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A walk in London’s wild East

London’s dark side almost overflows with history – and art

brunch Updated: Apr 28, 2018 23:16 IST
Kalpana Sunder
Kalpana Sunder
Hindustan Times
east london wild coast,london dark side,london history and art
A garage off Brick Lane is decorated with colourful street art(Kalpana Sunder )

Two women in hijab walk alongside a Jewish man with his furry hat. The air is redolent with the familiar smell of curry as I walk on a street with Raj-era street lamps. I suddenly catch sight of Bengali street signs and blink. Surely I have made a mistake?

Ben, my local guide, laughs. The signs are in Bengali, and that’s because, in the late 20th century, Bangladeshis comprised the major group of immigrants and gradually predominated the area.

Whitechapel in London’s East End was the scene of the murdering spree of Jack the Ripper in 1888

I am in scruffy Brick Lane, in the East End in London, famous today as the curry capital of the UK. The street took its name from the clay pits just north of Bethnal Green Road, from where a brick manufacturing business began to develop. There are about 70 ‘Indian’ restaurants in and around Brick Lane, the largest concentration of curry houses in the world.

I browse through a large vintage store housed in a warehouse, filled to the brim with crazily patterned shirts, old military boots and funky shades. What really catches my eye is the colourful street art everywhere – on the shutters of shops, on walls and even on roofs. In the past, Brick Lane was a thriving Jewish neighbourhood and even today, you can see remnants of it in queues outside small eateries with Jewish food. Before the start of World War II, the East End had as many as 150 synagogues!

Ripping ahead

The East End got its name because the area lay just to the east of the medieval walled city of London. From the Huguenots to the Bengalis, the area has been the destination of choice for immigrants over the years, which helped shaped its unique character. Thousands of immigrants landed here and faced discrimination and hardship, working in sweatshop industries. Today, the locality reflects the melting-pot of nationalities and cultures that makes up this capital city. “Historically, it has been one of the poorest areas of London, but ironically it is also the hub of much of the city’s profits and industry,” explains Ben.

Brick Lane took its name from the clay pits just north of Bethnal Green Road, from where a brick manufacturing business began to develop (Kalpana Sunder )

The area has also always been the non-conformist quarter of the city, as well as a hub of creativity, I learn, as I walk past dozens of art galleries with bright canvasses stacked against their walls. But ironically, it’s the home of the most traditional Londoner – the cockney who speaks in rhyming slang, a kind of local dialect in which words are substituted for other words that they rhyme with. For example, ‘apples and pears’ is cockney slang for ‘stairs’, and ‘money’ is described as ‘bread and honey’.

The area has loads of history. For example, Whitechapel in the East End was the scene of the murdering spree of Jack the Ripper, probably the most notorious serial killer the UK has ever known. His ‘career’ was given a name: 1888’s Autumn of Terror, and his identity has never been proved. Today you can take a Jack the Ripper tour: a mock manhunt through the neighbourhood. Tracing the steps of this killer and looking for clues in dark alleys will send shivers down your spine!

As London started to become more industrialised, the East End became a hub of early industries such as tanning, rope making, lead making, slaughter houses, breweries, and gunpowder production, which could not be located inside the city.

Street artist Wrdsmth’s work is generally accompanied by a vintage typewriter stencil and contains a quote or a thought (Kalpana Sunder )

In the 17th century, it became the home of Huguenot refugees who fled from persecution in France. Weavers by trade, they worked in Spitalfields, the home of London’s master weavers. Over the years, the homes of the Huguenots became slum housing for the ever-growing East End population.

Due to overcrowding and bad civic conditions, the East End developed a reputation for extreme poverty, gang rule, violence and crime, a reputation that still scares visitors off today. Much of the area was destroyed by German bombing raids during World War II, and in the 1960s, gangsters ruled the East End with a mixture of brutality and glamour.

“This area re-invented itself once again as a hub of London life only in the 1980s,” says Ben, and it was truly born again during the 2012 London Olympics.

On the walls

We stroll through Petticoat Lane Market that has its history in the local textile industry. The market derives its name from the second hand clothes sold there from as early as the 16th century. Another interpretation of the name is that unscrupulous traders would “steal your petticoat from you at one end of the market and sell it back to you at the other end….”

In the 1830s, the street was renamed Middlesex Street because Victorian sensibilities couldn’t cope with a word referring to undergarments!

I have a Colombian vegan lunch at Spitalsfield Market, one of the best and oldest markets in London. It was once home to a priory and a hospital for lepers. After almost two decades of careful restoration and regeneration, the market now houses a new collection of artisans, restaurants and vintage clothing stalls.

Brick Lane is full of curry houses, interesting buildings, popular culture and more (Kalpana Sunder )

An omnipresent motif while exploring the East End is its vibrant and sometimes controversial street art. The brick walls and barricades in the area are an ever-evolving canvas. I see works by well-known street artists like Eine, known for his alphabet lettering on shop shutters, and Gregos, who makes face moulds and uses 3D printing. I detour to Hanbury Street to see a stunning piece: a giant work from Belgian artist ROA, famous for his black-and-white images of animals and birds, featuring a black- and-white crane. The piece is well regarded by the local community, as cranes are revered in the region of Bangladesh from where many of the East End’s inhabitants come from.

On Princelet Street which is lined with intriguing Huguenot housing from the 1700s, I see the trademark stick figures of famous artist Stik who deals a lot with racial tensions: a Muslim woman holding the hand of a white man. On Fashion street is a beautiful mural of a man with his grandchild by artist Jimmy C, who has a signature pointillist style.

One of the many walls covered completely with street art (Kalpana Sunder )

I explore Fournier Street, one of the streets founded by the Huguenot settlers. Stickers decorate lamp posts; the pavement, walls and windows are alive in a riot of paint, ink and stencilled creativity. As I walk along the street, Ben points out the bobbins that hang from doorways. These were placed there by the council to denote homes known to have been lived in by Huguenot Families.

At the end of Fournier Street is a unique building: the Great London Mosque, once a Huguenot chapel, later a Jewish synagogue, and now a mosque for the expanding Bangladeshi community.

Drinking in the sights

Brewing played an important part in the history of the area. Despite the dreadful poverty and squalor in the East End, the water for brewing must have been of the highest quality. Many of the streets are named after people associated with brewing.

The corner of Brick Lane and Buxton Street has many small striking artworks (Kalpana Sunder )

In the mid-1800s, the brewery of Truman, Hanbury, Buxton and Co became one of the largest in London. It now houses art workshops and exhibition spaces. I end my walk at the baroque Christ Church near Spitalsfield, consecrated in 1729 and designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor who gave it a heavenward sweep and commanding presence.

The church has been used for burials, baptisms, weddings and even been a shelter for homeless alcoholic men. After a multi-million dollar restoration, it is magnificent again. I stand inside, while an unknown guitar player sends notes soaring to the high ceiling.

A fitting requiem to my East End visit.

A hedgehog on Chance Street, painted by ROA, a street artist from Belgium, who paints animals and birds in black and white (Kalpana Sunder )

From HT Brunch, April 29, 2018

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First Published: Apr 28, 2018 22:31 IST