British breaks: Unseen London
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.