Bridges and Benches: Homeless Tour Guides Show a New Side to London

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The Globe Theatre is part of the tour, complete with Shakespeare anecdotes. But so too are the benches retro-fitted to prevent the indigent from sleeping on them. Tours led by the homeless in London offer locals a whole new look at their city.

Photo Gallery: London Through the Eyes of the Homeless Photos
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Commuters are streaming out of the train station at London Bridge, walking past Hazel Wilding, who stands in the crush, holding a handwritten sign with the words: "Unseen Tours." The petite 52-year-old shifts her weight from one leg to another. Her thick winter jacket and red scarf aren't enough to keep her warm on this Saturday afternoon.

"Where are they?" she asks impatiently. It is already after three o'clock, and none of the seven people who have booked her tour are in sight.

Wilding, who has strawberry blonde hair and alert eyes, earns money by selling the homeless magazine "Big Issue," and with tours through the London Bridge area. It is a new type of walking tour, with the homeless explaining the city through their own eyes. Places that the tourists would normally just walk by take on new meaning. Every park bench and every bridge offers up a host of anecdotes. Even the delicacy paradise, the London Borough Market, which every good travel guide recommends, is shown in a new light.

"This is where I used to sleep sometimes," says Wilding as she points to a corner of the marketplace. "In the morning, the market traders would make me a cup of tea." A few corners further on, in front of an Asian chain restaurant, she points to waves in the concrete on the floor. "They put them up to stop us sleeping there," she says. And even the park benches in the Lucy Brown Gardens were retrofitted to keep the homeless away -- by putting a third armrest in the center.

An Alternative to Conventional Tours

Being led around by a homeless person gives one a different perspective on the city, says Andrew, a volunteer with the non-profit organization Sock Mob, who accompanies Wilding on the tour. Wilding herself is no longer homeless -- a year ago she moved into her own apartment -- but she has never forgotten her previous life. "We thought briefly about whether or not I should still give the tours, even though I am no longer homeless," she says. "But one can't be forced to stay homeless in order to keep a job."

Wilding is one of five homeless or formerly homeless people who lead tours through five different London districts. Along with London Bridge, she works in the tourist favorites Covent Garden and Brick Lane, the trendy Shoreditch, and Mayfair, home of the hedge funds. The tours take place every Friday night and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

On its website, Unseen Tours presents itself as an alternative to conventional tours. These tours are not meant just to amuse, but to encourage people to reflect. But the personal experiences of the guides only make up a small part of the tour. Most of the time they, like any other guide, point out the places of interest along the way.

Most Participants are Local

In front of the London Bridge, Wilding explains how it was used by the Romans, Danes, and Vikings, and that the English posted the head of Scottish rebel William Wallace on the southern side as a deterrent. She stops in front of the Globe Theatre and tells anecdotes about Shakespeare. In between, she always comes back to the situation of the homeless. Because of the upcoming Olympics, to be held in London this summer, the authorities are cracking down even harder on the homeless, she says. "They want to make the city look nice and clean," she says.

During the two years they have existed, the tours have become well-known in London. About 90 percent of the customers are Londoners, Wilding says. Scandinavians make up the biggest group of foreigners taking the tours. "We've also had some Germans," she says. "They're asking a lot of questions."

Wilding is well-received by the seven people taking the tour this Saturday. "She does a really good job," says Jennifer, a 27-year-old book editor. She booked the tour for herself and two friends after she heard about it on Twitter. "We've never been on a city tour because we're from here," she says. Now she wants to go on more, she says.

For Wilding, the tours are a welcome extra source of income. She is allowed to keep most of the 10 pound fee, and the rest goes to the non-profit foundation. Last year, organizers of the tours won a prize for sustainable tourism. But the number of participants varies too widely to indicate a clear growth trend. Still, Andrew says, "the interest is there."

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