How well do you know your own city? This is what I was asking myself earlier this month as I booked myself onto the Soho, Piccadilly Circus and Chinatown walking tour with Free Tours by Foot. Keen to experience what it is actually like to go on a walking tour as research for my upcoming Gluten-Free Soho tour this summer, I figured I should see things from the "other side". Instead of picking an area of London I don’t know that well (i.e. the whole of the West), I opted for my usual stomping ground, Soho, to see if I could find out something new about the area I had worked in for the last decade. And the verdict: two fantastic eye-opening hours that made me look at my adopted hometown in a whole new light!
Monday morning I booked was pretty dreamy as I met my tour group at Piccadilly Circus. After an epic weekend of sunshine (so rare for London), we were treated to an equally gorgeous start to the week so I was left feeling like I was in a different city already. Sinead, our guide, was instantly warm and welcoming and had the resonating, perfectly articulated voice that made you suspect she is a trained actor. There were about 12 others in my group, making it just large enough to navigate the small streets of the West End without needing Sinead to carry some kind of umbrella or sign to ensure we were all following her at all times. The group was very mixed in terms of ages and nationalities. At age 35 I appeared to be one of the youngest but I would assume a free tour would often attract more people in their 20s on other days.
Speaking of free, that is what the tour is advertised as, although you are encouraged to tip generously at the end. That said, you could give as much or little as you feel it is worth or you have. A couple of quid would be perfectly OK. However, once you have wandered around marveling at the stories Sinead tells, you will be more than happy to pay for the experience. The going rate for such a tour is around £12 so you aren’t expected to pay any more than that.
I got the impression that there is no set route for this tour. You are taken on that particular guides adventure, to hear their stories, to see the places that hold the most interest to them. Sinead’s preference is pure British music history: loads of The Beatles, Stones and Hendrix with a dash of Queen and Fleetwood Mac. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers about what the tour includes, but the most surprising aspect for me was discovering that right around the corner from the place I worked for the last 5 years (and right next door to my favorite Detox Kitchen cafe on Kingly Street) is the Bag O’Nails club. I’d never paid any attention to it, never looked at the iconic blue plaques on the door. It turns out that not only is it the places where the Jimi Hendrix Experienceplayed their first gig (1966), it was where Paul McCartney met Linda Eastman(1967) AND John McVie met Christine Perfect(1970). Not a bad list of music history moments, which really made me think I need to take a little more interest in my surrounds and pay less attention to the Instagram feed on my phone.
So, as a bona fide Soho regular would I recommend this tour? Most definitely. Don’t sit on one of those open-top buses mindlessly watching the buildings rush by. Join Sinead on her two-hour tour – rain or shine, she’s apparently always there!