‘Most London walking tours suck’????

Some months ago I picked up a copy of Time Out, the now free listings magazine. Flipping through the pages, I found these startling words by James Manning:
“Most London walking tours suck. You’d be hard pressed to find many that stray off well-trodden patches such as the West End, Camden Town and Brick Lane, or any that show a new side of the city to people who live there.”

I can only assume James has been looking in the wrong places. I lead walks all over London, places not mentioned in the guide books, places in south London North Londoners have probably never visited, and it’s local people who tend to be the most surprised at what is on their doorstep. Here’s a little taste of things you might see or hear about on my tours.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As I’ve said before, being a guide is a licence to be nosy, and going on a guided walk is a licence to stop and stare. Apparently James doesn’t want to feel like a tourist, and mysteriously thinks no one else wants to feel like one either. There are so many things in this short piece that feel off key. You can read it all here if you want to see what I mean.
Tourist is not a pejorative term, being a tourist is enjoyable. It’s about visiting places and finding out about them, seeing the things everyone has heard of and seeing out the hidden corners, the unexpected, the everyday and the surprising – which can sometimes be the same thing. At its best, being a tourist is about finding wonder in places both familiar and foreign. Continue reading

Advertisements

West Norwood Cemetery

Being a professional Tourist Guide is a licence to be nosy. A licence to stop and stare. We are in storytellers; not tellers of untruths, but tellers of tales of real people, real places and real objects. I’m a trained journalist as well as a Tourist Guide, so it’s second nature to look at something and wonder what the story is behind it.

At the weekend I made a long overdue visit to West Norwood Cemetery, one of the original Magnificent Seven, nothing to do with Clint Eastwood et al, but seven large private cemeteries in London established in the 19th century to alleviate overcrowding in existing parish burial grounds.

West Norwood Cemetary


I visited on a whim, so didn’t have any information with me, nothing about the famous and infamous dead or where their graves were, but with forty acres to explore on a bright cold morning I was happy to wander. Up by the crematorium and chapel I recognised this name, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon

If you have ever done my guided tour of the Elephant and Castle, you’ll have heard me talk about Spurgeon, the baptist preacher who took London by storm when he was still in his 20s. Somewhat inappropriately he was often referred to as the Pope of Newington Butts, his influence was so strong. His sermons were translated into several languages, published and widely read, and the Metropolitan Tabernacle that was his church is still at the heart of the Elephant, though damaged by bombing in the Second World War. Haddon died in Menton, France while on holiday, but his body was brought back to London where 60,000 people filed past his casket in the Tabernacle. He was buried at Norwood Cemetery on February 11 1892. Continue reading

Darkest Hour

This film, now showing in cinemas around the UK, tells the story of Winston Churchill’s opening months as Leader of the House in the Second World War. It tells a familiar tale, but also raises other issues – Churchill’s support for Edward VIII’s marriage to Wallis Simpson for one.

It reminds us that Churchill was not the steady pair of hands we have learned to regard him as with hindsight, but a risky bet at a time when the stakes could not be higher. History is played with, facts are ignored or contradicted as happens when the film maker wants to make a good story.

But on the whole, the facts do survive fairly intact. Churchill’s alcohol consumption, which is pretty prodigious, is addressed in the opening frames. His unorthodox orthodoxy, the contradictions and contrariety of his character become abundantly clear. Continue reading

Keeping It Local:

Some businesses and even some private homes have already been decked with fairy lights, trees and tinsel, but next weekend, the first in December marks the kick-off for festive fun and retail.

If, like me, your idea of hell is a crowded shopping centre or overheated department store there are artists’ studios in both Camberwell, SE5, and Walworth, SE17, open next weekend. And I’m sorry to tell you you’ve missed it, but today there was a sale of locally produced honey at Lettsom Gardens with the best lucky dip ever – everyone was a winner.

Back to next weekend. On Saturday I’m leading a guided walk around Walworth, my home patch.

The walk begins outside Kennington tube at 10.45, and ends outside opposite the Open Studios outside a café where dogs are welcome. It costs just £10pp and there’s no need to book in advance. Continue reading

The Borough Group

Think of groups of artists linked to neighbourhoods. Give yourself a minute or two.

OK, what have you come up with?

The Rive Gauche, maybe; Montmartre, perhaps; Bloomsbury, quite likely; the Elephant and Castle, almost certainly not. Yet in the mid C20 the Borough Group was a collective of artists in the Elephant and Castle area. So why Borough Group, not Elephant Group you may be wondering. Well, I can’t be one hundred percent sure, but an educated guess would be that it was because they were centred at the Borough Road Polytechnic, now London South Bank University, and there was also a gang of violent hoodlums who modelled themselves closely on Chicago mobsters know as the Elephant Gang. You would not want to get the two confused. It could be nasty. Continue reading

Cutting It

Tomorrow morning is due to be sunny; the heavens be praised.

I shall be leading a walk around The Cut starting at 10.45 outside Southwark tube.

The Cut is pretty couth these days, but George Sala, a nineteenth century journalist saw it differently. He said the gin shops, leviathan, ghastly in their newness, richness of decoration were the only things new. Everything else was secondhand. The women were slovenly, you could hear the howling of beaten children and kicked dogs; the tenements were vile and rotten. There was a smell of escaped gas, deceased cats, ancient fish, unwashed soddened, unkempt, feckless humanity.
Continue reading

Roll Up! Roll Up! for Elefest 2017 Tomorrow, 2nd September

What

I am delighted to announce that I shall be leading my guided tour, Walking the Elephant, around the Elephant and Castle tomorrow afternoon as part of this year’s Elefest. After a two year gap, Elefest is back with a whoop and the promise of good weather. Rob has dusted off the logos, printed the flyers and recruited musicians, storytellers, dancers and disc spinners to celebrate the Elephant.

Where

Continue reading

Why Walk?

I have been contacted by an Urban Studies student called George who has asked my opinion and thoughts on a number of issues around walking.

Now as a Blue Badge Guide, I guide on foot, on a coach, I lead tours of galleries and heritage sites, and walks all over London.

I enjoy all of it, but walking tours have a special place n my heart, and it was partly due to my long established habit of walking around London’s neighbourhoods that I trained as a guide in the first place.

George is particularly interested to know my thoughts in relation to one particular walk that I have developed: the Elephant and Castle.

As it happens, I shall be leading this walk on Saturday 2nd September at 2pm as part of this year’s Elefest.

The Elephant has changed enormously since since I first started to explore it nearly four decades ago when I moved into a flat nearby, just down the road in Walworth. I remember the feeling of surprise and shock to find prefab homes in the shadow of what must have been London’s most uninviting hotel, the London Park. Much later when I read of that building’s history I learned to respect it and even felt sorry when it was pulled down.

You see far more on two wheels than you do on four, but walking puts you in touch with your environment in a much more immediate way. Partly it’s to do with the speed. You notice the plants in people’s gardens, the style of curtains affected by people in different neighbourhoods, the potholes in the roads, the litter on the pavements; the new front door. You acquire a more intimate understanding than your wheeled peers.

The more you walk the same streets the more you learn their nuances. You see the subtle changes that come with the year’s seasons; the telltale signs of new investment; the pubs that have been turned into flats; the new market stall holders; the graffiti; the corner shops that close; the bars that open; the elderly person who suddenly is no longer about; the young boys doing wheelies on their bikes as they transition to adolescence. You are a witness. Continue reading