Since 2009, pseudonymous blogger The Gentle Author has maintained Spitalfields Life, chronicling an area of unique character – and here induces some of the places that make the capital special.
1. Aaron Biber (Gentlemen’s Hairdressing)
What better way to learn about London than to make the pilgrimage to Tottenham and get your hair cut by our capital’s oldest barber? Ninety-year-old Aaron Biber will trim your hair with the 78-year-old blue steel scissors that his father gave him when he was 12, give you a first-hand account of the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 and reveal what Winston Churchill said to him while he was guarding Tower Bridge during World War II. 22 Scotland Green, N17 9TT.
2. Bishopsgate Institute
For a vision of London a century ago in miniature, pop over to the Bishopsgate Institute to see the magnificent Dioramas of Spitalfields. The recently discovered models, recreating every detail of the famous Petticoat Lane Market, were unearthed in the cellar of a local pub. They have been restored and are available to view, free of charge, during opening hours.
3. Junk shops
If you are curious about the paraphernalia of old London, my top shopping destination in Spitalfields is Des & Lorraine’s, a genuine, unreconstructed, unapologetic East End junk shop where true wonders are still to be found. Ask Des to show you his mermaid, brought back from the South Seas by a sailor in the nineteenth century. I also recommend a trip to Beedell Coram, and Townhouse Antiques, among the gracious tottering eighteenth-century mansions of Spitalfields – both are old-school dealers, where you may rely upon discovering charismatic curiosities. The Townhouse even sells cakes made to historic recipes.
4. Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen
No one can really say they have been to Spitalfields unless they have shaken the hand of the legendary Paul Gardner, fourth-generation paper bag seller at Spitalfields’ oldest family business, Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen, trading in the same building since 1870. This unique shop is piled high with paper bags, tags, tapes and string and those beautiful old signs that say ‘Today’s price two and eightpence.’ Ask Paul to show you his great-grandfather’s account books from the 1880s.
Brick Lane is famous for its curry houses but the array of possibilities and the enthusiasm of the touts can be disconcerting, so I have two favourites to suggest. Sweet & Spicy is an unpretentious café-style operation that opened in 1969 to serve workers in the garment factories. Two can dine for less than £20 and proprietor Omar Butt, an ex-wrestler, is always present to ensure everything is tip-top. By contrast, Herb & Spice is a smart restaurant with table service provided by Abdul Mukhadir (aka Muktha), the celebrated storytelling waiter, and if you are lucky he can be persuaded to tell you the tales of his grandfather, the sea captain who first came to this country in the 1930s.
6. St Leonard’s Church
In spite of all the razzmatazz down at the Globe, Shoreditch was as much Shakespeare’s London as Bankside. At present the sites of The Theatre and The Curtain Theatre, where his early plays, including ‘Romeo & Juliet’, ‘Henry V’ and a version of ‘Hamlet’, were first produced are inaccessible, but you can visit the handsome memorial to the Shakespearean players at the atmospheric St Leonard’s Church. Here the actors who originated some of the greatest roles in Shakespeare are buried, including Richard Burbage, the first Hamlet.
7. The George Tavern
For some lively night-time action, head over to Stepney for a knees-up at The George Tavern, the East End’s hippest rock ’n’ roll pub, established in 1623. This charismatic boozer is magnificently unmodernised, with gleaming nineteenth-century tiles, appealingly battered old furniture and some genuinely crusty 1970s carpet. At present, the DJ booth is just a pile of vinyls in the corner but there is a cunning plan afoot to buy Stepneys, the closed-down nightclub next door with the famous boogie-nights light-up dancefloor.
8. Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park
Finally, if, like me, you regularly require solace away from the clamour of the city streets, I recommend a visit to Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, one of the largest green spaces in the East End, where a deep broadleaf forest has been permitted to grow. I can think of no more peaceful place in London to lose yourself and dream than among the green shadows of this urban paradise.
The Gentle Author writes about the culture of the East End every day at spitalfieldslife.com.