Appreciating the “social muzzle velocity” of Kensington on foot

I was recently on a business trip in Europe on which I was unfortunately stuck using London as one of my main air travel focal points. On the trip, I used three of London’s five main airports (Heathrow, Stansted, and London City); I have now used four of the five airports. The exception is Luton, and my British colleagues tell me that I am not missing anything.

With a weekend day to spare, I decided to use the London Walks guide to occupy my day. Every walking tour I have taken with London Walks has shown me small hidden spots in London, sometimes right under my nose. My Kensington experiences have been negative, confined to the overcrowded and high street dominated by chain stores. As a former British colleague of mine explained once, \"When we talk about having more money than sense, Kensington is one of the first places that springs to mind.\" To attempt to crack the shell of the bland corporate veneer, I decided on the Old Kensington walk.

David, our guide for the walk, is surprisingly, the son of a Wisconsin farmer. When I mentioned that I had attended Grinnell College, he asked if I was still a student. Oh, David, flattery will get you everywhere! (I graduated almost eleven years ago. While I’d like to believe I still look 20, my chosen discipline of engineering really demands that I accept reality.)

The highlights of the walk:

David explained that the people who maintained streetlights or cleaned chimneys (my memory fails me) were also responsible for waking up household residents by using a long pole to knock on their windows. This activity is the origin of the phrase “knocked up,” which apparently in British English has merely the unpleasant connotation of a wake-up call and has nothing to do with the American English connotation.

As we stood on Thackeray Street, David asked us to consider the types of shops (hairdressers and high-end clothiers), and told us to consider the “sheer social muzzle velocity” of the neighborhood, which is distinctly plutocratic. An unimproved 17th or 18th century home sold in the neighborhood recently for ₤1.5 million. Social muzzle velocity is a most excellent phrase that I shall endeavor to use more frequently.

In Kensington Church Walk, we stopped in front of Annie Russell’s hair salon. “How gifted is Annie Russell?” asked David rhetorically, before answering that “she is talented enough to be Elizabeth Taylor’s hairdresser for twelve years.”

Also on Kensington Church Walk, there is a famous low wall, shown in the photos below. The late Princess of Wales lived in the neighborhood, and both William and Harry amused themselves walking on the wall. (During the course of the tour and taking the photographs below, I think a half-dozen children came to walk on the wall.) One resident of the building behind the wall dislikes this practice, and has instigated the planting of unpleasant plants along the wall to discourage children from walking on it. David is opposed to this idea, and partway through the tour, he saw a neighborhood resident and said, “I’ve got the metaphor: barbed wire wall!”

St. Mary Abbots church is a short walk from the tube station. To enter the church from the high street, you walk through a small cloister:

Two of the windows on the St. Mary Abbots chapel are labeled with the “ancient lights” sign seen in the photo below. England has an old law that says owners with unobstructed light can protect the level of light received through a window light by putting up a sign like the one below. New developments cannot block light through the windows. The legal doctrine of the right to illumination has not been adopted in the United States as a general principle, but some narrow exceptions do exist, mainly for solar energy. For example, the California Solar Shade Control Act protects investments in rooftop solar panels by ensuring that they retain unobstructed access to the sun. In England, the legal doctrine goes back to the days when sunlight was precious. Windows which have had continuous access to light for 20 years can advertise the fact with a sign reading “ancient lights,” which then protects the sunlight on the window against future obstructions.

Our tour ended near Kensington Palace. In the days when it was a working palace, the building in the photo below was used as barracks for the royal guards unit. It has now been converted into flats. On a previous tour, one of David’s customers had visited one of the exclusive flats. They are small, with no closets (17th century soldiers didn’t need much storage space). At the time of the report, the flats rented for ₤10,000 per week, which is about $87,000 per month at current exchange rates. For the price, you do get some cachet. As part of the palace grounds, the landlord is the Crown. The building itself is pretty nondescript:

Higher class accomodations in Kensington have period details, like this old-style bell pull to announce yourself at the door, rather than the modern doorbell buttons we are now generally accustomed to:

As the tour group broke up, David jokingly described London Walks as “a social security program for unemployed actors.” It shows. Most of the London Walks guides have impeccable timing, flawless delivery, sly humor, and have big voices that easily carry out to the edges of large groups. Combine this with all the knowledge about the hidden back streets, and London Walks is living proof of Dr. Johnson’s famous maxim that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

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