London's Best Walking Tours: Derelict London

By Londonist Last edited 34 months ago

Last Updated 03 September 2021

London's Best Walking Tours: Derelict London

A series on some of London's best walking tours. This time, we speak to Paul Talling of Derelict London tours.

Connaught Tunnel, viewed from Silvertown in 2011. © Paul Talling

Describe Derelict London tours for us!

Dereliction, subterranean rivers, infilled canals, and lost music venues — together with many digressions along the way. We talk about stories from many of the dead pubs that we pass, and celebrate the boozers and greasy spoon cafes still open! We discuss the past of the sites and future plans, read excerpts from my books, and sometimes, I even play a few tunes via my speaker!

The Dirty Dartford walk. © Paul Talling

Whereabouts in London do you explore?

Everywhere inside the M25. Various tours cover from west London to as far east as Dartford. Of course readers will appreciate that this is just outside the London border, but Dirty Dartford holds fascinating options such as a former first world war airfield, and a redundant firework factory out on the marshes.

Paul Talling has been doing tours for almost 20 years. Image: Alison Wonderland

And it's fair to say customers should have their Weetabix first?

The walks last between four and seven hours, so are much longer than the average walking tour.

Appreciate things you might have walked past dozens of times before. © Paul Talling

You're often adding new tours — what's the newest?

The Lost River Tyburn all-dayer which is a relaxing walk covering so many clues of this now hidden river and how it defined the area as we head through St John's Wood, Marylebone, Mayfair and Pimlico referring to my London's Lost Rivers book and various Victorian publications plus archive material, ancient maps and modern-day ones showing the river now used as the King's Scholar Pond sewer which runs partly underneath Buckingham Palace.

Teddy Bear Walk in Mill Hill, 2021. © Paul Talling

Of course, there are plenty of tangents along the way such as TV locations, recording studios, a former prime minister's house later described as the most haunted house in London, an abandoned tube station, and Harry Nilsson's flat where both (Mama) Cass Elliott and Keith Moon died.

I shall be launching new tours in 2022. These will include Roman Road, Bow (with a unique twist), and Camden/Kentish Town (my old stomping ground).

A City Airport plane swoops over Millennium Mills in Silvertown © Paul Talling

If you had to choose one stop/landmark from any of the tours, what is it, and why?

I could make a list here, but in the top five would be the Millenium Mills that I cover on the Silvertown walk. We have always viewed it through the gates, but more recently I have often conducted official tours inside, and on the roof of this derelict Spillers flour complex on behalf of the Royal Docks people. Quite a turnaround considering I used to bunk in 20 years ago! (Disclaimer: please don't try unauthorised entry now as it's highly dangerous and there are security on-site). Since living over that way when I was much younger that abandoned magnificent industrial area of Silvertown has always fascinated me.

Twyford Abbey, Ealing in 2016. © Paul Talling

What's the most surprising thing people learn on a Derelict London tour?

The layers of social history covered. Not just about the buildings, it's about the people. I get many people on the tours who grew up and/or worked in these areas who share their memories with the group.

The Gay Hussar in Soho, which closed in 2018. © Paul Talling

What question do you get asked the most (and what's the answer)?

"What made you start doing all this?" Wandering home from a club at dawn, I saw lots of familiar derelict sites and old haunts disappearing, and I thought I should start taking pics to document them in their final days. As it was before the days of social media not many people were doing that, so I set up a website for my own interest then suddenly I was getting thousands of hits per day followed by features in the mainstream newspapers and the BBC and ITV. Books of my work were published, and Waterstones suggested that I do some guided walks to promote them further. I was not convinced that people would be interested, but I was wrong. There was never a business plan — just a labour of love that turned into a full-time adventure.

First Class Pool at the Ladywell Baths aka The Playtower, Ladywell, 2020. © Paul Talling

Are more people these days appreciating the beauty in derelict things?

Yes. When I started the website back in 2003 I had no idea how many people would be interested in the abandoned allure of these places. The response has steadily increased ever since.

The now-demolished Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, back in 2013. © Paul Talling

Due to the nature of your tours, do they change quite a bit over the years (owing to demolition/development, etc)?

Yes. We still look at places that have been redeveloped over the lifespan of my tours, and I show my photos from when it was a derelict site. It illustrates the constantly changing face of London.

A picture of Smithfield Market, taken on the sly. © Paul Talling

On that note, what's the best redevelopment you've seen from a derelict site on one of your tours?

It has got to be Smithfield General Market that was threatened with demolition when my Derelict London book was first released. Now on my River Fleet tour we look at the exteriors and talk optimistically about the ongoing conversion into the new Museum of London. We do not enter the buildings on this tour, but I took a sneaky couple of pics on the sly just before conversion started.

The Builders Arms on Stratford High Street in 2021. © Paul Talling

And the worst?

Some former east London pubs converted into slum bedsits or those with unsympathetic roof extensions.

What's your favourite thing about doing these walks?

Many hours sitting around cafes, pubs and archives all in the name of research. The walks have turned into a massive social scene. I get so many regulars who keep coming back as well as constantly meeting new people who in turn become regulars.

A warehouse in Bromley-by-Bow in 2021. © Paul Talling

What's the best thing a customer has said to you about the tours?

After coming on many of my walks, a couple told me that all the interesting non-tourist areas that I had shown them was a major influence on them moving down from Yorkshire to retire in south east London.

Tours can be booked on the Derelict London website although as they sell out so quickly, it's best to sign up to the newsletter. Due to health and safety, tours rarely enter any derelict buildings.