Wrote this piece for Ace Hotel. Click here for the full illustrated article.
A city is a living thing. How one traverses and learns its multi-layered, urban landscape should be an exercise in movement, an active call and response with the ground we walk on. Saira Niazi knows this. So well, in fact, that she might as well show you. Here, the London-native unlocks her city and recounts her peripatetic wanderings in amber, looking back and ahead at the possibility of place. From the colorful murals vibrantly tinged with political dissent to the community gardens that trellis their way around the familiar glow of street market stalls, Niazi takes us on her “renegade” tour of a city “forever in flux, where old and new are never far apart.”
I’ve spent much of my life wandering around London, often with no destination in mind and without a real purpose, except maybe to discover a new place or two, and to get to better know the city I call home.
My wanderings across London have led to me to unusual places — from burial grounds and bus garages to sewage works and costume stores. I’ve gotten on night buses to nowhere, hiked through remote edgelands, among broken ships, mudflats and heaps of trash. I’ve explored abandoned factories, desolate lakes and deserted museums, searched for treasure along the foreshore of the Thames at sunrise and counted planes taking off from Heathrow runways at twilight. I’ve tarried in temples and churches, mosques and synagogues — sometimes seeking home, but mostly just seeking a place to be for a while. On my journeys I’ve met and befriended a multitude of interesting characters; elders, urban explorers, artists, storytellers, spiritual gurus, filmmakers, activists, mudlarks, even a lighthouse keeper.
I learn so much about the city and myself through my explorations, through unearthing secret spaces and talking to the strangers that render them so special. I love exploring, and more than that, I love penning and photographing my findings.
London, a city forever in flux, where old and new are never far apart, where often identity is fluid, social, racial and class boundaries blur, and people connect and come together in unlikely spaces.
There’s no place that quite reflects London’s spirit of openness than Hackney, a colourful, diverse, fast-changing area, full of unexpected hidden gems.
Hackney, in my opinion, is a place where it’s easy to fit in, whoever you are and wherever you’re from.
One of my favourite wanderings is my Secret Dalston Wandering. Being a “renegade” guide, it’s a walk I embark on very regularly with people from different parts of the world. It never gets old and it embodies the aspects of the London that I love and live.
My wandering begins just outside the Hackney Peace Carnival Mural, a colourful mural created in 1985 by Ray Walker, based on a composition from the parade that took place in 1983. The image has a political message and shows the unity of the diverse and jubilant crowd against the a-bomb.
I often wait for my guests on a bench facing the mural. It’s conveniently located just outside the first stop of my walk. Dalston Eastern Curve Garden is a pretty community garden built on the derelict site of the old Eastern Railway line. The garden offers vital green space in a built-up urban area where many of its residents live in high-rise flats. The garden operates as a social enterprise with the profits from the on-site cafe going towards sustaining the garden. It’s a place where people come together for chat, where local school children learn about food growing and ecology or you can just sit and have a think by the fireplace. The colourful African fabrics used to decorate the wooden pavilion have been sourced from the local Ridley Road market and the comfy second-hand sofas have been found in unlikely places.
The next stop on my wandering is Ridley Road Market. I love Ridley Road Market. Operating since 1880, it presently has over 150 stalls with produce from all parts of the world: fish, vegetables, spices, clothing, herbal medicines — you name it. It’s jovial and diverse and it reflects the world in London. It’s a great place to people watch. I often end up having a chat with a stall holder on my visits. They’re friendly and trusting. One of my favourite stall holders, an elderly Turkish man named Yusuf, often lets me take items when I have no cash and tells me to pay him back whenever I’m around. Street markets are a place where the community come together and connect. They’re places of familiarity and warmth.
The next stop on my walk is Lennie Lee’s technicolour house, I share his story and the story of many other artists, outsiders and unconventional creators who have made unusual homes in London, homes that reflect their lives. Often, they are people I’ve met and traded epiphanies with.
Following visits to other hidden gems, including a pirate ship and the Cathedral of the East End, we stop at the Ramadan Mosque. The mosque — formerly a synagogue — was bought by a Turkish Cypriot businessman in 1977. It’s now managed by his son, Erkin, or “Egg” as he likes to be called. A Hackney boy, born and raised, I’ve gotten to know Egg. Three times he tried to run away from the mosque and his responsibilities, and three times he returned. Married to a Jewish woman, Egg has kept a lot of the features of the Synagogue. He ensures that there’s a different imam leading prayer at the mosque every Friday from different backgrounds to keep it inclusive and open. He would also like to turn the mosque in part, into a multicultural centre of healing. He lends the mosque space to various collectives involved in causes including the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a fascinating and beautiful building, now sadly in disrepair. There are cats often roaming, and Egg, as well as being the chairman of the mosque, is also an undertaker and his time is often taken up by arranging burials.
I take my guests to a Turkish bakery for a light lunch. We visit another mosque, another church, a park and a cemetery and I share a multitude of strange and interesting stories before the walk ends.
I love being a “renegade” guide. In recent years I’ve made it my mission to share with others London’s hidden wonders and stories, as well as to to encourage people to explore, connect and collaborate, and to get to know the places and people that make their city or corner of the world so special. You never know where a wandering might lead to or what it might teach you — and that’s the beauty of it.