unseen tours: london

When walking past The Coal Hole pub, my tour guide, Viv, looks lovingly at the tables outside and says “I used to get money from Dumbledore.” It turns out Richard Harris was a frequent visitor of The Coal Hole while he was staying in a £6,000 a week suite at The Savoy hotel. “I didn’t know he was a famous actor, to me he was just somebody who was nice to me when I was on the streets,” she says.

Thus began a rather interesting two-hour walking tour covering her time being homeless as well as some history of London’s Covent Garden area sprinkled throughout, beginning at Temple Tube Station and ending at the Covent Garden Market.

We met at the Temple Tube Station on a cold, grey, dreary Thursday morning. She was drssed in tall black Doc Martin’s, bright blue tights, a white skirt with a dizzying floral pattern, a houndstooth jacket and a yellow see-through scarf. The tour begins in Temple Park where Viv spent her last days homeless. The area is named Temple due to its connection with the House of the Knights Templar, which was built on the site of an old monastery that stood in the area. Viv used to sleep on one of the eight benches in the park. Her former bench is painted forest green and is surrounded by shady trees but not hidden from the elements. I close my eyes and try and imagine what it must be like to sleep here, with the rain splattering on to your face and torso. Viv moved into the park after meeting her partner Mad Chaos, who she has been with for seventeen years, when she says this she cannot help but smile.

She moves on until I am standing with her under Waterloo Bridge where she used to sleep, “In my own little house that I built for myself out of wooden pallets, very posh wooden pallets, [she] got them from the back of The Savoy,” she says. The wind is whipping off the Thames and I am shivering. I feel like it is important to say this tour occurred in early June, so I cannot even put myself in Viv’s shoes in January or February when it would be below freezing temperatures under the bridge. However, she could not stop talking about how happy she was at that time in her life.

At the next stop she talked about her shelter in the former Shell Oil Building. She described a scene in which a woman was lit on fire by drunken passersby. Viv casually mentioned that she and a few of her friends saved the woman by explaining that this is the way of the streets. You help one another out instead of fighting against each other.

As the two-hour tour progresses through the many cobblestoned streets of Covent Garden, I realized that when you travel you want to only see the good things. But sometimes it’s inspiring to take a step back and examine the underbelly of a world famous city and that is where Unseen Tours comes in. Travel should leave you wondering about the world around you, and with a lively character like Viv, your tour leaves you thinking about the greater meaning of where home really is.

Unseen Tours (sockmobevents.org.uk, phone number) offers tours of London from £12 per person.