If you love Hackney, you are going to love this interview.
It’s fair to say Simon’s a big advocate of everything Hackney: “I love Hackney – and I love sharing it with people! There’s so much to discover about what’s all around us…” he says.
You’ve travelled to an impressive 36 countries in your lifetime so far – which five places would you tell someone with an around the world ticket to definitely stop and visit?
There are so many to choose from, but as a city lover I’d have to say: San Francisco for the lifestyle, the night life and a beautiful cityscape made up of gorgeous wooden houses and the stunning Golden Gate Bridge; Berlin for the intersection of powerful history, cutting edge alternative culture and a civilised approach to living; Australia for a myriad of experiences that range from diving the Great Barrier Reef to being the only person in the middle of a desert. Also anywhere in Asia, just to get an idea of how different life can be. And finally, even though I haven’t been yet, I just know New York is a must-see!
Tell us how you first became acquainted with the London Borough of Hackney and a little bit about the tours you now host in and around the area.
An educational tour guide from north-east England, I was living in a dull part of London and had almost given up on it for Berlin. Then I met an amazing group of people who live in Hackney and moved here. I started looking into its history in the run-up to the Olympics and realised that not only is it cutting edge now, but it always has been. The penny dropped that I could guide on my own doorstep.
There’s an incredible narrative here that combines social history, industrial firsts and artistic creativity with an ongoing strand of reforming radicalism. Many things we totally take for granted were fought for in east London and I explore this in both the Radical Stoke Newington and my Feminist (Or Is It?) walks.
I also lead a walk from the Hackney Wick which looks at this unique artist haven in the Victorian era, then contrasts it with the contemporary art present and finally the post-Olympic future. There must be a Ley line or something because it all intersects in this one spot.
We noticed your favourite European city is Berlin (a place we love too). How do you compare London to other major cities around the world? Do you think London deserves the number one spot it so often gets given?
We speak 300+ languages a day here and it shows London is so diverse. There’s so much access to different kinds of culture and I’m very proud of our free museums. Having travelled extensively, I think we have a friendly and tolerant capital.
Our city has been built on its position as an international hub and meeting point; this seems to breed a very cosmopolitan-outward looking vibe. It’s a welcoming place that embraces new things and new arrivals. When I call myself a Londoner now, I get a little buzz.
Tell us just what you really love about Hackney and how you would sell it to a fellow Londoner who has never visited the borough.
Historically, its layer upon layer of history that sees Henry VIII and Mary Wollstonecraft sharing the stage with Marie Lloyd and Daniel Defoe. You see things differently when you know how we got to the present. And today, if there’s something being piloted, chances are it’ll be here. We’ve got London’s first craft beer brewing festival in May, for example. The issues of developing cities – good and bad – are writ large in Hackney; it’s like watching a drama unfold. Finally, it’s not just a ‘green’ borough – we’ve got the highest number of cyclists – but a very green borough too, with those precious marshes.
In your eyes, does east London rule the roost when it comes to all four corners of the city?
East London has a rich and fast evolving mix of the very old and the brand new. You’ll see it first here and often it will be a little edgy. That’s a Hackney thing. Outsiders, radicals and enquiring people who want to challenge the governing orthodoxies – like religious non-conformist and pioneering scientist Joseph Priestley – have all hung out here at one time.
Where in London do you head for the best:
- Beer garden pint
The Anchor and Hope in Clapton is on the canal and gets a really interesting mix of people. Similarly the Palm Tree in Victoria Park is a top spot on a sunny day.
- Film screening
There are always pop-ups and the Kenton pub has a great cinema night. But I love the new Hackney Central Picturehouse (good food there) and the art deco Dalston Rio too.
- Picturesque afternoon stroll
It has to be along the River Lea and the marshes. Town and country all in one glorious spot.
Finally, what’s your assessment for the future of Hackney and the neighbouring boroughs such as Newham?
East London is a dynamic place and there are some really inventive people here with some great ideas about how to best manage the big changes taking place. Ordinary folk are starting to take an interest in town planning. I can’t predict the future, but it’s going to be really interesting and we’re going to see innovative design and use of space here. Right now, I wouldn’t live anywhere else.