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A Walk in the Park?


by J. Lee Simons


This statement captures the feelings of an academic who began visiting London as part of BYU’s Study Abroad Program, visits that ignited a passion for London and resulted in the 2004 publication of Walking through London’s History.

“When I first started going on Study Abroad in 1976, we had six-month programs,” explained Arthur Bassett, emeritus professor of humanities. “We spent about a month on the continent, eight days in Russia, eight days in Israel, and London became a launching pad.”

In those early days, Bassett taught Humanities 202 and used the time to prepare for what they would see on the “continent.” From art to architecture, the focus was on European galleries and museums. “The art we discussed was in the Louvre or elsewhere in Europe,” he said. “The artistic heritage of London (and the UK in general) was largely ignored. Yet, London, which is, in my opinion, a destination itself, has a romance all its own—you can’t go any place in London without historical levels three or four deep; you really are walking through history when you are in London.”

After the first few trips, Bassett determined to get to know London by going on walks. What he found not only deepened his fascination, but the walks inspired a solution to what he referred to as the “gopher act.”

“I came to realize that students would go down into the Tube, move to another part of the city, pop up, do their thing, go down again, go to another section of the city, pop up, etc.,” noted Bassett with chagrin. “London is so walkable. You can walk from the Tower to the BYU London Centre in a matter of a few hours.”

In addition to London’s compact geography, the layout lends itself to natural cataloguing. “There is an economic part of the city, another part for the law, another for entertainment, then an area for the royalty, so you have these nice little pockets that just invite investigation,” imparted Bassett. And the early walks became a standard activity for his students by 1987.

“I started doing it to get them to become conversant with London. They were surprised to find that they could leave Trafalgar Square and walk around the corner and be in Leicester Square,” he said. “You could also get into the Tube, spend about fifteen minutes and end up in Leicester Square, but it is just around the corner. Students were amazed at how interconnected the whole city is, how easy it is to walk, and how much nicer it is than using the Tube.”

From the beginning, Bassett wrote the walks for students to utilize in small groups of three or four—on their own; he did not place himself in the role of tour guide. “I didn’t want the walks to say ‘go here and see this,’” stressed Bassett.

He incorporated human interest stories on many topics and from many time periods, woven into the historical tapestry of London’s long and colorful existence. “I keep thinking about a statement the Savior made about having life and having it more abundantly,” he said. “And the abundant life seems to me involves a mixture with other people and other times. That is part of the students’ education.”

The early walks were shared with other faculty in charge of programs at BYU’s London Centre. “They put them in the library and would tell their students, ‘There are some walks if you want to do them.’ The faculty thought maybe you will get two or three ambitious ones who would actually do it,” said Bassett. “Students go to London with many kinds of motivation: the theatre—a big motivation of my own, shopping, and socializing, as well as to see spots in London that everyone knows about and wants to visit—it’s a ‘been there, seen that’ kind of thing.”

Ray Hillam, a former director of the Kennedy Center, had urged Bassett to publish the walks for a number of years. Then Jeff Ringer, current Kennedy Center director, Bassett, and Professor Larry T. Wimmer spent fall semester 2000 in London. “Jeff and Larry and I decided we would make a class out of the walks for our program. Our goal was to have students familiar with London from the start. We took the first week and had them do walks for this class,” he explained. “We would have an orientation meeting each morning and give the students these walks to do. Then they would write up a report on what they liked about it.”

When they returned from that semester at the London Centre, Ringer forged ahead to begin the task to publish the walks. In fact, Bassett first turned in eight walks for publication, but when he and Wimmer returned to London in 2003 to take photos for the project, they walked the walks to check for accuracy, and, ultimately, Bassett came back with a revised plan.

Excerpts from Walking Through London’s History.

12. Holland Park

A mews in London signifies a place where horses were kept and servants housed for the mansion behind them (above them in this case).
At one time London’s horse population almost equaled its people. And we think all “pollution” is modern! Almost every block or section of middle and upper class homes had its inner court of mews.
How times change as stables gave way to garages! A one-bedroom home in the mews recently (2003) listed for £800,000. Translated into dollars, that would be over $1.25 million. Some of these mews
throughout London are now the trendy places to live, as evidenced by the autos you see parked along the road. Holland Park Mews is an excellent example.

14. Walking Among the Scholars: Bloomsbury/St. Pancras

Thomas Coram was an eighteenth-century British sea captain, who became concerned about the number of children being abandoned on
the streets of London. He himself was an unwanted child of an unmarried mother. Accordingly, he began a Foundling Home for deserted children in Coram Fields. To help with the finances,
he sought the aid of William Hogarth (a British painter) and others. Hogarth, in turn, appealed to some of his friends and they collectively decided to donate paintings to the Foundling
Hospital. Thus was born the first art gallery in London as Hogarth and others (including Joshua Reynolds, John Singleton Copley, and Thomas Gainsborough) put their paintings on
display at the hospital. Admissions were charged and the proceeds given to the home.

2. Walking the Walls of Londinium

“The City,” as it is now familiarly known, was anciently called Londinium. It is now the financial heart of Britain’s economy—along
with Wall Street in New York and Tokyo in Japan, it is one of the largest and most influential financial centers in the world. Consequently, a major part of the atmosphere of this
area is generated by businessmen and businesswomen in dark suits, bustling around or huddled at the pubs, drinking ale and plotting their world-shaking stratagems. During the weekend,
the city will be completely deserted, almost surrealistically so, and you will miss much that is unique to this area.

19. Hampstead and Hampstead Heath

Kenwood House is undoubtedly the showplace of the heath. This beautiful mansion is magnificent, inside and out—and better still,
it’s free. You may already have seen the interior if you have seen either Notting Hill with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts or Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, starring Harold Pinter.
Scenes from both were shot in the ballroom. Remodeled by Robert Adam between 1764 and 1773, it is one of the finest examples of Adam’s neoclassical work. My favorite room is the
ornately decorated library. Kenwood’s beautiful setting—overlooking London—makes it a favorite for summer open-air concerts held by the side of the lake.

21. Farewell—From the Tower to the BYU London Centre

One of the things I love most about London is its special way of doing pomp and ceremony. Therefore, some time ago I devised
my own ritual that I always use to say farewell to my beloved London. It is my way of experiencing her energy and excitement one last time. It is my way of seeing that she is in
good hands and will carry on when I am gone. It is my way of remembering the places I have walked before. I call it the Farewell Walk. It is a way of saying “This town is now,
and always will be, an integral part of me.”

He organized the walks into five categories that encompassed twenty-one distinct walks: Thames Walks (8), Parks Walks (4), Area Walks (5), Excursions (3), and the Farewell Walk—From the Tower to the BYU Centre. Each walk begins with a brief historical context for each era: Medieval, Georgian, Victorian, and Modern—peeling back the layers of history to quickly orient the walker to the significance of the area over time.

“I’ve had a lot of people call me and say ‘We are going to London; what should we see?’” said Bassett, so the books are now sold through the BYU Bookstore. Although each walk begins at the London Centre, the walks are easily accessible by Tube from anywhere in London.

“One of my focal points in life is to try and make history interesting. I avoided history like the plague when I was growing up and especially American history, because it was facts and figures about the Revolutionary War, Constitution, Civil War, etc.,” Bassett admitted. “When I was with the Church Education program, I thought one of the best things I could do for a PhD was to get familiar with the historical background in New England. I found Syracuse would allow me to do intellectual and social history.

“That is the kind of history I wanted to write about London. When I go to England, I am in London,” he said. “Sitting in a car, coach, or train and watching the countryside, in places such as the Lake District, has never intrigued me as much as the city, because it doesn’t have the vibrancy of the city.”

Bassett reported that Ringer would get the newspaper for the students every morning and hold a special news briefing for anyone who wanted to come down. Ringer told him, “I love that the minute you step out the door you feel the energy of London—the roar of the traffic; you feel alive.”

“You don’t get that out in the country,” Bassett affirmed.

A collection of Paris walks is being compiled this summer; publication is expected by spring 2007.

NOTE1. Madsen, Truman H. Defender of the Faith: The B.H. Roberts Story, p. 165.