8 ways to see London in a new light: From pints with the mob to secret pub tours

Standing by the kerb, a menacing figure strokes the knuckleduster on his tattooed left hand, eyebrows furrowing as he glances in my direction.

“You lookin’ fer me?” he asks in a low, gravelly voice, sending rivers of sweat down the back of my neck.

Under any other circumstances, I’d quickly scuttle away, but today I have to stay put, because this hard-nosed mobster is the very person I’ve planned to meet.

My path to Mickey Goldtooth had been paved some 48 hours earlier, when, like something out of John le Carre novel, a rather strange but exciting email landed in my inbox. It instructed me to present myself at 10am on a street corner in London’s Liverpool Street and look for the man with a black suit and gold teeth.

That was pretty much it.

The ‘Top Secret Dossier’ – cleverly designed to resembled classified government papers – is all part of the capital’s newest tourism experience. These Mystery Days, masterminded by city break specialists MakeMyDay, are the first of their kind and promise surprise and intrigue at every turn.

I’d signed up to the service with no idea what to expect.

“That’s the whole point,” says MakeMyDay founder and award-winning travel writer Nick Boulos, who has personally handpicked and tried and tested each experience.

“It’s rare as adults to be truly surprised. I want to inject that childlike sense of fun and exploration back into peoples’ lives, while also offering urban adventures most people don’t even know are possible.”

Packages start from £69/€79 and the options are impressive – everything from walking, cycling and food tours, to helicopter trips and horse rides.

I’ve opted for the Silver package, and after completing a short questionnaire on my likes and dislikes, any health considerations, physical limitations and phobias, it’s time to expect the unexpected.

My first urban adventure is a mobster tour of the East End, led by two real life gangsters, including Mickey. Together, we tour the streets of Bethnal Green and Whitechapel and enter a world few see.

Over a drink in The Blind Beggar pub, where Ronnie Kray famously murdered George Cornell in 1966, Mickey rummages in his pocket and produces a frayed black and white picture.

“That’s me, that is,” he says, pointing proudly to the toddler sat on the knee of man – a man who happens to be Ronnie Kray himself.

What follows is two fascinating and, at times, hilarious hours filled with tales of London’s murky underworld, famous figures like Eric the Red, and first-hand accounts of a life spent on the fringes of society.

It certainly gives me a lot to think about as I make my way to the next mysterious appointment. The instructions in the dossier are a little baffling, simply telling me to head to Victoria Coach Station.

But it soon becomes clear. While weary travellers around me battle with suitcases to board National Express coaches to Doncaster and Dundee, I breeze through and hop aboard my majestic chariot – an original red Routemaster bus.

These iconic double-deckers first took to the streets of London in the 1950s, and now only a handful continue to operate. But this isn’t just any old bus ride. Somewhere along Buckingham Palace Road, my city tour with a difference takes a rather indulgent turn as champagne afternoon tea is served.

Sat on the top deck, with London’s most famous landmarks on show in all their glory, I nibble on delicate sandwiches and sweet macaroons, all washed down with flutes filled with bubbles.

Fortunately, my final surprise of the day provides an opportunity to walk off some of the excess. A short Tube ride takes me to St. Paul’s, where a small group has gathered by the turnstiles. I gingerly join them, intrigued as to what the next mini adventure will entail.

“You are about to discover the best, most beautiful, historic and cosy pubs this great city has to offer,” announces local enthusiast Vic, a man who has suffered greatly for his art by drinking in more than 40 nearby establishments, in order to select the best five.

With real theatrical flair, Vic brings the past vividly to life as we stroll between gin palaces and blink-and-miss-them Victorian pubs, which could almost be lifted straight out of a Dickens book. But it isn’t only the pubs that are a revelation; delicious and rare beverages, from vanilla-infused gin to chocolate stout and floral ales (half pints, of course), have been stocked exclusively for the tour.

Strolling down a lantern-lit alley, half expecting Mickey Goldtooth to suddenly emerge from the shadows, I reach my final spot.

The door of discreet drinking den Ye Olde Mitre creaks as I venture inside.

The first pint was pulled here in 1546 for the servants of the Bishop of Ely, although the clientele has changed somewhat over the centuries.

Something peculiar catches my eye in the corner of the room and Vic steps in to explain. “That’s the petrified remains of a cherry tree that someone quite famous once danced around,” he smirks. “It’s said that Queen Elizabeth I got drunk in here and got a little carried away…”

If only tree trunks could talk. I stare at the block of wood, amazed that such discoveries and pieces of history are hidden in such plain sight. In the space of 24 hours I’ve learned to see my city in a whole new light. And that is the biggest surprise of all.

London like never before

Nick Boulos, founder of MakeMyDay, picks his favourite London experiences with a difference…

1. Penny for your thoughts

Thrilling, and just a tad terrifying, a ride around the capital on a penny-farthing certainly beats a ‘Boris’ bike. Under the expert guidance of the country’s leading enthusiast of these iconic bikes – they were all the rage in the late 1800s – this is a rare opportunity to experience one of London’s most novel modes of transport. The experience starts with a nice and gentle training session in one of London’s prettiest squares, before a quick pedal down Piccadilly to Trafalgar Square, causing heads to turn all the way.

2. Fake news!

You’ll split your sides on this rib-tickling riverside walking tour from the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral to the South Bank. Led by a professional comedian, there are gags and tall tales a plenty as you explore landmarks, secret side streets and some of the city’s most eclectic architecture. Prepare to laugh out loud but don’t believe a single word of it – every fact and anecdote is a big, fat lie.

3. Icons

London is home to some of the most renowned cultural institutions in the world, but visiting them can often be daunting and overwhelming. MakeMyDay’s series of in-depth tours, to places such as the Tower of London and the British Museum, are led by experts and certified guides. Why not tour The National Gallery with a jobbing artist who will help you create your own version of one of its most famous pieces? Or alternatively enjoy an exclusive peek at Westminster Abbey.

4. Go forage

It may be home to more than eight million people, but London still has its wild and untamed corners. This grassroots experience takes you to a hushed oasis, a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle, where a forager reveals the array of edible plants and herbs that grow in the heart of the city. With some expert help, you’ll pick your own salad with ingredients you never even knew existed. Think everything from wild rocket and edible nettles, to black mulberries and sweet chestnuts.

5. Law & Order

Punishments have been dished out at this spot since the 16th century, so it’s fair to say the Old Bailey has a story or two to tell. Many are revealed on this fascinating tour led by a former newspaper journalist who reported on trials here for 30 years. Not only will you hear all about the British legal system and the grisly early capital punishments, but you’ll also have the opportunity to visit one of the original cells before watching a real trial in action.

How to do it

All experiences can be booked at MakeMyDay (0208 895 6828; makemyday.travel). Bespoke Mystery Days start from £69pp/€79.

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