On Wednesday last week I was given a new perspective on the Strand area. Certainly I had walked its lines before: I had been to Temple tube station, the arches under the Adelphi, Embankment Park, the Cole Hole, and Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Yet, I shall now look these familiar places and spaces differently: they have been enriched by the stories I heard on Wednesday night.
The stories accompanied and illustrated a walking tour around the Strand area. It was unlike any walking tour I had taken before. For one thing, it started at 7pm at night; for another, it ended two hours later. It rained throughout. I can claim with certainty that it was the most arduous walking tour I have ever taken. This is by no means to criticise the tour. In fact, its difficulty was as informative as it was poignantly affective. It reflected, though very palely, the experiences of my tour guides.
My guides really knew how cold, wet, grim and unfriendly the Strand could be. One came to the Strand as a young woman: it was her first London dwelling place. Her first night was spent sleeping at the bottom of stairwell, in an alcove just big enough for two. My second guide still lives in the Strand area. He has a more intimate relationship with it than most: he knows every back alley; he knows café owners, security guards and policeman by name. He has to. It is through knowledge of the place and its people that he is able to survive.
When I started work on the Strandlines project I believed that the area had no ‘active sense of community’. I see now the simplistic character of this view. For many people who live on the Strand, community is necessary to their wellbeing; it is by their neighbours that they suffer or subsist.
My tour guides know the Strand though –I would say because – they have neither owned nor rented a part of it. The Strand has been their home, though many would call them ‘homeless’. And whilst the tour was imbued with eccentric historical facts about the Strand area, it was the guides’ stories, anecdotes and reflections about homelessness that made this tour so distinctive (though the interplay between the two still gives me much to ponder over).
I do not want to describe my tour in detail, lest anyone reading this would be interested in taking it (see below). But I will say that my guides, as well as making me see familiar sites anew, introduced me to places I didn’t know existed. I had never before noticed the tents under Waterloo Bridge: a key location for handouts but also a temporary home to veterans of war. They also explained the significance of sites that I had noticed but not yet given sufficient thought: the ‘No Sleeping’ signs in the window of the Strand arcade; the gates that have been constructed around the arches of the former Shell Mex building. Groups used to shelter and sleep under the arches, safe from the rain, if not from the cold. Now they have been ‘moved on’ – the recurrent trope of so many homeless narratives.
On Wednesday night I took what is known as a Sockmob walking tour. Sockmob is an organisation that brings together communities that might otherwise never speak to one another. It offers a structure for homeless people to lead walking tours around London; it also provides a little paid employment for these people. Sockmob tours run regularly throughout the week, in many different areas of London. I took the Temple tour, but Sockmob tours also start from London Bridge and Shoreditch. I would warmly encourage anyone reading this to take the tour – I certainly aim to take another soon.