Hidden London: Spitalfields

Having re-discovered the joy of the Hidden London book while walking around the City, I have resolved to complete the ones that are easily accessible from my central London location – which is several of them!

Last Monday, I had a rather unhelpful 4 hour window in between meetings that were both located in the Spitalfields/Brick Lane area. (Actually, it could have been worse, it was originally meant to be a 5 hour gap.) While I might have used this for reading some feminist theology in an attractive café, I decided that as it wasn’t raining (and I’d fortuitously stuffed the Hidden London book into my handbag) I’d get the Spitalfields walk crossed off the list.

The book suggests doing the walk on a Sunday, as that’s when the area’s markets are in full flow. While there might be merit in this, anyone who’s attempted to walk down Brick Lane on a Sunday will know it’s not a place to stop and gaze at objects of historical interest. To be honest, early on a Saturday/Sunday might work, as might mid-morning on a weekday. What does not work, is doing the walk (particularly the latter half) on a weekday afternoon/early evening. The Whitechapel Road at 5.30pm on a Monday is not an ideal sight-seeing venue.

Also, to be honest, this isn’t a part of town where I feel terribly comfortable looking like a tourist. One, I like the area a lot and spent a lot of time there, so I don’t consider myself to be one. Two, people who look like tourists there might make themselves a little vulnerable. If you get what I mean. Plus, this was a walk in which several parts of the route are currently obstructed by Crossrail works, which is a tad frustrating.

Warnings over, let’s get on with the discoveries…

Of all of the walks I’ve done from the book, this is the one where I’d already explored a lot of the area. There were quite a few things I was able to miss out (happily, once it emerged how long it was going to take me!). For example, I felt no need to walk all the way to the Bethnal Green Road end of Brick Lane in order to visit a Bagel Shop, because it’s something I do fairly regularly (and in fact did, some 7 hours after reaching that point of the walk). Should you do it and not know the Bagel Shops, you *must* go – it’s practically the best bit!

While the main features of the City walk were churches, in Spitalfields it was interesting housing and architecture. A high point was Puma Court – a gorgeous hidden corner street near the market, but I didn’t take photos as a lady was putting out her bins. (Always important to respect privacy when on walks…)

Dennis Severs’ House on Folgate Street. (Open to the public at certain times.)

IMG_6161Weavers’ homes on Elder Street.

Old Tea ShopIf only more tea shops looked like this. (Not that it still seems to be functioning.) 

There were some churches though. Christchurch Spitalfields features, but I spent two nights in there last summer recording Songs of Praise in very sweaty circumstances. [Incidentally, etymological discovery of the walk: ‘Spitalfields’ derives from an abbreviation of hospital. I’m staggered I’d not discovered that sooner.] But there was also a destroyed church – the remains of St Mary Matfelon, in Altab Ali Park (named after a Bangladeshi man killed in race riots in 1978.) Apparently, it was the white-washed walls of this church (destroyed in the blitz) that generated the name ‘Whitechapel’.

IMG_6131The remains of the white chapel.

The book does an excellent job of chronicling the social history of the area – from its tides of immigration (Hugenots, Eastern European Jews, Bangladeshis…) to its role in social justice (the site of William Booth’s first meeting of what would become the Salvation Army features). In fact, there are more synagogues (or former ones) featured on this walk than churches. And, if you’re a little more blood thirsty, plenty of Jack the Ripper facts get thrown in too.

Entrance to the 4% DwellingsThe entrance to what was once the Charlotte de Rothschild Model Dwellings – the 4% was the expected rate of return to investors. (Lower than usual, which enabled rents to be lower – thus was a form of social housing.)

IMG_6162The Truman Brewery on Brick Lane.

There is a temptation to think that Spitalfields is all trendy shops and commuters; that Brick Lane = curry; and that the only history in Whitechapel is murder-related, but there is an awful lot more to it than that! It’s one of my favourite parts of London and I thoroughly recommend discovering some of its hidden gems.

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