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The Gentle Author Spitalfields Market by John Allin, 1973
Spitalfields Market by John Allin, 1973

The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields

‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote… Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages’

Why not embrace the words of the celebrated poet and resident of Aldgate, Geoffrey Chaucer, that this is the time for pilgrimages and join my tour? I invite you to come in the footsteps of all those who came before, with a keen eye and an open heart, to discover the manifold wonders of Spitalfields.

Ramble with me through two thousand years of culture in the heart of London and discover some of the people and places that make this historic neighbourhood distinctive. To speak of Spitalfields is to speak of community, creativity, resourcefulness, and the resilience of people here though the centuries. My project is to offer a better alternative to the ubiquitous serial killer tours by creating a entirely different experience that is more engaging, more entertaining, more fun, more surprising - and which is without femicide.

For past fifteen years, I have been publishing Spitalfields Life, a daily blog about the culture of the East End and now I have devised a walking tour based on these stories. The hardest part was to choose which ones to tell out of the thousands I have written yet, equally, there were considerations of contrast and variety, and how to ensure the walk was satisfying but not too long. After tracing a circular path that took me half an hour, I found this route took two hours when you stop and tell tales. It gives me time to include stories of a selection of people in Spitalfields from the past two millennia, as well showing archive photographs, some paintings, and playing a little music in situ.

Illustrated map drawn by Adam Dant with text by The Gentle Author
Illustrated map drawn by Adam Dant with text by The Gentle Author

When you set out for a tour through the streets of Spitalfields, you have no idea what you may encounter – from block parties with boom boxes to rampant hen parties, political demos and, once, a bride and groom emerging on cue with wedding guests assembled to throw confetti while bells pealed overhead. Yet I am pleased to confirm that we have always made it through, and while I may occasionally struggle to be heard over the biker parades and sirens heading down Commercial St, it appears my guests take such distractions in their stride, accepting it all as manifestations of the colourful street life of the East End.

I try to speak to my guests as individuals when I tell my stories and I have learnt to make eye contact with each one in turn. I had no problem overcoming my reserve until a British film star of trans-Atlantic fame joined my tour, acting low key and incognito. Then my natural modesty reasserted itself and I have to confess I struggled to make direct contact with those eyes that were so familiar from the big screen. Conversely, it is a joy when locals who feature on my tour join the tour in person, becoming the star attraction, and when those who feature on my tour pop up by chance in the street to greet me as if by some grand plan, much to the delight of my guests.

Sometimes, when I began, I had to search to know what to say but, as the first summer wore on, something magical happened. The words of the tour became like lyrics of a familiar song, so that when I opened my mouth to speak the first line, the entire story flew away with its own volition and momentum.

My favourite moment is observing the expressions of anticipation and wonder when I open the door to a three-hundred-year-old silk merchant’s house and invite my guests to walk up to the first floor drawing room and make themselves at home. After the clamour of the street, it is a pleasure to come indoors to peace and quiet, and discover refreshments laid out with individual cakes baked freshly to a recipe of 1720. Once everyone is settled, I always ask who has East End roots and people regale us with the most wonderful stories. After our shared journey, a group of former strangers discover they can chat at ease together and a tea party ensues.

Every Saturday throughout the summer



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