London walking tours: Get a different city perspective with homeless guides

Who better to highlight London’s contrasts than a once-homeless man, writes Rob McFarland.

When I meet Mike O'Hara outside Chalk Farm tube station, he looks like any other dapper Camden-ite. Dressed in a tweed jacket, checked shirt and skinny jeans, it's hard to believe that three years ago he was sleeping in churches and accepting handouts from food banks.

Today O'Hara works for Unseen Tours, a  non-profit enterprise that runs walking tours of London led by homeless, formerly homeless and vulnerably housed guides. For visitors, it's a chance to see the capital from a different perspective. For guides, it's much-needed paid employment. Just don't expect a tour of the poor. "Our tours are not tours of the homeless but, rather, with them," stresses the company's website.

O'Hara calls this tour Camden Contrasts, explaining that "the suburb is polarised by wealth. There is poverty but also lots of celebrities."

Our first stop is the Roundhouse, a former locomotive maintenance shed that became one of London's most influential music venues. Pink Floyd played here in 1966 to a packed crowd that included Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull. Allegedly, everyone was given a sugar cube containing LSD on the way in.

Opposite is the Marathon, a late-night bar and kebab joint that was a favourite haunt for Jack White, Amy Winehouse and Keith Richards. 

We stroll towards Primrose Hill, a former working class suburb that was gentrified by an influx of artists in the 1960s. Declared a conservation area in 1971, it's now a charming enclave of elegant Victorian terraces and expensive restaurants and boutiques. Unsurprisingly, it's become a celebrity magnet and O'Hara reels off  the names of famous residents including Jude Law, Gwen Stefani and Jamie Oliver.  

In the midst of all this glitz and glamour is Chalk Farm Baptist Church, the food bank where O'Hara used to come for a free meal. "I'm not a religious person," he says, "but I have a place in my heart for the people who volunteered there."

We climb to the summit of Primrose Hill Park and bask in sweeping views of London while O'Hara tells us more about his back-story. In 2008 he was made redundant from a well-paid job in the city. He was 55 and it was the height of the recession. After two years of looking for work, he used the last of his savings to move to Vietnam to teach English. All was going well until he became seriously ill and was forced to return home with £100 to his name.

Advertisement

He spent a few months sleeping on friends' couches but "you can only do that for so long". Suddenly, he was on the streets with nowhere to live. "I felt crushed and broken with shame," he says. "How could I have fallen so far?"

His saviour was C4WS, a charity that provides shelter and helps homeless people get back on their feet. 

As we leave the park, O'Hara shows us where he lives now – a housing trust for the over-55s. It's clean, affordable and has an eclectic set of tenants that includes a ballet dancer, an opera singer and a former Bond villain. In true Camden-style, a few doors down is the palatial home of current Bond star Daniel Craig.

Next stop is Camden Lock, which on a sunny Sunday afternoon is mobbed. We make a hasty exit but not before O'Hara points out Dingwalls, the music venue that gave birth to the United Kingdom's punk scene and went on to become an important outlet for bands like The Smiths in the early '80s.

The tour's musical bias makes sense when O'Hara reveals he used to manage bands. It's also fitting given the suburb's rich musical heritage. 

We pass other notable venues such as the Good Mixer pub where members of Oasis and Blur used to hang out (not always harmoniously) and the Electric Ballroom, an intimate club on Camden High Street that's hosted U2, The Killers and Prince. 

The tour finishes in a bar above Stables Market where O'Hara reflects on how his fortunes have changed. "I'm gradually building my life back up," he says, taking a sip of his pint. "I'm eating better now and I make just enough to get by." He smiles ruefully. "I'm one of the lucky ones."

The writer travelled as a guest of British Airways and Unseen Tours. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitlondon.com.

GETTING THERE

British Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to London via Singapore. See britishairways.com.

SEE + DO

Unseen Tours offers walking tours of Camden, Covent Garden, London Bridge and Shoreditch. Cost $18.50. See sockmobevents.org.uk.

Comments