20 Oct 2014

Ghostsigns Walking Tours: One Year On

Tour guide pointing out fading signs painted on walls
Sam Roberts leading the Ghostsigns Walking Tours in all weather conditions. Photos by Diego Apesteguia and Nick Perry

This time last year I was setting out with my crash test dummies on the first ever Ghostsigns Walking Tour in Stoke Newington, London. It went well enough for me to continue running them and I’ve now taken the walk 24 times, with 220 people, leading to 42 (not so bad) ratings for the tour on Tripadvisor. Thank you to everyone that has come along, asked questions, spotted new material, provided additional insights and told their friends to do the same. I thought I’d share some reflections (and some photos) on running the tours now that they’ve been going for a year.

Tour guide pointing out a piece of fading advertising painted on a wall
The inaugural Ghostsigns Walking Tour on 20 October 2013. Photo by Caroline Derry.

The first thing is that you can never know it all. Every single time I’m with a group I see or learn something new. I guess that’s what keeps them interesting for me. Groups have deciphered tricky signs and, in the case of a tour for the staff at A.S. Handover, spotted the border of one that I’d walked past dozens of times. However, the one below remains a mystery…

Very faded piece of advertising painted on a wall
Close buy no joy in deciphering this Stoke Newington ghostsign. Answers on a postcard to sam@ghostsigns.co.uk. Click image for larger (2.5MB) unedited photo

Second is that the tours highlight the changes that are always taking place in the urban environment. The walk starts with a ghostsign and ends with a piece of street art by Banksy that have both been partially painted over in efforts to remove graffiti. There’s also a little bit of ‘now you see me, now you don’t’ with temporary reveals like the one for D. Appell that popped up just before taking the Hackney Society out on the tour. A more lasting addition is the beautiful gilded and painted glass Higgs sign. Most recently was the re-pointing that has affected the edge of the John Brown Whiskies sign on Cazenove Road. The message appears to be that they won’t be here forever so catch them while you can.

Hand-painted shop fascia for D.Appell
Fading Fascia for A. Appell revealed and then covered again on Stamford Hill in February 2014

Third is the benefits and pitfalls of speaking loudly while leading the tours. The clear benefit is that everyone can hear what you’re saying. A pitfall is that you can find yourself critiquing a contemporary creation in earshot of the person that has painted it! This is exactly what happened on a little detour one day with me running across the street to share my thoughts with the sign’s creator. The moment was captured by Diego from Rotulacion a Mano, a Madrid-based signwriting company.

Two people looking at a painted sign on a wall for an antiques business
Discussing a modern painted wall advertisement with the business owner and creator. Photo by Diego Apesteguia.

Lastly is that views about ghostsigns and what to do about them are many and diverse. Two key questions that repeatedly crop up are ‘What is a ghostsign?’ and ‘Should ghostsigns be protected or repainted?’. In many cases these elicit strong opinions and debate which I find fascinating. It has shown that there is no general consensus, although most support my own aims of documenting, researching and raising the profile of these pieces of local, advertising, and craft history. The History of Advertising Trust Ghostsigns Archive is one way that I’ve done this. The tours are another and so I’m looking forward to trialling my next one, which will bike-based, in the next couple of months…

Here are some more photos. Visit this page for dates and bookings for the tours and email me if you’re interested in a private tour for you/your group. Thanks again to everyone that has support the tours to date.

Fading sign painted on a wall advertising a fountain pen firm
The ghostign that started my own interest in 2006.. This sign has been awarded Local Listed status by the Hackney Society and Engliah Heritage.
Tour group looking at a faded advertisement painted on a wall
Taking the Hackney Society out on tour. Photo by Nick Perry.
Tour group looking at a fading advertisement painted on a wall
Deciphering a ghostsign with the Hackney Society. Photo by Nick Perry.
Large piece of painted advertising fading on a wall
A large and popular palimpsest on the Ghostsigns Walking Tour in Stoke Newington

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