The central idea of PastInThePresent.net is that to truly to appreciate the past you need to get out and discover the world. Museums are great ways to help shape our understanding of history, but they should not be used as a substitute for putting on a good pair of walking boots and setting off to visit the places where history was made.
But the world can be confusing, so you need good guides that can help you navigate the past. Books, TV programmes and of course the Internet can be useful aids, but there is no subsitute to going on a professional walking tour or attending a talk delivered by an enthusiast.
On this page we have provided links to some of our favourite ‘past guides’. The list is by no means intended to be exhaustive, but if you think there is an organisation that should be included, do let us know and we will check it out.
Mark Gee’s picks:
Whenever I’m travelling and arrive in a new city I try wherever possible to go on a walking tour with an English speaking guide. They really help you quickly get beneath the skin of a new place. Indeed, even when I am in a place I think I know well, like London, it is still rewarding to go on a guided tour – for somewhere as rich and diverse as Britain’s capital there is always more to learn and see.
In my opinion, the best walking tour company operating in London right now. Led by Dr Mathew Green, the first tour they introduced traced the birth of the coffee house in the 17th century. It was where modern Britain was born thanks to its incubation of great institutions such as the London Stock Exchange and the insurers Lloyds of London. Dr Green points out the sites of the early coffee houses and uses actors to help tell the stories of how the first owners faced opposition at opening new sites – particularly from tavern owners worried about losing out on trade. Highly recommended. Unreal City Audio has now expanded to other tours, including one tracing the birth of the free press on Fleet Street (check out my review).
Just a stone’s throw from Liverpool Street station, I’ve walked the streets of Spitalfields and Shoreditch many a time since moving to London and thought I knew the area well. Going on an street art tour with Alternative London Tours I realised all the amazing masterpieces that I’ve been missing out on. East London is quite literally one of the world’s greatest art galleries. The guys, who like Sandleman’s (below) work on a tips basis, know where to find the best pieces, but they also know many of the artists so they can tell you the story behind the art.
Cursed by many in the industry for cheapening walking tours (they offer the ultimate ‘free tour’), I’ve been on their Royal London walk and actually thought it gave quite a good overview of the capital. While other companies run more specialist itineraries, this helps you get to grips with some of the more populist history – with some interesting and amusing anecdotes thrown in along the way. Many of the guides are actors so there is a strong emphasis on the performance, but the guide I had did seem to know his stuff. Of course, the tours aren’t wholly ‘free’ – guides only make money from the tips that they earn.
The most established of all walking companies in London and still, many would argue, the best. London Walks certainly has a large number of tours to choose from as part of its regular programme and walks from the ‘repetoire’ fill a number of changing slots each week. I’ve enjoyed many good walks with the company in recent years, including the City of London; Westminster; Jack the Ripper. My advice: if you go on a walk and find a guide you like ask them what other walks they do for London Walks and join them on those – guides can vary enormously.