On a typical London walking tour, you don’t expect to hear about buildings that are used as brothels, places that are squats for homeless people and doorways that are considered great places to sleep - but this was no ordinary visit.
Our guide Vinny (who didn’t give his
surname) was leading an Unseen Tour of
Mayfair, London’s most exclusive neighbourhood. Unlike most of the surrounding
population, he literally lived on these streets for years, and in a little over
an hour he showed us a very different side to Mayfair’s glamour.
The Unseen Tours of London are
coordinated by the Sock Mob, a
network of volunteers working with London’s homeless population, and led by
trained guides who are or have been homeless. Each guide takes groups around
“their district” of London and mixes personal stories of life on the street
with interesting anecdotes and trivia about the neighbourhood.
I thought I knew Mayfair well but Vinny
shared many stories with our group that were both surprising and entertaining.
He took us to what is reputed to be London’s most haunted house (in the lavish
surroundings of Berkeley Square), he told us about the world’s first telephone
call, which was made from Brown’s Hotel,
and just off Bond Street he pointed out a little-known piece of graffiti by
Britain’s most celebrated street artist, Banksy. But it was Vinny’s insights
into the world of the homeless that really struck a chord. He stopped at a few
of the many empty buildings (there are around 100,000 in London) that homeless
people try to enter in the winter months to survive the cold nights. He also
shared his own experiences of life on the street; it was particularly
distressing to hear about the occasional abuse he suffered from passers by.
While Unseen Tours offer valuable
employment to the guides, there are far more reasons to support the enterprise
than merely helping a good cause. By sharing these stories of survival, the
guides offer visitors a chance to experience the city from a very unusual
perspective. Having seen the brothels next door to the fancy restaurants and
the squatters’ homes alongside the millionaires’ mansions, I for one, will
never see Mayfair through the same eyes again.