Bri­tish breaks: Un­seen Lon­don

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents -

Se­cret sites, al­ter­na­tive tours and wild corners to light up a city stay

Pete knows Brick Lane like no one else. Un­til a few months ago, he lived in a shel­ter here. When it shut down, he landed his own place, but it was while watch­ing the same old guides stride up and down the area, scour­ing the Banksys (“He’s not in my top five,” grinned Pete) and its for­mer Vic­to­rian rook­eries (“The Rip­per didn’t only strike in Whitechapel!”), that an idea hit him: why not write his own tour?

He found a saviour in Un­seen Tours, a not-for-profit en­ter­prise that helps the vul­ner­a­bly housed and home­less be­come guides. It’s not ‘poverty tourism’ or voyeurism; it’s about telling the story of an area from a per­spec­tive you just wouldn’t or­di­nar­ily hear.

Pete pref­aces his Brick Lane tours with a warn­ing. “I’ve got opin­ions,” he told me in his deep Man­cu­nian drawl, “and you might not agree with them.” But it’s hard not to be drawn into his world. He speaks quickly and hon­estly; there’s no soap box, just insight, les­sons learned… and mur­ders.

We be­gan at the site where a young Bangladeshi, Altab Ali, was killed in 1978 by far-right thugs. Pete painted a pic­ture of the rage in the East End at the time, as The Clash stoked the ire of anti-racist pro­tes­tors at the ad­ja­cent park now named after Ali. This was the same area where fas­cist leader Oswald Mosely’s black­shirts had tried to march 40 years ear­lier, and as with a lot of the tour, Pete’s mes­sage is one of so­cial change.

Brick Lane is an area of con­stant up­heaval. Its iconic mosque was once a syn­a­gogue, and be­fore that a church built by French Huguenots flee­ing per­se­cu­tion. Each com­mu­nity came here for a new life, then moved on. Even its street art isn’t meant to last – its power comes from re­newal.

Things get lost in the churn, but that’s where Pete comes in. At times he’s out­raged (at laws that leave some to die on the streets), at oth­ers moved. All the while he gives a face to what came be­fore in his hymn to the over­looked, from Rip­per vic­tims to work­ers.

Lon­don is full of hid­den sto­ries. Un­seen Tours’ walk­ing his­to­ries are a day out like no other, but in a city of caves, tun­nels and se­crets, al­ways plenty more to dis­cover.

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