Cleaves Almshouses Kingston tour guide

Take a tour of Kingston Upon Thames

Take a tour of Kingston Upon Thames

Julian McCarthy talks about why he loves being a volunteer tour guide and the secret gems to be discovered

(Picture top: Cleaves Almshouses)

The most frequent comment I hear, when I suggest to people that they come on a free tour of historical Kingston, aside from “Not interested in history!” is “Oh, yes, I did that years ago, enjoyed it very much, but now know ALL about Kingston thank you!”

It still surprises me as no one, guides included, knows ‘all about Kingston’ and things are being discovered about the town all the time. The comparative gold mine of our local history is far from exhausted and there are, most certainly, nuggets which have been extracted of which people are not perhaps aware.

Don’t get me wrong, though surprised at the finality of their response I understand it. People tend not to explore or wish to learn about the area in which they live and yet think nothing of going on a tour when away on holiday.

So, try these questions:

“Where in Kingston, arguably, was the course of English history changed twice?’

“Where in Kingston, again arguably, was the course of world history changed twice?”

“Where can you see use of the English language using only 24 letters of the alphabet and still using Anglo- Saxon letters?’

“Where did the eastern route of the river Thames run which meant that Kingston was originally on an island surrounded by the river?

“Where is Kingston’s ‘Cathedral’?

“Who collected dog poo and why?”

Hopefully, at least one of these may have intrigued and perhaps sparked interest and I also hope the spark catches the tinder of your further interest about what you walk past when in town.

I became a volunteer guide somewhat by chance. One afternoon my employer advised that she had “had enough” of the construction industry we were in and that “one day I am going to close the company, lock the front door and do something else!”.

This bolt from the blue led me to sit down and to consider what I was doing; did I really like it and what would I have done years ago had I not fallen into the design engineering profession which became my career. So many of us it seems end up doing something that they do not actually like and once committed cannot change. It is only when change is enforced that we have time to reconsider.

I had always loved history but thought at 18 that it wasn’t actually a career and so with the threat of the company closing down and the office front door being locked, I looked to see what I could do that I would love. I researched being a ‘Blue Badge’ guide for London but the time commitment and the need to speak two languages ruled me out from that path. However, my wife’s aunt was chair of the Guildford Tour Guides and having been taken on tours and thoroughly enjoyed them I enquired about Kingston and was fortunate to find that the ‘official’ Tour Guides were looking for new volunteers. (Aside note: We still are!)

I applied, was accepted, studied in my spare time, took a test, and became a qualified guide.

Fortunately, the front door to the office of my employment remained open and I continued my engineering design career but at weekends and some evenings could now enjoy seeing the reaction when the eyes and occasionally mouths of the guests on the tour opened as they commented to the effect “Wow, I did not know that!”

For me the fun of being a volunteer tour guide is twofold. Most definitely it is the imparting and sharing of information which makes parties look at the town in a different way. Added to this, however, is the thrill of the search to discover more to supplement that already known.

The Internet is a mine of information and people are opening up new tunnels therein year by year. Many universities are scanning and digitally uploading books that have sat, perhaps ignored, in their libraries for decades. Such works provide accounts of people travelling through Surrey and visiting Kingston in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Being able to read these and then investigate further is akin to a treasure hunt.

Being a tour guide, for me, therefore allows me to wear the various hats of ‘teacher’, ‘detective’ and ‘puzzle solver’. I get to meet people of various ages (we take Cub Scouts, Scouts and Guides on tours to secure their ‘Local History’ badge) and it is good exercise, the route being flat and being out in the fresh air, whatever the weather.

It is important to note that, although dates are important with regard to when an event took place, they are not the focus of the tour, and it is the telling of the true stories and anecdotes (guides are not allowed to ‘make things up’ or change facts) which are key to the tours.

As such and considering that each of the guides has their own personal favourite facts and stories to tell, each tour, whilst intrinsically the same route, will highlight what that particular guide wishes to impart. I enter All Saints’ Church as part of my tour whereas other guides may not, even though as part of their training they would be able to talk about the church. It is simply that they may wish to devote time to talk elsewhere on the route.  So, each tour is different and, as they are free, there is nothing preventing anyone so inclined, from coming on various walks and seeing or hearing something different each time.

(pictured: Eden Street mural, Julian McCarthy)

I am often asked what my favourite places, stories and anecdotes are, in and of Kingston. The answers to the questions posed above provide an immediate insight. However, in addition to those, I would have to say that, for me, the ‘king’ of buildings has to be the Market House where the free weekly Sunday tours start at 11am.

My other top spots? Well, there is a seldom seen but recently refurbished Victorian ballroom upstairs at the rear of the Griffin and accessible now via the passageway to the Hogsmill river when visiting the new cocktail bar there.

The story of the commercial ‘battle’ of the New Malden and Kingston undertakers and the little- known museum of Frederick W Paine’s in the London Road are favourites.

I like standing by Clattern Bridge and entering a mental ‘time machine’. I am back to the time, just after the Norman invasion when the town slowly began to develop and someone suggested, perhaps, considering how prosperous the new town is becoming, it would be of financial benefit for the town’s elders to invest in a stone bridge instead of the existing rickety wooden bridge to the town from the south. They invested, the town did grow and back from the time machine, the bridge is still in use 900 years later and is still named after an Anglo-Saxon word ‘Clatrung’ and is believed to derive from the clattering of horses’ hooves as they crossed the bridge.

I have always been fascinated by sun dials – so simple in action but they need to be positioned correctly – and so I always stop to admire the sundial over the front door of the mid -17th Century Cleaves Almshouses in Old London Road.

The town’s main museum, next to the Library, in Wheatfield Way, holds interesting and quirky treasures and yet is often overlooked as a place to visit.  The guides now provide a monthly ‘quirky’ tour of the museum to try to entice people to visit and then talk to others about what they have seen, hopefully then returning to investigate the collections further.

The Muybridge collection and the full story of his life, as well as the Brill Art collection held by the museum are equally fascinating.

But being a qualified tour guide and volunteer isn’t all about walking. Our role, most certainly, is to tell people about Kingston but what if people cannot make it into the town? We often visit local groups and societies and provide illustrated talks, bringing the stories to people.

Why do I do it? We are taught not to answer a question with a question and so avoiding a response to the effect of ‘why does anybody volunteer?’ I suppose the answer is that, for me, it provides a sense of commitment, the ability to help in the community, the chance to awaken and perhaps enlighten people to their surrounds, the chance to see the realisation or understanding in people who want to know more about the town. Oh yes, as I know I have already said above, it is also great fun.

As to the answers to the questions posed at the outset, if you are intrigued and perhaps realise that there may well be things that your previous tour, many years ago, didn’t touch upon, why not visit the Tour Guides website and drop me a line and I shall be more than happy to advise you.

Separately, please make a point of visiting the museum and talking about it. As with the library, the museum and the local history research rooms, located at the rear of the Guildhall, the adage of ‘if you don’t use them, you will lose them’ has never been as true and critical as it is today.

History may not be your ‘thing’ but whether you are a resident of the town or are in the neighbourhood, whether you are simply visiting or entertaining family or friends and are looking for something to do, why not commit to coming on a tour and I promise you, it will open your eyes to the town.

To book a tour or talk, to simply ask questions, find out more and to meet the guides, please visit

The tour guides are there every Sunday (February- November) and people can simply turn up at 11.00 am – but it is always better to contact them in advance at the website.They can provide walking tours on other days and also illustrated talks for those who cannot get to the town.