Interview with Old Map Man, London Explorer Extraordinaire

Ken (in the middle) doing his map thing with Andy and Sally

Ken Titmuss, aka Old Map Man of London Trails specialises in history walks in lesser frequented areas of London town (lesser frequented by London guides, anyway). His walks are accompanied by, as you might have guessed, old maps, which the group compares to more recent versions.

It’s remarkable to see how some areas have changed while other structures and footprints have stayed put over a long period of time. I’ve been on two of his walks so know whereof I speak.

I couldn’t recommend Ken’s walks more, both for their remarkable value (if you go on one, try and persuade him that he should be charging a bit more, especially with a free map thrown in …) and the many surprising insights you’ll get into the back story of this great and fascinating city. And I’m not alone – he’s been recommended by the Guardian, for goodness sake!

QT: Why did you become a tour guide?

Ken: During a long spell of unemployment I began volunteering at Somerset House in London and after some training began doing guided tours, which I continued doing until 16th June 2012. I stumbled across a government scheme called New Deal for self employment. Came up with a business idea of doing guided walks with old maps, which was accepted. I realised early on that my walks are quite different to regular guided tours and so I now think of them as walking explorations with old maps. I approach this as a community development person rather than a guide. I do not throw facts and dates as people but encourage people to pay attention to London and look for clues in the detail, eg coal hole covers.

Coal hole cover

Coal hole cover

QT: How do you go about researching your walks? Have you any new ones planned?
Ken: Research begins by walking round an area, looking at what has survived and working out the story. Finding a way through or round. Then I go to books, the internet and the archives. I try to find the less obvious aspects to an area, often the hidden history. Yes I know there has been a TV series on that theme [a recent BBC2 production].

People come on my walks from all ages and walks of life. The common factor is a fascination with London and its history, which is often a mystery. Old maps provide a way in and a powerful aide memoir, sometimes revealing the secret history of buildings. For instance, what is now the Fire Brigade Museum in Southwark used to be their HQ; but before that, in the 1870’s, it was a hat factory; and orignally it was a workhouse.

People will get lots of wow moments and a sense of how quite ordinary areas of London have contributed to its story. I will readily challenge received wisdom, for example Crossbones which is now a shrine. I challenge the mythology but let people keep the myth if they want, but I do encourage people to at least consider the fact that Borough is covered with burial grounds where prostitutes where buried.

I hope my walks will encourage people to pay more attention to the everyday details and see their own neighbourhoods in a new and enlightened way.

Fake door, London

Fake door. You’d never know.

QT: What have been the quirkiest facts you’ve uncovered when researching your walks? This being Quirky Travel an’ all?

Ken: The quirkiest thing I have found and incorporated is a door that looks like a front door but is a door to a yard behind the row of houses. The saddest thing is the wall and ventilation shafts that are a fragment of St Luke’s workhouse.

QT: What kind of people tend to come on your walks?

Ken: People interested in London and its stories. people who are mad about old maps. I have been someone’s birthday present a few times now. I offer private walking tours.

QT: What are the favourite areas of London you’ve researched and walked so far?

Ken: My favourite tends to be the most recent. I have a strong feeling for St Giles, which is the one that got me thinking about maps and London. The heart shaped outline of the leper hospital that Matilda founded in 1117 is discernible on every map. I am drawn to lost or almost lost neighbourhoods, which I think most of them are. If pushed I would say St Luke’s, North Clerkenwell and of course Bethnal Green!

For a list of  Ken’s forthcoming scheduled walks, have a look at his website London Trails He can also arrange private walks if needed. On Twitter, he’s @oldmapman

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