Think tourism is just for out-of-towners? Think again. Alex Bingham takes a stroll and encounters some of London’s walking guides. Along the way she talks with Caroline Dunmore and John Finn about the University of Westminster guiding course, is entertained by Mel Adams’ saucy tales, and learns of the enterprising efforts of the Unseen Tours team.
This podcast, “Is London like it used to be?”, delves into the world of the capital’s walking guides, and reveals a few surprises about the city’s well-known tourist spots along the way.
Tourism is big business, generating £115 billion per year for the UK economy, and whether as a result of the age of austerity encouraging people to holiday at home, or even a re-engagement with out heritage, domestic tourism is making an ever greater contribution to this overall figure.
This is all good news for London’s walking guides, who primarily develop walks for interested locals, or for those keen to get under the skin of the city. So I donned my walking shoes and headed off to meet some of the people who are setting the standard and raising the bar in the rather crowded world of guiding.
Dr Caroline Dunmore: My specialist subjects are history of art and architecture, and history of science.
John Finn: I’m particularly interested in printing and publishing, the way people lived, housing, things like that.
Caroline Dunmore and her colleague John Finn are both qualified walking guides and head up the diploma of special study in tour guiding at the University of Westminster.
AB: I’ve been talking to people about this in the process of making this podcast and the amount of people who are surpsised that there is a course that allows you to become a guide, I think people just think you have an idea and then you head out onto the streets and you start telling people about it.
JF: I think some people think that’s what you do, and that’s the variable quality of guiding that’s out there, and what we’re trying to do here is to raise that standard up to the professional level. Both Caroline and I hear guides giving out absolute nonsense to people, and it’s really quite worrying. So the whole idea of this and other guiding courses in London is to raise that level of professionalism and accuracy, content of interest, information and entertainment; all of those things together.
CD: It’s true that it is possible to go out on the street and offer your services as a guide, the quality is variable, and what we’re trying to do is introduce a standard of excellence.
AB: I’m with Caroline and John in the very grand surrounding of the courtyard of Somerset House. Caroline, why have you brought me here to start off with?
CD: Somerset House is one of my favourite places in Westminster and in the whole of London. It’s a very important building, and in particular I wanted to bring you here because we’re going to be talking about two guided walks that I do. One of them is on the history of architecture, and one of them is on the history of science. Somerset House is an important player in both those stories.
AB: We’ve walked up to the north side of the square. What s it in particular that takes your interest here?
CD: I wanted to show you the bust above the entrance doorway here. This is where students of the Courtauld Institute of Art come and on the other side visitors of the Courtauld Gallery will go in, and I’m guessing that they don’t look up, they don’t lift their eyes up to see this interesting bust. You probably can’t recognise who it’s supposed to be.
AB: No idea, actually.
CD: Well it’s the great English scientist Isaac Newton. The reason that he’s here is because this part of Somerset House, which is called the Strand block, when it was built from the 1770s-1790s, it was purpose built to be the home of three learned societies. They were the Royal Society, the Society of Antiquaries, which were essentially historians, and the Royal Academy of Arts, which was a very new organisation, just a few years old at the time, which looked after architecture, sculpture and painting. The Royal Society were housed on this side and that’s why they chose Isaac Newton, who’d been dead for about 50 years by then. He had been the president of the Royal Society, but by the time the Royal Society moved to Somerset House he had been dead for 50 years or so, but he had been such an influential and important scientist that he was the one that they wanted to put above the doorway to represent science and British science.
AB: I see on the opposite doorway there’s another classical-looking figure. Who’s that? I don’t recognise him.
CD: Well wouldn’t it be great if we could say “look, that’s William Hogarth” or Joshua Reynolds or somebody like that. In fact they chose Michelangelo. There was no English artist who had the stature of Newton, and they felt that Michelangelo was the one to put above the doorway of the Royal Academy of Arts, to represent art.
JF: It’s a year long course and through that time the students have to attend a weekly session at the University of Westminster, appear every other Saturday on the street to train themselves as guides on the street…
CD: Be trained by us.
JF: And be trained by us, exactly. And they have to take two practical examinations: one in the London Transport museum, one out on the street. This summer it was in Regent’s Park and environs, and they have to write two written pieces. One under exam conditions, and the other is a piece of submitted research.
AB: So it’s not for the faint hearted?
CD: It’s a huge amount of work and there’s a lot of pressure, yes. Of all the things I’ve ever come across, all learning activites I’ve ever come across, this is one that combines having to learn stuff, learn facts, but having to develop your performance skills, effectively. So the way I designed the Westminster course was that every single week here would be an element of each. From the word “go” I’d been emphasising that guiding is about heritage and interpretation. That what they are is heritage interpreters. It’s not just about learning a load of facts that they’re going to regurgitate, it’s not about writing a script that they’re gong to follow, It’s about them following their own interests and passions, the aspects of London that really capture their imagination, doing some robust research, and then thinking through how they can tell that story in a really engaging way. What John and I are aiming to do in the Westminster course and from the coming year onwards in the Islington course, is to inject a bit more of a theoretical understanding of what heritage interpretations is about and what it can be and what the role of the tour guide is. A sort of a sociological approach, really, and getting the students to reflect on their practice, and thinking about how they’re adding to the fabric of London and London society by telling the various stories that they’re telling. So yeah, we think that it will bring an extra dimension to a guide’s training to take this more theoretical approach.
AB: Amidst the hustle and bustle of Trafalgar Square, one of London’s central tourist spots, Caroline you’ve brought me to the very edge of the square to something which I’ve certainly never taken any notice of before. It’s a big, brass plaque with various knobs and bits and bobs sticking out of it. What is it?
CD: Well this is something that was embedded here to give the weight and measures the imperial units. So back in the 1820s there was a weights and measures act which introduced the imperial units that we all learned when we were at school. The inch, the foot, the yard and so on. And later on, the 1870s, they embedded this plaque here which gives the definitions of those measures. And we can walk along this north edge of Trafalgar Square and we’ll see markings for other units like the very old fashioned ones like the pole and the perch and the link and the chain that none of us can ever remember how to define. This is something that guides love. Trafalgar Square is one of the most famous spots in the world, but even born and bred Londoners probably don’t know that there’s this unusual feature here.
AB: John, did you know about this?
JF: I did actually, but Caroline’s quite right that it’s one of those unknown bits of London. The other unknown thing of course is that we’re standing in an iconic space in London where tourists come to look at Nelson’s column and enjoy the sun as we are today, but they may not be aware that there’s another history to this space as well. Back in the 1880s Britain was undergoing yet another of its cycle of economic recessions. During that time there was no welfare state to support those who are unemployed, and there was a great deal of agitation about those people who were out of work and poor and their families starving, so they organised a demonstration to come down from Clerkenwell in north London down through the streets into this square to protest about the situation. That was in November 1887, and huge numbers of people assembled in the square and they were addressed by people like William Morris, I’m not sure how in the days before microphones and speakers how people heard him, but this square was packed with over 150,000 people. However, the government had ordered out 600 lifeguards and grenadier guards, who attacked the crowd and several people died or were crushed to death. It was called Bloody Sunday, a name that’s probably been forgotten because of the Irish troubles, but it was named it at that time. It became a big cause célèbre of liberals and radicals of the day.
AB: I must admit, standing here surrounded by tourists, people enjoying the sun and looking at the fountains, I had absolutely no idea that something so chilling and tragic actually took place here. That seems the wonderful thing about the walks that you do, it’s opening people’s eyes to a city that they never really knew existed.
CD: I think that’s absolutely right, Alex. What we’re doing is peeling back the layers and telling different stories. I think the other thing that John and I have been wanting to show today is the way that there are very different stories you can tell. So I’ve been telling you stories about the history of science in London, John’s been talking about social history, history of protest, and so on. There are all sorts of other different angles that you can take as you know, so it’s fascinating, just so many different stories that you can dig out from what we see around us in London.
One graduate of the course is Mel Adams, whose walks are certainly not for those of a delicate disposition.
MA: My new tours are going to be for adults. That’s they way I would like to go now. They’re going to be adult-orientated, tell it as it is, tell the history as it would have been lived at the time that it was happening. I’ve got a walk which is entitled “Prostitutes, pansies and punks”. I make it very, very, very apparent right at the beginning of the walk that if they’re offended by bad language, sexual positions or sexual diseases or whatever…I’m going to be talking about this. I usually get a round of applause at that point, because that’s what they’re there for! They want to hear it. It’s not for sensationalism, it’s because it’s factual, it’s real and the people that come along are completely fascinated and mesmerised by some of the stories. And some of the stories are great! People, social history, to me is so important, but sex, most definitely sells.
AB: [laughs] Oh god.
MA: She’s all fingers and thumbs now, I tell you.
I think basically, I’ve set out with these tours to educate people, because a lot of people that come along are gay people, and they really have no idea of the repression that they would have experienced thirty, forty, fifty years ago. They could have been imprisoned. People had to do it behind closed doors in private because if they did it out in the open, everybody…their work colleagues, their family, friends, that didn’t know about their sexual orientation could suddenly turn on them. People killed themselves if they were caught often. The Thames was full of gay men’s bodies because they could not cope with the fact that they’re going to be taken to court and put upon that pedestal and people were going to be looking at them going “he’s a queer! he is a queer!”
I’m lucky, I am very free, I can shout out the window “I’m gay!” And also, I can go and tell other people about this and, well, I’m not saying people won’t jeer because sometimes you do get jeering. People jeer, but they jeer anyway. But I can still do it, and that’s my freedom, and I am so grateful for that. And it’s also all the people that I talk about on my tour that helped towards bringing that freedom.
AB: Let’s hit the streets and hear about some of these people.
MA: Fabulous, come with me my dear!……
MA: Here we stand in Piccadilly Circus, the statue of Eros with all these tourist around us, but this was the area once upon a time that was rife for prostitution, male and female. And we’ve got names like Quentin Crisp. He was a prostitute in this area for six months and this area, not known as the Dilly at that time, but would have been frequented by the effeminates, the men that dressed like women…well, half-women I’d say, because they’d always wear suits, but they would have henna’d hair, a little bit of rouge, a bit of lipstick, and they would frequent the cafés of Soho when they weren’t busy “on the Dilly”, or on the game. This area, for male prostitution, has always been quite a magnet, right up until he 1990s this has been an area for male prostitution……
MA: There was a great little arcade which is also not too far from here called the Burlington Arcade. It’s beautiful now, if you ever walk down there it’s gorgeous shops, very expensive, and you’ve got the beadles in there which is their own police force. But once upon a time those little shop fronts would have a very innocent lady making hats, or hemming a dress, and in the back room her friend Gladis, with her legs spread [laughs], you know, entertaining gentlemen, and they would take it in turns. So when she’d finished, or she was a little tired, she’d go out and carry on hemming the dress or making the hat. It was a great area for prostitution…..
MA: I bring you right up to the contemporary times, because over here, you can just see where the Metra is now, this once upon a time in the 80s was a very famous club called Taboo. The club ran by this extraordinary man called Lee Barry. He was Australian, he basically came here to come out, and he certainly did. He was notorious, I actually knew Lee, not extremely well but I certainly knew of him. Everywhere I went, because I used to go to Taboo, he would dress in the most extraordinary outfits, and if this was my walking tour and if this was visual I could show you pictures of him. He would often be seen going up and down here in what was known as his “mankini”, or as a wedding cake. All these weird and wonderful outfits, but that club was notorious. It was revolting, but the atmosphere there was so fabulous and vibrant with all these people dressed to kill, and Lee Barry, and you’ll never have someone like him again. Unfortunately he died of HIV-related illness, but he certainly was an inspiration. He came from a place in Australia called Sunshine, and he certainly put a ray of sunshine here in London on our dull grey skies. He was fabulous. He was an original or one-off, but because of his sexuality, he’s very much part of my tour, and other characters that I could go on about. Muriel Belcher, who had a club just up here, her first club in 1948, called the Music Box. She became a celebrity lesbian in Soho, she had people like Geoffrey Bernard, Francis Bacon, George Melly. Those people, they make this place we’re standing in at the moment what it is today.
AB: Slightly north of the Barbican I stumbled across a stall for Unseen Tours at a weekend community street party. To a soundtrack of PA systems, two members of the team outlined the scheme that seeks to harness the charitable and social potential of guided walks.
Faye: Hi, I’m Faye and I am part of a group called Unseen Tours. We’re a social enterprise and what we do is we coach people who are homeless or formerly homeless to lead walking tours in various areas around London.
Henry: Hi, my name is Henry, I’m a tour guide from Unseen Tours. These tours is run by homeless people with their own stories to tell and stuff. Of course, the tour is not about homeless people, the tour is about local history, architecture, street arts.
F: The idea came from a group called The Sock Mob – very informal, grass roots, a group of friends essentially that meets and goes out once a week and just sort of chats to homeless people that we see. So we sit down with them and give them a pair of socks or something like that, just to break the ice. The idea and emphasis is to maybe break through the isolation and loneliness people feel on the streets. So the tours stem from conversations we had with our street friends about how we could work together to change people’s perceptions of homelessness as well as to get them some come kind of income, and that’s how we came to the tours.
H: So they found me on Old Street roundabout and, by doing the Sock Mobbing, they gave me socks, crisps, drinks and chatting every week and then a month, six weeks after they were coming once a week they told me they had the idea of doing the tours. But I have to do my own tours so basically I need to do my own research, find my own route. They can help me with the internet access, they help me with food and drink but the tour I have to do it myself.
F: A lot of times people have a misconception or an idea of what it is to be homeless and we’re trying to break that down a bit because there are some negative stereotypes.
H: Because who knows better the streets than the people who live on them? And many people come on my tour and they say, for example, ‘I’ve been living in the area for ten years, I want you to tell me something I don’t know’ and after the tour they say…basically everything I say people don’t even know, They’re walking past these landmarks every day but they never have the time to stop. It’s a big city so you just go to work and back and never have the time to look around and think about what’s happening there.
F: Essentially what it is building up trust because a lot of times people on the streets are treated fairly badly by everybody. We don’t have any agenda and I think people find it quite refreshing. So that’s, you know, we know quite a lots of people who are on the streets and through that people have got to know us and trust us and so when we talk about the tours they’re like, ‘yeah, we totally want to be involved with that’. So, yeah!
H: It was a stepping stone so basically I now have a different circle of friends and I don’t sleep on the street no more, I stay in the bed and breakfast. So that is very important so the more I am doing these tours I am meeting new people. These people who come on our tours, many of them become Sock Mobbers. It’s really personal to us. People who organise this don’t make any money out of it, this is just to help homeless people, so that’s good. And it helped me a lot.
According to Jonathan Wynn in his book The Tour Guide, ‘guides are urban alchemists…who infuse the city’s fabric with curious, re-enchant neighbourhoods and offer a magical urbanism to their clients’. And having spent time with people like Caroline, John and Mel, with their tales of scientific endeavour, social unrest and lasciviousness in Soho, or the Unseen Tours team who actively turn walks into gold to help the homeless, I would be inclined to agree with him.
Now, I’m off to rest my blisters.
With thanks to Honest Jon’s records for use of ‘Piccadilly Folk’ by Lord Kitchener
‘Whore’ written and composed by Martyn Jaques, Performed by the TIGER LILLIES, © & (p) Misery Guts Musics, With kind permission.
This podcast was produced and presented by Alex Bingham and transcribed by Mike Brown