London street art (London Attractions Guide)
Article Words : Gabrielle Jaffe | 20 August

Alternative tours in London's East End

To get under the skin of a city, you need local knowledge. But how do you find your knowledgeable local? Londoner Gabrielle Jaffe enlists a unique guide for an urban adventure

That’s where I used to sign on,” says Patrick, pointing to an unremarkable street off Hoxton Square. “It’s not there any more – area’s changed so much since the 90s." A one-time struggling actor, Patrick’s just the sort you’d imagine meeting in London’s artsy Hoxton area. But he’s the last person you’d expect as a tour guide.

This isn’t your average sightseeing tour; it’s the East End Uncovered Urban Adventure, one of a new series run in cities worldwide by adventure operator Intrepid Travel. Biking Buenos Aires, home-cooking in Istanbul, riding a cyclo across Ho Chi Minh City – these trips get you off the tour bus and into the back streets with a local guide.

Like many other Londoners I regularly migrate to the East End at the weekend. So can Patrick, who’s lived in the area since emigrating from Ireland 20 years ago, show me anything I don’t know?

Our first stop is The Eagle. I’ve stumbled out of this pub many a night, never noticing the nursery rhyme on the wall: ‘Up and down the city road, in and out The Eagle. That’s where the money goes, pop goes the weasel!’

Patrick explains: “In the 19th century the city’s weavers would spend all their money in The Eagle. When they hadn’t a penny left they’d pawn their most valued possession – the spool, or ‘weasel’ – for one last drink.”

Next up is Moorfields Eye Hospital. Patrick strides towards an ordinary metre-square piece of chipboard on the wall. Ordinary, yes – but peering behind it we come face to face with a chain-wearing, microphone-holding rat, sprayed by celebrated street artist Banksy. Not so long ago Hackney Council would paint over his graffiti. Now Banksy’s works of ‘vandalism’ are worth up to half a million pounds.

Patrick points out the designs of other guerrilla artists – an El Chivo on a crumbling wall, a Space Invader on Hoxton Square, and many more unknowns. Future stars, maybe?

We then pass the site of Hitchcock’s Gainsborough Studios (now smart apartments), a gallery housed in two old London Underground carriages, and a mosque, which was once a synagogue, which was once a Huguenot church.  

Perhaps the most impressive story of regeneration is that of Shoreditch Park. Patrick claims William the Conqueror’s archers practised there. By Georgian times it was a notorious pleasure garden; in the Victorian period, an even more notorious slum. Bombing in the Second World War decimated it, so the land reverted to green space.

But the past is not the point. If you’re after an encyclopaedic run-down of the East End’s history, look elsewhere.

This is less a tour, more like a friend showing me his neighbourhood, introducing me to the best pie-and-mash shop (F Cooke’s, incidentally) and the owner of the Duke of Uke, Hoxton’s one and (unsurprisingly) only ukulele store. It has better acquainted me with a city I already know – and made me want to better explore the ones I don’t.

Urban Adventures' East End Uncovered tour costs £25pp and includes pie and mash

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