Tourists are one of the many things that Londoners love to complain about. Cluttering the pavements, snapping inopportune pictures, hogging precious tube seats with their ludicrously large backpacks; tourists are a necessary evil that Londoners have to dodge around, duck underneath and bear with through gritted teeth. Having lived near London my whole life I had assumed that I knew everything about this world-famous city. That was until I stepped into the shoes of a tourist, tied up the laces and followed a tour guide around London’s most photographed sites, accompanied by the very hordes that I previously despised.
John announced himself with aplomb. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to my tour of London.’ A drama student/tour guide, our leader for the day was a ball of energy. Words fizzled and spat out of his mouth like Boris Johnson in the prime of a nationalistic speech and he was dressed as if he planned to go shooting, complete with the tweed flat-cap and carrying a duck handle umbrella which he introduced as Rupert. He was in short the archetypal well-to-do gentleman of London. Hoisting the stick high into the balmy Sunday morning air he gaily announced, ‘If you find yourself lost, look for Rupert. Assuming that I don’t get robbed.’ And with that, he twisted around and sped off towards the Wellington Arch. Nervously but obediently we followed.
Holding up the impatient traffic, John ferried us across the road and we converged on Constitution Hill, a sizeable huddle of Europeans, Americans, Canadians, a few Israelis and the token Londoner, myself. Introducing myself to a couple of Russians, I received a strange look of surprise when I revealed that I’m from the very city that we were now about to tour together. There wasn’t the time for confused questioning however as John launched into a dramatic retelling of the Michael Fagan incident, showing us the walls of Buckingham Palace over which the drunken Irishman clambered in his rather ambitious quest to find somewhere to lay his head for the night.
Next, it was onto the front of the palace itself. Cue a 20 minute break during which 20,000 pictures of the same, slightly underwhelming building were taken by members of our tour group. Keeping my camera within my pocket may have felt like not succumbing to tourist levels, but what it really meant is that I was the taker of those 20,000 ‘look-where-I-am’ photos that will inevitably all become the cover photo of their subject’s Facebook profile.
John had more photo opportunities in store, but they certainly didn’t include smiling faces. As we continued down The Mall, the sound of trumpets could be heard and collectively, like a school of tuna being chased, we all turned to face the music and the parading guards. Though the guards are real soldiers in the British Army, the changing of the guards, as John informed us, is purely for tourist purposes. John regaled us with tales of the guards lashing out against pestering tourists- a timely warning for any of our group who fancied getting up close to the bear fur clad trained killers. Onwards we ambled down The Mall, through Admiralty Arch and into Trafalgar Square, the very centre of London from which all distances from the city are calculated.
The virtue of a city tour is that it serves a dual purpose as a history lesson as well as a chance to tick off a city’s sights in one clean sweep. From Trafalgar Square to the tour’s end at the Houses of Parliament, the great figures of British history emerged in stories and quotes so eloquently delivered by our thespian tour guide. Lord Nelson, Queen Victoria, Churchill, Henry VIII and even Guy Fawkes were all summarised and, despite the basic level of this education, it was thoroughly enjoyable. History was truly brought to life. Even though I was a tourist in disguise, surrounded by sights that I’ve seen a hundred times, I found myself learning new information, background detail that shed a new light on my perspective of London and nurtured a new found appreciation of the city I call my home.
Our penultimate stop was on a traffic island. Whilst workers shuffled past our large group, we gathered together in the shadow of Big Ben, London’s most iconic building, for a group photo; a commemorative souvenir marking our achievement in following an overexcited and enthusiastic Londoner for three hours whilst crowding the pavements, looking at a camera screen rather than what was in front of us and crossing the road long after the green man had faded into blackness. Yes, I was part of that gaggle of camera-toting, map-waving, meandering tourists preventing the poor London workers from rushing for their tube home by taking up the whole island. I’ll even admit that I may have taken just a few photos of cliché London sights (and posted them on Facebook). But, despite my initial reluctance to join the sightseeing half of London’s pedestrian traffic, I now feel even closer than ever before to my home city. I highly recommend trying it.
Greg’s tour was with Sandeman’s New Europe London tours. They lead a free tour of Royal London every day of the week starting from Wellington Arch at 11am and 1pm.