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 was incredibly impressed that people actually bothered or were able to turn up this weekend, what with all the snow and general coldness. Top marks for effort everyone.
On Saturday morning, I met Mackenzie, Wendy, Erica and April for the walk from Trafalgar Square to St Paul's. Just to give you an idea of the temperature, or lack of it, the fountains in Trafalgar Square looked like this:
Here are the group, standing in front of the statue of George Washington, which is situated outside the National Gallery (the building you can see above). Seeing as they were a group of American's, and George Washington was the first President of the United States, it seemed an appropriate place to take the photo.
There's a nice little story about that statue, which is that Washington apparently said that he never wanted to set foot in London again, so when the statue was given as a gift in 1921 by the people of Virginia, they sent over a load of American soil with it to be laid underneath, so that he never would. A bit cheeky perhaps.
On Sunday it snowed non stop for the entire My neck of the Woods walk, but Zuzana, Guglielmo and Mary still valiantly turned up to wander around the east end, Mary (from the USA) incidentally, was on her second Bowl Of Chalk, after coming on one last year. It was my first ever walk in the snow, so was interesting to see how everything looked under a blanket of white. Here they are at Arnold Circus, the first council estate in England, completed in 1896 and featured not long ago, in a BBC2 series called The Secret History of Our Streets.
Here are a few other snowy scenes we saw along the way.
Not surprisingly, Columbia Road Flower Market was pretty sparse but it at least meant that Mary and the other two were able to have a good look around the many independent shops that line the road and are pretty much only open on Sundays. Incidentally, the pub you can see there in the photo, The Royal Oak has featured in a few TV shows and films, including 'Goodnight Sweetheart' (with Nicholas Lyndhurst, best know for playing Rodney Trotter in 'Only Fools and Horses') and Guy Ritchie's 'Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels'.
Many of the houses in the area of Spitalfields where I took the above photo were built in the early 1700's to house the influx of French Huguenots who had settled in the area in the 17th Century. Also, whilst I'm thinking about it, there's a great blog called 'Spitalfields Life' written by The Gentle Author who has set himself (or herself?) the challenge of writing 10,000 stories about the area, the fascinating characters that live there, shops, customs, history and much more. The project should be completed in the year 2037, but one volume has already been published as a book. It's well worth having a read if you are of even a mildly curious disposition.
Most Italian - Guglielmo
Most likely to be celebrating her 40th birthday - Wendy
Best moustache - No winners
Best named person to meet in Old Street - Mary Young
Most bobbly hat - Zuzana
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.