East London has been my stomping ground for the past many years and here are my favourite ways to spend time in this fascinating, multi-cultural, artistic and increasingly trendy part of town. East is the new West didn’t you know.
Old Spitalfields Market
Antiques, clothing, handicrafts, food and more – Spitalfields market is one of London’s most popular and although it has been tarted up in recent years due to its proximity to the spreading City of London, it doesn’t disappoint. Despite the adjoining office buildings and chain eateries it manages to retain a lot of charm. Sunday is the biggest day of course but don’t forget it’s also open on Fridays and my particular favourite day to go to Spitalfields is Thursday, vintage day. I’ve picked up some brilliant antique jewellery there over the years. Take a look at the Christopher Wren gem Christchurch Spitalfields at the end of Brushfield Street.
Following on from Spitalfields, the Brick Lane area is also seeing encroachment from the City but will also be one of the best places in London to go for a curry at the end of a big night. The vibrant multi-culturalism of this corner of London is unquestionable. From Huguenot refugees in the 17th century to Jews and Bangladeshis, the East End of London has been the first port of call for many immigrants over the centuries. Brick Lane now also attracts the young and fashionable to clubs and pubs. The Sunday market around Cheshire Street and Sclater Street is a wonderful experience and there’s now also a Farmers Market on Sundays in Bacon Street.
Colombia Road Flower Market
Similarly to the Brick Lane Market, the Colombia Road Market originated with a dispensation given to the Jewish community a few hundred years ago that arose out of the Jewish Sabbath being observed on Saturday. Now its a bustling flower market with wall-to-wall flower and plant stalls on a street lined with independent shops, galleries and cafes. Pop upstairs in the vintage bookshop for the best photo opportunity out over the market. If you want a bargain, go towards the end of the morning when the stallholders start selling off produce very cheaply.
Broadway Market and London Fields
Broadway Market has built up a reputation as one of London’s best food markets and delicious street food from all over the world is on offer all day on Saturdays. Buy the makings of a gourmet picnic and enjoy them in nearby London Fields. East London’s bold and beautiful gather here under the tall shady Plane trees and in the wide grassy spaces. The outdoor lido was completely refurbished a couple of years ago and is a great place to cool off on a summer day.
Vicky Park was established in the mid 19th century for the recreation of London’s working classes and covers over 86 hectares of open space. Try to catch one of the many festivals held at Victoria Park, or watch some cricket, or just enjoy brunch or a pint at one of the cafes and pubs. It’s a particularly good place to come if you’re travelling with children as there is a programme of summer activities for kids, a deer park and a children’s play park with a paddling pool.
Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood
The Museum of Childhood is actually now a branch of the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum in and follows that Kensington museum’s philosophy of exploring the designed world. I love the space, with its soaring iron-work roof and has plenty of interesting exhibits for both adults and children. It has been a museum of childhood since the 1970s and boasts the largest collection of childhood objects in the United Kingdom. From historic dolls and costumes to more modern toys, there is something for everyone. There are a number of proper play areas for children, including soft play for little ones and a real sandpit up on the costume floor.
Dickens described a morning at Smithfield Market as “a stunning and bewildering scene which quite confused the senses” and while London’s historic meat market is quieter (and more hygienic) now it is still worth a look for its colourful wrought ironwork and great product. Even if you’re not a fan of eating animals, look out for the memorial to Scots hero William Wallace around the corner (there’s always a red rose freshly laid) and the exquisite medieval church of St Bartholomew’s without Aldersgate. There are also some characterful pubs and restaurants tucked away in these narrow City streets.
Walk through the Victorian foot tunnel under the Thames from the Isle of Dogs (alight at DLR stop Island Gardens) and emerge into the delightful world of Maritime Greenwich. It’s villagey and deeply historic, with a good choice of eateries, great pubs like The Trafalgar, and even the Meantime Brewery. After enjoying the parkland before the Queens House, don’t miss the Painted Hall, the Maritime History Museum and the Greenwich Observatory (where you can stand on the prime meridian). A bit further up the hill you’ll find other fascinating collections at the Fan Museum and the Rangers House.
The Lea Valley
A great way to explore east London is along the canals that once formed a vital transport link from the docklands and industries of east London to the centre and on to the rest of the country. The Lea Valley walk takes you from the Thames right up into Hertfordshire with a myriad of historic attractions along the way. See a bomb crater from the Blitz, a working Victorian steam pumping station, and skirt the soon-to-be-completed Olympic Park.
Up to the north of the map of east London you’ll find a huge green lung – Epping Forest. Whether you like walking, riding bikes or horses, the forest is criss-crossed with paths and hides a few decent pubs. If driving up to the forest I like to start from High Beech but you can also catch the train from Liverpool Street Station to Chingford and walk across a heath into the forest from there. Another favourite spot is the former haunt of TE Lawrence on Pole Hill (above the golf course). A former hunting ground of Henry VIII, Epping Forest is particularly beautiful in the autumn as you can see from this photograph…
By Natasha von Geldern