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.
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.
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
If I’d put you in a blindfold and taken you straight to the middle of Lauriston Road, you wouldn’t believe you were in London. With a quaint redbrick church, a tranquil countryside vibe and a luscious green landscape surrounding you, you’d feel like you were in a small English village. And indeed, you would be. South Hackney is home to the calm, leafy area known as Victoria Park Village. It’s that Vicar of Dibley feel, in the heart of London’s East End – and it’s well worth a visit.
This charming little oasis of calm is the perfect place to spend a sleepy Sunday. It boasts a handful of independent cafés and restaurants and a row of the types of local shops you’d expect of any village – a butcher, a florist and a bookshop. Don’t worry though – after a coffee and stroll around the shops, there are also plenty of pubs for a Sunday pint or three. As the name suggests, it’s also right next to Victoria Park, one of London’s most beautiful parks, which has its very own fascinating little-known history.
It was opened in 1845 and became somewhat of a border between the working classes living in Bethnal Green and the slightly more upmarket Hackney. It was known as the People’s Park and was a key location used by Suffragettes and other activists for gatherings of the masses, playing host to many rallies and speeches. During World War 2, it was put to use as an allotment for growing vegetables and as a base for anti aircraft or Ack Ack guns.
Compared to the rest of the East End, the village in South Hackney always had a better quality of Victorian housing, aimed at the middle classes. It was also lucky enough to avoid significant damage during The Blitz. These two facts are probably what allowed it to escape the 1960s regeneration projects that have given much its neighbouring districts rather generic, unappealing high-rise blocks of flats. This, in combination with a lot of hard work and dedication from the locals, have allowed Victoria Park Village to keep its hamlet-like atmosphere and right now, business seems to be booming… in a calm villagey way, of course.
So, you don’t have to venture out of London to feel like you’ve had a bit of a countryside rest bite. Go for a brisk walk in Victoria Park, before stopping off in the village for some of their wonderful shops, like the butcher’s The Ginger Pig, the wine specialists, Bottle Apostle and the quirky gift shop, M.E.G. After all that walking, you’ll need a good old traditional East End pub pit stop, so choose from The Lauriston, The Royal Inn on the Park, The Village Tap or The Empress. Even though that’s a lot of walking, shopping and drinking, somehow the atmosphere here means that time just moves at a more leisurely pace. A day out here makes for the ideal lazy London Sunday.
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.
However, the picturesque beauty of Arnold Circus and the surrounding area hides a far darker history. This was once the location of London’s most infamous slum. In 1896, the author Arthur Morrison wrote a novel called “A Child of The Jago”. He never called out the Old Nichol by name, but it was clear that his hard-hitting story was set there, in the slum that once sat where Arnold Circus sits today. In the novel, he compares the slum dwellers to rats scrambling for any food, water or shelter they could find. He even suggests that many who find accommodation there eventually realise they would rather live on the streets than in their filthy, dilapidated shanty-like shacks. It paints a picture of a truly helpless underclass, leading lives fraught with disease, crime and abject poverty. The middle-class Londoners who read the novel thought it was fiction – surely in the most thriving city in the world, people couldn’t live like this. In fact, this fiction was a scarily accurate depiction of an area of London they daren’t visit.
By the time the book was published, the slum was already slowly being dismantled. The buildings that took its place, the Boundary Estate, formed the first council estate in the world. Surely there was no more necessary place for this progressive social project than London’s East End. It eventually paved the way for more around the country and around the globe. A pretty bandstand, a planned circular street design and two schools made this a practical and desirable place to live and all with cheap, subsidised rent. A huge success? Well, not entirely. Even the cheap rents were prohibitively expensive for most of the original slum dwellers, who really were London’s most poor. They were forced to leave the area, forgotten once again.
A stroll around the beautiful redbrick buildings of the Boundary Estate makes for a lovely weekend activity. Grab a coffee in Shoreditch, wander around the residential side streets, and maybe even pick up a copy of “A Child of the Jago” for a little read. The bandstand is raised, as it was built on top of piles of rubble of the Old Nichol slum. So, sit there, read your book, look out at the roundabout and the community that lives there today, but ponder on the stories buried underneath you and what life was like here in times gone by.
I have a feeling after the recent snow that you are thinking to yourself “Wouldn’t it be nice to go on a luxurious cruise right about now?” While London may not offer the oasis lifestyle of a Caribbean Island, you need look no further for a fun and lively trip through historical London along the river Thames. A cruise? Along the Thames? OK, so I lied about the cruise bit, there is no cabin service and no captain’s table but you will get to see more on a 30 minute jaunt up and down the Thames than for several hours on a cruise ship!
Not only will you see attractions and sights galore, did you know that the river Thames is home to over 119 species of fish, as well as otters, voles, and eels? Sounds like an oceanic expedition in the making if you ask me!
All aboard the Thames Clipper! This serves as both transportation for locals and also a fun way to see some of the city most notable attractions for those visiting the city. I will say that this is a comfortable, fun and very relaxed way to travel around town as long as you are not in a hurry. While gazing out of the windows of the boat you may see such sights as Tower Bridge which has over 40,00 daily visitors or the Emirates Air Line cable cars which offer astonishing views of London skyline. How about looking at St. Paul’s Cathedral or Shakespeare Globe theatre from a different angle? This cruise is certainly guaranteed to give you a bang for your buck. No need for a travel agents or hundreds of hours on booking websites, this cruise is easily accessible by topping up your oyster card or booking tickets on the Thames clipper website.
If you’re hungry on board the 5 Star voyage why not hop off and grab lunch at “The Ship and Whale” one of the oldest authentic pubs in London located at Greenland Pier. Or take a bite at one of the many places to eat in St Katherine’s Dock next to the Tower of London.
Are the young ones getting a little sea sick? No worries! Hop off at Embankment Pier and on to terra firma and maybe treat them to The Lion King at Lyceum theatre or Matilda at The Cambridge theatre – if you can get tickets.
Please visit: http://www.coutours.co.uk/ or contact Emma Parker at +44(0)207 118 9090
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.