A very belated tribute to the neighbo(u)rhood(s) that became my London launchpad.
I’ve had a soft spot for East London for a long time*. On previous visits to the city, it was the only central area I could afford to stay in. I liked the cobblestone streets and lamp-posted alleys, the blend of old and new, dusty and shiny that is everywhere in London but especially here. More and more is new, now. Over the last five to ten years, the area’s undergone the last transformational throes of gentrification and is now well past peak hipster. Late at night seven years ago, I skirted homeless, lurching drunks as I made my way through its narrow backstreets: these days you’re as or even more likely to find a stranded, sobbing bachelorette or a tight-jeaned, curb-perched hipster smoking a hand-rolled cigarette than a homeless drunk in one of east London’s alleys.
It is of course a bittersweet transformation: gone is much of the grime, some of the character, and many individuals, families, and small businesses who can no longer afford the rent. There’s some great coffee, but it’ll set you back 3 pounds. The desolate, creepy streets are now brightly lit late at night, but full of pampered, puking young professionals and crowds of tourists shuffling from one Jack the Ripper murder site to the next.
I lived hipster-adjacent in graduate student housing in the Spitalfields area long enough to find my own little east London burrows. If you’re ever that side of London, here a few mostly-off-the-tourist-path tips:
-The BEST coffee in all of London at Ozone Coffee Roasters on Leonard St. Rich, complex, roasted right on site. Delicious (albeit pricy) food too, in a cool multi-level space where you can watch the chefs and the goings-on around the roaster.
-Meet some farm animals at Spitalfields City Farm or Hackney City Farm. Being at these two little pocket farms, both tucked away on quiet blocks, is like taking a mini-holiday from the city. Cheap, home-grown bites to eat are available if you work up an appetite petting the goats.
– St. Dunstan in the East is a lovely shell of a church (hollowed out by the century-spanning double whammy of Fire of London damage followed a few hundred years later by the Blitz), the garden inside bursting its seams. It’s one of the most peaceful, beautiful places to sit in in the city– especially on a weekend morning when the surrounding offices and take-away joints are empty.
-A literal stone’s throw away from Brick Lane and its many curry houses, Gunpowder is a polished hole in the wall, like the inside of a tiny geode. Creative, tapas-style Indian food packing what tastes like all the flavors.
-Despite the crowds and the frankly mostly-disappointing restaurants, Brick Lane’s worth a visit in the off-hours for cheap food hold-outs from the old days– samosas sold from tidy bins and sent away in little grease-soaked bags, salt beef bagels with spicy mustard and a pickle from Beigel Bake– as well as pricier novelties like sourdough donuts and handmade filled pastas (Burro e Salvia, just off Brick Lane on Redchurch Street…)
-Not really a spot for good coffee, but head to Hanbury Hall for a calm and spacious workspace. Layered London is full of converted spaces: banks converted into bars, churches converted into homes. Hanbury Hall is an 18th-century chapel that’s been converted into performance space and a cafe, with pretty furniture and local art and plenty of well-tended plants. You do risk running into the odd event booked into the whole space, but mostly it’s just a nice sanctuary from the busy narrow streets outside.
-There’s interesting, bizarre, funny, smart street art peeking from every nook and cranny in Shoreditch. You can take an art tour to hear more about it, but I just liked to keep my eyes peeled and my phone camera ready…
-A visit to the Whitechapel Gallery and its adjoined cafe (or one of the many pubs nearby) would be a great first date. I really want someone to have this date: a guy I was supposed to meet there cancelled on me one hour beforehand because “he got a phone call.” Anyway, it’s a small, quirky gallery so there’d be plenty to talk about and a natural progression to drinks afterward. I was pretty pleased with myself when I put it together.
-Another great date: Wilton’s Music Hall. An absolutely stunning space hosting all kinds of acts, tucked haphazardly out of the way like a really juicy secret. I went to a story-telling event there called OneTrackMinds where word artists of various kinds talked about songs that changed their lives. It was cozy, touching, hilarious, and perfect for the intimate venue.
–Columbia Road Flower Market is almost unbearably crowded once it’s in full swing, but it’s still worth a visit for the atmospheric hawking and, of course, the beautiful flowers.
–Regent’s Canal is both logistically convenient and surprisingly fun. Logistically convenient, because you can walk through the city along it, hopping off whenever you feel like rejoining the hustle-and-bustle of the streets. Surprisingly fun because it’s this narrow little ribbon of water cutting through central London, hidden by the often-lacklustre buildings lining it. The canal continues out of London into a system running all over the country, so it’s full of transient houseboats. It’s also dotted with locks that are amazing to watch in operation, cafes, and even a floating bookshop. The portion running through east London is lovely but relatively uneventful, though I can recommend starting here and walking west, perhaps kicking off the walk with “breakfast in bread” at The Barge House.
-The viewing areas at the top of the cartoonish Sky Garden nearby are always booked, but at the border of east London is a lesser-known option: Heron Tower. This is slightly cheating, because I almost don’t consider the Liverpool Street station area to really be East London – it’s technically within the “City”– but I’m including Heron Tower because it looks over the whole eastern expanse of London. Go up to one of the two bars/restaurants at the top of the tower at mid-day (or, for Duck and Waffle, in the middle of the night) for a dazzling view that will only set you back the cost of whatever beer or cocktail you choose to hold in your hand. The elevator ride alone, a dizzyingly rapid ascent, is worth it.
I won’t miss the hipsters, or the vomit-splattered streets, or the trendy boutiques, or the depressing office complex construction sites, or the occasional meth-head, but I adore east London and am so glad I had the chance to live there. I can’t encapsulate its gritty charm: the delightful dive bars and historic pubs, the tiny music venues; the quirky bookstores, the remnants of ancient wall, all of the abandoned and repurposed time-flotsam and -jetsam. It’s not hard to imagine ghosts stalking its tangled streets, the bright and the living making too much noise, most of the time, to see them.
*East London is huge– the parts I frequented roughly comprised sub-hoods in the boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets…