Between imaginary rides and unheard walls

I have decided to take my bike for a Sunday lockdown adventure toward central London. Determined, I begin studying a digital map to see where to I could venture to ride. 

Through Victoria Park I arrive in Hackney and there is Old street. I wonder on the roundabout for a while, drawing hypnotic circles on it, until I take the street South towards Finsbury Square. I pause my cartography walk right away, resting my sight on the only green spot in the proximity trying to remember what it is. After a couple of attempts fighting the blankness of my memory, the fog cleared up. I first entered that place with Unseen Tours

Shoreditch tour guide, Henri

It was a slow and dump Saturday afternoon in January 2017 when our guide Henri meet us in the labyrinthic station of Old street. 

The small group gathered, and we prepared to start. I was full of curiosity and intrigued by the idea to learn something new about this city that has adopted me ten years ago.

As soon as we emerged from the underground tunnel into City Road, and Henri’s stories start unfolding, I felt I have stepped into a parallel dimension. It was something in Henri’s tone of voice: perhaps his friendly attitude, perhaps the lack of that formality and reverential attention that tourists might have got used to receive. More than a city tour, I felt we were following him in his neighbourhood to find the proofs of unsolved mysteries.

We started a journey that unveiled silent battles. Henri’s words gradually lifting invisible layers of the smart facades to reveal the real surface of those buildings, showing social contradictions and the effects of gentrification. 

My eyes magnetised by the building rising in front of me, whose walls were screaming for attention after been ignored for all those years. 

Unlocking untold stories in Shoreditch

Places are never neutral. They absorb the voices and the steps of the people that have inhabited them. But our ears are not prepared to hear that. Or we simply need the gate keeper.

Walls tells stories, sometimes through the thick layers of graffiti paint, like the ones sedimented in the “official” illegal street artist laboratory we discovered at the second stops of our tour. The place holds a vivid smell of unlocked artistic spirits and political protests. Splashes of colours added next to each other over time, without an apparent logic or order. Thanks to Henri’s words we zoomed into the unique stories raising from the blocks. When I zoomed out, though, I see a majestic multivocal mural of nuances and emotions. Layers and layers of them. 

I travelled through time as well that afternoon. Henri pronounced some words by while turning a corner and like casting a spell we landed in Shakespeare time. Such an effective and fascinating way of time travelling that was.

The site of the original Globe Theatre

Layers of history sedimented over each other. In a middle of a little square I stopped, I looked around and my mind went to other places of this city I pretend to know. Who knows how many stories I have missed! -I thought. Pretending to know a place without knowing its past and presents stories it is a sweet illusion.  

Henri has been our Shoreditch gate keeper, unlocking many untold stories for us, releasing the stories of the place, as well as some of the stories he lived, heard, and witnessed himself in these streets. Adding personal layers and new perspectives to the bright colours of this corner of London.

I thought I would have learnt something new, but that day I encountered other people’s stories, which I welcomed into my heart.

My ride might have been postponed today, but my memory has brought back to life some pretty special places. 

Henri is one of the Unseen Tour guides in London. Read his story and book your place on his tour of Shoreditch here.

This blog was written by Elisa Spampinato. Photo credits: ESpampinato Photography.