Blogger Eleanor Marriott Visits Nordic London!

I was recently invited to attend a Sunday church service and I jumped at the chance! Not, I confess, because I’d had a spiritual reawakening. I was simply curious to visit this place of worship in one of my favourite areas of London. You see the church was Norwegian and the area was Rotherhithe, which from now on will be London’s ‘Little Scandinavia’ to me.

Several years ago I lived in this historic south London Thameside area and became very fond of the ancient pubs (including the Mayflower where the Pilgrim Fathers originally set sail from – sorry Plymouth but they actually started their journey from here), cobbled alleyways and general Dickensian feel. I traversed Brunel’s incredible engineering feat in the form of a tunnel under the Thames (which incidentally now hosts atmospheric underground concerts, as well as wonderful garden parties during the summer) and I regularly cycled or walked along by the river.

But I was blissfully ignorant of the area’s Scandinavian connection, other than a vague awareness of there being a Swedish Seaman’s Mission somewhere in the vicinity. Sadly the historic Mission closed before I was able to visit it, but it turns out that it wasn’t the only Nordic place of worship in the area, as the Norwegian Church and Seaman’s Mission (also known as St. Olave’s Church) is still conducting services, as is the Finnish church.

As Rotherhithe’s major port status has crumbled since Rotterdam stole its thunder, I would be forgiven for assuming that there isn’t much call for a Norweigan Seaman’s Mission anymore, so I thought I had better pay the place a visit sooner rather than later. Then I received an invitation by the wonderful organisation SharedCity (, which helps Londonders to visit the world without leaving town through their cultural tours, to join them at a service. It was the last impetus I needed to do something sacred with my Sunday for a change.

On the morning that I visited, the St Olave’s church service was being recorded for Norwegian radio, so it was a strict phones off policy (which meant no discreet photos of the service to share). But I can report that it was a beautiful hour-long affair, and that not being able to understand a word being said didn’t diminish my enjoyment of it. In fact familiar hymns such as Amazing Grace sounded angelic when sung by the choir in Norwegian, and when a celloist and opera singer ‘entertained’ us from the gallery during the blessing I was in celestial heaven.

As if that wasn’t enough, the after-service refreshments weren’t confined to mere tea and biscuits. Instead, you could indulge in a full-on Sunday lunch of Scandinavian meatballs with all the trimmings, including generous dollops of lingonberry sauce, followed by delicious cakes. This generous and delicious lunch was included as part of the SharedCity tour and was followed by a friendly talk exclusively for its participants, by the priest, who incidentally looked like he had stepped out of the Norwegian band Aha! (and anyone who remembers them will know that that is definitely a good thing!) He explained how the Mission came about and how it still thrives. They basically have an open door policy and are so so much more than just a place to worship. In fact the building was deliberately constructed back in 1927 to include a relaxation area to read or eat in. This was in order to attract the visiting seamen from Scandinavia there instead of the many bars and brothels.

After the beautiful service, a delicious lunch and an interesting talk I felt well set for the week ahead. But wait, there was more! A jazz band would now entertain us. Apparently non-sacramental afternoon entertainment is the norm. I was beginning to like St. Olave’s more and more with every passing minute. In fact I would have been happy just to visit the beautiful historic building for the architectural enjoyment alone but I came away having felt part of the Norwegian community for a few hours and I felt very blessed as a result. I wasn’t sure that their Finnish neighbours would be able to top that.

Actually the Finnish church was full of surprises too. Admittedly it was a more modern building, though still attractive in its own minimalist, tasteful, Scandinavian way. But the trick up its sleeve was that it had its very own sauna! Yes, that’s right! And anyone can come and use it; there is just one rule – clothes are not allowed. (Well actually there is another rule – you can only use it alone or with other members of the same sex  -but still, it’s not often that church-goers are asked to politely requested to strip).

Of course the sauna is not compulsory, but it is a very popular feature. This is because apparently every home in Finland has one, so to come and live in England and not have access to a sauna is a bit like being told that you lovely new home is missing a bathroom. I was told, during the interesting talk for SharedCity visitors, that it is very much the norm for the Fins to partake in a sauna at the end of the day as a kind of demarcation between work time and relaxation. A bit like the English tradition of going down the pub I guess, but a bit healthier.

Saunas aside, the Finnish church is also home to a very well-stocked Scandinavian food store and a pleasant cafe, with indoor and outdoor seating. I was impressed enough by this, so the unexpected concert by the Swedish children’s choir was an unnecessary addition. But it was lovely and I certainly left feeling very elated.

In fact all in all I spent a very pleasant few hours in an oft overlooked area of London. So, Ikea eat your heart out – this is my Sunday Scandinavian pastime from now on!

This post was originally posted by Eleanor Marriott on The Enchanted Eye blog.

Where do our guides come from?

One of the questions we are always asked is where we find our guides.  The answer isn't straight forward as there's no single formula for finding a brilliant and engaging guide.

Some guides are quietly intriguing and some are full of energy.  Some speak perfect English and some don't.  We are slowly finding more guides for our tours but we have a long way to go!

London has over 300 communities to explore and this has been a bit daunting for us.  We are taking things slowly and have started by working in communities we know well.  This means that the cofounders became our first guides - to their own communities.

Cofounders Deborah and Nidhi are both already connected to the two communities they guide and well equipped to explain the traditions to them on the hoof.  Caroline is Jewish and can trace her roots back to the old  East End which provides heaps of interesting material.  

Deborah leads a tour around historic Little Italy (in Clerkenwell) and Nidhi's favourite tour is the Little India tour (in Wembley). But she also knows East Ham and Southall really well. Caroline leads a tour of Jewish Golders Green as well as one of the historic East End.

For new guides we have tracked down people who share our values, are proud of their community and more than happy to share what they know.  They might have already dabbled in supperclubs or running tours but the most important thing we look for is an enthusiasm and knowledge about the actual community and a relatively unexplored neighbourhood in London.

Deborah met Kemi, our Nigerian guide, through their shared love of acting and Caroline met Margarida, our Portuguese guide, at her kids' school.  Claudia, our Brazilian guide, was one of Deborah's students.  Other guides, like Vicky and Manju, who run our Nordic and South Indian tours, contacted us and have proved to be brilliant and committed.  

Some of the places we visit: the temples, mosques and synagogues, provide their own professional or volunteer guides and we have come to know some of them very well.  

As for the future, we are always hunting for more people to bring those 300 communities of London to life.  There's still so many more to discover.  Who knows, maybe the next guide will be you?

If you would like to know more or are interested in becoming a guide, do get in touch here.


Guest Blogger Curious Mum Explores Nordic London!

London is quite the cosmopolitan city, made up of so many different cultures all gloriously blurred together. But how often do we actually spend time experiencing and learning about one another’s traditions? It’s time to take full advantage of what the capital has to offer!

Celebrating London’s cultural hotspots and making them burn bright for every member of the family, Shared City organise special tours that practically take you around the world without leaving the city! One week you could be touring Little Italy, the next saying Ola Brazil and the next be subject to a Brilliant Buddha Experience…without all the passport and flight hassle. No matter which place you visit, every experience lets you discover and explore London’s local diverse communities in a way you never have before.

In fact, we spent our Sunday in London’s Little Nordic area. Starting the day off with a Lutheran service in Rotherhithe’s beautiful St Olav’s Church, we were then treated to a lovely Norwegian lunch spread, giving us a taste of the yummy local cuisine. Over coffee and waffles (served with homemade jam!) we were given an insight into Lutheran traditions and the history of Norwegians in London. Rather than a history lesson, these talks were informal, animated conversations. With a hop, skip and a jump, we moved on to the Finnish Spring Fair just down the road, perusing all on offer, learning about Finnish history and etiquette (and the history of the sauna!). We even met a real life moomin too.

An immersive educational experience wrapped up in a mini holiday, feel part of another community for a day. Rather than being packed onto a stuffy bus tour, these personal tours (complete with a very approachable and bubbly guide) let you get out and about with something to catch your interest at all times from quizzes to fill out to classes to take part in. For example, coming up in half term holiday, you could spend time in India at London’s world famous Bhavan Centre, trying your hand at some Indian dancing, music and food.

With access to such a rich array of communities all living under one skyline, Shared City definitely provides a unique tour of the city. So the next time the kids ask ‘where are we going on holiday?’ it might be worth telling them ‘London!’

[Originally posted by Curious Mum here]