To follow are a series of blogs created by Coutours. These help stitch together the fascinating fabric of London into a series of interesting tales and stories to showcase London in all its glory.
As you walk along New Bond Street you will reach a pedestrianized section. Continue past Pete’s flower stall and you will encounter a park bench on which two amiable characters are sat, holding a conversation and on the verge of a laugh. Look closer and they have been caught in animation – bronze characters captured mid conversation. These are no ordinary people, they are the two main protagonists of the allied forces in WWII. Named “Allies”, this is a sculpture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
Mention Brutalism to your average Brit and most will think of ugly, concrete buildings that seem to sap England of joy! Concrete, which partners drizzle in such a bleak union in the way that cheery red brick has never achieved. It doesn’t help that this branch of the modernist movement is called “Brutalism.” Brutalism gave us The Barbican, The Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Trellick Tower alongside other iconic buildings of the 1950’s to 1970’s. We didn’t like it; we considered it brutal and aggressive as well as new and totalitarian. Hang on a minute, Brutalism doesn’t actually mean brutal. The word comes from the French ‘brut’ which means ‘raw’ or ‘unprocessed’ or in my case ‘dry’ as in Champagne! “What!” I hear you cry. “So these towering monoliths weren’t the product of dystopian monsters bent on revenge for human destruction of the earth?” *
Welcome to East London’s French Quarter; an area of genteel 18th Century houses sitting rather primly amongst the pubs, the markets and the hipsters.
Spitalfields was the favoured spot in East London where thousands of French Huguenot silk weavers settled from 1685. They were attracted here by its weaving heritage and liberal attitude to religious immigrants. These Huguenots, also known as French Calvinists, emigrated in their thousands to London and to other parts of the world after the 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The Edict was a piece of legislation that dated back to 1598 to protect the Protestants and inspire tolerance. However, Louis XIV had other ideas. He didn’t think this liberal stance sat with his desire for autocracy and so in 1685 dispensed with it.
It was the Romans who saw the potential of the Thames and created our first Docklands. They built wharves and docks by the first London Bridge which grew into the biggest docks in the world. By the late 1960's they could not cope with the massive container ships and rapidly went into decline and inevitably closed. They remained derelict until the 1980's which marked the start of their amazing redevelopment. A walk around the old docks of Wapping, Shad Thames, Rotherhithe, Limehouse and The Isle of Dogs reveals the docks' salty sea-dog past!
The docks have some of the best pubs in London; the oldest in the area is The Prospect of Whitby dating back to 1520. There is a noose hanging outside the river side of the pub - not a warning to settle your lunch bill before leaving but a reminder of the area's notoriety. Smugglers and pirates were rife in this area, perhaps the most famous being Captain Kidd who is immortalised in a nearby pub and allegedly the inspiration for Daniel Dafoe's Treasure Island.
Forget Old Street or the IMAX at Waterloo, London’s most magical roundabout is surely Arnold Circus. Hidden just a stone’s throw away from the hipsters, between Columbia Road, Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road, it’s surrounded by impressive Victorian redbrick buildings, complete with a peaceful garden and bandstand. This is not your average roundabout – it’s worth a visit for its beauty and also for its history. It just so happens to be the home of the very first council estate in the world.
Constructed in the 1890s from the rubble of the notorious Old Nichol slum that had stood here for decades previously, today Arnold Circus is a people-watching paradise. From families dropping their kids off at The Virginia Primary School to fashion designers heading to their studio at The Rochelle creative hub, the local community is a diverse bunch indeed. The imposing architecture that surrounds them holds a times-gone-by atmosphere, meaning you may even spot a film crew recreating Victorian or Edwardian London.
If you are ever stuck waiting for a delayed train at Liverpool Street, head off Bishopsgate into St Botolph’s churchyard and you’ll discover a very Victorian Turkish delight. Once a well-known name amongst wealthy Londoners, Nevill’s Turkish baths were theplace for any discerning City worker to take some respite from their hectic schedules. Relaxing in one of London’s bathhouses was a very popular pastime and Nevill’s was a particularly respected establishment. St Botoloph’s is the home to one of this popular chain’s most opulent buildings, and it remains beautifully intact, 120 years after it first opened.
As soon as you turn off Bishopsgate, you spot some intricate mosaic patterns glinting in the distance. If you didn’t know better, you might mistake this small kiosk-like churchyard building or the most elaborate gardener’s shed you’ve ever seen. Exotic Arabic patterns, colourful stained glass windows and an Ottoman minaret, complete with dome and crescent moon makes an incongruous sight. In fact, this fascinating building was the decorative grand entrance hall to a subterranean gentleman’s spa, opened here in 1895 as the fifth in Nevill’s chain of Turkish baths.
Hidden down a small alleyway just off Cable Street in Shadwell sits a building that is something of a time capsule, ready to transport you to the London of days gone by. Indeed, the magical Wilton’s Music Hall is something you really have to see to believe. This atmospheric slice of Victoriana is an authentic celebration of the East End’s musical heritage. This building once housed one of London’s most popular music halls over 150 years ago and has been re-opened today to host many a modern, and many a good old-fashioned, London knees-up.
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.
As a tour guide and a lover of London, I will be writing a series of interesting stories about London; tales I have heard, places I have visited, tasty food I have eaten and delicious drinks I have enjoyed. Watch out for this every week or so.