East Enders for a Day (A Self-Guided Walking Tour)

Matthew Brace devises a London walk that takes in 2,000 years of history, hip markets, cutting-edge fashion and design, some rather good oysters and a romantic rooftop supper for two.

The mission: get a taste of 2,000 years of London history in one day – on foot, in some of the über-trendy parts of London’s East End.

Over breakfast at the excellent Bar & Grill in South Place Hotel, we plotted our route with military precision. After several cups of tea and generous helpings of British black pudding and salt-beef hash we were on the move, strolling under a perfect, clear summer sky.

Pastries at South Place Bar & Grill
Pastries at South Place Bar & Grill

First stop was the Museum of London for a quick history fix and to check out the best locations to see existing fragments of the ancient walls that the Romans built to defend their city of Londinium in around 200A.D.

We also gathered some information for our next stop; in the Shoreditch neighbourhood are the sites of the first two Elizabethan theatres in the city, The Theatre and The Curtain.

In the late 16th century, William Shakespeare began his London career here, getting early plays (including Romeo & Juliet and Henry V) performed at The Curtain. Today there is a small commemorative plaque at the far end of Hewett Street off Curtain Road, which takes some finding.

The theatres were the foundation for more than 400 years of arts and creativity in this part of London, and a fair amount of defiance of authority and morals – a reputation that continues to this day. This is the home of the controversial Young British Artists movement which began in the 1990s and whose most famous members include shock-artists Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.

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Bethnal Green Road
Bethnal Green Road; photo: Aurelien Guichard – Flickr

There are numerous small art galleries and independent fashion labels based here, some housed in impossibly tiny shops, but none as tiny as those in Boxpark, a pop-up mall on Bethnal Green Road, just off Shoreditch High Street, constructed from refitted shipping containers. There are around 30 independent labels on offer, plus places to eat and drink – but hurry, as it all closes down in 2015.

We headed north up Ebor Street and on to Redchurch Street which is awash with small boutiques. We especially loved the marvellous, green-tiled Labour and Wait, which is perfect for small gifts for the home.

From here we doubled back to Shoreditch High Street and struck out north to St Leonard’s Church, which is the burial place of James Burbage, founder of The Theatre, and his son Richard, a leading actor and contemporary of Shakespeare, and – more recently – is where they filmed the BBC TV comedy series Rev.

The Columbia Road Flower Marke
The Columbia Road Flower Market; photo: Jerome Yewdalll – Flickr

We took Hackney Road and turned right at Columbia Road and were met with a wall of colour. Every Sunday this narrow street is crowded with flower stalls selling blooms brought in from scores of southern England’s gardens and nurseries. Visitors are unlikely to want to buy bunches of sky-blue rhododendrons, but photographers will have a field day.

It’s worth fighting through the crowds because beyond the far northeastern end of the market is a terrific small design shop called Captured-By, featuring jewellery, homewares, clothing and watches.

We wound our way south to Gosset Street and then took Turin Street back to Bethnal Green Road, which brought us to Brick Lane, possibly the most famous symbol of London’s successful multiculturalism. In the 1600s, the French descended. In the 19th and early 20thcenturies, Jewish and Irish immigrants dominated the area. Now Bangladeshis make up the majority, so much so that the area is famous for its numerous curry restaurants and is nicknamed Banglatown.

Sunday is market day here too and the street was packed with stalls selling clothes, food and bric-a-brac. Further south is a more modern take on the weekend market: Sunday Upmarket is a collection of scores of fashion spaces, interior design firms, art shops, jewellery designers, food stalls, juice bars and live entertainment, all housed in the buildings and open-air courtyards of a former brewery.

A little weary from our history hike and slightly over-awed by the abundance of fashion options, we went a little crazy, my wife leaving with a pair of brogues from Shoe Embassy and me with a cashmere scarf from Scotland’s master-weavers, Begg & Co.

Old Spitalfields Market
Old Spitalfields Market

Famished from our walk and overloaded with history and the sights and sounds of this microcosm of vibrant and multicultural London, we rewarded ourselves with a late lunch at Old Spitalfields Market.

Spitalfields was London’s biggest fruit and veg market and one of the city’s great markets, along with Billingsgate (fish) and Smithfield (meat). It moved to new premises further east more than 20 years ago and the old hall is now packed with fashion and art stalls. Its brick exterior now houses numerous boutiques and cafés, including a seafood bistro called Wright Brothers.

There was a mid-afternoon lull that meant we had the place to ourselves – a welcome culinary interlude in an energetic day. We sat at the marble-topped bar and sucked down oysters from Carlingford Lough in Ireland and Lindisfarne (Holy Island) off the north-east coast of England, and then a couple of Jersey Royales from the Channel Islands, all washed down with bottles of fabulously named Beavertown Smog Rocket, a smoked porter beer from just up the road in Hackney.

The rest of the menu was a fascinating look back in time: razor clams, whelks, brown shrimps – all once-cheap food of the poor and beloved of East London market traders, but now exotic and hip. In the end, we went for the smoked mackerel with pickled gooseberries and hazelnuts, and the chargrilled sardines with harissa and a fried egg. There followed several moments of culinary reverence during which we could do little but smile at each other and savour the most amazing of tastes.

That evening we took a long soak in our large bathtub at the excellent South Place hotel, just south of Shoreditch in the capital’s financial district. The hotel is ideal for those looking for a romantic escape in a less-visited part of London.

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Monkfish tail, braised octopus, aubergine caponata and golden raisins at Angler
Monkfish tail, braised octopus, aubergine caponata and golden raisins at Angler

With the summer shadows lengthening but the sun still blazing, we headed for the hotel’s rooftop Michelin-starred restaurant, Angler and dined on yet more delicious British seafood including milky, succulent Orkney scallops and firm flavoursome Cornish cod, and toasted a highly successful mission.

We had not seen a well-known London landmark all day and yet we felt that we had experienced the real beating heart of this great city. We had touched the past, walked in Shakespeare’s footsteps, got amongst it with market traders and tried on for size London’s cutting-edge design and fashion – all capped off with a romantic rooftop supper and al fresco Islay single malts as the sun finally set around 10pm.

Need to know

Getting there: QantasEmiratesSingapore Airlines and Etihad all offer daily one-stop connections from Australia to London.

Sleep: South Place Hotel 

Eat and drink: South Place Bar & GrillWright BrothersAngler 

Shop: BoxparkLabour and WaitColumbia Road Flower MarketCaptured-ByBrick Lane MarketSunday Upmarket 

See and do: Museum of LondonSt Leonard’s Church

More info: Made in Shoreditch magazineOfficial London visitor guide

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