Where is it?
Whitechapel Road is in the borough of Tower Hamlets and runs east from Aldgate, once the eastern gate out of the City of London, eventually becoming Mile End Road. The area is generally referred to as the East End.
What’s the Story?
The area of Whitechapel, and the road included on the Monopoly board gets its name from an ancient church which once stood just south of the Whitechapel Road, but was badly damaged during WWII, later demolished and is now the site occupied by Altab Ali Park.
Historically, east London has been a poorer cousin to west London which coupled with its proximity to the docks lead to it becoming a migrant area; French Huguenots in the 17th century and Jewish immigrants in the 19th and early 20th century. More recently it became a Bangladeshi area. Whitechapel however, will be forever associated with the Jack The ripper murders which took place in and around the area in 1888.
In recent times, Brick Lane, which runs north, on a site occupied by the Truman Brewery, has been gentrified, and on Sundays when the markets are in full swing, it’s a hot spot for hipsters. It is also festooned with street art.
How do I get there?
Whitechapel Road and Whitechapel High Street are dotted with tube stations including Aldgate, Aldgate east and Whitechapel. Just north in trendy Shoreditch there’s an Overground station as well as an Underground and mainline station at Liverpool Street.
What’s it like now?
Like a lot of London, there’s a great deal of development going on and the rough edges often associated with Whitechapel are, for better or worse being gradually filed down. It sits within one of the two poorest areas of London, but within the same borough is Canary Wharf, the second big financial hub, so again, as with much of the city, an interesting dichotomy of people living together. Whitechapel is incredibly diverse with a large Muslim population and Bangladeshi community, which you’ll certainly get a feel for around the markets on Whitechapel Road and the familiar waft from the numerous curry houses.
Where should I stay?
Like Old Kent Road, it’s unlikely you’d want to stay on Whitechapel Road itself (although not beyond the realms of possibility), but more likely in one of the numerous hotels popping up in and around Hoxton and Shoreditch (just north) or near to the Tower of London to the south.
What’s of interest?
Whitechapel Road itself might not be a No.1 priority for visitors to London, but has far more going for it than the previous Old Kent Road and a host of things to see and do within a stone’s throw.
For culture vultures, just at the south end of Brick Lane on Whitechapel High Street you’ll find the Whitechapel Gallery, a contemporary art gallery which has been premiering world class international artists for well over 100 years and is a key part of London’s cultural landscape.
A short walk further east you’ll pass the monumental east London Mosque which I visited a number of years ago and the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which ceased trading in 2017 but had been making bells in Whitechapel since 1570. They not only cast the famous ‘Big Ben’ but amongst many others, the Liberty Bell. An American investment firm bought the premises but their application to turn it in to a boutique hotel is currently under review by the government. If you’re feeling peckish then Tayyabs, a family run Punjabi restaurant since 1972 is the go to curry house in the area for Londoners, despite a plethora of them on Brick Lane.
For those with an interest in medical history, you should definitely check out the Royal London Hospital Museum. It's a fascinating and eclectic mix which among many other things includes a model of John Merrick's (the elephant man) skeleton who lived and died at the hospital in the late 19th century.
Just south west of Whitechapel Road you’ll find the mighty Tower of London, a must visit London attraction which after 1000 years of history, needs no introduction. Whist there, make sure you pop in to the often over looked church of All Hallows by-the-Tower, which quite remarkably pre-dates the Tower by 400 years, has an intriguing museum (including some Roman floor) and a couple of historical titbits that Americans might find interesting.
On the opposite side of the Tower you’ll find the serene St Katherine Docks, central London's only marina, where you’ll often find the Queen’s Royal Barge parked up, and then a bit further on, Wilton’s Music Hall; one of only two surviving Victorian music halls in London, which has shows on regularly. It’s a real delight.
Brick Lane, running north from Whitechapel Road is just over half a mile long and on Sundays gets transformed so that every nook and cranny of the Old Truman Brewery which dominates the central portion gets turned in to a market of some form or another, whether it be street food, vintage clothes or people just selling stuff off the back of a lorry. It’s a vibrant and culturally diverse area and its rich migrant history is perhaps best encapsulated in the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid Mosque, which opened in 1743 as a Huguenot chapel, has been used as a Methodist chapel, a Synagogue and a Mosque. As such, it's an anomaly and stands on the corner of Fournier Street, lined with beautiful early 18th century houses and well worth a look.
The abundance of curry houses has waned slightly in recent years due to the extortionate business rates, but they’re not the only food people flock to Brick Lane for. At the Bethnal Green Road end are two famous 24-hour bagel shops which no-one ever seems to know the names of, but can tell you the colour of the facade of their favourite.
Old Spitalfields market which had been a fruit and veg market from 1637 until 1991 (when it moved further east) got cut in half by uber-architect Norman Foster and gentrified beyond belief. Still worth checking out the stalls of vintage wear and it’s lined with generic epidemic restaurants. Just outside is the famous Ten Bells pub, synonymous with Jack The Ripper as it was where he picked up his final victim, Mary Kelly.
If you're looking for a quirky, historical, under the radar museum, then look no further than Dennis Severs House at 18 Folgate Street; a time capsule of an 18th century weaving house.
Shoreditch and Hoxton
Just north of Spitalfields and otherwise known as Hoxtditch, is the epicentre of hipsterdom. It’s where the cool kids go to get drunk, eat kebabs and throw up. Lots of bars, coffee shops and clubs. If you get a chance, do seek out Arnold Circus, a quiet enclave and the UK’s first council estate.If you're in the area on a Sunday, then a stop off at an east end institution, Columbia Road Flower Market will give you a real flavour of London life. You’ll find, in all these areas I’ve mentioned, LOADS of street art and it often feels like wandering around an open air art gallery. You can still see an original Banksy in the beer garden of gig venue Cargo on Rivington Street, amongst many others artists like Eine, Roa, Bambi, Thierry Noir and one of my favourites; the chewing gum artist, Ben Wilson.
I do regular Sunday morning ‘pay what you want’ tours around these areas most weeks, so please do get in touch if you’d like to join.
Since I began Bowl Of Chalk London walking tours five and a half years ago I have continued to offer three set walks each weekend which operate on a 'pay what you want' basis. Each walk generally lasts about 2.5 / 3 hours. They are as follows:
Saturday morning - Trafalgar Square to St Paul's cathedral.
This walk begins in the tourist hot spot of Trafalgar Square, taking in the square itself, Nelson's Column and the National Gallery building. Although we don't venture around the 'sights' of Westminster, Big Ben is visible at the bottom of Whitehall. After visiting the statue of Charles I next to the official centre of London, we have of late, passed Benjamin Franklin's House, threaded our way through Victoria Embankment Gardens and up in to the bustling Covent Garden and St Paul's, the Actors' church. From here we make our way around Aldwych, passing the church of St Clement Danes and the Royal Courts of Justice, in to the City of London via Fleet Street. We usually veer off through the maze of alleyways that brings us to Dr Johnson's House, the famous statue of his beloved cat, Hodge and past the famous Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub. Back on Fleet Street, we pass the church of St Bride's, and up towards St Paul's cathedral.
Saturday Afternoon - St Paul's to Monument (via Bankside & Borough)
This walk begins by St Paul's cathedral, through the churchyard and on to the Millennium Bridge, taking us over the River Thames towards the Tate Modern on the south side. Here we pass by Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the site of the original Elizabethan Theatre which opened on Bankside in 1599, and along to the usually heaving Borough Market. We usually pop in to the 17th century George Inn on Borough High Street before heading up on to London Bridge, which offers a great view of the iconic Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and the H.M.S Belfast before finishing at the Monument, commemorating the Great Fire of London, 1666.
Sunday - East London
The Sunday walk is very street art heavy, but does include historical elements. We often begin near Old Street, including Bunhill Fields Cemetery, where the likes of Daniel Defoe, William Blake and John Bunyan are buried. We pass the Wesleyan Chapel on City Road before heading in towards Shoreditch, which although is now a plethora of cafes, boutique shops and clubs, was in the 19th century, the centre of London's furniture trade. We usually stop off at Arnold Circus, the UK's first ever council estate, then bypassing the incredibly busy Brick Lane make our way towards Spitalfields with its fascinating Huguenot, Jewish and Bangladeshi heritage. Obviously the street art changes pretty regularly, but I tend (as with all my tours) to talk about things that interest me, and street art is no different. I'll undoubtedly point out and talk about Banksy, Ben Wilson (the chewing gum man), Christiaan Nagel, Bambi, Roa, Jimmy C and Thierry Noir ... amongst others.
If you're in London one weekend and think that one of these walks might appeal (or fit in with your schedule) then please send me a message via the contact form. You won't actually know where we're meeting until I send you all the details confirming the walk and how many places you'd like to book. I do this so I can keep an eye on numbers. Please don't try just turning up. You'll see from the photos that it could be just you, two people, four, eight or more. Unless someone books loads of people at once, it probably won't be that big a group.
Please check the dates on the website homepage to make sure the walk you'd like to join is running, as although it is pretty continuous, there are occasional changes.
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.
This weekend, the groups were small, but each one a minor delight to wander around and chat about London with.
On Saturday afternoon, I met Ben and Jess for the St Paul's to the Monument walk and almost forgot to take a photo of them, which would have been a double shame, seeing as I've just had my camera fixed after it broke on a walk a couple of weeks ago. Here they standing by the Monument, which is, as I have undoubtedly mentioned before, a Monument to the Great Fire of London, a rather horrific fire which burned down most of the medieval City of London in 1666.
I admit, that in the photo, it just looks like Ben and Jess are standing in the middle of a building site, which unfortunately, at the moment is kind of true. As with much of the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, the Monument is largely the work of Christopher Wren. It stands 202 feet tall, the distance from the bakery on Pudding Lane where the fire began. Daniel Defoe described the top of the structure as having a "handsome gilt flame like that of a candle." It also happens to be the tallest isolated stone column in the world, and as such, for the small fee of £3, you can climb the 311 steps to a public viewing gallery, and enjoy a rather splendid view of London.
There was no snow this Sunday for the My neck of the Woods east end walk, and I was joined by Mandy, Richey and Dylan. Mandy, who was on her second Bowl Of Chalk walk, writes a blog called 'emm in London' which is well worth a read anyway, but last year, she wrote a rather nice and detailed account of the Saturday afternoon walk she did with me entitled '9 Things I learned on a Bowl Of Chalk'.
Here they are standing in front of one of street artist Stik's large scale stick figures. You'll find this particular one on Great Eastern Street. Mandy is quite a fan of the various street artists whose work you find daubed around the walls and buildings of east London, and if memory serves me correctly, Stik is her fourth favourite. Might be wrong about that though.
Shortly after this, Dylan spotted a quite incredible bike, locked to a lamp post, which was so big (the bike, not the lamp post) that at first I didn't even notice it was a bike. I'm now quite intrigued to see the person who owns it, riding it around London.
Anyway, at the end of the walk, Richey suggested going for a curry at one of his favourite curry houses on Brick Lane ... so we did.
Most surprised - Jess
Best moustache - No winners
Best beard - Richey
Most American - Dylan
Most amount of flat caps on one walk - Sunday
Veteran Bowl Of Chalker - Mandy
Most 'Avid' - Ben
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.