Less than 1% of the population own 50% of England…. how do I compare?

There can be few such good decisions by individuals in history as to have been a Norman baron in the mid 11th Century than pledging allegiance to William The Conqueror in return for land in the British Isles.

It’s quite incredible that 1,000 years later one way or the other, an overwhelming number of their descendants remain in control of an incredible amount of wealth, properties and positions of influence from the Royal Family downwards to seemingly almost normal figures in politics, showbiz and popular culture.

This legacy is perhaps most obvious of all when it comes to land and property ownership.  After the devastating Battle of Hastings, William The Conqueror occupied these lands with just 8,000 men and in a way, they are still occupying us today.


Gloating about illegal foreign occupation?  The Grosvenor family came to England with William the Conquerer and have long owned much of the most expensive areas of London. This is one panel to a grand statue in Belgrave Square which doesn’t even deny their ill-gotten gains.

Half of England is owned by less than 1% of its population, according to new research.  The findings, described as “astonishingly unequal”, suggest that about 25,000 landowners – typically members of the aristocracy and corporations – have control of half of the country.

The figures show that if the land were distributed evenly across England’s population, each person would have just over half an acre – an area roughly half the size of Parliament Square in central London.


Given that, I thought I would see how I compare with my ‘fair share’ of land ownership and so using the same scale, I have cut and pasted my property over half of Parliament Square.  It should be noted that due to the disparages of scale between Parliament Square and my house, I’m not quite able to fit all of Parliament Square and due to the vagaries of Google Maps, my house and garden is at a rather inconvenient angle.

parliament and house

So there we have it, 28 of my area of England doesn’t even fill half of Parliament Square.  If we were going purely on fairness, I’d calculate that I have 35-40 times less land than in a perfect world, I would be entitled too.  Being very well aware that there are at least a few million people who either own nothing at all or even small flats (apartments), I still find it hard to think it isn’t entirely fair.

How the might have fallen, given I am descended from the brother of Anglo-Saxon King Harold of 1066 fame.  So if I am anything to go by, given that Anglo-Saxons don’t own much of our country, just who does?


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Jon Trickett, Labour MP and shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, hailed the significance of the findings and called for a full debate on the issue, adding: “The dramatic concentration of land ownership is an inescapable reminder that ours is a country for the few and not the many.

“It’s simply not right that aristocrats, whose families have owned the same areas of land for centuries, and large corporations exercise more influence over local neighbourhoods – in both urban and rural areas – than the people who live there.

“Land is a source of wealth, it impacts on house prices, it is a source of food and it can provide enjoyment for millions of people.”

Guy Shrubsole, author of the book ‘Who Owns England?‘ in which the figures are revealed, Who Owns England?, argues that the findings show a picture that has not changed for centuries. “Most people remain unaware of quite how much land is owned by so few,” he writes, adding: “A few thousand dukes, baronets and country squires own far more land than all of middle England put together.”

“Land ownership in England is astonishingly unequal, heavily concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite.  The aristocracy and gentry still own around 30% of England”. This may even be an underestimate, as the owners of 17% of England and Wales remain undeclared at the Land Registry. The most likely owners of this undeclared land are aristocrats, as many of their estates have remained in their families for centuries.

As these estates have not been sold on the open market, their ownership does not need to be recorded at the Land Registry, the public body responsible for keeping a database of land and property in England and Wales.

Shrubsole estimates that 18% of England is owned by corporations, some of them based overseas or in offshore jurisdictions. He has based this calculation on a spreadsheet of land owned by all UK-registered companies that has been released by the Land Registry. From this spreadsheet, he has listed the top 100 landowning companies.

The list is headed by a large water company, United Utilities, which said that much of its land consisted of areas immediately surrounding its reservoirs.

Prominent on the list are the Boughton estate in Northamptonshire, belonging to the Duke of Buccleuch, the Woburn estate, which is owned by the Duke of Bedford, and the Badminton estate in Gloucestershire, owned by the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort. Several large grouse moor estates also figure prominently.

Shrubsole, who works as a campaigner for the environmental charity Friends of the Earth, estimates that “a handful of newly moneyed industrialists, oligarchs and City bankers” own around 17% of England.

The public sector – central and local government, and universities – appears to be the most open about its landholdings, according to Shrubsole, partly in order to advertise land it has wanted to sell off in recent years. He concludes that the public sector owns 8% of England.

Shrubsole writes that the bulk of the population owns very little land or none at all. Those who own homes in England, in total, own only 5% of the country.


He calculates that the land under the ownership of the royal family amounts to 1.4% of England. This includes the Crown Estate, the Queen’s personal estate at Sandringham, Norfolk, and the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster, which provide income to members of the family.

Conservation charities, such as the National Trust and the Woodland Trust, collectively own 2% of England, while the church accounts for 0.5%.

A small number of ultra-wealthy individuals have traditionally owned vast swaths of land in Scotland.  A recent major review conducted by the Scottish Land Commission, a government quango, found that big landowners behaved like monopolies across large areas of rural Scotland and had too much power over land use, economic investment and local communities. Radical reforms on land-ownership was concluded.

Carys Roberts, chief economist of the left-of-centre thinktank the Institute for Public Policy Research, said she was “shocked but not surprised” by Shrubsole’s findings on the concentration of land ownership. She said that the concentration of land in a few hands was a big reason why wealth as a whole was so unequal in the country, as those without land were prevented from generating more income.

She added: “We have this idea that the class structures have changed so that the aristocracy is not as important as it used to be. What this demonstrates is the continuing importance of the aristocracy in terms of wealth and power in our society.”

She said one effect of the sale of public land was that the public lost democratic control of that land and it could not then be used, for example, for housing or environmental improvements. “You can’t make the best social use of it,” she added.

Despite the land inequalities, the UK has the third highest number of millionaires in the world despite the relatively small population.  This figure might seem incongruous with the main body of this blog post but when you consider that a 1 bedroom flat in London can easily cost over £10 million, it is easy to see how being a millionaire might not get you very much at all at least in terms of personal space.

Of course, the vast majority of people however aren’t millionaires.   If you’d like to read more then check out the interesting website Who Owns England?      Despite my pathetic level of ownership of Parliament Square, I pay more taxes than Starbucks…. find out how with https://stephenliddell.co.uk/2012/10/25/corporate-tax-dodgers-am-i-really-more-profitable-than-starbucks/

If you’d like to see just a few of my posts of Anglo-Saxon England then feast below!

Anglo Saxon Treasures    The Epic of Beowulf      Æthelflaed – Lady of the Mercians

The Terrible Tale of Ælfheah – Archbishop of Canterbury


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The Extinction Rebellion Protests in London

The environment is something I’ve always taken a keen issue in since when as a young boy I gave all my meagre savings to help seals in the North Sea.  I’ve written a few posts here and there on the subject and even had a few cover stories published in specialist publications.

The death of the Aral Sea

London – The first National Park City in the World

How Technology Can Help Solve The Water Crisis In Africa

The first of several cover and lead stories of 2014.

The first of several cover and lead stories of 2014.

When I am touring the political parts of London, I always take the time to introduce people to the primary points of protest, the people who were protesting and what they were protesting, whether universal suffrage, the Magna Carta, Nelson Mandela and the ANC, the story of Gandhi in London, Brexit and many more.

Recently London has made the news again as the protest capital of the world and this for the Extinction Rebellion environmental protests.  I must say,  hardly a day goes by when there hasn’t been protests going on.  Brexit of course has been happening for a few years but the last week or so has seen many of the key junctions and bridges in London to be peacefully occupied by environmental protestors who want not just further change in Britain but to inspire the world to follow suit as has so often happened from the events in and around Westminster.

I thought I would share just a few photos of the last week.


The photos above and below have protestors who have scaled some trees in Parliament Square and laying in hammocks above some of the great figures of democracy.  Nelson Mandela on the left, Sir Robert Peel on the point who founded the first professional police.  Just out of shot on the right is Gandhi and behind the double decker bus in Abraham Lincoln.


The following images are from the junction of Westminster Bridge, Whitehall and Parliament Square.  It was a nice change being able to walk around the streets like this.


Parliament Square like several other places were peacefully occupied for a week before everything re-opened.   I think there is something uniquely British about people being able to peacefully protest for days on end, blocking or key roads and right infront of Parliament with the police by and large happy to let things be as opposed to the much more aggressive actions of the police and governments around the world with even in France the police taking aggressive action and spraying chemicals in the faces of protestors.   Sadly it is countries that are the least abiding of the right to protest such as China and Russia where the pollution levels are amongst the worst in the world.


I wonder what all the big figures would make of people defending and asserting their rights, campaigning for dramatic changes to be made in the very places where it has been done for a millennia or two.

I took the video above yesterday (April 23rd 2019) as more protestors from Extinction Rebellion moved from Marble Arch to Parliament Square.  How apt I caught this at Constitution Hill, right next to Buckingham Palace on St George’s Day.

My tourists really love the fact that they don’t just see the famous sights but that I take them to see real London.  Some of them cheering on protests that would never be allowed to take place in their own homelands and thus doing just a little bit more at further the causes of freedom, democracy and peaceful protest that we are so lucky to be able to enjoy.

Just a decade or so ago it was the politicians here that spear-headed debt cancellation across the developing world and many of the elements that were eventually signed off in the Paris Climate Accords, who knows if once again real change will spread across the world inspired by the events in Parliament Square.

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Supporting BBC Comic Relief with a very special Sherlock tour

Today is Easter Monday and though I’m working as I have done every day so far this year, it seems like an apt time to make this post considering the time of year.

One of the nice things I like about running my own company is that I can do lots of things to help people in a wide variety of ways.

A few weeks ago I was approached by the offices of Richard Curtis.  The first thing that came into my head was that I had unintentionally infringed on some copyright on my new Romcom Tour as like most people, I’m a fan of Richard Curtis though in my case particularly his long running 1980’s comedy BlackAdder.

As it happened however I wasn’t in any trouble and precisely the opposite, I was being approached to help organise and run a special Sherlock Tour for BBC Comic Relief for 2 lucky prize winners from the USA and one of the stars of the Sherlock TV show.

It was rather unexpected but one of those things that often seems to happen to me, it being just a few weeks earlier when I was approached to film a piece for an international news show on Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill due to my Churchill Walk and War Rooms Tour.


Filming on a nippy late February Day.

I immediately decided not to charge anything for the tour as once or twice a year I donate tours to charity fund-raising events and I knew if I were to charge anything then it would only take away money from those in need both in the U.K. and Africa.

The lucky prize winners had entered a competition where they would win breakfast with Benedict Cumberbatch and several other actors at Speedy’s, one of the key locations in the television show and then have a special tour which is where I came was to come in.

The hardest bit was to be the section of the tour at 221B Baker Street, the iconic museum house in the home of the Victorian sleuth. They are always bursting with tourists and very busy and understandably it is hard to get special allowances made.  The official organisers had been trying for a while to get somewhere with them as taking a Sherlock actor and prize winners into Sherlocks actual house would be a bit of a logistical nightmare with hundreds of albeit very friendly fans around.

To the astonishment of all, one very nice and friendly email from moi and we had the keys to the house and we were given permission to miss out on the entrance line that could at times be anything from 10 minutes to well over an hour long.

It was a little bit of a nervous morning beforehand as everything was on a time-table which understandably slipped as events unfolded as the breakfast was going so well but around 11am in the morning a big black car pulled up at 221B Baker Street.

Out jumped the two prize winners I expected but then not one but two actors from the show.  All went very much to plan and Paul from the museum was kind enough to give a splendid introduction for the first room of the house.  From then on we had the house pretty much to ourselves.

Being a Sherlock fan myself, it was quite a thrill and both the actors were very friendly and into it.  We had quite a laugh as we looked at photos on the wall of Victorian criminals, one of whom looks rather like Arnold Swarzenegger or John Malkovich only with longer hair and a smarter fashion sense.  At one point we all posed for photos and the actors took a selfie and they laughed when I said it was harder to take a selfie with a gas lamp for lighting!  I finally got to play with the Victorian police truncheon, handcuffs and other things.

It was a little surreal giving a Sherlock tour in the Sherlock museum house to actors who play roles in the official television show.  I remember watching Una Stubbs when I was about 3 years old in the 1970’s even with my Grandparents and not only did she want to know everything about everything but she had enjoyed her time at Speedy’s so much that she had gate-crashed the tour too.

Louise Brealey was so lovely and we joked all the way round, she is a very nice and friendly lady and I’m a fan of many of her shows, I should say all of her shows!

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Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson on the left, Louise Brealey as Molly on the right and myself.

We were in 221B Baker Street for about 40 minutes as there was a time-table to stick too and I didn’t want to bore the actors whilst I was also aware there were several dozen visitors exploring the house room by room as we moved ever on upwards.

I was as professional as possible but very glad to have a few photos taken, including this one above and every thing filmed and photographed as we went round which was interesting.

Afterwards some of us went off to Bloomsbury where I did a small section of my Sherlock locations tour.   The prize winners were lovely people and enjoyed every moment, I don’t think they could believe their luck and the two ladies from the studios were wonderful too.

Afterwards I went to see my friend Chris, the owner of Speedy’s and had a much deserved cold drink as I waited to meet a friend from Germany who I’d met 2 years earlier when she had booked my Sherlock tour.

To think when I started the Sherlock Tour, I didn’t think anyone would really want to do it at all.  Like many if not most of my tours, my tours through Ye Olde England Tours were and still are quite unique, although since the profligacy of the internet, you do get quite a few pale-imitations trying their luck.  However being chosen to give such a special Sherlock tour by Richard Curtis, the BBC and Comic Relief for such a good cause and with he wonderful actors then that probably makes me almost as official as anyone can get.

Hopefully I played a small part in raising what I’ve heard is a huge amount of money and  I had a great day myself and I thank Louise, Una and everyone else for that and for the team at 221B Baker Street.

You can see a little bit of the filming locations of Sherlock and how they are where they are in my video below.

If you want to go on the first and best Sherlock Walking Tour of London based around the BBC Sherlock show but also some of the old and new movies and places relating to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle then do let me know!

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Ayuba Suleiman Diallo – The remarkable story of an African slave.

The story of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo is one of the most interesting and incredible verified accounts of an African slave during the 18th Century,  Whilst it is incredible, it also illustrates well the complexities of the slave trade and some of the injustices perpetuated upon slaves.

Diallo came from a prominent Fulbe family of Muslim religious leaders in western Africa. His grandfather had founded the town of Bundu, and he grew up with Samba Geladio Diegui the heir or kamalenku to the Kingdom of Futa-Toro.

In 1730, Ayuba became a victim of the ever-growing slave exploitation of the Senegambia region. Ayuba and his interpreter Loumein Yoas (also known as “Lamine Jay,” “Lahamin Joy,” “Lahmin Jay,” “Lamine Ndiaye,” and “Loumein Ybai”) were near the Gambia River to trade slaves and paper. While visiting some friends on their return trip, Ayuba and Yoas were captured by invading Mandingoes (successors to the mighty Mali Empire).

The invaders shaved their heads to make them appear as war captives, and there by the customs of the time in the region,  legitimately enslavable, as opposed to their actual condition of people captured in a kidnapping raid for the specific purpose of selling slaves for financial profit.

The two men were sold to figures associated with the Royal African Company who were a British mercantile firm that had originally set up to trade in gold but had subsequently branches out into slavery in what today is Ghana.

Somehow Ayuba managed to convince the English Captain Pike of his high social status, and explained that his father was capable of paying ransom.  Captain Pike granted Ayuba leave to find someone to send word to Ayuba’s family.  Sadly the messenger did not return in time and at the behest of Captain Henry Hunt, Pike’s superior, Ayuba and Loumein were sent across the Atlantic to Annapolis, Maryland, where he was delivered to Vachell Denton.

Ayuba was soon purchased by Mr. Tolsey of Kent Island, Maryland and put to work in the tobacco fields; however, after being found unsuitable for such work, he was placed in charge of the cattle. While in captivity, Ayuba used to go into the woods to pray. and this led to an incident that was to again change his life.

After being humiliated by a child while praying, Ayuba ran away and was captured and imprisoned at the Kent County Courthouse. It was there that he was discovered by a lawyer, Rev. Thomas Bluett of the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, traveling through on business.

The lawyer was impressed by Ayuba’s ability to write in Arabic.  One of his original letters is below.


‘There is no good in the country of the Christians for a Muslim’, states Ayuba Suleiman Diallo in this letter in Arabic, which he probably wrote while enslaved in Maryland after his capture on the coast of Senegal in 1731. Announcing to ‘all the Muslims of Bondu’ that he is alive, he appeals to the rulers of the country and his family to ensure that his two wives do not remarry.

Reverend Bluett wrote about the events thus:

When another African who spoke Wolof, a language of a neighboring African ethnic group, was able to translate for him, it was then discovered that he had aristocratic blood. Encouraged by the circumstances, Mr. Tolsey allowed Ayuba to write a letter in Arabic to Africa to send to his father. Eventually, the letter reached the office of James Oglethorpe, Director of the Royal African Company. After having the letter authenticated by John Gagnier, the Laudian Chair of Arabic at Oxford, Oglethorpe purchased Ayuba for £45.

According to his own account, Oglethorpe was moved with sentiment upon hearing the suffering Ayuba had endured. Oglethorpe purchased Ayuba and sent him to the London office of the Royal African Company in 1733 London with the Rev. Bluett and during his voyage learned English.

For whatever reasons, no-one had informed the Royal African Company of what should be done with Ayuba upon his arrival and remarkably it was left to one of those involved in his enslavement , Captain Henry Hunt, to  arrange for lodgings in the country for him.

Ayuba heard rumours that Hunt was planning to sell him to traders who claimed they would deliver him home. Ayuba, fearing yet more trickery, contacted Bluett and other men whom he had met en route to London. Bluett arranged for Ayuba’s stay in Cheshunt in Hertfordshire.

The RAC, following Oglethorpe’s orders, made in part through persistent requests from interested men in London, subsequently paid all the expenses and purchase price of the bond for Ayuba. Ayuba beseeched Bluett once again, explaining that none of this secured he would not be enslaved once again. According to Bluett, all the honorable men involved had promised they would not sell Ayuba into slavery, so, though supposedly Ayuba was not under any threat, Bluett and other sympathizers paid “fifty-nine pounds, six shillings, and eleven pence half-penny” simply to ease Ayuba’s anxiety.

Respectable gentleman who knew  Ayuba collected money for his “freedom in form,” an official document seal made and sealed by the RAC.

Bluett explained, “Job’s Mind being now perfectly easy,” he could fraternise with London’s elite, obtaining many gifts and new friendships, while also being of service to Hans Sloane through his newly acquired ability to translate Arabic into English. His service to Hans Sloane included organising the collection of Arabic Manuscripts at the British Museum. Ayuba was in the company of many other prominent people, including the Royal family and John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu and his wife Mary, the Duchess of Montagu, which lead him to being inducted into the Gentleman’s Society of Spalding.

In July 1734, Ayuba freely returned to Gambia and later returned to his homeland. Sadly by now his father had died, and one of his wives, presuming that Ayuba had perished, had remarried. His homeland was ravaged by war, but being a prosperous individual, he was able to regain his old lifestyle. His memoirs were published by Bluett in English and French.

Despite the incredible turn around in fortunes, Ayuba was an extremely rare good news story in the slave trade of that time. Due to his intelligence, education and the good fortune of coming across men with relatively good morals, he was able to legally escape the hardships of slavery and return home to Africa.

That wasn’t quite the end of the story though as Ayuba, however, faced later hardships. In June 1736, he was imprisoned by the French, perhaps due to his relationships with prominent figures in the U.K. He was held for a year by the French when finally his release was secured. His death was recorded in the minutes of the Spalding Gentleman’s Society in 1773.

For many years Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was best known for his striking portrait which was painted in 1733.  For centuries the original was missing and presumed lost with the work of art only known through copies, however, happily the original painting came to light at the beginning of this century.


The portrait of Diallo by William Hoare of Bath was painted in 1733

For two posts on very contrasting figures you might like to read one of my posts on prominent early Black Britons then you might like to read my 2016 post on Mary Seacole – The Greatest Black Briton or about the fascinating story of the first Black man in the British Army.


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Walking Londons Canals at Camden Lock

For our next stage of walking the canals of London we leave behind the picturesque Primrose Hill and Regents Park and continue east towards the a part of London that couldn’t be more different, Camden Lock Market.

As we get underway though take a look at the photo below.  Does it look a little strange to you with a wide expanse of water that is blocked off to the right of the Chinese restaurant?  It is rather like the junction at Little Venice only without a second canal.  Well at one time there was another canal….


As you can see from the maps below, a canal veered south east towards Euston Station but was filled in duding the 20th century as train travel well and truly superseded canal transport.  I only found this out a year or two ago when looking at the modern day map (below right) you can trace a green corridor of gardens and allotments leading right into the heart of this extremely busy corner of London.

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Leaving behind an interesting quirk of canal history we continue through some of the fancy neighbourhoods in this part of the city in total tranquility and only reminded that we are in London by the occasional event such as the passing of a London bus on an overhead bridge.



As bizarre as it sounds the bridge above is the thing I most wanted to see.  I have travelled by train over this bridge for the last 38 years or so and always looked down at the canal on the left side and wondered what it would be like to go underneath.   Far from the most picturesque part of the walk but an important one for me as two great Victorian transport networks meet.




Canoeing, kayaking and canal boating are core to our work and they strive to tackle disadvantage, challenge exclusion and support the more vulnerable members of our community through all that we do. Our raft of adventurous recreation, outdoor education and training initiatives improve health and wellbeing, nurture life and social skills and bring people together through active participation – regardless of their ability or personal circumstances.

Their work focuses on children, young people and SEND (special educational needs and disability) groups of all ages, both from our local borough of Camden and more widely across London. We also partner with mainstream and specialist schools, Pupil Referral Units, frontline and voluntary support services to deliver projects that link with the curriculum, help address challenging behaviours or improve people’s longer-term life chances.

Over the past 50 years we have transformed our stretch of the canal from an underutilised resource to a vibrant hub of opportunity and activity. Built in 1977 and designed by famous architects, Seiferts, The Pirate Castle is renowned as being the first defensive castle built in Britain since the sixteenth century. It is also a proud symbol of community dedication and ambition.

Extended and re-modelled in 2008 with Lottery and local government funding and newly-refurbished for 2017, their fully-accessible and characterful venue provides a mixture of community space, meeting rooms, a roof terrace nestled between the ramparts and dedicated changing and ‘wet’ areas for kayaking and canoeing sessions. We also have a wheelchair-friendly bankside for easy access to the canal and our boats, which include a purpose-built, wheelchair accessible canal boat – opening up the waterway for all to enjoy.

From the distant passing trains I’ve always thought the Pirate Castle to look a little strange but on getting close up, it really does look like an actual castle, albeit one made of brick rather than stone.


We’re now close to the heart of once industrial Camden.  These days the district is most famous for it’s incredible Camden Markets but 200 years ago it was full of industry and trade as the canals brought in goods and materials from all over northern England to London.   In fact the Stables Market was something like a motorway rest or service station for the horses that would have towed the boats so far into London and were now free to rest and be fed-up before taking a boat out to the country.

The photo above gives an idea of how canals then were as cleverly used then as roads or air travel is today.  A private canal goes under a 5 or 6 storey industrial building allowing for then easy movements of both raw materials and finished goods, saving lots of time and money in the process.

The view from the pubs outdoor seating area across Regents Canal.png

Photo from the Ice Wharf showing the canal going under the old building.



This beautiful old bridge over Regents Canal leads to the old Ice Wharf with a trendy pub now sporting the same name.  Right next to the old tree was a deep brick lines well which was full of ice, sometimes brought in from Norway.


We’ve come all this way without encountering any locks but these are the ones that give Camden Lock its name.  The locks are only needed for canals when going up or down hills so with London being generally flat and the canal engineers deliberately picking the flattest possible route even then, they are few and far between here but out in the country you can get several all in a line going up a hill.

If you want to see a video of a boat going through a lock then check out my video below which is taken from and old post of a walk a long my own section of the Grand Union canal just on the edge of the countryside.

We finish this section of the walk with one of the intriguing entrances to Camden Market.    If you’re a bit tempted to come and explore Londons canals with me then do take a gander at London Canals Walking Tour.


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What would have happened if the Soviet Union had nuked London?

It is hard to imagine anything worse than a nuclear war and recently a normally well-hidden document in the National Archives in Kew (West London) has come out of hiding to be the star attraction in a new exhibition.

It’s seems almost a world a way but I can very easily remember as a boy in the 1980’s the doom and gloom about the Cold War suddenly turning into a Nuclear war but just for a moment imagine what might have been.


Nuclear war has come to Britain, levelling our cities, killing millions and leaving the wretched survivors in a new Dark Age, scrabbling like rats in the ruins of civilisation.

In the streets, ghostly figures stagger in search of food and water. At special Government depots, armed police stand guard, ready to shoot looters on sight.

And in countless homes across the country, grieving families are holed up in their makeshift fallout shelters, their food supplies dwindling as the corpses in their living rooms begin to rot.

It sounds like some terrible nightmare. Yet in reality, this was Britain in 1981 — or it could have been.

For deep in the bowels of the National Archives, in the leafy streets of Kew, West London, is perhaps the most terrifying document in our history.

During WW2 Britain had its own nuclear development project but stretched beyond breaking point by war and invasion preparations, Britain shelved work on its own project and instead gave its expertise to the American Manhattan project.

The dropping of atom bombs by the U.S. on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 had made an enormous impact on world opinion. ‘The time is short,’ writes Labour’s Prime Minister Clement Attlee in one document. ‘I believe that only a bold course can save civilisation.’

He was unswervingly committed to Britain’s national security, and indeed it was Attlee and his Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, who were the key figures in establishing NATO, the alliance that won the Cold War for democracy and which celebrates its 70th birthday this week.

Immediately after the war however, the USA changed its policy and no longer saw the obligation to share the technology with Britain and indeed 72% of the American public felt similarly regardless of the history behind the development of nuclear weapons.

As Bevin told his Cabinet colleagues in 1946, Britain simply could not rely on the Americans, but must have its own nuclear deterrent. ‘We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs,’ he said bullishly. ‘We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.’

Britain did get its own bomb in 1952, but fears of Soviet nuclear attack continued to run very high.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis ten years later, many people were literally unable to sleep, terrified that they would wake to see a mushroom cloud from their bedroom window.

The exhibition has great fun with the short films and leaflets in the government’s ‘Protect and Survive’ campaign, which was prepared in the mid-Seventies to use in the event of war. The aim was to reassure people that they could survive a nuclear holocaust.

Yet few were persuaded by the campaign’s make-do-and-mend, how to build their own fallout refuges.

On paper the short films sound almost boring: ‘Materials to Use for Your Fall-Out Room’, ‘Water and Food’, ‘Sanitation Care’. Yet even now there is something horribly haunting about the official advice on how to dispose of the bodies of family members.

‘If anyone dies when you are in your fallout room, move the body to another room in the house,’ the narrator says sternly. ‘Label the body with name and address, and cover it as tightly as possible in polythene, paper, sheets or blankets.’

Few of us, I imagine, would relish wrapping and labelling the radiation-ravaged body of even the most annoying relative. Yet the remorseless logic of the Cold War meant that people genuinely had to think about such issues. The exhibition even includes a reconstruction of an ordinary family’s fallout refuge, complete with makeshift toilet, tinned Fray Bentos pies and a packet of Charles and Diana-themed liquorice.

And what if the worst had happened?

In 1983 a study by the British Medical Association estimated that 33 million people would be killed in a Soviet strike. But it could be argued that they would have been the lucky ones.

Would it be far better to be killed at once, than to find yourself dying slowly of radiation sickness in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where civilisation had collapsed?

To anyone born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, all this must seem like ancient history. And in some ways, the Cold War looks like a lost age of stability and certainty, when the Western world was led by statesmen (and one woman) beside whom today’s politicians look like inept weak figures they are.

Step by step, the top-secret war-game exercise, codenamed Wintex-Cimex 81, sought to test Britain’s preparedness for a Third World War. It explained how the planet stumbled towards Armageddon, leading to the nightmarish scenes above.


This timeline described in the document begins in March 1981, the heyday of the Cold War, when the capitalist West, led by Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and Ronald Reagan’s America, confronted the Communist East, ruled then as now by dictators in the Kremlin, Moscow.

The envisaged slide to war has been precipitated by a Soviet build-up in the Balkans, Moscow’s hardliners having decided to take advantage of the apparent weakness of the recession-hit Thatcher and Reagan governments.

As the international mood darkens, riots break out in British cities. Even as British troops are sent to strengthen NATO forces in West Germany, thousands of students march for peace.  Within days, railway stations are overwhelmed by people fleeing the capital, while major roads from London, Manchester and Birmingham are choked with traffic.

The government declares a state of emergency. But already shops have run out of coal, oil, batteries and candles, while many pharmacies have run out of first-aid supplies.

On Saturday 14th March, with the first reports of clashes in the Balkans and the Middle East, a massive anti-war demonstration in London’s Trafalgar Square attracts ‘prominent Left-wing MPs, leading trade unionists and personalities from many walks of life including sport and showbiz’.

Despite talk of peace, the mammoth demonstration concludes with the police wading in to arrest the Labour leader Michael Foot and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, who have been caught up in the fighting.

By Sunday night, WW3 seems inevitable. Soviet led forces have over-run the nominally non-aligned Yugoslavia, and the government announces that an attack on the West is expected ‘within hours rather than days’.

The mood is close to panic. The newspapers are full of ‘Protect and Survive’ adverts, advising people on how to build shelters in their own homes and urging them to stay inside until they hear the all-clear.

On Monday,  16th March, the first Soviet attack comes, the Kremlin’s bombers pounding British bases. The United Kingdom is now at war.

The next day, as fresh attacks destroy Britain’s air defences, the scenes in the streets are said to be ‘reminiscent of Vietnam . . . as families with children push overladen supermarket trolleys along the roads out of cities’.

Some 15,000 people are fleeing to the West Country and Wales every hour to seek refuge in the countryside. In rural areas, farmers are forced to use shotguns against ‘marauding bands of youths’.

Finally on the morning of the 20th March, Mrs Thatcher’s War Cabinet meets to consider the worst. With Soviet forces breaking through in West Germany, defeat seems inevitable. There is only one option left.

NATO commanders have asked permission to launch nuclear weapons at enemy bases in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria, in a last, desperate attempt to save the West from total collapse.

‘Never before,’ record the official minutes ‘had a Cabinet been faced with such a grim choice between capitulating to a powerful and malevolent aggressor, and embarking on a course of action which could end with the destruction of civilisation. But the choice had to be made.’

Mrs Thatcher gives the go-ahead. Before dawn the next morning, the missiles are launched. And by the time Britain awakes, the nuclear holocaust has begun.

grayscale photo of explosion on the beach

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There the document ends, with Western civilisation on the brink of utter destruction.

It may sound a little far fetched but between 1945, when Europe was divided between Communist East and democratic West, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many in Britain really did live in genuine fear of nuclear Armageddon.

As the Kew exhibition shows, this was a conflict that seeped into almost every aspect of daily life. It was a war of spies and secrets, missiles and rockets, consumer pleasures and state surveillance.

But it was also a cultural struggle for hearts and minds, from Ian Fleming’s best-selling James Bond books in the Sixties to the triumphs of Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Daley Thompson at the boycott-hit Moscow Olympics in 1980.

Cold War Britain was a world of deception, defectors and double agents, from the infamous Cambridge traitors to Soviet defectors such as the heroic Oleg Gordievsky, who gave Margaret Thatcher vital intelligence on the weakness of the Soviet regime in the Eighties.

Among countless enthralling documents, the National Archives exhibition contains a list of potential traitors compiled by George Orwell for MI5 in 1949, among them the Left-wing actors Charlie Chaplin and Michael Redgrave, the historian E.H. Carr and the Labour MP Tom Driberg.  I wonder if somewhere they have records on current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, met with an agent for the blood-drenched Czechoslovakian secret service?

These days Nuclear War isn’t talked about so much in the same way as it used to be but it isn’t unimaginable.  Ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan, an isolated but aggressive Russia and a Britain and America subsumed by internal conflicts and many experts believe that the risks of a nuclear conflict have increased in the last 5-10 years.

Even today, in the event that should Britain be all but destroyed in a surprise attack, the prime minister has written an aptly named “letter of last resort” for the commanding officer on each nuclear submarine in the Royal Navy.

If Britain is destroyed and the PM cannot be contacted this letter can finally be opened.

In it, she gives her last instructions…

  The commanding officer is given one of several orders: He may be told to retaliate or ordered not to retaliate. Alternatively he could be instructed to place the submarine under an allied country’s command.

 Or, finally, he may be told to use his own judgement as to whether or not Trident should be deployed.

No pressure then!

HMS Victorious a Royal Navy Nuclear Submarine at the Forth Estuary. Photo: LA(phot) Mez Merrill/MOD

HMS Victorious a Royal Navy Nuclear Submarine at the Forth Estuary. Photo: LA(phot) Mez Merrill/MOD

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Meeting the Sun atop Primrose Hill

One of the highlights, literally, of walking along Regents Canal is the chance to journey up Primrose Hill.  I’d never been here before and so thought it was as good an opportunity as any to walk up and see one of the most iconic vantage points over Central London and take in its legendary Protected View.


The protected view of St Pauls Cathedral from Primrose Hill

Primrose Hill stands at 213 feet or around 65 metres in height and is located on the northern side of Regent’s Park in London and the name has also lent itself to the surrounding neighbourhoods. Nowadays it is one of the most exclusive and expensive residential areas in London and is home to many prominent residents who are members of what are known as the Primrose Hill Set.

In fact when I was there aside from a handful of rather breathless tourists, the park seemed to be full of American and French millionaires enjoying their constitutional walks.

Depending on the route one takes, it can be a surprising steep climb to the summit but it is well worth the effort giving as it does views of Hampstead and Belsize Park to the north as well as its famous view to the south.  The summit is adorned by an engraved quotation from William Blake.



At one time Primrose Hill was a place where duels were fought and prize-fights took place here too. Centuries earlier, 15th century prophetess and soothsayer Mother Shipton made threatening prophesies about what would happen if the city sprawl was allowed to encroach on its boundaries

Like Regent’s Park, Primrose Hill was once part of a great chase appropriated by Henry VIII. Later, in 1841, it became Crown property when purchases from Eton College and in 1842 an Act of Parliament secured the land as public open space. The built-up part of Primrose Hill comprises mainly Victorian terraces.


The picturesque homes around Primrose Hill

Primrose Hill has always been one of the more fashionable districts in that ring that surrounds Central London from the suburbs, and it remains expensive and prosperous. Primrose Hill is an archetypal example of a successful London urban village, due to the location and the quality of its socio-historical development.  Like many of the most desirable residential parts of London, you could quite easily forget you were in London at all and a world away from the famous tourist sights that are within view from the hill top. 

In October 1678, Primrose Hill was the scene of the mysterious murder of Edmund Berry Godfrey. In 1792 the radical Unitarian poet and antiquarian Iolo Morganwg  founded the Gorsedd, a community of Welsh bards, at a ceremony on 21 June at Primrose Hill.


All manner of influential historic figures have lived nearby with many blue wall plaques illustrating where they once lived.  Amongst the most famous include the revolutionary socialist and philosopher Friedrich Engels and poet William Butler Yeats at 23 Fitzroy Road.

On a more contemporary note, Stanley Johnson who is the father of Boris has lived here and beloved actors Joan Bakewell and actor Derek Jacobi still do.


So what about the view?  Quite frankly it is breathtaking and the photos can’t do any justice to it whatsoever and I can only imagine what it would look like at dawn, dusk or after dark.

You can see everything from Islington in the far left over the near side of the East End to the Docklands and Canary Wharf and then the mass jumble of the old Roman City with St Pauls and The Shard a little to the right and with the BT Tower in Bloomsbury and the West End in the foreground with many of the famous sights visible, further back and stretching to the right is Westminster with the London Eye and Parliament visible further back and then to the right stretching over Notting Hill, Kensington, Chelsea and way over towards Hammersmith and Twickenham (I would imagine).


The view from Primrose Hill

It’s back to the canals on Wednesday but for now why not check out last years post on the massive amount of green spaces in London.  https://stephenliddell.co.uk/2018/10/01/london-the-first-national-park-city-in-the-world/



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