The Strange Endurance of London's Professional Walking Tours

People are still bang into The Krays, it turns out.
10 July 2018, 8:30am

It's a close, muggy Saturday afternoon in the heart of the East End. The sort of weather to sodden grey T-shirts and turn unattended lagers to treacle. Lazy World Cup watching weather, though hardly oppressive enough to quell the quiet air of expectation building around the 20 or so punters lined around the main bar of The Blind Beggar on Whitechapel Road.

But it isn't the carnivalesque promise of pints and group stage football that has drawn us here today. A register is soon read out, names taken and e-tickets fumbled for. A few ripples of spontaneous light banter break out, drinks are drained and suddenly there is life. Vas Blackwood – best known from his role as Rory Breaker in the classic late-90s mockney caper Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – is here, and he's about to guide us through the byways of east London's criminal history.

We're here to get to the guts of an age-old London phenomenon: the professional walking tour. They've always been with us, from overpriced Westminster strolls run by the largest tour firms, to the hyper-niche stylings of amateur enthusiasts with little more than a History 2:1 and an unhealthy obsession with late 19th century bins. It's a gloriously simple form of urban exploration with minimal overheads and a thriving analogue remnant in an age of digital tourism.

But why do some tours thrive while others subsist? Who, besides chronically bewildered Iberian tourists and ERASMUS students, goes on them? How do they honestly make enough money to continue?

Endorsed by "Mad" Frankie Fraser, no less, the Gangster London Tour promises two hours and almost five miles of dubious East End mythology, Kray twin fandom, Lenny McLean anecdotes, Guy Ritchie folklore (including the location where Vinnie Jones repeatedly smashed a tanning bed door on an extra in Lock Stock "400 times for about 20 quid"), and a sprinkling of lesser-known outlaws with colourful monikers like "Jack 'Spot' Comer" – a 1930s Columbia Road market trader extortionist who finds himself seamlessly blended into detailed oral histories of Hoxton pubs once co-owned by Barbara Windsor.

A number of our group today aren't out of their thirties, but it turns out a journey through London's sinister world of organised crime pulls a surprisingly diverse crowd of loved-up couples, birthday present recipients, solo middle-aged women and quietly bemused tourists.

The tone is set early and set rigid. Vas is a one-man whirlwind of off-the-cuff asides, rapid-fire patter and evocative picture painting. One sheepish latecomer, fresh from parking her car, is christened "the getaway driver", and half-apologies are made for the swearing that's to come.

Our point of departure is no random choice. It was here, on the 10th of March, 1966, that George Cornell – enforcer for rival South London dynasty The Richardsons, and a "really nasty fucker", as Vas adds – was shot to death by Ronnie Kray, the younger brother to Reggie by ten minutes, for reasons that remain vague at best. It's a past that's hard to square with the pub's benign 2018 incarnation, dotted with a few peaky-looking university types quietly watching the football alongside a smattering of old boys and regulars.

"He walked into the pub when it was fully packed, right, saw the geezer, and it was just blam, right in the head!" is how Vas outlines one of the most infamous gangland murders in British history.

Soon after that, we're off along Whitechapel Road and across to the new Royal London Hospital buildings, the scene of early life illness and drama for the brothers. Vas (or rather Uncle Vas, as he'd prefer to be called for the duration of the walk) has one injunction: "Just wait for the fucking green man, whatever you do."

We start to take in old hideout flats in nondescript council blocks and tales of Ronnie's explosive temper, bouts of paranoid schizophrenia and prison escapes. Then, quite unexpectedly, a segway into the history of Joseph Merrick, the 19th century figure who became David Lynch's Elephant Man. The pace is nothing if not furious.

But it's the brothers we keep returning to. Their appeal – still potent enough to conjure up the occasional A-List fronted pseudo-biopic and have our entire group willing to spend both money and a Saturday afternoon tracing their lineage – amounts to more than mere nostalgia. They're a rare cottage industry in that their celebrity has never really dimmed. There's never been a revival of interest, because they've never truly been out of fashion. The Krays represent a "civilised" strain of criminality, violence and murder that at least had the decency to put on a proper suit, as immortalised in the iconic David Bailey photo portrait. In a sense, it's the lower budget British equivalent of American Mafia worship. A persistent residual glamour clings to organised violence if it happened in the latter half of the 20th century; it's just long enough gone to seem unreal, while still close enough to feel recognisable. A byproduct of swinging 1960s nostalgia rendered through the imagination in colour, not black-and-white.

There's always been a reading of the brothers that's had them marked as good Cockney Robin Hoods with hearts of gold, plus kisses and kind deeds for any East End mother with a knotty home life or enough tears to stir the conscience. Which is the reading that’s mostly on offer here today. There's also some emphasis on their recourse to gut-churning violence too, though that seems to be justified for a few simple reasons. First, they both loved their mum. Second, they were well-dressed. Thirdly, well, Vas has a theory that he posits as we stand outside St Matthew's Church in Bethnal Green, site of Ronnie's 1995 funeral service – an event "so packed it took them four hours to get to Chingford for the burial".

It's fairly out there, admittedly. He posits the twins as proto-social workers who would "sort out" any abusive pisshead husbands or seedy home life presences in the lives of the less fortunate. Whatever they were, they had standards, Vas says, not like the "moped robbers on the loose now". Even their brutal murder of associate Jack McVitie in a Stoke Newington basement flat containing potential child witnesses is offered as evidence of their calculating brilliance, rather than bloodlust.

When we think of the Krays, we’re also thinking about an East End that no longer exists. One that had a set of cliches and assumptions attached to it. The low terraces, chipper spirit, endless inventiveness and the always present threat of darkness and violence just out of shot. An unwelcoming place until it's home. Vas knows this, and he knows how to tell its story. People want to hear it, they want the vanished world illustrated. The days when it really was the semi-mythical East End, not the East London of gastropubs, £800/month new-build box rooms and ever more absurdly-priced microbrewery pints.

Incidentally, walking tours themselves are big business. A timeless staple of London tourism, they endure as the simplest means of locking together heritage and contemporary life in a way that feels accessible to the casual visitor.

Speaking to Mark King, the chairman of the British Guild of Tourist Guides, I'm told that the reason particular neighbourhoods become destinations can be the result of overnight boons when they appear as a film, TV or literary location. "Just think of the pilgrimages to St Bart's Hospital after Benedict Cumberbatch jumped to his apparent death from its roof in Sherlock," he offers.

In King's view, it's the phenomenon of "dark tourism" that seems to animate the East End's most popular tour subjects. "Whether it's Jack The Ripper, gangland legends like The Krays, [historical] corrupt local officials like Joseph Merceron, ghosts, or just the supernatural and eerie side of things, the once-gritty East End is proving conspicuously popular," he tells me. "Younger visitors respond more to these counter-cultural, non-mainstream tour ideas, especially when looking for novel or 'authentic' experiences for a team outing from work, or a hen/stag night. Something edgy, before diving into the wide range of local food and drink on offer today."

The author and Uncle Vas

As we hit the tour's end point on Columbia Road, we're beckoned towards another pub – one that the trendy daytime drinkers would be shocked to know is owned by an illiterate bloke with ties all the way back to Ronnie and Reggie, says Vas. We've time for a peer at a strip club that was once the location of a bar owned by Barbara Windsor and her first husband, the armed robber and alleged gangster Ronnie Knight. Then, suddenly, that's it.

As we arrive blinking onto the roundabouts of Shoreditch and the zone where every watering hole seems to have a flyering team, it feels like we've walked for far longer than the 4.5 miles our phone pedometers are showing. It's been quite a journey, expertly led, through a history that seems in little danger of losing public appetite or any of its partly disgusted fascination.

But like all history, it depends on the telling. It doesn’t matter how lurid the details or famous the apparitions, the risk of kitsch is high and urgent. Vas doesn’t escape it, not all of the time. How could he? Most of the crowd are here for Krays, or at least the sympathetically glossed cartoon versions of them. Or maybe they’re just here for a decent bit of storytelling and a good East End yarn. What else would you book a Gangster Walking Tour for, in all honesty? And what would the twins themselves have thought, you wonder.

They'd probably have lapped it up, the two publicity-drunk brothers, to know people were still giving their spare hours to myth-sustaining talks building them into monuments for a vanished side of London. But then someone switches the TV in the pub we've settled in to the 3PM World Cup kick-off. And, after two intensive hours, not even the Krays can compete with that.