Tuesday 25 April 2017

East End: London's new heart

Brick Lane London
Brick Lane London

Nicola Brady

With the Olympics around the corner, Nicola Brady explores the spruced-up East End

If east London were a person, it would be shining its shoes, brushing its hair and pulling its socks up in preparation for the crowds set to swarm there this summer.

Millions will descend upon a part of London that has typically been overlooked by tourists, often seen as drab, gritty and with not much to offer.

But the past few years have seen a change in east London. What was once an area for locals is now a haven of chic restaurants, quirky hotels and some of the best shopping in town.

Hipsters have flocked to the boroughs, merging with the original 'Eastenders' to create an area that is well worth a visit.

A few years ago, Stratford was a small enclave in the backwaters of east London, with the unfortunate nickname Stinky Stratford owing to its heritage of noxious gas factories.

Now, it is home to the 2.5sq km Olympic Park, and surrounded by freshly planted trees and flowers.

The main stadium is not yet open to the public, but walking tours circling the various venues can be taken with Tours of Tourist Sites (toursof2012sites.com) for £9 (€11).

The stadium can also be seen in all its glory from the 2012 Viewing Platform inside Westfield Stratford, one of the largest shopping malls in Europe.

All visitors to the games will be ushered through the mega-mall, and on my visit to the centre I got a hint of what this will be like.

The National Lottery Olympic Park Run had just finished, as runners, red faced and adorned with medals, swarmed through en masse, some complete with tin foil-style capes.

In addition to these visitors, Westfield was filled to the brim with Saturday afternoon shoppers, bustling between the 300 shops and 79 restaurants.

Unless you thrive on the sensation of crowd surfing and elbow bashing, do not visit Westfield on a Saturday afternoon. You will likely leave as I did -- bewildered, bruised and in dire need of fresh air.

A much better option for some shopping is a jaunt to some of the weekend markets that abound nearby. Each Saturday, Broadway Market in Hackney fills with people after a fix of good coffee, rare records and vintage clothes. After scouring the stalls, locals take to the greenery of London Fields, to sit on the grass with their Ghanaian curry or slow-cooked hog roast.

In the summer, the park is filled with barbecues and al fresco diners, accompanied by the odd busker and sing-a-long.

The area around Spitalfields is a hot bed for markets and pop-up stalls. Old Spitalfields Market is one of the oldest in London, filled with vendors selling antique jewellery and handmade clothing, as well as authentic East End pie and mash.

It's worth keeping an eye on the website before you visit, as young designers frequently set up shop to sell their unique clothing at a fraction of what you would expect.

Though the stalls in most of the markets are open every day, Sunday is when the area comes to life. The streets are lined with people selling anything and everything, as street performers and musicians jostle for the attention of the crowd.

From Old Spitalfields Market, it's just a few minutes' walk past the imposing Christ Church to Brick Lane, where you can weave in and out of markets set up in old buildings and street corners.

When the bustle of the market scene gets too much, the hidden retreat of Spitalfields City Farm could be just what you need.

Just beyond Brick Lane, with its show-stopping graffiti and some of the best Bangladeshi food in the country, sits a variety of goats, sheep and hens, seemingly unaware of the commotion behind them.

Dozy sheep wander to the edge of the fence to be stroked by passing children and adults, as chickens scurry along on the floor, hopping in among the pens.

On Sundays, the farm holds its own mini Eco Chic market, where you can sip homemade lemonade and grab a slice of chocolate brandy tiffin torte in peace, with only the sound of a honking goose or terribly excited child for company.

The city farm isn't the only hotspot for children in east London.

The V&A Museum of Childhood sits outside the tube station at Bethnal Green, looking as though it has been transported from Kensington and accidentally plonked in one of the city's less appealing streets.

But inside, children run from exhibit to exhibit, taking in the displays of toys throughout the ages.

I thought that the amount of toys contained behind glass would create a few tantrums, but all of the children that I saw were happy to press their noses up to the windows and see what life was like before computers and video games.

In among the displays were interactive exhibits, such as rocking horses for younger children and the simulated bike ride as part of the 'Beautiful Games' exhibit.

This collection will be displayed at the museum until September, and is thriving in the wake of Olympic fever, which has hit London with full force.

There is an undeniable buzz to the city, as preparations wind down for one of the biggest events the city has ever seen.

And that means there has never been a better time to head east and discover a different side to London.

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