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

Jerome Taylor
Tuesday 25 October 2011 16:54

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.

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