Look up, Wanstead

DSCF3256Wanstead High Street photo by Geoff Wilkinson

Lockdown provided London tour guide Chris O’Donnell with an opportunity to learn more about Wanstead, subsequently imparting this knowledge via his virtual tours and encouraging us all to look up. Wanstead High Street photo by Geoff Wilkinson

“Look up.” That’s the first piece of advice you are given when training as a tour guide. It is so you can show people things they haven’t seen before. Or tell them something about a building, a tree, a hill they didn’t know.  And people walking to work, to the shop, to the pub, never look up. 

Lockdown happened 48 hours after I launched my Hidden in Plain Sight London Tour Guide business. I had plenty to do in terms of ever-broadening my repertoire. Even when they are shut, there is plenty to read about on the Tower, St Paul’s, the Abbey, for my exams there next year.

But I needed something else to do. Locally, obviously. But with no people. Zoom meetings and lectures quickly raised the idea of a virtual tour. A virtual local tour. But the problem I had was that 25 years of living in Wanstead hadn’t taught me anything about the place, really. I mean I have my favourite places. The Ginger Pig, the fishmonger, Luppolo’s. And I know all the pubs. The High Street has everything but clothes shops. And even then my new second-hand policy was beginning to work in the charity shops.

But I didn’t know Wanstead like I know the City. Or Soho. Or the South Bank. How to guide it, how to explain it? How to delight and surprise people here? So, I looked up.

I saw the sundial at the Allan Burgess Centre.  I saw what looked like bits of old houses behind the British Heart Foundation shop I bought my black shirt from. I saw just how amazingly massive and majestic the sweet chestnuts on St Mary’s Avenue are. I saw what looks like the fragment of an ancient forest at the bottom of the High Street abruptly end next to the beautifully manicured memorial green. Opposite, the shops, like above Boots, are noticeably younger than… wait… above the Italian deli, “1888”.

What’s going on here?

And then I listened. “At the first tee,” said my mate, “are the craters where the wine cellars were for the old house.” What? Wine cellars at the golf club?

When you have seen things that look interesting, you know where to look then. The old houses turn out to be old Georgian houses, just like the Manor House. And the City of London runs the crazy forest, not Redbridge. The trees on St Mary’s Avenue are famous in horticultural circles. And the sundial? Well, you might have to come on a virtual or walking tour for that one!

So, I have now engaged with around 200 Wansteadians I had never met before and told them things they never knew about their home urban village. All because I looked up.  And so should you.

Chris will host a virtual tour of Wanstead on 15 July from 8pm (£5). For more information, email cod@hipstours.com or follow him on Twitter @hipstoursldn