Being the London geek that I am, I love to find out and hear more about my city in every way possible. Be that through my insatiable thirst for knowledge via both wikipedia, museums and books or my love affair with The London Underground, London has got under my skin and isn’t about to go away any time soon. So when I got the chance to go discover Unseen Tours last year, I was ecstatic.
Run by Sock Mob Events, they are a unique social enterprise that offers walking tours of London led by homeless or formerly homeless guides where the lion’s share of the income goes directly to the guides. With each particular tour, your guide will tell you things about London you didn’t know – they will show you nooks and crannies that you didn’t know existed. And, most importantly, they’ll talk to you about life as a homeless person in that area of London, and it’ll hit you between the eyes like a shovel.
At times I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I was moved. And that was awesome.
The tours themselves go to either Brick Lane, Shoreditch, London Bridge, Camden or Covent Garden, which is where I went for this particular session (but I have since also done the Camden Tour with Mike and for anyone who wants to understand a little of North London’s music history you’d be hard pushed to find a better way to do it). I was pleased about this as I’ve done a couple of Ripper Tours in the past and felt like I’d “done” the East End to death as it were – it was great to have an opportunity to explore another part of London.
Led by the fantastic Viv, we started at Temple, right by where she first slept rough through Embankment, Aldwych, Covent Garden and ending up in calm and peaceful Lincoln’s Inn.
I learnt things about roman baths, Charles Dickens, how Somerset House was built and what the Inns of Court were for – but most importantly, I learn a lot about Viv and about street homelessness in London today.
At first, I felt awkward. Like I was intruding. I wondered whether Viv felt like she had to tell her story to make a buck or two, and I couldn’t be live how honest and open she would be with us. Viv encouraged questions, and as she registered the shock on what I thought were our really educated faces, she helped us through that too. Viv told us the story about how she become homeless 10 years ago after a relationship broke up. She’d sofa surfed, and then slept rough on the streets. She had kids, a life, everything – and it shows you that homelessness can really happen to anyone.
We learnt about what those that become homeless have to do to survive – where the best places to sleep rough were, and how Viv protected herself on the streets. How she was invited by others to build a cardboard home under a bridge and lived happily there for sometime. How excellent members of the public would turn up week in, week out with hot food in certain areas, and how you find out where to get fed.
But most of all, Viv made us laugh. Despite everything, Viv was not a victim, and was just honestly telling her story, alongside facts about London – and this is what breaks down the barriers and stereotypes of those that are homeless most of all. At the end of the tour we went to the pub and I got to chat to Viv about The London Underground, and we swapped book recommendations. And I really hoped that our paths would cross again – because she was inspirational.
Sock Mob Events who run Unseen Tours has evolved from the work of The Sock Mob, an informal volunteer network that engages with London’s street people through regular weekly walks, using the ice breaking power of socks and conversation. They want to empower homeless and vulnerably housed individuals to take positive action for their own lives, and do not want to reinforce the many negative assumptions associated with the homeless and homelessness. I think with Unseen Tours, they’ve done this perfectly.
Give it a go – with tickets costing only £12, it’ll be some of the most worthwhile money you’ll spend as either a visitor or resident of London. Best of all Sock Mob events is a social enterprise, which means most of the money they’ll receive from you in payment for our tours goes to the guides, while any profit they make is directly reinvested back into the enterprise.
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