Unseen Tours offer alternative walks led by homeless guides. Naomi Tolley joins a tour of Camden with a twist
Here at Chalk Farm Tube station, we are waiting for Mike.
It is Wednesday afternoon in a seemingly nondescript north west corner of the capital – and the start-point for one of Unseen Tours’ most popular jaunts: Camden Rock ‘n’ Roll Contrasts.
“I live locally and I’m keen to learn about parallels between my experiences of the area and those of someone who has been homeless,” says fellow walker, Jill. Her friend bought their tour tickets as a birthday present.
This tour is one of six run by a not-for-profit organisation Unseen Tours. The others are in Brick Lane, Shoreditch, Covent Garden, Brixton (the Brixton tour has just been re-launched) and London Bridge. All are led and designed by homeless or formerly homeless guides, reflecting their interest and knowledge of the area.
The initiative, launched in 2010, has so far attracted more than 6,000 people to its walking tours and has been recognised with a Responsible Tourism Award and an Observer Ethical Award. Sixty percent of the £10 per person ticket price goes straight to the guide, with the rest covering the organisation’s running costs – a strategy that has helped 16 homeless or formerly homeless people back on their feet.
“His tales are told with infectious enthusiasm, and his life experiences in the area are unmatched, giving him leverage to shine a light on Camden’s ‘unseen’ past and present.”
“Now you see that,” says tour guide Mike, standing on Chalk Farm Road and gesturing to the Marathon Restaurant, a small restaurant-cum-fish and kebab bar with a deep mauve façade. “It looks like nothing from the outside but on the inside, well, that is a whole different story,” he muses in his thick West London accent, of which he is very proud.
Just minutes into the tour, it is clear that Mike has an unmatched knowledge and experience of the area’s underground scene.
He then leads us on up the road to a music venue.
“Up until a couple of weeks ago they had a very late alcohol licence and was really popular with musicians for underground gigs, some of them pretty famous, who would go out the back there for local jams. Last year, after Glastonbury, Jack White from the White Stripes popped in there for a blues jam. He and his ‘sister’ did a mini jam there back in 2002, too,” he quips, happy with his breadth of home-grown wisdoms.
“I was also there on two occasions back in the noughties when there was a lovely girl singing,” continues Mike, with something of a song in his own voice. He then casually slips into the conversation that the ‘lovely young girl’ he speaks of was, in fact, Amy Winehouse. “Paul Weller and Shane from The Pogues also gigged there,” he adds.
Mike designed, and has been leading, the Camden walk since 2014. He is a Londoner through-and-through, with a story that boldly defies any stigmas associated with homelessness: he worked in senior management positions in the City for many years before being made redundant during the recession and ultimately becoming homeless.
Faye Shields, co-founder of Unseen Tours, says: “Sometimes we can be quick to judge people who are living on the streets, but homelessness can happen to anyone, for all sorts of reasons, such as redundancy, the end of a relationship, or illness.”
“Our hope is that by spending time with one of our Unseen Tour guides, people may be encouraged to rethink their perceptions of homelessness,” she adds.
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We carry on down the road for just 10 yards before Mike stops us outside the Grade II listed Roundhouse, a former railway engine shed, which now serves as a performing arts and concert venue as well as hosting the iTunes Festival. The likes of Elton John, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga and Calvin Harris have all performed here recently, Mike tells us.
But that is relatively cosmetic, put in its cultural and historical context: “In the mid-60s there was a huge explosion of anti-establishment feelings and a lot of underground newspapers surfaced at that time.
“One of those newspapers, The International Times, rented out the Roundhouse for its launch [and Mike was there too]; Soft Machine and Pink Floyd were here,” he recalls. “It became a significant underground music venue from then-on, attracting The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and The Doors, among others.”
Living among and alongside venues linked to musical stardom is old hat for Mike – he has been doing it for decades. We pass the site of a former Banksy painting (which was apparently accidentally painted over by the council) and cross over the pedestrian bridge from what Mike describes as ‘can-be-rough’ Camden, into the village idyll of Primrose Hill, where Mike is equally at home.
After giving us a brief but fully informed low-down on the area’s history, including how it rose from poverty to one of the most sought-after bohemian hang-outs in the city, Mike pauses on the corner of the high street to tell us stories about the extraordinariness of Primrose Hill.
“It is very unique in the UK, given conservation status in the 70s and has a very strong sense of community and identity with 98 percent of its shops being independent,” Mike says proudly. “You wouldn’t find a Sainsbury’s, Tesco or McDonald’s here.”
“Morrissey just put his arm around my waist and we sang the whole song together, me and Morrissey, right on that stage. That was my 15 minutes of fame.”
We pass Mary Portas’ house and one of her Living and Giving Save the Children shops, which sits almost directly opposite her front door. “We see her outside sometimes, doing a bit of pruning,” Mike jests.
Stood at the end of playwright and author Alan Bennett’s road, near to where Mike slept rough for years and where they filmed much of Paddington, the 2014 film, Mike stops to tell us parts of his story: “I was helped by a charity to get off the streets. They found me somewhere to live,” he says.
“Then there were new challenges, like finding food and employment, and paying utility bills. At times it was a real struggle to do this all by myself. So, like a lot of people, I accepted the help of a food bank and my food bank was here,” he says, pointing to Chalk Farm Baptist Church.
“I am not a religious man but I have got a big heart for all of the Christians who have helped me – they were mostly volunteers and all were wonderful people. I don’t know where I would be without them.”
Mike’s income through Unseen Tours has now given him the independence and freedom to choose his own meals: “Just being able to choose what you want to eat is a great freedom,” he says, with heartfelt appreciation.
We walk through to picturesque Chalcot Square, where Mike reels off names of past and present resident celebrities and public figures, many of whom he mixes with on the odd occasion he pops in for a pint at the local Prince of Wales, known to regulars as ‘The Princess’. They include Robert Plant, Andrew Marr, Jude Law, Nick Grimshaw, Harry Styles, Gwen Stefani, Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Martin and Ed Miliband.
Mike also whips out an album of celebrities snapped locally, going about their daily chores, such as Jamie Oliver, Ricky Gervais, Kate Moss and Helena Bonham Carter with Tim Burton, not to mention the Beckhams when they rented a pad nearby for 12 months.
We stop atop Primrose Hill to take in the view before wandering down past Mike’s home – a flat in a pleasant block for the over-55s on the edge of the park, run by a charitable housing trust. “It is a wonderful community. There is a theatre group, which has got Alan Bennett involved and there are some great characters living there, with many of the residents having come from an arts background. They provide a lot of entertainment,” he chuckles.
We amble down to Regents Canal, past ‘the first floating restaurant in the UK’ (the Feng Chang Princess), and towards Camden Lock. Mike pauses on one of the bridges overlooking the lock and nods towards Dingwalls, a legendary bar from the old gig circuit back in the 70s, which, he says, hosted the Ramones concert that gave rise to the UK punk era. The Clash, The Stranglers, The Damned, The Drifters and Blondie all followed.
“Our hope is that by spending time with one of our Unseen Tour guides, people may be encouraged to rethink their perceptions of homelessness.”
As the tour draws to a close, Mike pulls one of his finest moments out of the bag: “We had heard about this amazing band called The Smiths. Myself and my girlfriend at the time had already been to one of their gigs and we heard they were playing at Dingwalls and I said ‘we’ve got to go’ so we got a group together and went along.
“I already loved their music. At some point in the night I disappeared before my girlfriend saw me on stage. Johnny Marr had started on This Charming Man and Morrissey just put his arm around my waist and we sang the whole song together, me and Morrissey, right on that stage. That was my 15 minutes of fame,” Mike recalls, smiling.
His tales are told with infectious enthusiasm, and his life experiences in the area are unmatched, giving him leverage to shine a light on Camden’s ‘unseen’ past and present.
It becomes glaringly obvious that Unseen Tours is not only providing a platform for Mike to change people’s perceptions of homelessness, but also to give him ‘hope’, as he puts it.
Although Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, say there isn’t a national figure for the number of people sleeping rough in the UK, government statistics estimate that on any one night, there were 2,714 ‘rough sleepers’ in the UK last year – 27 percent of those were in London. Local agencies report that in London alone, 7,581 people slept rough throughout 2014/15.
These figures represent a 16 percent rise in homelessness on the previous year and more than a 50 percent rise since 2009/10.
With this in mind, mingled with Mike’s happy tales of his turbulent life in North West London, I leave Chalk Farm tube station also in the ‘hope’ that Unseen Tours goes from strength-to-strength, continuing to give a voice and visibility to the homeless, and that more people flock to walk with Mike around Camden.
To mark Unseen Tour’s fifth birthday, customers can ‘bring a friend for free’ on any tour, from 1 to 30 September, 2015. Visit unseentours.co.uk
Mike’s Camden Rock ‘n’ Roll Contrasts Tour runs daily, except Mondays, and starts at 2pm.
The revamped Brixton Tour – Dynamic and Vibrant – uncovers the area’s hidden gems, from the river to a restored windmill, and a prison that has been home to more than a few famous names. It is led by Hazel, a local lady who became homeless after her marriage ended.
A new version of the London Bridge Tour – Mysterious Alleys, Hidden Pathways, will start at the famous landmark, then follow the Thames along the South Bank before delving into Borough’s more mysterious alleyways. The tour ends at one of the city’s oldest pubs.
Photo title: Formerly homeless guide, Mike leading a tour group in Camden
Photo credit: © Unseen Tours