Artists, writers and bohos all adore Spitalfields. It represents the lucky dip of London, the best and the worst. There’s a lot of sawdust and bits you would happily forget, but there are also hidden gems. It’s this bewildering mix that attracts the curious and creative.
The quaint cobbled streets of 17th century silk weavers houses are at the heart of the area’s architectural history and fame, but they are squeezed between the skyscrapers of Bishopsgate and down-to-earth atmosphere of Brick Lane with its mix of all-night bagel shops, curry houses and bric-a-brac.
Old and modern clash together, each more startling in the light of the other, and whilst Spitalfields may now be fashionable, it still exists in the heart of workaday London. With so much hustle and bustle on all sides, it seems unlikely that it will ever become a sleepy bourgeois enclave.
It is best to do this walk on a Sunday when the Denis Severs House and Christ Church Spitalfields are both open, but check their websites before you come. Our walk starts at Liverpool Street Station, a ghastly place, but one that is easy to get to.
Leave the Station at the Bishopsgate exit. Cross the fast and furious Bishopsgate highway and head straight up Brushfield Street into the heart of Spitalfields where the beauty of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church will appear from a perfect perspective point.
On your way, with the church still in front of you, you’ll pass the restored Spitalfields market on your left and a quaint row of old-fashioned looking shops on your right. The first to catch your eye will likely be Verde.
This is the oldest greengrocer in continuous use anywhere in London. On a weekday, note the queue of hungry city-workers. Many of these brave souls have diced with death in crossing Bishopsgate in search of some decent grub.
At the weekends it has a more relaxed atmosphere. Saturday morning strollers order toast and unbelievably delicious homemade marmalade. It’s made by Mary who drives it up to London in her car. An ideal late-breakfast spot if you are already feeling a little peckish.
Thus fortified you will be fully able to appreciate and explore Christ Church, Spitalfields, at the end of the street. It was started in 1711 at a time when it was feared that ‘godless thousands’ outside the City of London had no adequate church provision. Amongst others, large numbers of French Huguenot silk weavers were moving into Spitalfields and bringing their non-conformist worshipping ways with them.
Finished in 1729 it was rudely described as ‘one of the most absurd piles in Europe’ by James Ralph who disliked the Gothic style.
The general poverty of the area put it low down on the list of conservation projects, and by the 1960s it was a hangout for meths users. It had closed in 1957 as the steeple had become unsafe, and remained so for the next 47 years. But in 1978 a group of enthusiasts started campaigning and eventually raised the £2.9m needed to repair the steeple and clean the facade with help from English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery fund. It re-opened to the public in 2004 and its ‘meticulously accurate restoration’ (Daily Telegraph) is regarded as a triumph of conservation.
Next door, to the left, is the Ten Bells pub, famous for its Jack the Ripper associations and also because Jamie Oliver’s Great Great Grandfather was its landlord in the 1880s. Its name, The Ten Bells, is connected with the bells of the church. However the church now has twelve bells. It’s a long story. Inside, there’s a mural titled Smithfields in Modern Times which features 21st century inhabitants such as artists Gilbert and George who lived in adjacent Fournier Street.
This is a good chance to view the best facade of Spitalfields Market, opposite. Originally selling livestock, fruit and vegetables, the real market moved to Temple Mills in the Lea Valley in 1992. Instead, it now has crafts, foods and is busiest on Sundays when the flea market is open. Yet it struggles to find atmosphere in a space that is reminiscent of an aircraft hangar, so save this for the end of your walk and skip it if you don’t have time.
Instead, head down cobbled Fournier Street which is between the church and the pub. Almost every perfectly restored house has a blue plaque or a historic association of some kind. At No. 2 is the Minster’s House built with setback windows to prevent the spread of fire. Much of the area was destroyed by the Great Fire of London 1666 and Spitalfields was rebuilt as a planned suburb, one of the first in London.
At No. 4 you can see a typical artisan-designed dwelling with a doorway featuring scallop shells, a reference to the pilgrim symbol of St James and a 18th century message of welcome to visitors. Marmaduke Smith, a local carpenter, built this, his own house in 1726.
Next door at No. 5 is the former site of the Market Cafe where the performance artists Gilbert and George breakfasted for thirty years, even being known to remove their famous jackets when it became uncomfortably hot. They moved to No 12 Fournier Street in 1968 and described Spitalfields at that time as being ‘more like literature than reality’. No wonder everyone else followed them. Writer Jeanette Winterson also lives nearby.
At the end of Fournier Street on the left is the Jamme Masjid Mosque, better seen once you get into Brick Lane. It’s the only church in London to have housed all three mono-theistic traditions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Built in 1724 as a Huguenot chapel, it reopened in 1898 as the Spitalfields Great Synagogue and at the beginning of the 1990s was converted into a mosque after a long closure.
Architecturally, it is worth a look just for its latest addition, an Islamic-style cylinder tower with an intricate pattern made of stainless steel which soars skywards against the plain brick facade of the church.
Turn left into Brick Lane for just a short way and discover Taj Stores just a little further down on the right where passionate chefs of all nationalities are stocking up on giant sacks of red lentils. If you are one of them, or if you in the least bit tempted by herbs, curry powders and beautiful cooking pots then bring a large rucksack. Jamie Oliver got very excited about this place as well.
At the next junction with Hanbury Street, look right to admire the work of Belgian street artist Roa whose finely drawn bird was achieved from the cradle of a tall motorised cherry picker. Rumour has it that the mural started out as a heron but was changed to a crane at the request of local Bengali people for whom it’s a sacred bird.
But now turn back and cross Brick Lane down Hanbury Street, with its unaccountable share of misfortune. In 1884, Florence Eleanor Soper, the daughter-in-law of General William Booth of The Salvation Army, inaugurated The Women’s Social Work, which was run from a small house in Hanbury Street. This home for women was set up in the hopes that they would not have to turn to prostitution and provided a safe haven for those who were already suffering from the trade.
More recently Neo-Nazi militant David Copeland detonated a nail-bomb on the street on Saturday 24 April 1999, killing nobody but injuring thirteen people. He meant to wreak havoc on adjoining Brick Lane during its weekly market held on Sundays, but arrived on a Saturday when the road was less busy. Seeing his mistake he left it on Hanbury Street instead where it’s damage was almost certainly reduced.
On a happier note, the entertainer Bud Flanagan comedian and leader of the Crazy Gang was born at No. 12 in 1896.
At Commercial Street, cross over and enjoy looking through the windows of Taylor Taylor, the posh hair salon where you can order champagne at the glizty bar as you wait for your coiff. Now turn right along Commercial Street and then first left down Folgate Street, the south side of which contains the best-preserved stretch of Georgian houses in Spitalfields. Here you can really imagine you are back in 17th century London in a maze of little streets whose houses are all now listed and beautifully restored.
Best of all is the Denis Severs House at No. 18, a still-life drama where you travel upwards through the house, through rooms which appear to have been just vacated by its inhabitants, a family of Huguenot silk weavers. The Mairie Celeste experience was created by Californian artist Dennis Severs, who died in 1999. Today it is curated with equal enthusiasm by successor David Milne who fell in love with the house and became Severs close friend.
Where to Eat:
Verde is still the nearest and friendliest place if you want a quick sandwich in a historic atmosphere. Just nip back across Spital Square.
St John’s, Commercial Street (also very near)is the place for a meaty meal in a French atmosphere. It moved from Soho and remains boho. A stone flagged floor and non-existent decor. The reputation is for simple yet sophisticated food at reasonable prices, though nothing is cheap in Spitalfields. You can buy some souvenir bread to take home at the bakery counter. Reservation recommended.
La Pietra – 54 Commercial Street. If its pizza you’re after then this is the place to go. They’ve got foodie passion, a traditional wood oven and dough that is made on site: huge pizzas with generous toppings. They are soon opening a second branch in Soho.