People make fun of me for my love of walking tours. Yeah, sometimes they’re a little cheesy, but I like to sign up for the ones that don’t cover the usual sites.
Berlin’s alternative tour is one of the best walks I ever did so I wanted to try London’s version.
It was a fresh November morning and we met close to Liverpool street station. There was a group of around 16 or so people. The guide didn’t really waste any time with the usual getting to know ya chit chat and he seemed pretty eager to get going.
Our guide was a local of the area and active in campaigns to preserve the East End and its history which added an extra authenticity to the tour.
We got some pretty interesting background about London as a borough back in the day and how the bollards change appearance to indicate when you are leaving the original London perimeter and entering the outskirts. He also told us a lot about the migration patterns and the types of ethnic groups that lived in certain neighbourhoods and when and why they left. We walked through the East End, going down Brick lane and learning about how it came to be such a centre for curry restaurants.
The tour was mainly focussed on street art in the area which included big, international names like Banksy, Invader and Roa but also rife with paste ups and stencilled art by a huge number of other equally impressive artists. Some of the most astonishing pieces were the massive works that had been created with permission from the owners of buildings. Like the one shown below by Roa. The artist had permission of the owner of the building and as he was working the owner came outside and saw the beginnings of a bird on the wall. He asked Roa 'Is that going to be a crane?' and Roa replied that it was going to be an Ostrich and the owner told him that cranes were very important in his culture. So Roa turned it into a crane instead.
Some people say that you can just walk around the East End yourself and see the street art. Of course you can - there's no denying that. But you won't get the information that we got from our guide. He is active in the street art scene and knows about the trials and tribulations that the locals are experiencing from authorities, the threats they have received, and the risks that the artists take just to share their art with the community.
It's so fascinating to hear about the lengths that the council go to to remove the art from the walls, the repercussions the artists face if they are caught and the way that the authorities document the 'crimes'.
Being a street artist himself, our guide could also explain the intricate labour intensive methods that each artist used to create the various effects they did. One of the most impressive portraits was by a 25 yr old street artist who actually chiseled into a stone wall to create the face.
It was nice to hear about the real community aspect of the East End and how the neighbourhood respected and protected the art that they felt was 'gifted' to them if it appeared on the outside of one of their buildings.
Banksy had left a portrait on a door of an old barber shop on one of the streets and the owners took the door and moved it to where it would be more prominent and more protected.
Other than the art it was so nice to have a guided introduction to a part of London I had never seen but will definitely go back to. If you’re visiting London, definitely try to get a spot on one of the alternative tours. They’re only an hour and 30 minutes and you pay what you like at the end.