(all pictures courtesy of Google Maps)
1. We start off with a brunch at Fabrique, a branch of Swedish bakery and cafe, just off Hoxton Railway Station. A hot brew in a tin mug and a sourdough cinnamon bun will put the necessary spring in your step!
Across the street you can see the gardens of the Geffrye Museum of the House, set in the 18th century almshouses of the Ironmongers Society. This juxtaposition of an ancient slum almshouse and a posh cafe should set the mood for the journey ahead: the contrasting history of the East End, its glory, downfall and phoenix-like rise.
Hoxton started out as an affluent out-of-town location for Tudor-era manors and gardens; by 17th century, the estates began to break down, and be used increasingly as madhouses and almshouses. By Victorian era, as all of East End, it was covered with working class slum, albeit not as notorious as the areas south of it. There was still thriving industry and culture here, and Hoxton survived the worst of the slum era relatively unscathed, ready to enter the 21st century of gentrification; in 2002, Jamie Oliver opens the first of his Fifteen restaurants here, marking the rise of posh Hoxton once again.
2. Turn right into Cremer Street, past an organic cafe, and then left, onto the high street. This stretch of A10 is called the “Pho Mile”, and rightly so: dozens of Vietnamese restaurants, shops and cafes line the street. If you want Vietnamese in London, this is the place, although the choice may be overwhelming at first.
Nearer the railway bridge the Vietnamese diners make place for bars, clubs and pubs; we are in Shoreditch now, after all. The Grocery serves the local discerning foodie community with organic produce, but it’s not the only good shop in the area. We’ll get to the other one soon.
3. We’ve reached the lively crossing of Old Street/Hackney Road and Kingsland Road. On one side is the ancient parish of St Leonard’s of Shoreditch, known simply as Shoreditch Church. “When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch,” as the song goes. The Theatre once stood nearby, London’s first successful theatre, and many of its actors are buried in the St Leonard’s crypts.
Beyond the church, on Calvert Avenue, stands an inconspicuous wooden box: Shoreditch’s first cafe, established in 1913.
4. Follow Calvert Avenue, entering the Boundary Estate: London’s first Council Estate. A far cry from the tower blocks of the 70s, these buildings were actually completed in 1900 in place of Old Nichol, East End’s most notorious slum. You can quickly see how far the area went from its humble origins, as you pass (and, hopefully, enter) Leila’s Shop and Cafe. If you haven’t bought your biodynamic veg, Norwegian smoked salmon and Neil’s Yard cheese on one of the street markets over the weekend, you can get most of that stuff at Leila’s.
Round the Boundary Gardens bandstand, turn into Club Row, by the Rochelle School, cross the Old Nichol street. The Allpress Espresso on the corner serves good coffee and avocado-based brunches. Turn left here: the street leads to a large intersection of Bethnal Green Road and Brick Lane.
Once you’ve decided you’ve had enough, move on towards what looks like a cross between a stainless steel chimney and an old space rocket. It’s the minaret-like marker of the Brick Lane Mosque, or Great London Mosque.
The building served all religious minorities in the area throughout the centuries: established as the Huguenot temple in 18th century, then a Methodist chapel, then a Great Synagogue, finally, as the Jews moved out and Muslims moved in, it became a mosque.
6. Follow the Fournier Street, once the center of the Huguenot weaving trade; pretty soon you will reach yet another historic market: the Old Spitalfields.
There have always been markets in this area, just outside the London Wall. You didn’t have to pay the toll for entering the City, and many trade routes from East England ended before the gates. Old Spitalfields was first licensed in 1638. It is now an amalgam of uber-modern office blocks of steel and glass, and late-Victorian market halls. You can buy pretty much anything here, from “vintage” (ie. used) t-shirts to expensive single estate olive oil.
7. There are several routes you can take from here, all leading South towards Aldgate. Along the Wentworth and Middlesex Streets you’ll find yet another market. This is the Petticoat Lane market, and it’s probably the last one that still retains its authentic character: serving local community with cheap, robust goods. Its latest claim to fame is the fact that Lord Alan Sugar started his business with a stall here.
Walk around the St Botolph Without Aldgate roundabout, to find yourself at the busy intersection, adorned recently with a wooden sculpture. The sculpture marks the spot of the Aldgate: one of London’s seven gates, and the flat above it where Chaucer had lived as customs officer.
The Aldgate was the oldest and most important of London’s gates: it connected old Roman capital of Colchester with the new city of London.
St Botolph was a patron saint of travelers, and as such, several churches just before the city gates have been dedicated in his name.
8. The narrow, winding street south of Aldgate is the Jewry: it runs along the old London wall, hence the curving shape. The Jews were first invited to London by Normans; their first abode was at the Old Jewry, near Bank. Exiled by Edward I, they returned under Cromwell and settled first around Aldgate. The importance of this “new” Jewry is indicated by the Bevis Marks synagogue nearby, United Kingdom’s oldest existing synagogue.
After passing under the tracks of Fenchurch Street station (trains to Essex set off from here), pay attention to the left-hand side. Beyond the pillared facade of Grange City Hotel, in the courtyard, you will find one of the best-preserved fragments of London Wall.
9. The narrow street emerges straight onto the A100 thoroughfare, beyond which stands that most obvious of London’s landmarks, the Tower. It’s now up to you to decide where to go next: visit the Tower, or cross the Thames. The nearer crossing is the London Bridge, but the Tower Bridge is also just a stone’s throw away.
The monumental art deco building on your right is the 10 Trinity Square: the Headquarters of London Port, and for a brief moment, the headquarters of United Nations General Assembly.
10. We are now across the Thames and it’s time to end the walk. There are far too many attractions here to continue: all must wait for another time. The London Bridge Station is a good place to ride off to wherever you came from, but if you can spare a while to have one last pint, direct yourself towards The Old Thameside, beside the replica of Francis Drake’s Golden Hind, sit on the terrace and watch the river traffic pass you by, just as it had been for the last two thousand years.