From Regent St to Ridley Rd: The capital's newest, and most unlikely, tourist attraction is Hackney. Graham Coster and two intrepid visitors from America sample its delights.

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Ladies and gentlemen, at this point in our tour of Hackney, one of London's poorest boroughs, please look out of the windows on the left of the coach. There you'll see Stoke Newington police station, notorious for allegations of police corruption.

'Our route will shortly be taking us along the main drug-dealing street in the area, and then we'll conclude our tour by taking the stairs up all 30 floors of one of the Clapton Park Estate's most claustrophobic tower blocks. You'll have heard the term, 'loony left', so we've selected the most dilapidated example to give you a good idea of what this means.'

For many Londoners a trip to Hackney, colour brochure in hand, would be unthinkable. We all know a nightmare without having to experience it. This year, however, Hackney has its own Tourist Information Office, a mini-guide to the borough produced by the English Tourist Board and a series of rather beautiful leaflets cataloguing the borough's attractions. So how about taking the glossy PR at its word, and showing two American tourists round Hackney for a day?

The name is against it,' says Mary-Lou Houck, studying the new mini-guide. 'You think, Hackneyed . . .'

Sixty-six-year-old Mary-Lou comes from Louisville, Kentucky. This is her first trip to England and she had never heard of Hackney before. Fresh from an Evan Evans tour to Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon, not to mention Madame Tussaud's and the hot ticket - Buckingham Palace - she and husband Peter, a retired army colonel, now prison chaplain at the state reformatory, were happy to go along.

We begin at the tourist hub, the foot of Eros in Piccadilly Circus: with no Tube line to Hackney, it has to be the 22B bus. After half an hour grinding through roadblocks, diversions and congestion in the City to reach the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch, the Houcks are wondering how far Hackney is from central London. 'Only four miles? Is that all?'

The converted ironmongers' almshouses of the museum are devoted to chronicling the changes in interior design in Britain since the Tudors. 'After Buckingham Palace this is sort of . . . refreshing,' muses Mary-Lou, pausing before the clean, restrained furnishing of the late Georgian room. 'There was so much mass there.'

'Opulent and beautiful,' agrees Peter, 'but kind of an expensive lifestyle for people to have pay for.'

'This is what you can recommend to people,' asserts Mary-Lou. 'To come here after Buckingham Palace to put yourself back on track again.'

The quiet green oasis of the Geffrye's courtyard and new herb garden conforms to the Houcks' expectations of Hackney. The bucolic photos in the leaflet of the cafe in Clissold Park and a grinning, toothless fishmonger selling his wares had suggested to them 'quite a small, quiet place, more out in the country'. Further up Kingsland Road in Dalston, the shopping precinct echoed with toddlers' screams, the traffic was solid from the lights at Dalston Junction right up to the Rio Cinema, and the High Street thronged with shoppers. 'Deliver us]' exclaims Mary-Lou, glancing at the facade of the Kentucky Fried Chicken.

'We hadn't expected so much bustle,' she says as we make our way to Ridley Road Market. 'Heads, horns and hooves,' ponders Peter, as we walk past stalls selling pigs' feet and goats' legs. 'We saw this in the street markets in Jerusalem and Istanbul - that was what the poorer people ate, and it'd be sold just along from the shops that have the meat all wrapped up in plastic.'

Meanwhile, a stallholder is explaining to Mary-Lou what breadfruit is: 'Like, doughy, luv'. 'Cook it jos' like potato,' adds one shopper. 'Treat yo'self,' another chips in. Further down she has the West African merchant explain the provenance of hunks of smoked meat: 'We call it 'grasscutter'. It looks like rabbit or a hare.' She lingers over a box of Relieving Balm. 'Oh boy - this is the kind of thing the medicine men sell on their wagons. Kills everything, including you.'

'Well, that was interesting,' she concludes as we leave. 'I felt I was back in one of those markets in the Middle East.' We go northwards again to see what Robbie Richards, proprietor of the Fox Reformed wine bar in Stoke Newington Church Street and chairman of its business association, described to me as 'the Hampstead of Hackney.'

Stoke Newington proves to be the day's biggest attraction. 'When you told us you were taking us here,' says Peter as we wander through Abney Park cemetery, 'I thought, why's he bringing us to a cemetery?' However, after a short stroll into the overgrown wild wood of Abney Park, with sagging ivy-shrouded headstones, extravagant Victorian sarcophagi and cawing rooks, the Houcks are entranced. 'I have never seen anything like this,' exclaims Mary-Lou. 'In the States cemeteries are always kept so neat,' Peter adds. 'The lawns are always mowed, the hedges all trimmed. But you could really get lost in here.'

'It is incredible,' says Mary-Lou, peering into a jungly corner. 'So many graves over there. Kind of spooky, but like a cemetery should be.' Peter squints as he reads out the homily on one capsized tombstone: 'An Inn for Travellers Bound for Jerusalem']' he laughs. He takes a picture at the grave of Abney Park's most famous resident, William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. 'That'll be a nice thing to give to the people back in Louisville. The Salvation Army does a lot of good work running parole hostels for men released from the reformatory.'

In the centre of the cemetery a young couple sitting on a war memorial getting sloshed on super-strength cider curl beckoning fingers at us. Nodding a polite hello, Mary-Lou stands beside them to take in the list of men fallen in the two world wars.

By now I have the Houcks figured as that rare, blessed breed of people who don't equate tourism with frenzied shopping. With her voluntary prison visiting and civil rights work for the Catholic Peace and Justice Commission in Louisville, Mary-Lou's empathy, like her husband's, is with the underprivileged.

The boutiques and bazaars of trendy Church Street pass the Houcks by, but the hanging flower baskets earn high marks, as do the huge bowls of leek, potato and mushroom soup in the Vortex jazz cafe.

On to the 106 bus, jammed with schoolkids on their first day back, lurching through Clapton to London Fields. 'What the 'ell's 'e doin'? I've never seen anyfin like it,' moans an elderly woman sitting beside us during a lengthy stop in Well Street to change the driver. The Houcks sit serene.

They have not heard of EastEnders, so a walk down the almost deserted Broadway Market, the model for the soap opera, lacks cultural resonance. But it takes us to the Regent's Canal, journey's end. 'The real quietude of the city,' smiles Peter as we stroll past mallards and coots and a rotting houseboat named Dire Straits.

From here they could have walked along the towpath to Regent's Park and their hotel in Albany Street. John, a fisherman netting a small perch, doesn't bat an eyelid at the revelation that two Americans are having a day out in Hackney. 'It's a bit different round here, isn't it?' he says, casting off again. 'The people are more real. I moved back here from Essex - in suburbia they're more interested in what car you drive than who you are.'

Two Tennent's Super drinkers roll up. Peter listens patiently while his snaggle-toothed companion delivers a beatific sermon on how we must learn to love one another.

'Hey, lady,' demands Mary-Lou's Rastafarian interlocutor, pupils unfeasibly large,' I don't know ya name.' 'You can just call me Granny,' says Mary-Lou. 'Well, Granny, Bob Marley have a sayin': may the free-flowing spirit of the ganga vibrations be wid ya.' With that exalted benediction to add to their Buckingham Palace mug, it is time for the Houcks to start thinking about their early morning flight back to the States .

'I thought it was kind of appropriate music for two people about to head home after their holiday,' Peter had said when we left the Vortex cafe to the strains of Duke Ellington's 'Take the A Train'.

A BRIGHTER IMAGE

'We don't expect people to come and spend their holidays here,' says Peter Paddon, responsible for the council's fledgling tourism initiative. Indeed, the scattering of hotels here is unlikely to attract the Holiday Inn clientele. 'In fact, we talk about visitors rather than tourists.'

There are sound economic reasons for enticing visitors: with only 400 manufacturing jobs left in the heart of Hackney, 25 per cent unemployment throughout the borough and up to 50 per cent - the highest in Britain - in pockets of the Queensbridge ward, tourist promotion is part of the broader Hackney 2000 regeneration project.

However, with priorities such as maintaining 45,000 council homes, the budget for tourism is tiny: pounds 35,000 this year, most visibly manifested in the new colour leaflets and guides. Hackney's official director of tourism has already finished work - it was just a six-month term.

Most of those dropping into the new Tourist Information Office in Mare Street, Paddon concedes, have been Hackney residents - but revealing to them the local attractions, he argues, fosters a confidence and pride in 'the best ambassadors for the borough.

The London Tourist Board, which is trying to spread tourism from the crowded honeypots of the capital says it supports the Hackney initiative: 'Ten or 15 years ago a place like Bradford was treated as a bit of a joke,' concludes Paddon. 'I'm not saying you can replicate the Bradford model, but nowadays tourism is its second-biggest employer.'

(Photograph omitted)

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