It’s Sunday morning. You’re in Shoreditch or Bethnal Green or Hackney. And, all of a sudden, you start to spot a little trend. A cactus in a coat pocket. Some tiger lilies pouring out of a tote bag, some blooming buddleias brimming over a bicycle basket. Ah, yes, it must be Columbia Road Flower Market day.
Every Sunday, just off Hackney Road, this usually peaceful street is jam-packed full of locals and tourists, scouting out a floral bargain. It’s a real sensual overload – of course the scents of trees and herbs, the colours of blooms and buds and the sounds of the market traders bantering and bartering away and the punters cooing at the beauty that surrounds them. Seasonal flowers, trees, shrubs, herbs and bushes go on sale first thing in the morning, and, it’s all over by 3pm. Come at 4pm and you’ve missed it. It’s all deserted again. With a short day like that, you can see why it feels like a rush, with everyone trying to make a deal before trading’s up.
If flowers aren’t really your bag, this market is still well worth a visit. Columbia Road is lined with 60 independent retailers, selling a range of wares. There’s vintage fashion at Glitterati, antique furniture at Two Columbia Road and quirky gifts at Dandy Star. There are also art galleries, casual cafés and, naturally as this is the East End, there’s also a pub or two. If you need a snack for all your flowery, arty, gifty perusing, try Lee’s Seafoods, which has been serving fish here since the Second World War.
Sitting pretty above the market fashionistas and the pub revellers around Spitalfields and Brick Lane, you’ll notice some beautiful architectural details that tell you you’re in East London’s old French Quarter. It’s well worth taking a moment to look up and gaze at the stunning 17thcentury houses and to ponder on the fascinating historical stories they hold.
In 1685, Louis XIV decided to revoke the Edict of Nantes, which, since its introduction in the late 16thcentury, had given protection to Protestants worshipping in France. A new wave of intolerance spread across the country and French protestant Huguenots fled to find religious refuge in places as far and wide as Germany, the Netherlands, America and South Africa. Many of them wound up in the relatively tolerant East End of London, particularly in the area known as Spitalfields. Thousands of French Huguenots settled here in the late 17thcentury, bringing with them a brand new trade: silk weaving.
They fled France quickly and arrived with very little but they soon managed to trade thanks to their silk weaving skills. Situated just outside London’s city wall, they were close to the rich City workers and began making money from their high-quality silk. Within a few decades, many of the most successful weavers were able to build the beautiful town houses which now surround Spitalfields. Just take a look around Elder Street, Fournier Street and Princelet Street to see the architecture that characterises this small part of the East End that seemingly overnight became very wealthy and sophisticated.
These tall, imposing working houses (with workshops for looms on the top floors) were built with several impressive features, including grand entrances and charming shuttered windows. The most beguiling feature of these houses, however, is a little bit harder to spot: tiny 2.5-cm-tall heads used as to keep the shutters in place when they were open. They were installed in these houses from the 1720s onwards and all seem to have their own stories and personalities, from a man in a turban to a few genteel ladies in bonnets. When you see them, you can’t help but smile. And if you can’t spot them, you’ll have to come on one of my tours for me to point them out!
These faces have witnessed a lot in this area over the centuries. New technologies and trade agreements made the Huguenots’ East End silk business less profitable from the mid-19thcentury, forcing them to move elsewhere. They were replaced by new immigrants from various parts of Europe, most notably those fleeing the potato famine in Ireland and those fleeing religious persecution in Poland and Russia. Homes that once housed one family and some workers now housed several Jewish families at once – sometimes one family per room, rather than one family per house. It was a dangerous place at this time – perhaps these heads even caught a glimpse of Jack The Ripper. After 1945, this area became a largely Bangladeshi area as Brick Lane became the restaurant hub we know today. Now, of course it’s all about a wealthy new generation of artists and coffee lovers in these parts, as these roads fill up with trendy cafés and vibrant street art. The heads on the buildings of the East End’s French quarter are sitting pretty, silently watching the area as it continues to change. Next time you cross their paths, be sure to look over and give them a nod.
Whilst all the Instagrammers and Snapchatters are gramming and snapping their way up and down Brick Lane, capturing a whole host of vibrant street art created in the last few years, they are all missing a rather older piece of street art just around the corner. Just by Spitalfields market, above Honest Burger on Widegate Street, sits a piece of art with an interesting historical story – four sculptures of some busy East End bakers.
The streets around this area, like Artillery Passage and Widegate Street, are often packed full of night time revellers and daytime Jack The Ripper tourists, but if you stop and look up, you realise you are walking through a truly beautiful time capsule. Long before Honest Burger and Simmons Cocktail Bar were here, these nooks and crannies were host to many a business with many a story. The four ceramic reliefs of bakers tell just one of them.
At the turn of the 20thcentury, this area was largely Jewish and was home to several Jewish bakeries. The four bakers, which adorn Honest Burger today, mark the location of one of the most famous, the Nordheim Model Bakery, which rustled up beigels and other Jewish delights for those who lived in the surrounding alleyways and beyond. These glazed ceramic reliefs were installed in 1926 and were made by Poole Pottery. They were designed by an artist named Philip Lindsey Clark and they demonstrate the four stages of the bread-making process.
These fascinating sculptures, however, also came with their fair share of controversy. Many felt that they did not simply depict bakers innocently going about their daily baking, but were rather subtly hinting at religious persuasions – and not Jewish ones. Clark, who later became a Carmelite monk, often referenced religious iconography in his work and many thought that these pieces were no different. Many noted that the baker carrying bags of flour is in a pose similar to that of Jesus carrying the cross. Indeed, the bread itself was also criticised as looking far less Jewish and Eastern European, but rather more English. These bakers seem to be preparing soft, bouncy cottage loaves, not traditional Jewish unleven bread, as the Nordheim would have done. In a period where there was enormous tensions between different populations in the East End, this piece of art was actually covered up and hidden, due to the controversy it caused.
Take a moment to stop on Widegate Street and look up at the bakers busily working away. This piece of art serves as a reminder of the Jewish populations that have made this area their home at different points in history. Many Portuguese Sephardic Jews settled here in the 17thcentury and, more recently, in the late 19thand early 20thcentury, many Polish and Russian Jews lived here. Their legacy can be felt all around, in bakeries, such as Beigel Bake and Rinkoff’s, the fascinating Secret Synagogue and also from the fact that Petticoat Lane is a Sunday market, rather Saturday one – the Jews working here couldn’t work or shop on Saturdays. The wonderful piece of historical street art depicting the Nordheim Model Bakers is another, slightly more secret, reminder of the Jewish history here – even if these bakers aren’t particularly Jewish at all.
Well, well, well. If you think of stopping for lunch around Brick Lane, you might think bagel or you might think curry, but, would you think… “I know, I’ll stop for some afternoon tea and some cat stroking?” Well, that option is open to you too. If you like tea and you like felines, Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium is the perfect place for you. This English tearoom, situated on Bethnal Green Road, just near the top of Brick Lane, is named after Alice’s cat in Alice in Wonderland and is one of the most unique places to stop for a cuppa in London.
The world’s first cat café opened its doors in Taipei in 1998 and became quite the tourist destination. It was particularly popular with Japanese visitors and the concept was eventually adopted and replicated, first in Osaka, then all over Japan. Many Japanese pet-loving city dwellers are not allowed to keep animals in their small apartments (where there’s not much room to swing a cat, ba dum tsss) and so the cat café concept really took off. In other big world cities, where many people rent small flats, cat cafés have also been opened, so… it was only a matter of time before the idea came to London. Lady Dinah’s opened in 2014, to huge media attention. It’s fully booked on most weekends and it’s quite a unique experience. Let’s just say you can take the concept out of Japan, but…
This place is cat crazy, complete with waiting staff wearing cat ears. There are up to 11 cats which just go about being cats around you whilst you eat your soup or croissant and drink your tea or coffee. They play, sleep and mooch about, as cats do, and you are free to play with them. If you don’t want to order food or drink, you can also pay a small fee to simply sit and watch and play. Pets help lower blood pressure and reduce stress, so it’s a great place for a bit of relaxation. The animals are well looked after. There are trained members of staff around to check they are not over petted and also to ensure they are given breaks when needed. Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium is a weird and wonderful place to while away an afternoon, eating like a fat cat, posing like a hipster cool cat and really feeling like the cat that got the cream tea.
For further information, simply visit: http://ladydinahs.com