THE BLOG
22/02/2016 10:18 GMT | Updated 18/02/2017 05:12 GMT

'Immersive Travel' In the East End, Where Every Street Has a Side-Story

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On a chilly East London afternoon, I meet Stuart, a photo journalist of some renown and the latest in SideStory Travel's ever-growing list of creative Insiders. Over the course of a 30-year career, Stuart has travelled the globe, shooting features for Time, Newsweek, and The Sunday Times, amongst many others, covering stories from Albania to Zambia. This afternoon, however, he's showing me around his 'hood -- the streets on which he was raised -- using his version of the East End as a photography classroom.

He looks cold, but he's wrapped up warm. It's one of those crisp London days, when the light looks as though someone has set it up precisely for this afternoon's exercise. Personally, I'm over the moon, as I'm all set to kill two rather old birds with one stone. As a keen amateur photographer, I've long intended to go on a course of some kind, and as a lover of London, I've often wanted to find out a bit more about the streets beyond Brick Lane. That I get to do both of these things in the company of such a qualified companion... well, that's what makes SideStory such an interesting prospect.

If 2015 was the 'Year of Mobile', then 2016 is the 'Year of the Experience'. While the rest of the digital world talks about the rise of artificial intelligence (rightly so, of course), a future-facing report by travel industry observers, PSKF, identified the coming of 'intimate intelligence'. The desire to share knowledge and insider information is what underlies many of the latest trends in this industry, and certainly seems to have been a factor in Airbnb's popularity. "People are looking for experiences where they connect with people and they connect with the culture," explained founder Brian Chesky in a recent interview. And that is exactly what SideStory facilitates.

The startup has already been singled out as one of the best immersive travel apps, able to help you 'travel like a local', and The Telegraph recently selected them as one of London's best guided walks. By booking yourself a 'SideStory Experience', you gain access to people like Stuart -- highly experienced professionals, respected in their creative niches, passionate and eager to share some of their knowhow with people who want the connection. The startup currently offers around 20 experiences via their website, in cultural pockets that include art, food and drink, design, architecture and fashion. Want to spend a morning shadowing a stylist on a fashion shoot? SideStory's your way in.

Co-founder Gio Donaldson talks almost evangelically about all of this, fascinated with the concept of 'immersive travel'. In starting the company, he looked at the landscape and saw that something was missing. "We recognised that there will always be value in reviews of where to stay, what to see and where to eat," he says. "What's missing, we realised, was who to meet. So we raided our contact books and called up all of the creative experts we knew that could bring someone's trip to life."

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Back at Whitechapel Gallery, Stuart and I are ready to hit the less-beaten track. It's instantly obvious that this is not your typical city walking tour. Having spent decades in war zones and on picket lines, Stuart is a more cerebral guide than most. His SideStory Experience is called East End Revival, and while it may start in an art gallery cafe and end in a pie and mash shop, what takes place in between is far from the norm.

We begin with a swift visit to Angel's Yard, home to Freedom Press, one of the world's oldest surviving anarchist bookshops. This is no Jack the Ripper tour. This is a mini fist-pump to the likes of Charlotte Wilson and Nikola Chaikovski. It's also a place that Stuart speaks of proudly, remembering an East End that frequently suffered at the hands of the far right -- a place far removed from the hipster playground it has now become.

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From Angel's Yard, we head down to Brick Lane, where the first of a series of mini photography workshops takes place. While Stuart is technically very gifted and regularly offers hints and tips, the workings of the camera are not high on his list of interests. He's far more interested in getting us to imagine the picture we want to take -- the story we want to tell -- before we line up our lenses. To this end, he doesn't even carry a camera with him. Instead, he holds up 'Pauline', a well-used piece of cardboard that acts as a lens finder. We hunch together and stare through it, down Fashion Street beyond. Passersby wonder what we're up to. After a minute or so, we're straightened up again, an image depicting decades of regeneration compressed in mind.

We continue on past the Brick Lane Mosque, down Fournier Street to Christchurch Spitalfields, up Wilkes Street and on until we're into the shadow and thrum of the Truman Brewery. Any of these places might show up on your average East End walking tour, but with Stuart at my side I'm given a blow by blow account of the changes that have taken place since he kicked about these streets in the early '70s. Gentrification is all around us, but
Stuart allows you to see it through the conflicted eyes of a local.

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After a few hours and countless photo calls, we arrive at F Cooke's Pie and Mash shop in Hoxton -- an establishment that claims to be one of the oldest (if not the oldest) in London. Whatever your thoughts on pie, mash and the accompanying liquor (a parsley sauce rather than anything alcoholic), there's no denying that the proprietor adds more than enough flavour to the proceedings. As Stuart and I look over the images I've snapped, Bob the pie and mash man expounds on his livelihood, the future of this most traditional of cockney delicacies, and David Beckham -- or 'Dave' -- a "thoroughly nice chap" who occasionally pops in, pulls his beanie low over his forehead and tucks into a bowl of jellied eels. If it wasn't for photographic evidence, you'd think you were being spun a yarn.

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Years ago, during a time I spent living in the mountains of Southern Japan, my parents paid me a visit. Seasoned travellers both, Japan had never featured highly on their hit-list. They subsequently visited six or seven times, "because," they told me, "we've never had a holiday where we were so enthusiastically invited into the local's houses and lives." And that, it seems, is what sets a memorable vacation apart from something more standard. It's all about interacting with other people and being allowed to share some of their life experience. Everyone has a side-story, after all.

Images blogger's own