From Hackney to Ukraine: one tour guide’s volunteer journey

Simon Cole (right) with colleague David Vannen (left) Pic: Simon Cole

A Hackney tour guide has produced a one-hour documentary about his volunteer work in Ukraine that will likely be shown at fundraisers next year to coincide with the second anniversary of the Russian invasion.

After being involved in work with refugees in London and Calais to “demystify” immigrants and asylum seekers, Simon Cole, 52, spent a week in Ukraine with his friend David Vannen, 51, in February giving away almost £3500 they fundraised through fitness events to grassroots organisations.

He went to buy food and supplies with these groups to make sure that there would be no corruption involved and that everything would go to Ukrainians in need. This experience pushed him to create the documentary which is going by the working title ‘By Hand Ukraine’. 

“I’ve been looking at contemporary issues and where people need to do something, where we’re being called to make choices and to choose whether to reinforce the status quo or to try and do the right thing.” 

Cole’s volunteer work with refugees and the development of his documentary prevented him from focusing on his tour guide business Hackney Tours for the past year, but he is planning a comeback in the Spring of next year with a gothic tour of Hackney, when the world hopefully won’t be as “dark”. 

He told Eastlondonlines: “There can be something a little bit egotistical about tour guiding, it is a form of storytelling. So ‘listen to me telling all these stories’ and at the moment I’m thinking a lot about how I can be of service to other people. So sometimes that doesn’t involve me doing the talking.” 

A tour group in Dalston Pic: Simon Cole

Cole, who has been holding guided tours around Hackney for the past decade, was inspired by the history of all the dissenters and non-conformists from Hackney during the post-Restoration era, who contributed to making the world what it is today. 

He said: “What really excites me about those alternative people in Hackney from hundreds of years ago, is that they all wanted to make the world a better place. 

“I link [my volunteer work] back to the tours and the dissenters and non-conformists [in Hackney] because they are the people that historically said we can do better… I think we are all standing on the shoulders of giants because without these people we would have no rights at work without them and women would not vote.” 

Cole originally fell in love with tour guiding when he was advised to work as an educational tour guide to capitalise on his love for traveling and his knowledge of foreign languages. 

He began in 2007 in San Francisco, toured for American students and eventually took them across Europe.  

After traveling and backpacking in 50 different countries, he moved back to the UK in 2009 and founded Hackney Tours in 2012. 

“I was starting to look at my own history in my backyard in Hackney. And then I had this sort of epiphany that I lived in this super interesting area with amazing history and so much to be talking about, these really powerful narratives and these really powerful stories. 

“There’s a stream of alternative thinking in Hackney that goes back hundreds of years. And I like to join the dots between the religious freethinkers of the late 1600s and, for example, the social enterprise pioneers of today.” 

He has been conducting tours across the culturally rich Hackney Wick, the subversive Stoke Newington, and much more while covering issues like gender and gentrification and recounting the stories of Hackney historical figures like feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

Cole’s message behind Hackney Tours was inspired by the book “The Art of Travel” by Alain de Botton, which taught him that “the world is inherently interesting and exciting if you approach it with the right mindset”. 

“Sometimes we think: ‘This is my home, it is familiar, so it must be boring’. But what if you could see where you live with the same eyes that you see Barcelona or Paris or Berlin? Every day could be much more enriching and exciting. 

“And that’s part of the ethos behind Hackney Tours. It is an invitation to be more involved in the world, to connect with it more deeply, and then to care about it, and then to get involved in it.” 

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