The figure of the tour guide is one we’re all familiar with, from the person waving a raised flag as a line of people follow behind, to the smiling company rep holding a clipboard beside the open door of a coach, waiting to transfer tourists back to their hotel. Unless you’re in a particular place in tourist-mode, though, the guided tour is also something you tend to be on the outside of, glancing at the huddled crowd as you pass on at a faster pace elsewhere. Whether you’re navigating around the encircled foreign tourists outside a landmark that happens to be on your daily route or catching the end of some interesting fact uttered by a guide in a museum, most of the time you’re just not part of the group.
There can also be a tendency to look with a little disdain on those who are on the inside – connected to the air of contempt with which ‘locals’ often view tourists in general – as if, perhaps, they don’t have the nous to survive on their own. However, with both tourists and resident Londoners being drawn in big numbers to the city’s booming street tours, those residents with a sceptical view might find they’re actually missing out.
While walking tours of London have been happening for decades, alongside the more visible open top buses, recent years have seen an explosion in foot-based street tours. Driven by entrepreneurs with a “give it a try attitude”, new companies are popping up, existing operators have added to their programme, and a myriad of diverse themes have come into the mix. No longer is a tour of London all about Big Ben, the London Eye, and St Paul’s. Focused on niche aspects of the city and bringing the stories of particular areas to life, themed walking tours are out and about every day and night, weaving their way through specially selected pockets of London’s streets.
The ‘big sights’ do of course still get plenty of attention, and can themselves be experienced in new creative ways, such as canoeing past the Houses of Parliament at night, but the choice now available goes far beyond most people’s idea of what London has to offer. Themed tours you might indulge in include long-term favourites like Jack the Ripper and London pubs, newer additions such as Harry Potter and street art, through to Winston Churchill tours, ghost walks, women in London, queer London and countless other ways of looking at the city’s fabric in a fresh light.
At heart, most themed tours are about revealing a different London – a fictional or mysterious one – or a part of it that you normally fail to access or perhaps merely ignore. For years, Jack the Ripper has been the most prominent subject for tours that look beyond the obvious tourist sights. The enduring appeal is not surprising given that discussion of the elusive, barbaric killer can elicit multiple versions of the city, from the reality of life on the Victorian streets to the fictional world of Hollywood adaptations and TV series like ‘Ripper Street’.
Often taking place at night, the tours journey down dark backstreets in the East End, requiring groups to linger in places where they most likely wouldn’t if they were alone.
Stopping at the actual murder sites – the violent deaths and gruesome aftermaths of which are probably more shocking than most people initially realise – the experience takes place against a backdrop of an area that is both gentrifying and hip, whilst still host to many of the issues that affected it in 1888 when the killings took place.
The tours reveal a city that is both changing and unchanged. Where buildings have come and gone since the Ripper’s time and whole streets may have disappeared, yet local landmarks remain, and the same pubs that the victims drank at can be entered today.
Richard Jones, who runs one of the most established Ripper tour companies says that the volume of people going on the tours is the same now as when international interest peaked around the centenary of the murders in 1988. Led by a team of freelance guides who, like Jones, are all experts and historians who have researched and written on the subject, the company’s tours are regularly filled to their maximum of 40 paying guests. As the group is led deeper into the Ripper’s London, they will likely pass tours organised by other companies, whose websites they probably noticed when booking, while a private group or two might linger in a doorway as their guide reveals some grisly detail. All the while, the nightlife of contemporary Whitechapel and Shoreditch carries on as the booming Ripper tour industry moves in its midst.
While the Ripper tours continue to thrive, however, not everyone on a London tour is following the trail of a gruesome killer. Jones had been running his tours for fifteen years before the first Harry Potter book was even published. But the young wizard’s world is now one of the top things people abroad associate with the UK. The chance to see some of the places that inspired J. K. Rowling, as well as locations from the blockbuster movies, appeals to enough people to support a well-established sub-category within the broader tour market.
Hana Hufflepuff, who started running Potter street tours in 2011, says much of this is thanks to the author: “JK Rowling was great in wanting to keep the franchise British; ensuring that the filming took place in the UK and British actors be cast to play the predominantly British characters in the books.” As a result, she continues, “London has the biggest concentration of non-set film locations from the franchise which has imbued the city with a magical quality for Harry Potter fans. We have the wonderful job of showing fellow fans the Potterific side of London.”
Just as many companies cater to the Ripper audience, Hufflepuff’s tours, which run under the Tour for Muggles brand, tend to bump into groups led by competitors, with the Westminster locations where Ministry of Magic scenes were filmed proving particularly popular. More than other tours, though, what distinguishes the Potter experience is the shared enthusiasm from the majority of the group, with most people who turn up having a pretty good knowledge of the franchise and a real love for the characters. In the case of Tour for Muggles, at least, this enthusiasm is repaid with a bonhomie approach and the illusion that, for the two and a half hours of the tour, attendees have indeed entered the Potter world.
Such is the global appeal of Rowling’s creation, Potter has probably replaced the likes of Dickens as the primary literary subject for London walking tours. The largest of all new themes, though, is street art, with tours looking at the spray-painted walls of Shoreditch up there among the biggest draws in the industry, alongside Royal London and Jack the Ripper. According to Nelly Balazs – who works as a freelance tour guide in the East End and also runs her own street art tours in Camden – the Shoreditch market is currently “saturated”, partly because some of the bigger tour operators have created their street art tours to capitalise on the ‘in’ thing. That thing that people are coming to see, though, is real. Balazs says that London is one of the most important places in the world for street art and you would be hard pressed to find somewhere better than Shoreditch for hosting pieces by the top names in global street art in such a small area.
While East London boasts still visible work by Banksy, as well as two pieces that have been boarded up for protection, Balazs added to the London tour map by setting up her own Camden Street Art Tours in 2014. The area of North London may have lost its own Banksy pieces, but it remains a vibrant, ever-changing canvas for new street art and retains cherished stencils commemorating Amy Winehouse and David Bowie. Operating under the umbrella of Global Street Art, which works with street artists around the world, Balazs herself matches artists with legally-available walls in Camden and is an active member of the city’s street art community. Her work as a curator and coordinator gives the Camden tours what she sees as an “authentic” flavour that can go beyond what the more general operators can offer when they dip into the street art scene.
Balazs is a good example of a street tour guide who brings a genuine passion and long-term interest to her subject. Just as the choice of tours on offer in London can dazzle and surprise, the guides themselves also quickly blow away any assumptions about what it takes to lead a group of strangers around the city: it’s certainly not all about holding up a little flag. Lindsay Siviter, who leads tours for Richard Jones’ Jack the Ripper company with a mixture of gusto and personal insight, is another case in point. She has an interest in Jack the Ripper that goes back to when she was a child and a professional career as a historian that has run alongside her eighteen years as an East End Ripper guide.
Highlighting the extent to which Ripper guides can be true experts on their subject, Siviter is currently working on the first biography of Sir William Gull (1816-1890), a figure who has become, wrongly in Siviter’s opinion, one of the principal Ripper suspects. In her research, Siviter has travelled to the home of Gull’s descendants in South Africa, seeking to uncover the truth about a man whose reputation she says has been “maligned” by his identification as the killer in the Hollywood versions of the story.
So what is it actually like being a guide? Siviter says the best thing “is meeting thousands of people every year from all over the world” and that “the popularity of the Ripper case never ceases to amaze” her. Understandably for London, she does say that the weather is the worst thing, and that, occasionally, “when it’s absolutely pouring down and my umbrella is flying away I think I would love to be indoors with a cup of tea!” Even so, Siviter adds, the weather can give an appropriate, spooky melancholy to the area and bring a realisation of what it would have been like to live there in Victorian times.
For Stephanie Kuypers, who goes by the name of Steph Black when leading groups for Tour for Muggles, the flexibility of being a freelance guide is great for creative people like her who have other projects on the go, but also the aptitude to present information in an engaging manner. Kuypers is working on her own young adult novel, set in a steampunk version of London, but has a genuine passion for Harry Potter and an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject that is warmly conveyed. In order to succeed as a street tour guide, Kuypers believes you must be intrigued by and enjoy London, a place she says “constantly has stories to tell.”
On the inside of the group, however excited you are by the subject itself, it’s the guide that ultimately makes the street tour experience. Being led along for a while also provides an opportunity to move about the city in a different way. No longer a member of the public you become a rather specific subset within a wider, moving picture of city life. The group creates a sense of safety, a bubble in which to move along and an admissible form of voyeurism, with places becoming things to scrutinise or be surprised by, rather than to simply pass through. Following the crowd might be unadventurous in general terms but in this instance, it can be a real eye-opener.