It is a busy Friday afternoon in Stratford, but Rachel Kolsky is easy to spot amongst the crowd; a green velour flower is sticking out from her bag. “A trade trick”, she says, and I hurry along as she starts walking.
For the last 10 years Kolsky has worked as a London tour guide, and currently she conducts over 50 different tours, with the majority in the eastern part of the capital. Her recently published book, ‘Jewish London’, brings together her biggest passions: Jewish history and East London.
“The East End is just amazing. It has that onion layering of all those immigrant groups, all so different, but with similar themes running through”, says Kolsky.
Kolsky who has worked for 25 years in the finance industry says she became an expert in East London because: “I am the most risk-scared person in the world”, she says. “Risk and I repel each other.”
A Londoner born and bred in what she refers to as “north-west semi-detached suburbia”, she initially trained as a librarian before switching to work in the finance industry as a researcher. But working in the City, she says, “you become a slave to the corporate idea”, and thus a longing for something different began to grow.
Fuelled by her curiosity, she decided to combine tour guide-training will full-time work. In 2005 she was awarded the Blue Badge – a professional qualification for tour guides – and did what she says is “perhaps one of the most risky things you can do”; she resigned from a stable job and started freelancing full-time.
“If you take out money from you life, I think it is really lovely. When you start work you are quite controlled and I just started remembering how much I loved studying and what it was like devouring knowledge. The whole idea of guiding is sharing that knowledge”. It was a successful step, and today her services are in high demand. The Museum of London, The Jewish Museum, tourists, colleges and private groups are all part of her clientele.
“Research is my first love, I love inquisitiveness”, says Kolsky, who still dedicates a lot of her time to reading about London.
“I’ve got a study full of books. You can’t beat books, particularly out of print books about London. You can find so many people who really wrote about their experiences.” But often, she says, finding inspiration is just about asking. “People are so generous with their stories. Everybody has a story if you just take the trouble and talk to them. To every building, there is a human element; someone was born there, worked there and died there.”
Kolsky guides throughout the capital, but it is East London that she is drawn to the most. “I was doing tours at Stratford before the Olympics was even heard of!” she laughs, as the Olympic Park shines in the sun in front of us, rising up above the smog.
Her tour of Bromley-By-Bow, which in her opinion is an “under-visited” area, ends at Kingsley Hall, a community centre on Powis Road where Mahatma Ghandi stayed during his visit in the 1930’s. It is one of the area’s many hidden gems, and a reason why East London will “never cease to fascinate” her.
On 1 March, Kolsky’s book ‘Jewish London’, co-written with lawyer and Jewish historian Roslyn Rawson, was released. It is a guide to the walking tours of Jewish London, and also a portrait of “where Jewish people were born, lived and worked”. Its feature on smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels, which is a remaining Jewish feature of Brick Lane, illustrates how the East is a mixture of the old interspersed with the new. “It’s fascinating”, she says, “but East London is two sides operating concurrently. You can still buy your bagel for 50p and then have a fancy meal across the street.”
For Kolsky, interactive storytelling is one of the most enjoyable aspects of her work. “Something I took a photo of yesterday isn’t there today”, she says, pointing into the air. “I say to people, look at that railing, it is not only a railing but a piece of art.” She pauses. “I want to open people’s eyes.”
Although she is a historian at heart, Kolsky regards change as positive and progressive. “Hackney Wick is the biggest creative hub in Europe”, she says. “I think it is fantastic. I do a tour from Hackney Wick to the Olympic viewing area, it has all of my beloved industrial heritage, but interspersed is all this art.”
Clearly passionate about the growth of East London, Kolsky believes that improving housing and living standards is crucial for the area. Yet, she says, there needs to be a balance between retaining the ‘original’ while adding in the ‘new’; “My fear for East End, my beloved East End, is that it is becoming a bit homogenous.”
She says that while the tour industry is “very tough”, it is the feeling of “enabling people to stop and actually look” that keeps her motivated. She has never cancelled a single tour and takes pleasure in working outdoors. “Weather doesn’t bother me”, she says. “It only bothers people who have to make a choice. I just wake up and go. Being liberated from that decision is good.”
Lately Kolsky has taken her knowledge abroad by occasionally lecturing about London on cruise ships. However, the streets of the East End continue to be the centre of her work. She turns towards our Stratford surroundings, where the sun has began to set. “Just think of this area, and think of what was here before. For many this is it. For me, it is not. There was a ‘here’ before ‘now’, and I want to continue to tell people about it.”
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To buy her book go here