What is your Westminster? Parks and palaces, politics and power, pomp and ceremony, or arts and culture? We Guides are spoiled for choice – Westminster has it all, and in such abundance. There’s an inexhaustible quantity of sights and stories on every street in central London; guides need never to leave a square mile area, and many never do.
But there’s another Westminster, where people live, work, raise families, walk the dog, go about their day to day business. They are supported by nearby schools, parks, libraries, sports centres, doctors’ surgeries, local shops and churches – plus streets and buildings dripping in history and stories. The borough has 250,000 residents across its 6½ miles and all have a vested interest in their neighbourhood. Larger numbers may be concentrated in the north and south, but people live in every street and corner of Westminster, even in its most historic and touristic areas. A good proportion are newcomers, coming from all over the world as well as from all corners of Britain. From Maida Vale to Pimlico, Belgravia to Church Street, these communities are among the most diverse in the world.
Westminster has no boring bits, no district is devoid of interest. Behind the apparently ordinary and uniform avenues of Queen’s Park is a fascinating social history of change and migratory churn. In south Westminster, tucked away deep in a large and fairly charmless post-war social housing estate is a revolutionary community heating station working away since 1949. The small pocket of streets bounded by Edgware Road and Lisson Grove, the canal and A40 north and south is the fascinating Church Street ward full of stories of theatre and railways. Every other house along the leafy upmarket streets of St John’s Wood was once occupied by an artist or courtesan, rock star or magnate.The research may be more challenging than a highlights tour and requires more than a scan of the internet. But there’s plenty of material out there, and Westminster Archives have conveniently collected it over the decades for us. Even a short visit to St Ann’s Street will yield a fine crop of facts, anecdotes and richly rewarding detail.
Urban guided walks are a powerful way to get people to see their own neighbourhood in a new way and transform their understanding of familiar streets and areas. Knowledgeable, experienced guides bring an area to life, reveal hidden histories, past lives, famous residents and show how an area evolved and changed over centuries to become the place the walkers know today. It wasn’t hard to convince Westminster council to give CWGLA some money through their #My Westminster Community Fund to pay us to deliver local guided walks as a fun way to bring people together to look at their area afresh, to focus on common interests, and build a joint stake in their community.
Local stories have an unlimited attraction for the people who live on the same street or around the corner. And they mean a lot, stay in the memory longer, get passed on to family and neighbours. Your local walkers will pass the building again and again, and your voice will come back to them, your walk will replay in their memories for years to come. Some of the project walks have already been advertised to Association members – look out for more coming through the summer and autumn.