Homeless tours offer visitors an alternative view of life in London

Slum tourism, until now largely confined to the developing world, is taking off in the capital, says Jerome Taylor

A bitterly cold wind whips down Old Street in London's East End as Henri Sturmanis finishes off a can of Special Brew. A small group of Chinese nationals have gathered for a walking tour of the surrounding streets and Mr Sturmanis is to be their guide.

He puts the can in the bin, rubs his hands for warmth and starts a well-rehearsed introduction to a highly unusual kind of tourism.

"So I have started things here because this is my home until I find something better," he says, pointing to a concrete structure just off the main road. A translator relays his words to the gathered throng who reply with camera clicks and nods of surprise.

He goes on. "This looks like it will be my third winter in Old Street which is, by the way, part of an old Roman road. Behind you is the Leysian Mission, a philanthropic hospital that used to help poor people. It's now a luxury apartment block. The ones on top go for £2m."

There are now five walking tours running through London led by homeless guides offering a unique perspective on life in the capital. Known as Unseen Tours, they were first dreamed up by the Sock Mob – a volunteer network who hit the streets each week offering conversation and comfort to the homeless. Each volunteer carries a fresh pair of socks (plus toiletries, food, drinks and clothing) as a gift for rough sleepers. Over the years it has allowed organisers to strike up long-lasting friendships with a variety of homeless figures who make eloquent tour guides.

"We've had a couple of people dismiss the idea as misery tours," explains Lidija Mavra, one of the Unseen Tour organisers.

"But that's not what this is about. It's not voyeuristic because you are walking the streets with the homeless, not taking a tour of the homeless. It's a way of seeing the world through their eyes. It's actually a reversal of the power balance."

The Chinese delegation appears impressed by the tours. "It's certainly a way of seeing London from a different perspective," comments Jian Ping Deng, from Guangzhou.

In the developing world the emergence of slum tours – or "poorism" has it is often dubbed by critics – has taken off over the past decade. Equivalent tours within industrialised nations are a comparatively untapped market. From two pilot tours which began a year ago, Unseen Tours has spread to other areas of the capital. The idea has also gone international, with similar tours held in Poland, Australia and the US. The guides get to keep approximately 50 per cent of the £8 ticket cost.

Mr Sturmanis's patch is Shoreditch, where he has lived both with and without a roof over his head since 1995. History still plays a key part in the tour, taking in the famous Nonconformist Bunhill Fields Cemetery, the chapel built by the Methodist founder John Wesley and the site of an Elizabethan playhouse where Shakespeare's works were performed. But there is also a chance to learn how homeless people survive in an utterly unforgiving environment.

It's clear that the Latvian-born guide, who came to Britain when he was eight years old and trained to be an artist, also views the gentrification of the area with disdain. And there are also moments when he is wonderfully irreverent. The biggest shock among his guests is reserved for his take on the Methodist chapel which once hosted a wedding of a future Prime Minister

"This is the place where our neo-Nazi Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher got married," he states standing outside Wesley's chapel. After a brief discussion, the Chinese translator returns with a question. "This word you use, neo-Nazi, I thought she was called the Iron Lady?"

"They called her that too," he replies. The translation, once relayed, is followed up with more nods of surprise.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Australia vs New Zealand live
cricket Follow over-by-over coverage as rivals New Zealand and Australia face off
News
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
Life and Style
Researchers found that just 10 one-minute swill-and-spit sessions are enough to soften tooth enamel and make teeth vulnerable to erosion
health
News
i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
The Regent Street Cinema’s projection room in the 1920s
film
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing