Second-hand wonders, a historic hall and the original crapper: Bowl of Chalk’s top five East End spots
Bowl of Chalk do regular ‘pay what you want’ weekend walks around London. With small groups, it’s a fun and informal way to learn about London, its history, development and the characters that have inhabited the city. On Saturdays, there are two wanders through central London; the morning walk goes from Trafalgar Square to St Paul’s Cathedral, weaving through Fleet Street, while the afternoon walk ventures over to Bankside and Borough, returning over London Bridge to finish at Monument. Sunday’s walk explores the East End, uncovering its quirky history and quite a bit of street art along the way. During the week, Bowl of Chalk also offers tailor made private tours for families, groups and work events.
We asked Bowl of Chalk guide Jonnie for his top five spots in the East End.
Westland London, Leonard Street
‘I often describe this place as a “rich person’s second-hand shop”, and set over two floors in a deconsecrated Victorian church, it’s not the kind of thing you expect to find secreted amongst the designers, start ups and media types of Old Street. Since 1969, Westland have been sourcing, restoring and selling all manner of architectural antiques, fire places, garden monuments, sculptures and carvings, among other things. The amazing thing is that people actually buy the stuff, so each time you go, the seemingly endless array of rooms and corridors stuffed with marble, stone, wood and metal from every conceivable period of history, change. There’s always something new to see – or buy, of course. Unfortunately, they’re closed on Sundays, but any other day of the week, it’s well worth popping in and imagining how you might decorate that mansion you’ve always dreamed of.’
Wesley’s Chapel Toilets, City Road
‘Completed in 1778, Wesley’s Chapel is a few hundred yards down City Road from the Old Street roundabout and is named after the “father of Methodism” John Wesley, who’s buried there. It was also where Margaret Thatcher got hitched to Denis in 1951. While you’re there, you might like to visit the museum beneath the church and John Wesley’s house next door. Before you go, however, make sure you pop to the gents toilet inside the church (if you ask nicely, they let ladies visit too). They are original “Crapper’s”, which is to say, they were designed by the man often attributed with inventing the flushing loo. In fact, Thomas Crapper facilitated, rather than invented the process, but never-the-less, his top-notch plumbing skills were rewarded when he received his first Royal Warrant in the 1880s. I particularly like the hand pulls, which come with the instructions ‘pull and let go’. Once you’ve relieved yourself Victorian style, I highly recommend crossing the road to explore Bunhill Fields Cemetery and pay your respects to the likes of Daniel Defoe, William Blake and John Bunyan.’
Hoxton Hall, Hoxton Street
‘First opened in 1863 as McDonald’s Music Hall, Hoxton Hall is now one of only two Victorian Music Halls left in London. Due to its 1980s facade, you could easily walk past and have no idea that a rather magical, Grade II listed theatre lies just beyond. Its original life was short – just eight years, after which it was closed down due to complaints about noise levels from rowdy theatre-goers. Over the years it has had numerous incarnations, including a Quaker meeting house, and now serves as a youth arts centre as well as a venue for concerts, gigs and theatre. They also provide music rooms, rehearsal rooms, a dance studio, meeting rooms and a recording space. I was fortunate enough to play a gig there a few years ago, so can verify that if you attend an event there, it really does feel like you’ve been transported back in time.’
Arnold Circus, Shoreditch
‘Arnold Circus is a quiet enclave, nestling in the shadows of St Leonard’s church and on Sundays offers a welcome respite between the hustle and bustle of Columbia Road flower market and the trendy cafés of Shoreditch High Street. It has the distinction of being England’s first “council estate” – a replacement for the Old Nichol slum, the residents of which were labeled by Charles Booth in his famous “poverty map” of 1889 as “vicious and semi-criminal”. Alas, none of the 5,000 inhabitants who were turfed out settled back in to the new accommodation, as the rents were too high. The raised area in the centre, now occupied by a bandstand and table tennis table were originally designed to give residents in the surrounding buildings an elevated view of gardens that couldn’t be seen from ground level. Part of the area is managed by Friends of Arnold Circus, whose aim is to create a public shared space, tend to the garden and ensure it can be enjoyed by all.’
The Approach Tavern, Approach Road
‘My last suggestion for the area is a bit further east and based upon nostalgia more than anything else. When I first moved to London (many years ago) I was living in a mildly squalid, living room-less flat in Bethnal Green. After I discovered the Approach, it became my living room for the next umpteen years and every now and again, I like to pop back. Like many pubs in the area, its East End-ness has been gradually diluted to accommodate the current crowd, many of whom will be visiting the art gallery upstairs. The walls are adorned with photos of its previous lives and landlords, including Harry King, who used to sit at the bar every night with his mate back when I was living in the area. Victoria Park and the Regent’s canal are just a few minutes walk away, as is Bethnal Green tube in the other direction.’