A Guidebook Digression

London Bridge (Tower Bridge) : Reflection on the River Thames
The Tower Bridge reflected in the River Thames

Destination: London

Book Cover
Book: I Never Knew That About London (Great Britain 2007; NEW in U.S. 2012) by Christopher Winn

As the title suggests, you will find surprises on every page of I Never Knew That About London.

Some travelers pride themselves in going on a trip with no knowledge beforehand.  They will tell you they have an open mind.  Unfortunately, that may simply be a vacant mind, indicating a lazy traveler who skims the surface of a place.

The London visitor says, “Oh look, there’s a big clock up there on that tower and beside the river stands a walled-in collection of buildings that look gray and a little scary.”

If they take along I Never Knew That About London, Christopher Winn will enlighten our open-minded tourist about the big clock, which we generally call Big Ben.

Clock Tower, Palace of Westminster (#132)In fact Big Ben refers to the hour bell of the Great Clock of Westminster, the largest bell ever cast at the Whitechapel Foundry.



Winn also explains whom “Ben” might have been and how the clock is kept accurate within one second a day.

The author uses all caps to emphasize the most important ‘unknowns’ about each location.  Each entry has a least one of these capitalized passages that say “GEE WHIZ! I didn’t know that!”

The initial description of the Tower of London (that grim gray collection of buildings beside the river) warrants four sets of caps in the first paragraph.  We suspected as much when Ken and I visited the Tower on a rushed, jet-lagged, sleep-deprived early morning layover in London.  We had to choose just a couple of stops off the Big Red Bus tour, and the Tower was our first choice. (The British Museum is my first choice of destinations in London, but I knew darned well that a half day wasn’t going to do it.) I wish I had read About London first.  I didn’t even know that the Tower was started in 1078 by William the Conqueror.  At 90 feet (27 m.) the central keep was:

The Traitors´ Gate
The Traitor’s Gate at the Tower of London

(Imagine all caps where you see italics in the next four lines)

The Tallest Building in London at the time.

The Oldest and most Complete Norman castle of its type in England.

[The White Tower is] the Oldest Complete Building in London.

[St. John’s Chapel–part of the Tower is] The Oldest Unchanged Church in London .


The facts about the tower keep coming–first latrines in a building, first official execution, and THE LAST EVER PRISONER at the Tower of London was Hitler’s deputy, Rudolph Hess.

What that tells me, besides the details, is that the Tower not only warrants a visit as the current home of the Crown Jewels, but it saw important people and events of England pass through for 863 years.  While most of the stories about the Tower focus on imprisonment and death and dastardly deeds, a page at the end of this section of the book informs us that

The Duke of Orleans wrote THE FIRST VALENTINE CARD, a love poem to his wife [from his cell in the Tower].

It was easy to find these references to Big Ben and The Tower of London to use as illustrations of the way that I Never Knew That About London works, because of the book’s superb organization. The reader travel through London section by section, neighborhood by neighborhood, so you can focus on your immediate neighborhood as you travel. Additionally, the information is indexed by people (so you can follow Dickens, say, or Benjamin Franklin) and by places (every one you’ve heard of and may you have not).  Preceding the two indices, a gazetteer lays out essential information on each attraction by city section–street address, opening hours, nearest Underground stop, phone number and web site.

Pen drawings of buildings give you a visual reference.  But bring your own map.  The only map in the book is a small one that shows the neighborhoods by which the book is organized.  If you are not familiar with the neighborhoods of London, you’ll be totally lost.  The book was written for a British audience, but this year in anticipation of the Queen’s Jubilee and upcoming Olympics, St. Martin’s Press published an American (although not Americanized) version. Winn, by the way has published several other I Never Knew That books— all set in Great Britain and Ireland.

No, in answer to your peevish questions, you do NOT need to know all this trivia. But it certainly adds depth to the scenes you will see.  And you’ll win every trivia bet in the pub.  So do add it to your traveler’s library if you’re going to London, if you are an Anglophile, or a history buff.

Although we only had time for one significant stop, the Big Bus Tour is a hop on-hop-off bus tour that we thought was a great introduction to London on our first visit. It was, however, a drizzly day (Surprise! London!) and we did not get any pictures, so I borrowed a few for this post.

Disclaimers and Credits:  The book was provided by the publisher for review. The opinions are my own.  The photographs are from Flickr, used with Creative Commons license.

If you had limited time and could visit just one site in London, what would it be? Are you a fan of trivia?

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

4 thoughts on “GEE WHIZ London

  1. i can’t wait to read this – i love finding out details like this book provides. although the gee whiz caps might drive me crazy.

    one site in london – that’s a difficult one!! maybe a concert at st martin’s in the fields. love it there.

  2. For the past decade I have divided my year between Arizona and the greater London area. What I have learned is that London—in any weather—is a vast and layered city one can never know well enough.

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