This appeared as part of an article that was published in the January 2012 edition of The Sunday Times Travel Magazine about London walks. Chris Roberts also runs the wonderful One Eye Grey magazine and he will shortly issue a volume of stories from the magazine on Kindle. In March 2012, Chris will be hosting some special related one-off walking tours.
Deep in Chelsea’s prim back streets on a drizzly winter evening, half-a-dozen people wearing blindfolds are groping their way down a quiet Georgian square past James Bond’s house, leaning on each other for guidance, and giggling like schoolchildren. This is what happens when you go on Chris Roberts’s Liars London tour, a walk that offers fact, fiction and forfeits in the fancy surroundings of Sloane Square.
Roberts, a librarian, London historian and author, came up with the Liars London idea four years ago when he was asked to curate a tour for the local council. It’s a simple idea. Roberts and Silvana Maimone lead the walk and at each stop they both tell a story about the area: one story will be true and the other false. The audience are asked to guess who is lying and the person who is right most often receives a small prize at the end. Get it wrong, and you may have to pay a location-related forfeit, such as walk around in a blindfold, write a poem, or have a duel with waterpistols. Roberts and Maimone are a great double act, garrulous and witty, happily interrupting each other’s story-telling with exaggerated scoffing. Under their spell the 20-or-so walkers soon start to relax.
We are strangers when we meet among the evening commuters and blinking fairy lights at Sloane Square, but have already bonded by the time we reach the Saatchi Gallery at the affluent end of the King’s Road, where London’s wealthy still promenade in ostentatious fashion. Roberts is spinning an improbable yarn about British fascist Oswald Mosley, when an eavesdropping passer-by indignantly mutters in plumy tones, quite correctly as it happens, ‘What a load of rubbish!’ much to our amusement.
Because the walks require two hosts and require around 20 people attendees – people are happier to participate as part of a larger group, Roberts believes – they must be booked in advance. The Chelsea tour goes from busy Sloane Square down through quiet residential back streets, where every house is impeccably maintained and fragrantly festooned with hanging baskets, before finishing at Cheyne Walk, an 18th-century parade of grand houses nestling on the banks of the Thames, whose surface gleams inkily in the moonlight.
Over 90 fascinating minutes, we take in unusual landmarks such as James Bond’s fictional house on Royal Avenue and the riverside home of wombat-obsessed Romantic poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. When it comes to the stories, the truth is often just as entertaining and unlikely-sounding as the fiction. Outside the rich brick walls of Chelsea Physic Garden, a seventeenth-century botanical garden, we are asked to choose between Maimone’s story about how a strange plant here became the inspiration for the fiendish foliage in John Wyndham’s sci-fi classic Day Of The Triffids, and Roberts’s (correct) claim that cotton seeds taken from Chelsea ended up being picked by slaves in the southern state of the United States, ultimately leading to the American Civil War.
Tall tales or otherwise, this sort of London knowledge is a personal obsession for Roberts, who has written a book, ‘Cross River Traffic’, about London’s bridges, and edits One Eye Grey, a magazine devoted to capital folklore. As such, he can’t help himself but pepper each conversation with a few extra facts and arcane titbits, making the walk a treasure trove for those who like trivia, albeit trivia that’s sometimes indistinguishable from entertaining falsehood.