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Friend: Go on a walking tour right where you live

When my friends and I moved into our first flat in London, my friend’s parents were a little concerned on 2 counts.

Firstly, that I was living, in what I lovingly call “the den”. Ie, a double bed and a half sized cubby hole behind the bannisters on the landing, enclosed with walls only ¾ of the way round and no door.

And secondly the area. If you don’t know Bethnal Green or indeed East London, it is an odd place. A kind person might describe it as gritty, a more honest one might acknowledge it is impoverished in parts, but yet it is trendy, where 2 bedroom apartments regularly are sold for around a million pounds. My friend Steve describes it as “50% upper middle class white families, 50% ruthless gangsters” which gives you an idea, but actually Bethnal Green is much more of a fruit salad of cultures and bank balances than that. Even though our flat was super swish and modern, with big floor to ceiling windows, oak floors and all white and spotlights, search the postcode and marked on the map is "Kray twins lived here" (the 50s and 60s notorious east London gangsters) and "red light district" both about 100 yards from where we lived.  Whilst looking out the kitchen window you are treated to a view of the London skyline – the gherkin, Heron tower, later the Shard - look out the living room window and you can see into what is literally a crack den, with a burnt out roof. Walk 200 yards to the pub down the road to pay for your £5 “craft beer” pint, and you’ll pass a couple of prostitutes sipping on Sainsbury's basic lager on the way. 

But my Dad - or Popster, as I like to call him, to give him props for the Tu Pac listening to, anorak wearing, mathematician gangster that he is – truly is one in a million, and loved my new set up.

Firstly, he was very encouraging about the den, and agreed with me that paying £430 including bills a month for it was a bargain I couldn’t turn down. (And err FYI it totally was, look at all this fabulous sound and eye proofing - a screen, blackout curtains and a sari - which made it like a marvellous little cave bedroom: )
Of course, when Will wanted to stand up in the den we had to open the sky light, but for 5 foot 3 of me, it was fine!

But my Dad also bloomin loved the area. “I love this area” he announced once he had finished heaving my suitcase full to the brim of books up the four flights of stairs. “This is the real London, I would love to go on a walking tour around here”. So I thought: Ok Dad, walking tour ey, say hello to your Christmas and Birthday presents for the next 10 years. 

Now if you’ve read some of my posts before, you might remember I do quite enjoy an “experience” gift. I am a fan of when I give someone a present, manoeuvring the situation, so that I too get to stuff my face with cream cakes/ go to a spa/ go see a show etc too. Part of it is probably quite selfish, I basically can’t get someone else a present without buying myself one.  Part of it is maybe tinged with narcissism, in like a “ and for Christmas I am giving you the best gift of all, quality time with me!” sort of way. But actually, I do try and get experience gifts to be nice, and to share a really memorable extraordinary time with someone else, doing something they might not have even thought existed or would never bought tickets to themselves, but really love. And with my parents I think experience gifts are an especially a good idea: so many of the best, most interesting, most unique and most fun experiences in my life they have paid for me to have, and thought of and been with me for. So now that I live in London, and am constantly doing things they wouldn’t know to book, it is time for me to repay the favour.

I actually went on both of the walking tours I review here 2 years ago, and 7 months ago respectively, but as Christmas is coming up, I thought I’d dip back into my old photos and route around in the dustiest corners of my memory as I think, if you haven’t thought of something to get your one in a million Dad, or Mum, or brother, sister, boyfriend, Grandpa, then a walking tour is quite a neat little gift. 

The first walking tour has changed slightly, but I've found the same guide on a new website - East London Walking Tours, and the tour provider  London Walks has one that looks pretty similar.

Dad's Christmas present 2011 - Not another Jack the Ripper tour: an East London walking tour - taken October 2012

As someone who comes from a village that was a field 50 years ago, one of my favourite things about London is how when you walk down her streets, you can imagine the hundreds and thousands of people who have walked down those same streets – maybe without the same concrete slabbing and double yellow lines – but same streets just the same - literally hundreds of years ago. It makes you feel gloriously little and yet significant at the same time, like looking at the sea and stars. For me, I get this much more in the fairytale world of Chelsea and Mayfair than in east London where I live, in Kensington I can almost envisage bumping into J. M Barrie around the next corner. 

I wanted to get that same feeling right where I live, as, after all, the east end has some pretty wonderful history and some pretty incredible people who have lived there too, and walked those streets in the past. 

Hit horribly by the Blitz in World War 2, you might not be so steeped in old architecture in the east end as much as the west end, but people very much lived here. The infamous Jack the Ripper in the Victorian times and the infamous Krays after the war, are just the tip of the iceberg, the east end has always been teaming with life and a history worth knowing.

My Great Uncle Bernard, one of the funniest men I've ever met and who used to drive to from Brighton to Bethnal Green every day to work, has some great stories about the east end, including his own story about how the pub his office was above rigged a up a pipe so he could enjoy beer fresh from the pump at his desk. That is what being in East London was all about. 

For "not another Jack the Ripper" walking tour we met outside Whitechapel station, on a crisp and sunny October Sunday morning. Our tour guide David's grandmother was one of the Jewish immigrants from the Tsarist Russian empire who came to the east end at the beginning of the twentieth century, so he really knew, loved and in lived in the area. He didn’t just want to talk about Jack the Ripper, or the Krays, but every edge and every curve (yes I’ve quoted John Legend on purpose) the east end had to offer. 

I don’t want to give you a run down of everything in the walking tour, as you should just bloomin go on it, plus I don’t want to get sued or told off for giving away David's secrets. Plus, from a little routing around on the internet, it looks like the exact tour I went on, which was from London Walks has disappeared, but David's got his own company doing a range of east London walks the aptly named  "east London walks" so I am confident you can find one very similar, if not exactly the same. But here are some pictures, and some of the special stops David talks more about on the tour. (This is probably about 10% of the sites that are covered, I wouldn’t say these are the highlights by no means, but they are probably the best pictures!)

Marx wrote some of the Communist manifesto in the library above Aldgate East Station. This isn't the only spot of communism and revolution you come across on the tour.

The Blind Beggar where Ronnie Kray shot and killed George Cornell in 1966. David remarked it had changed quite a bit since then, except for the toilets, which maybe hadn't been cleaned since.

The place of St Mary's - "the White chapel" for which the area was named. The chapel was destroyed in the blitz, but a few remains still clonk around Altab Ali park, named after the Bangladeshi clothing worker, murdered on his way home from work in 1978.

The East London Mosque is one of the biggest in all of Europe - 35,000 people attend to worship here every week.

I thought this walking tour was great, and amazing value for money, and I wholeheartedly recommend both this tour if you live or are ever in the east end of London, but also more generally I recommend doing a walking tour of where you live. Part of the reason I probably remember this tour so well, is because I am reminded every time I pass these sites of how special they are and how lucky I am to live in such a wonderful place that has housed so many amazing people before me, and will house many more when I am gone.

You can book a tour with David on East London Walks here.

Or you can book a walking tour of the east end and other spots in London on London Walks here.

Dad's Christmas Present 2013 - Eat Your Way Around Brixton by Fox and Squirrel - enjoyed in March 2014

I love Brixton. It is where I first ate deep friend macaroni and cheese, a food which would definitely be part of my last meal, if I ever committed a serious crime in a country where they weirdly think it is ok to punish someone by killing them. (They serve it at Chicken Liquor (formerly Wishbone), alongside fantastic fried chicken). It is also where I received my first (and last) blackberry messenger, from a boy called Lavon, who I met in McDonalds and used the chat up line, “do princesses eat Big Macs?” (Yes Lavon, they do.) It is also where Hootananny’s is, where you can spend an evening eating burritos, shotting tequila slammers and dancing to live reggae, so that says it all really. And I figured, if my Dad like the east end for it’s “real Londoness” he would love Brixton. Enter last Christmas’ Christmas present.

Fox and Squirrel’s food walking tour really takes you to all the corners of Brixton. I’ve always associated it with Jamaican cuisine, as I know Brixton is damn good at that, and although Fox and Squirrel do take you for your share of ackee saltfish and goat roti (at Fish, Wings and Tings – one of the best) they also take you to all the places you didn’t realise even were in Brixton, and it makes you realise how much of a fabulous multicultural neck of the woods it really is. 

On my tour with Fox and Squirrel we enjoyed everything from Ethiopian in what appeared to be a kebab shop, to Lechona (a whole pig which is stuffed with rice, herbs and lots of delicious pork) at the back of a Columbian food market to self brewing Brixton beer.

The tour begins at an Ethiopian coffee ceremony in a covered market stall

Brixton's breweries beers are named after the area such as Effra Ale (named after the river which used to flow through Brixton) and Electric IPA (after Electric Avenue)

I am about to be a massive, unpleasable fuss monger, for which, Fox and Squirrel, I am sorry. The great thing about Fox and Squirrel is that they took you into places you would never normally go because you didn’t want that thing where everyone in the restaurants goes silent and looks at you to happen, and because some of the restaurants (tables at the back of supermarkets etc) didn’t look that good – there were plastic tables, plastic forks, in the Ethiopian shop for example there was a man passed out on the table next to us. (And not from eating too much). You get it, I am a bit of a snob and they weren’t places you would take someone on a first date, unless you wanted to come across super quirky. But my snobbery isn’t exactly the problem, as I really didn’t care that they weren’t that nice, as for all of my home counties up bringing I've spent enough time in a dirty student house and backpacking around Asia to be ok with that sort of thing.

The problem was for the cost of the ticket, the food and the places we were eating, to me personally, didn’t seem that great a value. My feeling is it is totally ok to take someone to a Columbian supermarket to try something weird, but don’t charge everyone £70 for it. Obviously a lot of the expense is Fox and Squirrel’s expertise, but I think I have been spoilt by a food tour in Rome for where the cost of 40 euros, and I was given more food to eat than I normally would in a week. And a fair bit of wine. And it was all delicious.

(If you are ever in Rome by the way, you should go on "eat like the Romans do".  I had coffee, canolo, caprese salad, melon and parma ham, 5 different cheeses, 3 slices of pizza, mozzarella parmagiana, 3 bowls of different pasta in a sit down restaurant that was nice, gelato and approx. a bottle of wine. Bargain).

So I guess my complaint, as someone who can be a tight arse about everything but glittery nail varnish, for me personally, Fox and Squirrel wasn’t the best value of money. But if you are visiting London, or new to the area, and you want to see a side of London you would normally never see then it will be a great food walking tour to go on. You can book here.

If you like old London buildings and things, then you should go for dinner up the St. Pancras clock tower. Read all about it in my post "How you can have the most magical and wonderful time up a clock tower, for £85 all in, which is actually a bargain honest"

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