Estimated reading time:7 minutes, 50 seconds
Everyone has a story. Clerkenwell & Islington Guides Association (CIGA) has been around since 1988 and has currently has close to 120 qualified members ready to dazzle you with Islington’s history. Meet the chairman of CIGA, who is also the CIGA course director at the University of Westminster, Londoner John Finn. Interview by Nicola Baird
John Finn is passionate about London life. He’s traced his mother’s family to 18th century Finsbury, which makes him sixth generation and his grandchildren eighth generation Londoners. John, 72, was born in Tottenham but his Islington ties date right back – his mother was from Finsbury’s Lizard Street, EC1, and his two daughters went to Islington Green School. Between 1964-2010 John also worked in five different places in Islington, first as a compositor setting type and finally as a magazine designer for local authorities and trade unions including Unison and UCU. Now based in Hackney, he’s back to Islington once a month for CIGA’s monthly meeting at Islington Town Hall and has just managed to squeeze in time for a cup of tea (strong with milk) at Euphorium on Upper Street, before his next meeting.
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“The secret to giving a good tour is a combination of information, entertainment and inspiration. And to always end near a pub or coffee shop, especially in wet, cold weather,” says John who is one of those people you feel you’ve met before.
“People want anecdotes and jokes from you. I always bring in my work connections at the old print factory in Bowling Green Lane, a studio above what’s now Pret a Manger at St John Street and other print shops. After a good tour we hope people tell their friends and also get more engaged with Islington so that they worry when streets or buildings start to disappear. Sociologists call this ‘urban re enchantment’.”
John left school at 14 so his training was via apprenticeships and a diploma in London History from Birkbeck College. He’s also something of a tour guide addict with qualifications from Westminster, City of London and Camden as well as Clerkenwell & Islington – a course which he now runs.
“If you’re a tourist, Clerkenwell isn’t the first place you’d think about visiting,” admits John well aware of the draw of the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace… Stonehenge, Canterbury, Oxford and Bath. “But Clerkenwell has 1,000 years of history. The crypt at St John’s is 12th century and then it only gets better. There’s the Tudor gateway, Charterhouse (now a new museum), Georgian terraces, all the authors, and all the arts side of Clerkenwell. There’s White Cross Street market, Old Street and St Luke’s. Islington is a small borough but there’s a lot here – if you walk from Caledonian Road tube through Barnsbury to Angel tube you get to see all Islington’s history.” https://www.guidelondon.org.uk/blog/museums-galleries/charterhouse-museum-cafe-opens-january-2017/
It’s also definitely worth picking one of John’s CIGA guides if you are taking a tour around Clerkenwell (look for their enamel badge), as they are the only people with access to the well – it’s the reason the area is known as Clerkenwell.
Around 15 join the course each year, and most are retired or close to retiring. But the youngest graduate was 29 years who “thought it was a way into the tourist industry and visitor economy.” John is cautious about this career route, pointing out that, “you’re not going to make a fortune being a guide only touring Clerkenwell and Islington. The money is on the coach tours to Stonehenge and Oxford.”
Places John Finn likes in Islington
- “1953: I went to the Coronation Street party in Galway Street when I was six. It was rained off: I distinctly remember the red, white and blue crepe paper dripping colour. We ended up in the Leysian Mission (the building is still there near Old Street roundabout).”
“I’ve been coming to Euphorium, 202 Upper Street (near Highbury tube) since my 50th birthday here with the family. If the CIGA guides meet up we sometimes take over the place!”
- “I like the museum at St John’s Gate. It’s really fascinating.”
- “I like the Almeida Theatre – having a theatre of that quality in Islington is something. Used to go regularly with my late wife, and we last saw John Hegley there (read the interview with John Hegley on Islington Faces here). But the greatest show was seeing Glenda Jackson before she became an MP. For guides it’s a perfect stop because the building has been lots of other things – there are about four stories.”
- “The Caledonian Market Tower has brilliant views once I steadied my feelings of vertigo.”
- “Bevin Court – which was nearly called Lenin Court – looks like a council block, but when you go inside you see why it’s so fascinating.”
- “I remember Chapel Market – one of London’s real, old-fashioned markets – from my childhood.”
Islington Faces is a huge fan of a guided walk. But would who makes a suitable guide? John reckons that, “people come out for entertainment and to learn something new. They don’t want a guide telling them how tall things are or how many London buses fit into a place. You need stories that will lock into their head.”
“We get people looking for their roots and doing family research. There are some who have moved out post war and want to see what happened to their old haunts. And we get Londoners who are passionately interested in London’s history, as well as newly arrived young professionals who are wondering where they’ve actually landed. And if a guide spots children then they should aim the content at them… maybe take them through a grave yard to conjure up a few stories!”
In the busy whirr of modern life it is easy to forget about the people who lived in these very same streets all those years ago. But once they’ve been brought alive, on a tour, Islington takes on a fascinating complexity, crowded with Londoners from every era.
“If we don’t tell stories people detach from surroundings and it becomes more difficult to stay in love with a place. People get squeezed out,” he says. “In Medieval times communities did the beating of the bounds each year (around April just before Ascension day), so everyone knew exactly where the parish ended. Tour guiding is like beating the bounds, and it’s needed because all the gleaming steel, metal and new buildings can make us forget about our histories.”
Here is a man who isn’t just in love with Islington, he’s sharing that love with us too. Consider this Islington Faces interview your Valentine’s Day treat.
- CIGA tour guide courses are part-time and run once a year (from January – July) with a focus on the stories of Clerkenwell, Smithfield, St Luke’s, Pentonville, Barnsbury, Highbury and Canonbury. Find out more here.
- To find out what tours are being offered by CIGA guides look at http://ciga.org.uk/ or individual CIGA guides such as Joanna Moncrieff (see the interview with Ray Coggin) and Oonagh Gay who’ve featured on Islington Faces already.
- stpancrastours.com – tours with the official St Pancras tour guide (John Finn) are run once a month from April-October on an alternate Saturday then Sunday. Next 2017 dates Sunday 2 April and Saturday 6 May.
- London tours with John can be found on http://www.cityhighlights.co.uk/ Twitter @Johnolondon
- DURING FEBURARY – if you are an instagram user have a look at @islingtonfaces to see a curious A2Zmemory lane from David Hammond, now in his 60s, who lived on Liverpool Road in the 1950s. Instagram followers definitely needed!
Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.