‘People have turned into pigeons’: Getting our heads out of our phones and into nature with tour guide Jane Parker

Finding the greenery in London’s least green borough, Parker leads walking tours to reacquaint locals with their surroundings.

Jane Parker, tour guide
Jane Parker, an accredited Clerkenwell and Islington guide.

Islington has the least green space of any borough in London. Coupled with it also having the largest population per square kilometre, it might not seem like the most likely place to find respite among the over-polluted hustle and bustle of city life. Yet, for Holloway resident of 30 years Jane Parker, it is full of hidden natural areas and historical gems.

“What we have got in Islington are a lot of beautiful squares that are open  to the public,” she says, “it’s not like Kensington or Belgravia where they’re locked away to residents only.” A natural observer, having worked previously as a graphic designer in advertising and then an as an artist, Parker has turned her curiosity for her hometown into her career, hosting guided walking tours of the borough to show off these lesser-known areas.

Hidden history of Islington

“I decided to start the tours to reveal the hidden history of Islington because there’s so much here that we don’t know about or appreciate,” she explains. “Now all we have are horrible chain shops with uPVC windows when in the past there were beautiful pubs and shops with crafted frontages.” The traces of these frontages can be found in the mosaicked doorways of many Upper Street shops or the ‘ghost signs’ of Holloway, announcing their previous incarnations as Masons or Blacksmiths.

“We’re always walking down from our houses to get to the tube or the corner shop without looking at our surroundings,” Parker says. She adds that her tours are one way of getting out of this habit of disengaging with our surroundings.

“Our brains are only fixated on where we’re going and we’re not interested in seeing anything else. Instead I like sitting on the top deck of the bus and having a good look around – it’s where I get a lot of my inspiration for the tours.”

Digital distractions

An archivist of Islington history as much as an advocate of its present-day appeal, Parker cites digital distractions as one of the main reasons for the lack of appreciation for our surroundings. “People have their heads in their phones these days,” she says with a mischievous smile, “it’s my hobby at the moment to get people to walk into me – people who are just looking down at their phones and not ahead at all! People have turned into pigeons, only looking at their feet and not moving until the last minute.”

Jane enjoying nature.

Fighting this digital dehumanisation, Parker recommends some hidden gems of Islington to get locals reacquainted with their borough. “The New River Walk is absolutely beautiful and not to go there is a crime! It’s been around for something like 400 years and lots of people don’t even realise it exists,” she says. “There’s also still a community spirit here centred around the pubs which are social centres for people to gather in. In Holloway there are lots – one’s for the rockers, one’s for the older fellas, one’s for the market stall mob, and the trendy ones for younger people. There’s something for everybody.”

Natural space under threat

These localised social spaces and natural areas are under threat, though, chiefly from developers wanting to capitalise on the borough’s lucrative property prices. “Developers are now filling up the green space and casting shadows on other areas by constantly building upwards,” Parker says. “One of my favourite pubs, the Compton Arms near Highbury and Islington roundabout, was threatened with closure. It’s apparently where George Orwell used to drink and it’s family-owned so it would be a real shame to see it go.”

Ultimately, Parker’s tours exist to highlight these independent spaces, since they are what have kept her in the borough for the majority of her life. “Islington has a diversity of absolutely everything”, she says, “that’s why I’ve never felt the need to move anywhere else – we have it all here right on our doorstep.”

Jane Parker’s next tour, ‘Green and Pleasant Spaces in Islington’ runs on St Patrick’s Day, 17th March. More information and tickets can be found on her website.