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My First Year As A Tour Guide

March 3, 2023
by the gentle author





The drawing room at Townhouse awaits tour guests


As we commence a second season of tours, I think of how it began. It was a curious experience walking alone through the streets of Spitalfields with an imaginary party of guests, when I was planning the route of my walking tour a year ago. I had to decide where to stop and talk – out of the flow of people, in shadow during high summer and under cover when it rained. But during my first year it hardly rained, although I did find myself doing my tour in temperatures of thirty-five degrees in July and zero in December. On that particular wintry day, I carried a hot water bottle in a satchel which I passed around to my guests in turn.

The hardest part was to choose which stories to tell out of the thousands I have written, but equally there were considerations of contrast and variety, and how to ensure the route was sufficient, long enough but not too long. After walking a circular path that took me half an hour, I found this same route took two hours when you stop and tell tales. It gives me time to include stories of around a dozen people of Spitalfields, as well showing some old photographs, some paintings and playing a little music in situ.

Each Saturday in summer I am to be found at 2pm outside Christ Church, Spitalfields, in Commercial St, full of expectation as I await my guests. Overcoming my innate timidity, I approach people arriving and ask them if they have come for the tour and, thankfully, I have learnt to read the signs so that mostly they are not random strangers. I hand each guest one of Adam Dant’s maps of the tour when they arrive with the instruction to study it before we set out in case they get lost and I inform them that we shall be starting at 2pm precisely. By having the exact number of maps, I know when everyone has arrived.

Certain rituals have arisen, prior to each tour. Washing, then brushing my hair, before polishing my shoes and putting on my best suit. Then arranging the cups and saucers for post-walk refreshments, confirming the precise number of cakes with Harry the baker, checking I have my photographs in order, enough maps for each of the guests and the correct keys in my pocket.

When you set out for a tour through the streets of Spitalfields on a Saturday afternoon, you have no idea what you may encounter – from block parties with boom boxes to rampant hen parties, political demos and, once, a bride and groom emerging on cue with wedding guests assembled to throw confetti while bells pealed overhead. Yet I am pleased to confirm that we have always made it through, and while I may occasionally struggle to make myself heard over the biker parades and sirens heading down Commercial St, it appears my guests take such distractions in their stride, accepting it all as manifestations of the colourful street life of the East End.

I try to speak to my guests as individuals when I tell my stories and I have learnt to make eye contact with each one in turn. I had no problem overcoming my reserve until a British film star of trans-Atlantic fame came on my tour, acting low key and incognito. Then my natural modesty reasserted itself and I have to confess I struggled to make direct contact with those eyes that were so familiar from the big screen. Conversely, it was a joy when those who feature on my tour joined the tour in person, becoming the star attraction, and when those who feature on my tour popped up by chance in the street to greet me as if by some grand plan, much to the delight of my guests.

In those first months, sometimes I had to search to know what to say but as the summer wore on something magical happened. The words of the tour became like lyrics of a favourite song, so that when I opened my mouth to speak the first line, the entire story flew away with its own volition and momentum.

My favourite moment is at the conclusion of the tour, observing the expressions of anticipation and wonder when I open the door to a three hundred year old house and invite my guests to walk up to the first floor drawing room and make themselves at home. After the clamour of the street, it is a pleasure to come indoors to peace and quiet, and discover refreshments laid out with individual cakes baked freshly to a recipe of 1720. Once everyone is settled, I always ask who has East End roots and people regale us with the most wonderful stories. After our shared journey, a group of former strangers discover they can chat at ease together and a tea party ensues.




Harry Thomas with his cakes baked freshly to a recipe of 1720 for the tour

With grateful thanks to Townhouse for their support, providing the venue and catering for my tours

16 Responses leave one →
  1. March 3, 2023

    It’s a wonderful tour, interwoven with so many fascinating stories, I have recommended it to many other like minded friends, thank you GE.

  2. Andy permalink
    March 3, 2023

    A worthy man who does things to a high esteem.
    Worthwhile and unique being his modus operandi.

  3. Paul Loften permalink
    March 3, 2023

    Wishing you sunny dry days for every one of you forthcoming tours

  4. March 3, 2023

    Congratulations on a successful first year GA.
    I really hope to join you on one of your inspiring and informative tours in 2023.

  5. Annie permalink
    March 3, 2023

    We did the tour last summer and it was joyous. As for the little cakes…a delight. Could not recommend it more highly.

  6. Christine Swan permalink
    March 3, 2023

    Thanks GA, I really do wonder how you manage to fit everything in. I joined your tour last November as part of my ridiculously busy weekend away in my beloved London. I visited Dennis Server’s house again just before your tour, had already walked Spitalfields in the morning to capture some photographs. Add in pre-Christmas shopping, and I ended up running to the church and arriving a couple of minutes late for which I belatedly apologise. I visited Wilton’s Music Hall in the evening so had to dash away from the Townhouse early too Cinderella-style. However, I would still recommend this schedule for a truly epic East End experience.
    The tour was an emotional experience for me. I visit London regularly to walk and photograph places where my ancestors lived. It was lovely to hear about other people’s lives and to look at these familiar buildings in a different light but I still don’t think I could find Parliament Court again! You encouraged us to look closely at familiar things to find the clues of the past. From Culpepper’s curative herbs to shutters and sundials, Spitalfields has many fascinating features if you are shown them by someone who cares deeply about the place.
    I loved the little details of your preparation for the tours. It is a performance that you execute perfectly. The tour is outstanding, please don’t change anything.

  7. Milo permalink
    March 3, 2023

    Sounds wonderful. It’ll be first on my list when i finally scrape together the dosh to come home.

  8. Edward permalink
    March 3, 2023

    Your tour is a brilliant way to explore the fabric of Spitalfields, and walk the streets and meet the people we have got to know through your writings. I caught an early one last year, and hope to be joining you again to see how they’ve progressed.

  9. March 3, 2023

    Process, process, process! If indeed I cannot be in your part of the world for this amazing tour, I feel so fortunate to read about your process. You’ve welcomed your readers into the first flashes of inspiration, the practical planning, the moment of greeting your fellow walkers, and the happy conclusion of a productive day of discovery. An arc of emotions, from a master story teller and dedicated chronicler. Well-done, sir.

    I will enjoy forwarding today’s post to a good friend of mine who conducts history-based walks in Manhattan. These will be kindred words, no doubt.

    Onward and upward.

  10. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 3, 2023

    Well done GA! Your tours are a brilliant and give a real sense of the many layers of history that there are in the area.

    I must come on another one soon – and will recommend it to my friends!

  11. Susan permalink
    March 3, 2023

    It’s a wonderful tour – I loved learning about the people and histories of Spitalfields, and chatting with the group over tea and cakes was lovely. I was the only American on my tour last November (I think I was the only person not from the UK), and everyone in the group made me feel welcome. It was one of my favorite experiences of my trip, and I’m so glad I had the chance to do it.

  12. Mark from Co!orado US permalink
    March 3, 2023

    I was on the tour last May when the wedding party emerged and the bells of the church rang loudly. It was a delightful fast paced walk through time, each pause a glimpse into the real people and places of the wondrous past. And the cakes and tea at the end made returning to the present a stark reminder that we all become shadows in history. Thank you GA, my favorite time travel guide.

  13. Wendy permalink
    March 3, 2023

    I am so looking forward to greeting you with a smile and excitement at the start of my walking tour with you later this spring. After reading your blog since its’ inception, I shall feel like you’re an old friend even before we meet.

  14. jim ramsay permalink
    March 4, 2023

    Thirty five years of visiting London the tour was the most intimate glimpse I have ever seen of the city. An amazing outing in the company of a erudite host and an enthusiastic audience.

  15. WeesieOnPI permalink
    March 4, 2023

    Everything about your tour of Spitalfields was memorable, but perhaps what I enjoyed most was walking those storied streets with the incomparable Gentle Author.

  16. Debra. E. Sewell permalink
    March 5, 2023

    Tours are a great idea. Tours bring all the history you tell, and show us, to life. I am always mesmerized by ehat you tell us and love all the photos of long ago.

    Thank you so much.
    I hope all tours go really well and fun.


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