Hackney resident of 32 years and history enthusiast Sean Gubbins tells us why he set up WalkHackney and the history walks you can follow with him
One way to get to know the community you live in is to walk its streets. Noticing the street names, the shapes of the roads, the different styles of buildings, they all draw out questions. What was here before the streets? Why are they named as they are? Who lived here? What were their lives like? Answers to these questions start to give you a knowledge and understanding of how your neighbourhood was formed: a connection that lets you feel a part of the community, giving a sense of belonging.
That is what I want my walks to give people. Though, sadly, the murders on Hackney’s streets have not stopped, the borough has changed immensely in the last ten years. It has become a cool, much sought after, place to move to. That was not the case 16 years ago when I first offered local history walks in Hackney. Clapton’s ‘Murder Mile’ was notorious; many felt scared to walk through the streets on their own. A walk with others provided safety in numbers.
Each area of Hackney has its own stories to tell, of places long changed, surviving buildings, events and people
Regularly scheduled walks
A few local and other London organisations occasionally put on a history walk in Hackney. Unlike neighbouring boroughs, though, there was no one organisation in Hackney offering a regular schedule of local history walks. Having trained and led walks as a history guide with the Clerkenwell and Islington Guides Association (CIGA), I felt that Hackney had as interesting, if not a more fascinating, history to be told. In 2002, I convinced local historian and heritage campaigner, the late Mike Gray, to join me in offering three Hackney history walks on a monthly basis. Our intention was that local people, as well as visitors to our borough, should have available a regular offering of walks telling them about Hackney’s history.
Since 2002, having retired as a History teacher and with an MA in Historical Research under my belt, I have devised and researched, using a variety of sources, 16 walks which I lead in different parts of what makes up today’s Hackney. They range from Stamford Hill in the north to Shoreditch in the south; De Beauvoir in the west to Homerton in the east, with Stoke Newington, Shacklewell, Upper Clapton, Kingsland, Hackney Downs, Lower Clapton, Dalston, Heart of Hackney, London Fields, Rhodes Town, Haggerston and Hoxton in between. I shall devise a few more until all of Hackney is covered with a network of interconnecting history walks.
Hackney, then and now
Each area of Hackney has its own stories to tell, of places long changed, surviving buildings, events and people, some more recent than others. I have no favourite; for me each area is as intriguing as the next and each is continually changing. While some, in one way or another, are quite distinct, it is fascinating to trace the same themes running through the history of different parts, whether it be non-conformism, horticulture, radicalism, immigration or efforts to tackle poverty and social deprivation.
The walk schedule runs all twelve months of the year, offering two walks per month. If just one person turns up, rain, snow or shine, the walk will happen. Each walk lasts between two and three hours. Many include a visit inside an historical building en route: medieval tower, Tudor hall, Elizabethan church, dissident chapel, a church of strange rites or to see impressive Victorian and mid-20th century murals. Others pass through some of the open spaces that make up 15% of Hackney.
Each walk costs £10, £8 for concessions. Every walker is given a modern and an historic map with the route marked out. Photos are passed around at stops along the way to illustrate how places have changed. The walks attract a range of people: people who have lived in Hackney all their lives and can add their own bit of local colour as we stroll along; the Hackney-born who have returned to walk down memory lane; others, both British and foreign born, recently moved into the area; visitors from other parts of London who want to find out about a different area of our city as well as tourists moving off the typical London tourist trail. 60% of people on the walks return for another. Not only is getting out and about good exercise, walking with others is sociable. Friendships have been formed on my walks, including at least one leading to marriage!
So, looking for something to do one weekend? Intrigued to find out more about Hackney?
Look up walkhackney.co.uk and pick a walk that takes your fancy. The next four are in this edition’s What’s On section. I look forward to welcoming you on one of my walks.