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Exploring London's Secret Places with a Local

Oct 3, 2016 1:30:00 PM / by Stephanie Sadler

An Interview with a Local Londoner: Saira Niazi

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Meet Londoner Saira Niazi who knows the city streets and its secrets like the back of her hand. She has a blog called Living London where she chronicles some of her finds and also leads walks - "wanderings" - to some of her favorite places that are off the radar for most tourists and even most locals. Read on below to find out some quirky places worth a visit, hear about some of the people she's encountered on her adventures and take in a couple of tips for students exploring on a budget.

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CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
SAIRA NIAZI: My name's Saira and I live in a place called Tooting in South London. I love writing, photography, traveling and exploring cities by foot. London is my favorite city in the world to explore; over the years I've discovered the most interesting places and met the most incredible people. I enjoy learning about different Londoners, and sharing their stories.

I've worked in lots of different places in the past including the London Wetland Centre, the Natural History Museum and Groundwork London. I'm currently freelancing in creative communications while organizing and leading walks, and working part time at the V&A Museum.

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CW: You also run the blog Living London. What can we expect from a visit to your site? What is the story behind this project?
SN: The site is made up of 1000+ unique London places from bingo halls to bus garages to quirky nature reserves and obscure art galleries. You can expect to find a lot of interesting places in London that you've probably never even heard of as well as some very interesting stories relating to the people that make those places so special. The story behind the project is quite simple: I would often stumble across the most unlikely people and places in London and decided I needed to start documenting my explorations through photography and writing, bringing another London to life - an interconnected London full of magic, color and intrigue. Essentially, the project is a personal London travel journal as it also contains many stories and poems I've written relating to London. Its aim is to inspire people to get under the skin of London, to explore, to engage, to be mindful and to really see.

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CW: Alongside the blog, you also organize “wanderings” around the city. What happens on these and how can we join you?
SN: I decided to open up the project to the public by leading wanderings which allow people to explore parts of London which remain relatively unknown. The wanderings are informal walks which include visits a few of the secret London gems on the site. It also offers people the opportunity to make friends, to learn and to create new memories. The wanderings so far have included a hindu mandir, a chapter house, an ancient hilltop and an animal farm.

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CW: Which area of London do you call home and what are the three best things about living there?
SN: Tooting is home. I love Tooting; it's so vibrant and diverse. There are so many places to eat, there are many open green spaces and a myriad of secret gems from an overgrown cemetery to the beatiful old Granda cinema which is now a bingo hall. There's also a strong sense of community and there's always so much going on - events, festivals - you name it!

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CW: What has been your most unusual discovery on your explorations of the city? What was special about it?
SN: My most unusual discovery was probably Stephen Wright’s House of Dreams. The house is a technicolour wonderland located half way down a sleepy suburban street in Dulwich in South East London. Inside, the labyrinthine corridors and rooms are filled with a myriad of mosaics made up of all sorts of throwaway objects, from combs and gems to an array of doll heads. On the walls of the house, there are all sorts of thoughtful, uplifting and melancholic things written. For example, “Every day I ask myself what I am doing and why,” “I have no sense of belonging; where is my home,” “Spiritually, I turned my back on London years and years ago,” and “Dear world, I won’t be available for the rest of my life; I’m sorry for the inconvenience this might cause.” The house relays the personal life story of its maker, Stephen Wright, while sharing his hopes, fears, thoughts and experiences. It was really special to visit the house but more so to have a cup of tea with Stephen and to share many of our stories and ideas.

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CW: Where’s one place in London you always return to and why?
SN: I love Horsenden Hill in Alperton. It's wild and beautiful and offers incredible views out onto London. It's also usually very quiet, and a nice place to reflect and meditate. I used to work closeby, and stumbled upon it by chance during a break. Since discovering it, I've gone back to see the sunset from the top hill many times.

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CW: What are your top three recommendations for students on a budget in London?
SN: My top three recommendations -

For shopping: East Street Market. It's a really lively and colorful market. You can buy all sorts of things for very cheap, from clothes to cutlery. It's definitely my favorite market in London.

For a meal: Chennai dosa in Tooting Bec is ideal. It's cheap, cheerful and delicious South Asian cuisine.

Things to do: I love plane-spotting in Hatton Cross. There's something very cathartic and enjoyable about it. There's a great spot called Myrtle Avenue not far from the station.

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CW: You blog about your experiences of the city and many CAPA London students take a class called “Writing the City” which sees them exploring the city with writing in mind as well. What is important to you in your writing when you’re capturing the essence of a new place you discover? Any tips for student writers?
SN: It's important for me to be mindful of a place, to really look and look again, to take in the small details, and also to be able to imagine what the place could be, the possibilities that it holds. To me that's really important, being able to imagine. I think it's important to observe as well and to interact with others who are there. The more information you can collect, the better your writing will be.

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CW: Tell us the story of a memorable encounter you’ve had on your London adventures.
SN: There have been so many!! I once met a lovely chap named Owen outside Brixton Windmill. He let me borrow his fish eye lens to take photos of a sundog above the windmill. He often goes around London taking pictures of different windmills. I also met one of the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery once. He told me about a project he'd undertaken with his wife - around the world in 80 cemeteries. I love talking to people; you always have something to learn! 

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CW: Where in London have you not yet explored that you’d love to see next?
SN: There are so many places! Severndroog Castle has been on my list for a while now. Would defo like to check it.

Thanks Saira!

Follow Saira on Twitter and be sure to check out her website, Living London!

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Topics: London, England, Interviews