Spitalfields, an area just to the east of the City of London is rich with history and boasts wonderful Georgian streets which as you walk down them, effortlessly wind back the centuries with each step. In fact, I took a photo of the first people EVER to come on a walk with me on one such street, Fournier Street (see below photo).
I feel fortunate to be able to show people around this area and tell them what I know about the fascinating layers of history that make it so unique; the successive waves of immigrants, the 17th Huguenot weavers, the Jewish population, the Bangladeshi’s and their curry houses and the mosque that captures all of these people in one building, the fruit and vegetable market, the Victorian slums, the infamous Jack The Ripper murders, the street artists and the hipsters … and of course the people who have fought tooth and nail to preserve this history.
I meet first time visitors to London who would otherwise not venture to such an area and feel like they are walking through a film set, I’ve met people who were born and grew up in the area and emailed me photos of them as children standing on the doorsteps of their houses in the 1940s and I once met a young Australian who told me that her father had been destitute and homeless in the area in the 1980s and helped by the people of Christchurch Spitalfields, turned his life around and emigrated to Australia. His daughter wanted to see the same streets her father had lived on for herself. The area is oozing so much history and character, that the Gentle Author finds something to write about it every single day.
At the current rate of development, you’ll soon need a magnifying glass and an unprecedented imagination to find any trace of this history and character, as piece-by-piece, street-by-street and building-by-building, Spitalfields and the surrounding areas are being eaten away by greedy property developers and turned in to a bland corporate wasteland.
A little over a decade ago, the Victorian market buildings were effectively chopped in half by Foster + Partners and replaced with a giant greenhouse (see below photo). The Steward Building on the south west corner is almost complete and just today the London Evening Standard reported that the old Fruit & Wool Exchange on Brushfield Street will become a £200 million office block.
On the north side of the market in an area called Norton Folgate you’ll find the intriguing Dennis Severs' House and the delightful Elder Street with it’s early 18th century houses … or at least half of it. The other half was demolished by British Land (the property investment company), in the late 1970s. One of the people responsible for saving the half we’re lucky enough to still have today is Dan Cruickshank. Forty Years later he has another fight on his hands as British Land are intent on redeveloping a huge swathe of the Norton Folgate conservation area (that’s right, it’s a conservation area) in to 13 storey office blocks helping to bring the complete destruction of this remarkable area one step closer.
Re-development and growth are an important part of all cities’ regeneration and success and I would be the first to admit that Spitalfields is today a vibrant and commercially successful area that people flock to. Dan Cruickshank and the Spitalfields Trust have outlined a proposal, which instead of being driven by greed and money with little or no thought for the inhabitants or buildings, seeks to preserve the character of the area and existing buildings, whilst encouraging a diverse range of companies and skills in to the area that can contribute and help it thrive. Elder Street alone is already overshadowed by the Spitalfields Market development to the south (see below photo) and could become a strange demi-model street hemmed in by monster glass buildings rather than a functioning thoroughfare.
Both the Gentle Author and Dan Cruickshank can explain what British Land intend to do and the consequences for the area far more eloquently than myself, so please read, listen and watch and if you feel inclined to try and help to Save Norton Folgate, then The Spitalfields Trust explains who you need to contact.
Dennis Severs' House (18 Folgate Street) have an exhibition about the proposed development on selected days if you have time to pop in.
I didn't write my 'weekend roundup' last week, so will make amends now, especially after we've had two nice and sunny weekends in a row. I met some lovely people this weekend, all keen to explore London, beginning on Saturday morning with Kristina and Barbara from Germany and Austria and Cheryl and her mum (or mom) Susan from Los Angeles. It was Susan's first time in London and in fact first trip out if the U.S. Here they are posing with one of London's iconic red telephone boxes, just off Fleet Street in the City of London. I hadn't noticed when I took the photo that someone has written 'The witch is dead' across the top of the phone box ... it was pointed out by Kristina I think, and must be a remnant from Margaret Thatcher's funeral last year, as the cortege made its way straight past there on its way to St Paul's cathedral.
The walk on Saturday afternoon had a distinct north American feel to it, with the exception of Kirsten & Stephen who were visiting from Scotland. Here they all are nearing the end of our wander outside The George Inn, just off Borough High Street in Southwark. Dating back to 1676, the George is the only galleried Inn left in London and is owned by the National Trust.
Sunday morning was a smallish group that aside from visitors from Canada and Denmark included three locals. We finished up in Spitalfields, where I took the below photo of the group as we walked down Wilkes Street, before finishing up outside Nicholas Hawksmoor's Christchurch.
Person who lived nearest to the walk start point - Rachael
Youngest - Bella
Most jet lagged - Larry & Shari
Most rhyming named couple - Larry & Shari
Best moustache - No winners
Last weekend, clement(ish) weather prevailed and there was a reasonably robust turn out for all three walks. James actually booked the Saturday morning walk from Trafalgar Square to St Paul's cathedral at about 12:15am that morning (or the night before). I received the email whilst driving with my friend Dave in a van back to London from Newbury having seen our friend Adam in Arthur Miller's play 'All My Sons' at the Watermill Theatre, which is very good as it happens and on until the end of the month, should you wish to see it. Anyway ... James directed his mum Rona and two aunts to find me on Saturday morning, although it turned out they had no idea what we were going to do. Luckily for everyone involved, the idea of a walk, guided by myself didn't seem to strike them as too offensive an idea. Either that or they were very polite. James turned up too and they were joined by Renata and Tufan. Here they are in Covent Garden, shortly after passing St Paul's church, sometimes known as the actor's church.
On Saturday afternoon, a group of ten joined me for the walk from St Paul's cathedral over to Bankside. Ever since I started pointing out the plethora of bits of tiny masticated street art on the Millennium Bridge; miniature canvases painted by Ben Wilson (the chewing gum man), the walk has started taking much longer. If you are mildly intrigued, then you can watch a short film about Ben Wilson painting chewing gum on the Millennium Bridge if you like. Here are the group on the south side of Norman Foster's 'wobbly bridge'. As you can see, Johanna there at the front is having a whale of the time, whilst John was keen to show his best side.
Sunday was another pretty big group, which included one of my sisters, Sarah, on her first ever walk ... with me, in an official guided type capacity. I would say they were a pretty international bunch, with a smattering of English and Northern Irish, peppered with Russian, Mexican, German and Australian. Quite often as we wander around east London on Sunday mornings, we stop off at Columbia Road Flower Market, and I've realised that I often take the group photo here before everyone heads off to have a mooch around. This is probably in case they don't come back. On Sunday, they did, and we headed down to Spitalfields where we finished the walk. I recently watched a fascinating programme online about the restoration of the incredible Georgian houses in Spitalfields, which happened in the 1980s, and also one by Dan Cruickshank about the rather eccentric Dennis Severs and his house at 18 Folgate Street, entitled 'The House That Wouldn't Die'.
Tallest - Sam
Best moustache - No winners
Best trainers - Alfonso
Highest visibility jacket - James
Most sisters on one walk - Rona, Alison & Sheila
My posts of late seem to have become rather church-centric. It's perhaps not that surprising, considering the sheer number of fascinating churches in London, so today, by way of a refreshing change in form, I shall mention a mosque. I noticed on my east end walk last Sunday, that I have started using the word 'anomaly' quite a lot to describe things when I'm talking to groups. Mainly because London is positively brimming with anomalies, so aside from purely liking the sound of the word, it also regularly encapsulates exactly what I'm trying to explain. This mosque I'm about to tell you about, fits incredibly snugly in to the 'anomaly' category. It's called the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid, and you'll find it on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street, right in the heart of Spitalfields.
As you can see, I managed to pick the one clement day we've had so far this year to take the photos. So, if you're familiar with the east end, you'll perhaps know that historically, Spitalfields has a long association with various immigrant populations that have settled in London, spanning centuries. The building which houses the Jamme Masjid is a Grade II listed English Heritage site and has catered for the religious needs of pretty much every wave of immigrants that have passed through the area, currently serving the largest concentration of Bangladeshi Muslims in the country.
The buildings first incarnation was way back in 1743 as a Protestant Chapel, when it was known as the 'Neuve Eglise' (New Church) for the Huguenot's who began arriving in the late 1600's, to escape persecution in France. In 1809 it became an Evangelical chapel promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, which evidently had limited success, as ten years later it became a Methodist Chapel. Then, in the last couple of years of the 19th century it became a Synagogue and remained so until the Jewish population of Spitalfields, many of whom had arrived from eastern Europe, began migrating to north London after the Second World War. This coincided with an influx of predominantly Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh and east India and the building which had closed, re-opened as a mosque at the end of the 1970s.
For this reason, and rather unusually for a mosque in the UK, the Jamme Masjid has a Latin inscription written above a sundial which adorns the south facing wall on Fournier Street. It reads 'Umbra Sumus' (We Are Shadows) which in itself, considering the populations that have lived in the area, and particularly with the wealth of the City of London literally eating away at the much poorer borough of Tower Hamlets (I'm thinking of Norman Foster's intrusive office building that in its construction, recently demolished half of the old Victorian Spitalfields Market) is quite poignant.
As well as being a place of worship, the mosque promotes educational activities for local Muslim youngsters, and has four classrooms used by the Evening School for teaching children to study the Quran and Islamic studies. The many Muslims who worship here also seem to be proud of their mosque's unique history and work hard with English Heritage to maintain the building's historical elements, whilst ensuring it meets 21st century technological standards and their own religious and educational needs.
Now hopefully, you can see now why I might use the word 'anomaly' to describe this particular building. It also pretty much single-handedly manages to encapsulate the rich immigrant history of the area in one fell swoop.
Dylan, who came along on the east London guided walk I did last Sunday sent me some great photos he took. I won't spoil them by writing comments and bits of blurb under each one, so basically they were taken around Old Street, Hoxton, Shoreditch and Spitalfields.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.