A New Touring Company Doesn’t Want You to Feel (Or Spend) Like a Tourist

"Make My Day" pairs intrepid travelers with sustainability-minded locals

A New Touring Company Doesn’t Want You to Feel (Or Spend) Like a Tourist
By John Scott Lewinski / November 6, 2019 6:00 am

As I walk through Hyde Park toward the train station, a gemstone’s throw from the very high-end residences of Chelsea and Belgravia, it’s clear to me how relentlessly high the cost of living is in London. From food to rent to daily transport, citizens and visitors alike tend to hemorrhage pounds sterling by the pocketful. Fortunately, I’m about to learn how easy it is to eat a day’s worth of healthy food without spending a single shilling.

There’s more park area per person in the British capital than any major city in Europe. With a bit of education, a careful eye and an open-minded palette, a humble green-space pilgrim can return to the mindset of his ancestors and forage their own culinary path while unsuspecting passersby walk their dogs and feed the pigeons.

My guide on this austerity adventure? International touring firm Make My Day, who provide travelers with educational opportunities that transcend traditional tourist jaunts. Sure, everyone on a run to London should witness the Changing of the Guard, visit the Crown Jewels in the city’s titular Tower and watch the UK’s politicians screw up one Brexit agreement after another at the Houses of Parliament. But Make My Day offers tourists something else: the chance to learn skills and pick up knowledge that even the locals might not know is at their fingertips.

For example, I can guarantee it doesn’t occur to the weary commuters slogging their way through a Tesco’s that they could safely gather their green salad from the clump of bushes behind the Battersea Park tea shanty. But that’s exactly how I’m preparing for lunch with my dedicated Make My Day guide, James Grant.

Energized by a political bent just to the left of Trotsky, Grant will recite chapter and verse his distaste for modernity and capitalism once you get him rolling with the right questions. Consider that quirk a heartfelt bonus to what Grant is truly knowledgeable about: the ins and outs of living like a hunter-gatherer in 2019.

Clad in fatigues and what I can only guess is a hemp sweater, Grant is the real thing, right down to a bracelet woven together from nettle fibers. His weathered, canvas backpack holds everything from a knife and vials of sap to containers made of birch bark and samples of home-cooked medicinal syrup. Put simply: Grant lives his expertise.

“The very act of foraging brings people together,” he says, leading me down dirt paths and around tall trees planted in the age of Queen Victoria. “I teach people who might be struggling and looking to supplement their food supply, [as well as] well-off Londoners searching for unusual or unique ingredients. They make connections learning and working together that they wouldn’t make anywhere else.”

He unveils botanical wonders hiding in plain sight, probably because all too often we simply don’t bother to look. There’s an edible mushroom bloom resembling the stump of a fallen palm tree sitting atop a nearby berm. I quickly learn I can eat the entire dandelion plant, and its greens are more appealing in spring. The same goes for a rose bush, save the thorns. I leave the prickly bits for the Shiraz crowd.

I didn’t plan this run through the bramble in search of mushrooms on my own. Rather, it’s part of Make My Days’ “Mystery Days” program: after filling out a detailed form asking me everything from my allergies to whether Cher really had a rib removed, they choose two secret activities for me to attend based on my answers. Armed with a sheet telling me where to be, when to be there and whom to look for onsite, I set out from my Shoreditch hotel around 9 a.m. and stay on the move until dinner.

Second stop: Bermondsey Street Bees, where they gear me up in a beekeeping suit to catch a buzz on some urban honey. Hidden on a rooftop south of the river in the shadow of The Shard, Dale Gibson and partner Sarah Wyndham-Lewis tend three bustling hives yielding artisanal honey that will eventually find its way into some of the finest restaurants and hotels in London. 

Like Grant hunting around his local parks, these two passionately live their calling: their bees, combs, filters and jarring machines forge a proud, sticky mission more so than a humble family business. Also like Grant, they’re quick to share their views on everything, from the industrialization of honey to the proliferation of bees around London.

“I think there was a panic in recent years that we were losing the bees,” Wyndham-Lewis explains. “So we started seeing more hives coming into Central London. Unfortunately, no one thought about [the fact that] more bees need more food. We aren’t planting enough to feed all of these bees.”

She and Gibson unveil their hives and share their expertise in the hope of educating bee lovers and casual bumblers alike about the challenges of making fine honey. Their guidance — paired with being buttoned up head-to-ankle in a suit of white cotton armor — removes any fear of being stung.

Every Make My Day tour and guide is carefully vetted: founder Nick Boulos samples each potential tour firsthand to get a feel for what it provides. They’re already up and running in London, Edinburgh, Bath, Dublin, Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, Sydney, Madrid and Barcelona, and Boulos wants to cross the Atlantic and add New York and Chicago in the coming months.

“In any major city, you can find plenty of guided tours,” he says. “But those guides may or may not be qualified. They could just be part-timers making a little side money. We make sure every expert we add to Make My Day is dedicated to what they want to share with people.”

I think about offering a bit of root I picked up in the park to Boulos to thank him for setting up my Mystery Day, but realize I’ve only logged about 90 minutes of training. If anyone can spot the work of a novice, it’s Boulos.