This is my year of being adventurous, doing different things, exploring, and challenging myself. I am a big wuss, so it is not too hard to find things to do. I also want to actually do things. There is so much out there, yet many of us stick so solidly to our routine, that we hardly experience anything new.
Take, for example, a trip to London: many people want to do the conventional sight-seeing – Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the London Eye, yet you end up walking away with all the same photographs and experiences as everyone else, and you probably didn’t even learn anything by doing it. Yes, I did that too, on my recent trip, but we also mixed it up a bit by doing something Alternative.
There are some fabulous websites these days that make some terrific recommendations for activities to do in your city. It’s a real shame they don’t have one for Johannesburg (hint hint…). One of the top rated activities for London on one of these sites was an Alternative London Tour. They take a different look at the East End, the area around Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Brick Lane, with a specific focus on the Street Art that is apparently so huge in that area. Ever heard of Banksy? Apparently this was the area where he made his name, and inspired the revolution of Street Art (this is what I gathered from the tour). We didn’t get to see any of his work: the way that street art is run, pieces don’t seem to stay up for more than a couple of months, sometimes even just a few days. The fleeting nature of the art makes the experience special because you don’t actually know if it will still be there when you next see that particular wall.
What I found really interesting was the fact that many of the pieces we saw are not done illegally: the artists are often asked or given permission to create their fantastic pieces on the buildings by the landlords themselves. This tour was great because you learn to notice what constitutes street art, and what is just graffiti. For some, it’s all graffiti. The difference is that graffiti is all rebellious and anarchist (mostly also done illegally), whereas Street Art really is about creating something significantly visually stimulating (not necessarily appealing… like most art). Most of the time, the pieces are making some kind of statement – ‘stop climate change’, for example – and there is a social aim in them. It makes you appreciate how it’s more than just a couple of unruly school kids, and you take the time to admire their work (and figure out what on earth their message is…).
We had a really great tour guide, Ben Slow, who was charismatic, well-informed, very friendly, and particularly enthusiastic about both Street Art, and the gentrification in the area that is threatening the integrity, history, and culture that has developed into something very unique over the years. While he completely acknowledged the fact that some gentrification can be good (growing business and growing economy generally benefits everyone, right?), he also emphasised how this process doesn’t need to be at the expense of the area. Watch the video for his take on the matter, but also remember that he is not entirely against it. We all need to acknowledge the damaging role that commercialisation and corporations can play if they are not kept in check.
What was great about Alternative London, was that they don’t only cater for Street Art or graffiti enthusiasts: they include proper history of the area, how it developed into what it is today, and they look at some of the social aspects as well. I learnt a lot about Street Art and I learnt that we all need to be more observant.
My only complaint, which is really somewhat negligible, is that online they say they try to keep the groups small, but when we arrived, there were over 50 people. They split this between two guides, though I initially felt it was still rather big, but in the end it didn’t make a difference. Just note that when they say ‘small’, it’s not as intimate as the sub-12 you may be expecting.
They offer summer bicycle tours, which sound like they would be a worthwhile experience. You pay by donation as well, which means that you can decide how much you think the tour was worth, or just pay according to your own means – everyone is able to get involved.
I can see why it has such a high ranking on tourism and activity sites. It is definitely worth it to do something different when in London.