For instance:
+ From the free eighth-floor observation deck of the OXO Tower, on the south bank, there are fine views of the commercial heart of London, St. Paul's and the four-deck church spire that is said to be the inspiration for contemporary stacked wedding cakes.
That church is St. Bridget's, colloquialized to St. Bride's, which was rebuilt by Wren in 1701 after the Great Fire. The steeple reportedly inspired a chef named William Rich to fashion his daughter's wedding cake in layer upon layer, rather than the flat, round cakes of that day.
+ British currency is reportedly termed sterling from a corruption of the centuries-old reference to the high quality of goods brought in from the east by the Hanseatic League of merchant traders. That phrase was, "It's as good as the easterlies." "Easterlies" became "sterling."
+ "Daylight robbery" refers to homeowners' practice a few centuries ago of bricking up windows to avoid paying higher taxes. The authorities reasoned that rich people could afford glass for windows, which the rich needed to gain light to help them read.
+ The slang reference to a jail as a clink derives from old London's Clink Street Prison, a private jail operated by successive bishops of Westminster. There is now a jail museum.
+ Those large, metal-pipe-looking things sticking up near the road on wide sidewalks in certain busy streets are actually cannon left from the wars against Napoleon. They have been recycled, to prevent the parking of cars on the sidewalk.
+ Dropping the ball on New Year's Eve to denote the time is nothing new. The authorities set Greenwich Mean Time in 1884 as the world standard, but beginning a half-century before that, they have been dropping a red metal sphere each day at 1 p.m. from a tower atop the Old Royal Observatory in Greenwich, to let people set their watches.
The building is called the "old" observatory because the royal telescope functions were moved about 50 years ago to the more rural Sussex. Think: light pollution.
+ London, certainly a worldly city, has both an Erotic Gherkin _ known to some as the Crystal Phallus _ and a "Glass Testicle." The former is a skyscraper whose exterior is walled in green glass; it is the headquarters of the insurance company Swiss Reinsurance. The building is roughly dome-shaped, but the dome comes to a point.
The same architect designed the new London City Hall. That glass-walled structure, close to the Tower of London, was termed "a glass testicle" by London's mayor.
+ Far less prominent but more historic are 13 small curbside buildings, one story tall and painted dark green. These are left from an effort begun in 1874 to make the streets safe from drunken cabdrivers.
Cabbies would drink to stay warm; a favorite beverage, rum in hot milk, was called Dog's Nose. Finally, 81 "Cabman's Shelters" were built to provide the drivers with a meal and hot tea. The remaining 13 still do this.
A Yank shall lead them
"Your ears are not playing tricks on you," announces David Tucker happily in the strong voice that he often projects for theatrical effect.
"If any of you happen to be Londoners, you must have realized that this would happen sooner or later: An American Midwestern farmer's son is leading you through your city."
Tucker did not plan it this way. He came over to write a doctoral thesis on Dickens but spent about 20 years in British television news. "Then, about five years ago," he disclosed after one of his walks ended, "I was made redundant."
That's the British euphemism for being fired due to downsizing.
He had already been leading walks for extra income. When he lost his TV job, he and his wife bought London Walks, which had been in business since the 1960s. Now they oversee about 70 tour leaders but also go out themselves.
The guides keep two-thirds of the 5-pound fee; for some guides, it is full-time work.
Among them is Shaughan Seymour, another former theater and TV actor. Seymour is also a Blue Badge guide, meaning he has earned the highest certification awarded to guides in the United Kingdom.
Seymour, in his 12th year with London Walks, said that he averages 12 to 14 tours a week in the summer.
Some tours are offered only on certain days, but the Jack the Ripper walk is offered every night and even has a Saturday matinee.
The most famous leader of the various Ripper tours is Donald Rumbelow, whose first career was as a London police officer. He also oversaw the police museum and has handled the remaining evidence in the Ripper case.
Rumbelow is considered the expert on the series of crimes, which captured Londoners' attention briefly in 1886 and much of the Western world's ever since.
Consequently, Tucker said, Rumbelow can find as many as 180 people waiting to follow him through the Whitechapel neighborhood, so Tucker always sends a second guide on those nights.
Rumbelow, Tucker says, "has no time" for novelist Patricia Cornwell's recent book proposing that the Ripper was an artist who lived well into the 20th century.
"Donald said that much of that theory was first revealed in a book about 25 years ago and was discredited by most of the "experts' at the time," Tucker said.
Tucker clearly enjoys leading tours, sometimes emoting in an adopted English accent or reciting bits of poetry relevant to some stopping place.
It was Tucker who led a Friday night Thames pub tour into the Tate Modern to look at just one item: a fantastic light sculpture of a giant, sunlike disc hovering beneath the mirrored ceiling of a vast hall.
And while this group was sipping fresh pints of bitters in one pub, Tucker climbed over the wall onto the exposed mud flats of the Thames, returning to hand out trophies.
He explained that the receding tide uncovers evidence of London's history. And with that, Tucker handed out pieces of roofing tile he said dated to the Middle Ages, as well as centuries-newer pieces of clay pipes, used for smoking tobacco that came over from the New World colonies, just as he did.
If you go
No reservations are necessary to join a tour by the Original London Walks. Simply show up at the scheduled time and Tube stop, with 5 pounds, and look for the guide holding up copies of the company's white brochure.
The company sells a Discount Walkabout Card good for 1 pound off after the first walk. For students or walkers 65 or older, the charge is 4 pounds.
To see a schedule of walks, go to www.walks.com or send e-mail to londonwalks.com. In London, call 020 7624 3978.
Travel about London is remarkably easy using the Underground. You can buy one-day, weekend or multiday TravelCard passes that save substantial amounts over the typical 2-pound, round-trip fare for travel through those parts of the sprawling city (Zones 1 and 2 on the Tube map) that encompass most tourist sites. TravelCards are sold at every Tube stop.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Good, easy-to-carry reference works are:
Insight Pocket Guide: London, by Collins and Harper. This has a handy foldout map and color photos; $13.95. The publisher also has updated information on the Web site, www.insightguides.com.
Cadogan City Guides London, by Andrew Gumbel. Larger and more authoritative than the Insight Guide, but no separate map; $18.95.
Both books are listed on Amazon.com for several dollars less.
In a pinch, you can find the pocket-sized, foldup map Handy A-Z Central London for just under 2 pounds (about $3.65) at most any Tube stop or newsstand.
David Tucker, the son of Wisconsin farmers, bought The Original London Walks company and still leads some of its 100 or so tours.