Street art in London’s East End

Attitudes to street art seem to be changing. I was taking a photo of some wall art in an alleyway just off Hoxton Street in Hackney when an old woman, carrying her shopping into a nearby housing estate, walked past. “Lovely init,” she said in a Cockney accent, “a nice bit of graffiti for a change.” We stood together, two amateur art critics, admiring a strange supernatural-themed piece of art for a moment. “Not my cup of tea”, I said, “but it brightens things up.”

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

We went our separate ways, and I walked towards Shoreditch High Street and Brick Lane. This area has changed dramatically over the last few years, and now hosts more painfully trendy, upmarket bars, restaurants and private members clubs than you can shake a stick at. Prices have shot up and the demographics of the area have changed accordingly. It’s still a haunt for street artists though, and the area’s walls provide a rich canvass for expression.

It’s an area that has had a long association with street art. When I lived in the area seventeen years ago it was home to numerous Banksy artworks, including a dribbled white line of paint along Curtain Road that led into an alleyway where a cocaine snorting policeman was painted on a wall. More famous were Banksy’s acid house policemen on the railway bridge over Old Street.

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Like all of life’s transient pleasures, both vanished, removed by Hackney Council. You don’t see so many Banksy pieces any more, his fame has driven up their value and many have been torn from walls and sold. You do see a diverse range of other street artists though, and they have lent the area a new dynamism. So much so, that you’re fairly likely to bump into walking tours taking people around the area’s street art highlights.

Street art in Hackney was always complemented by commercial art. Hoxton Square was home to Jay Joplin’s White Cube gallery, which did much to encourage an infamous crop of Young British Artists like Tracey Emin, Gilbert & George, Anthony Gormley and Damien Hirst. The area is still home to plenty of independent art galleries, but rising property prices have pushed many young artists out of the area.

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

On Great Eastern Street, hoardings around building works had been turned into a temporary canvas. I took a few photos and noticed a security guard walking towards me. I thought I might be in trouble (some ridiculous companies report photographers to the police, or demand photos be deleted because of terrorism fears). It transpired that he just wanted a chat. He said the graffiti changed most nights, and thought the painting of a rabbit-person was the only interesting piece.

Later, in the streets surrounding Brick Lane, I came across a feast of ever-changing art. I bumped into a fellow street art aficionado, who turned out to be a lecturer at a Tel Aviv university. We compared notes from around the world, and agreed this area of London was pretty special. I made my way back along Brick Lane and, my day of street art spotting over, went to get a real ale in one of the area’s nicest pubs, The Carpenter’s Arms.

Caught in the act, Street art, East End, London

Caught in the act, Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Back in the hood, a walk through London’s East End

It’s been nearly three years since I was last in London, a city I lived in for more than a decade. In a place that never stands still three years is a long time, and I was eagerly anticipating exploring some of my old haunts to see what had changed. Shoreditch, where I’d lived for all those years, was my destination, and I felt a thrill of excitement as I walked past a growing community of house boats along the canal between Islington and Hackney.

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Goat statue, City of London, London

Goat statue, City of London, London

Hoxton Square, London

Hoxton Square, London

If one thing is certain in an uncertain world, it is that Shoreditch would be both familiar and alien at the same time. In the decade I lived here the area changed dramatically, but managed to retain its distinctive character. It’s location close to the financial heart of the City, and its growing reputation as London’s ‘silicon valley’, has seen a rapid new wave of gentrification – most obvious in the proliferation of trendy coffee shops, and a preponderance of men with well groomed beards and moustaches.

Despite that, and much to my relief, it still seems to have its rough edges. Not every traditional East End pub has been turned into a moustache-friendly bistro (although there aren’t many ‘boozers’ left); there are plenty of painfully trendy cycling shops that double as boutique coffee houses, but there are still shops selling bizarre collections of secondhand electronics; and thanks to a large amount of social housing, not everyone in the local community has been forced out by rising house prices.

Firmly rooted in the historic East End of London, Shoreditch is famously mentioned in the nursery rhyme, Oranges and Lemons. In the 16th and 17th centuries, its location outside the City of London allowed industries that weren’t permitted inside the city to flourish in the area. Dozens of trades existed here, specialising in interior design- and clothing-related trades: tanners, cloth makers, rope makers, saddle makers, varnish manufacturers, furniture makers and haberdashers.

The area was also famous for ‘nightlife’ – it still is. The first Elizabethan theatres were built here. Shakespeare performed as an actor in a theatre on Curtain Road, and many of his plays were produced in the area. Where there were theatres, there were also ne’er-do-wells. Shoreditch gained a reputation for its dissolute and bawdy ways – not to mention high crime rate. Playwright, Ben Jonson, killed a man outside a notorious Shoreditch pub in 1598.

Recycling truck, Hoxton, London

Recycling truck, Hoxton, London

Street art, Shoreditch, London

Street art, Shoreditch, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Street Art, Shoreditch, London

Street Art, Shoreditch, London

Number art, City of London, London

Number art, City of London, London

This heady mix of cultures attracted subversives. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was home to non-conformist religious groups, and was a hotbed of dissent. The arrival of the Industrial Revolution simply cemented its reputation for poverty and radicalism. Tightly packed with people living in slum conditions, it’s not hard to imagine the area seething with social and political injustice – and it’s no surprise that Charles Dickens frequently visited the area for inspiration for his novels.

All the slums and industry might have gone today, but at its core Shoreditch remains true to its tradition as a centre of dissent harbouring sub-cultures. The area is still a melting pot of communities and cultures. There are still seedy drinking dens with live performances ranging from up-and-coming bands to burlesque; tattoo parlours flourish; galleries showcase exciting new collections. It must be one of the most diverse areas in London.

A Girl's Best Friend ... Brick Lane, London

A Girl’s Best Friend … Brick Lane, London

Bagel shop, Brick Lane, London

Bagel shop, Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Shoreditch is just a short walk from Brick Lane, traditionally an East End immigrant Jewish community but now home of a sizeable Bangladeshi community – and also London’s finest curry houses. The area was made famous by Monica Ali’s novel (later film), Brick Lane. I wandered down here because it’s a fascinating area, has some great independent shops, pubs with real ale and good food, and is home to one of the finest bagel shops in London.

My delicious salt beef bagel, eaten with pickles standing at a counter overlooking the street, tasted like a little piece of home. Awakening from my nostalgic daydream, I set off to hunt out some street art. This one of London’s best and most creative areas for street art … but more of that later.

Rotherhithe, strange tales of whales and Pilgrim Fathers

Puritans. Very determined people the Puritans. Best remembered for their zealous dedication to strict and rigid Protestantism, and utter opposition to the ‘heresy’ of the Catholic Church; history has passed down to us an image of forbidding black clothing, ridiculous hats and dour humourlessness. The average Puritan wasn’t exactly renowned for his or her joie de vivre. These are the people behind the Salem Witch Trials, and we all know how that went.

So it was with some mirth that, as I wandered the history soaked streets of Rotherhithe, I came across a pub called The Mayflower, named for the ‘Pilgrim ship’ which left England in 1620 for North America. Were they transported back to modern-day London, I’m sure the assorted gang of Puritans who left England’s shores on the Mayflower, would be furious to discover themselves commemorated by something as immoral as a pub.

Statue of a Pilgrim Father, Rotherhithe, London, England

Statue of a Pilgrim Father, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

A little investigation over a pint of Pale Ale led to the discovery that the Mayflower started its journey from this very spot. The arrival of the Mayflower in New England is a significant moment in Western history; imbuing this area with an historical importance that would be hard to guess at walking down the street. The Puritans left England fleeing what they saw as religious persecution; the authorities saw them as troublemakers, probably traitors, and were presumably glad to see the Mayflower disappear down the Thames.

Boats on the Thames, Rotherhithe, London, England

Boats on the Thames, Rotherhithe, London, England

Boats on the Thames, Rotherhithe, London, England

Boats on the Thames, Rotherhithe, London, England

Sixty-five people boarded the Mayflower in Rotherhithe in July 1620. Amongst them some of the people now known as the Pilgrim Fathers, the founders of New England. The ship was tiny, cramped and suffered three months of delays before sailing into terrible weather crossing the Atlantic. The bravery and determination of the men, women and children on board cannot be underestimated. I tipped my glass to their bravery, and left the pub to stroll on the foreshore of the River Thames where the Mayflower was anchored.

The foreshore by the Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The foreshore by the Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The foreshore by the Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The foreshore by the Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

Leaving the Mayflower behind, I set out to investigate a couple of nearby churches. Close to the pub is St. Mary’s Church, which claims strong associations with the Pilgrim Fathers. The current church dates from 1715, but there has been a church on this site from the 13th Century. There is a drawing of the former church dating from 1623, and it is likely that the Pilgrim Fathers worshipped there before sailing. The church was locked, but luckily one of the most interesting things about the church can be found in the graveyard.

St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

Here lie the remains of Prince Lee Boo from the Pacific island of Palau. How a member of royalty from a Pacific island came to be buried in Rotherhithe is the story of the expansion of global trade in the 18th Century. In 1783, the English ship, Antelope, was shipwrecked near Palau and the surviving members of crew formed an alliance with the local king, Abba Thulle. The crew built a new boat and Abba Thulle decided to send this son, Prince Lee Boo, with them when they left for England.

Why did Lee Boo end up in Rotherhithe? The ship’s captain, Captain Wilson, came from Rotherhithe and Lee Boo lived with him when he arrived in England. He attended school and services at St. Mary’s. Sadly he died, as so many people did, from smallpox.

Grave of Prince Lee Boo, St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

Grave of Prince Lee Boo, St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

Grave of Prince Lee Boo, St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

Grave of Prince Lee Boo, St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

As I walked through St. Mary’s graveyard I passed St. Mary’s Free School. Founded in 1613 by two local sea captains, it was intended to educate the children of seafarers. It has two lovely statues on the outside, making it an interesting local landmark.

St. Mary Free School, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Mary Free School, Rotherhithe, London, England

From here, glinting gold in the distance, I could see a church spire. This was the Norwegian Church in London, suitably located at 1 Olav’s Square. Although the current St. Olva’s Church dates from 1927, there has been a Norwegian Church in London since the 17th Century. Thanks to trade with Nordic countries there are several Nordic churches in London, and Rotherhithe, with its history of seafaring, is where most are located. The shining spire? A golden Viking Longboat.

St. Olav's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Olav’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

This area has very strong Nordic connections, and still has many residents of Nordic origins. This made it the obvious place for the Norwegian Government-in-Exile to establish itself during World War II.

Swing bridge at Surrey Dock, Rotherhithe, London, England

Swing bridge at Surrey Dock, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Ship and Whale pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Ship and Whale pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

Cementing the Nordic connections, a short walk from St. Olav’s is the enormous Greenland Dock, which was the centre of Britain’s trade with Nordic countries. Timber was a major import, but Greenland Dock is famous for its role in whaling. This is where Whalers, ships that hunted whales in the North Sea and Atlantic, came to off-load blubber, whale oil and whale bone. All of which were important commodities in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. Unsurprisingly, there are several whale-themed pubs in the area.

Deptford, the destruction of history and detritus of global trade

The London Borough of Deptford isn’t on anyone’s tourist top ten of London. It’s hard to imagine that, of the millions of tourists who visit London every year, more than a handful have heard of it. The majority of London’s seven million residents, at least those who don’t live in Deptford, would struggle to pinpoint it on a map. Feeling underwhelmed as I walked the streets, it was easy to understand why it’s one of London’s less loved boroughs.

Deptford struggles with high levels of poverty and crime, including a significant level of gang-related crime, and has definitely seen better days. Given this, it is almost impossible to understand why a couple years ago the New York Times enthusiastically encourage Americans to visit the area. The NYT described Deptford as “a boisterous concoction of blue-collar aesthetics and intermittent hipsterism“.

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

I’m not really sure what this means, but it sounds like the sort of soundbite typically reserved for areas like New York’s East Village. It certainly doesn’t describe the Deptford I encountered.

Deptford is now going through a painful process of gentrification, it also has a lot of historical associations. Chosen by King Henry VIII in 1513 as the site of the Royal Naval Dockyard, it is known as the birthplace of the Royal Navy. Queen Elizabeth I knighted Sir Francis Drake here in 1581, following his circumnavigation of the globe in the Golden Hind. This event is commemorated by a gateway above the Drake Steps, reputed to be where he famously laid his cloak at the feet of the Queen.

Drake Stairs, Deptford Strand, London, England

Drake Stairs, Deptford Strand, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford Strand, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford Strand, London, England

Tug on the Thames, Deptford, London, England

Tug on the Thames, Deptford, London, England

The Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, stayed in this area when he came to inspect the dockyards in 1698. The dockyards reached their zenith in the 18th and early 19th Centuries as British military and economic power spread around the globe. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Deptford’s docks declined in importance. As the docks declined, so to did Deptford; little of this grand history remains today, many of the centuries old buildings destroyed in acts of historical vandalism.

A planned new development of apartments would destroy what remains of the Royal Navy Dockyards. Consigning this history, and tourism potential, to the scrapheap seems poor reward for an area which played an important role in London’s history. There is an alternative vision, supported by local groups: preserve the dock as a heritage site and build a working replica of a 17th Century ship. The decision has been taken out of local hands, now resting with London’s clown-like Mayor, Boris Johnson. Preserving 500 years of history or a 40-story block of flats. Which way will Boris jump?

Old swing bridge, Greenland Dock, Deptford, London, England

Old swing bridge, Greenland Dock, Deptford, London, England

Former hydraulics, Greenland Dock, Deptford, London, England

Former hydraulics, Greenland Dock, Deptford, London, England

Ship rope moorings, Deptford Strand, London, England

Ship rope moorings, Deptford Strand, London, England

Walking from the much better known Greenwich, and leaving the magnificent Cutty Sark behind, I walked back towards the City of London. It is a lovely walk, offering spectacular views of Canary Wharf and the river. The entire route is littered with the detritus of Britain’s global maritime trade, creating some interesting ‘modern art’ forms along the river.

These leftovers are evocative reminders of Britain’s industrial heyday, but you really have to work hard to imagine the area as it would have been – teeming with life and full of ships carrying cargo from around the world. Inland, there are a series of wharfs and docks where ships would load and unload their bounty from around the world.

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

Anchor, Deptford, London, England

Anchor, Deptford, London, England

Abandoned crane, Deptford, London, England

Abandoned crane, Deptford, London, England

Today, those docks which remain are little more than water features surrounded by apartments, but they provide an insight into the history of this area. On the border between Deptford and Rotherhithe lies the huge Greenland Dock. This was once known as Surrey Dock, but was renamed Greenland Dock when it became the centre of trade for whaling ships. After the decline of the whaling trade, the area was known for timber imported from Russia, Finland and Sweden.

Ship rope moorings, Deptford Strand, London, England

Ship rope moorings, Deptford Strand, London, England

Abandoned crane, Deptford, London, England

Abandoned crane, Deptford, London, England

Old wharves and River Thames, London, England

Old wharves and River Thames, London, England

My route eventually reached Rotherhithe, close to Tower Bridge. Rotherhithe is a fascinating and historic district where I found myself wandering aimlessly and bumping into some extraordinary history…but that’s for next time.

The Isle of Dogs and a walk under the River Thames

I’m not sure what seems more improbable, an island of dogs or being able to walk under the Thames. Then again, East London is full of surprises. Starting next to the historic and enormous (and closed) Hawksmoor designed St. Anne’s Church, my route passed through Limehouse’s narrow streets to the corporate glass and steel towers of Canary Wharf; arriving at the Cutty Sark in Greenwich via the Thames Path and the marvellous Greenwich Foot Tunnel.

St. Anne's Church, Limehouse, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Limehouse, London, England

St. Anne's Church, Limehouse, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Limehouse, London, England

No one really knows the origin of the name ‘Isle of Dogs’ – the great bulge in the River Thames. Theories, however, abound: royal hunting dogs were kept here; a corruption of the name ‘Isle of Ducks’; dead dogs washed up here; a nickname because people who lived here led a ‘dog’s life’. None of which make it sound particularly appealing. While the meaning is lost, the name was in common use by the 16th Century and has stuck.

Its almost unimaginable today, but this was a rural area until the 19th Century. Known as Stepney Marsh, it was a wetland criss-crossed by waterways, accessible only by bridge or boat. The marsh was drained in the 17th Century, becoming an important agricultural area providing food for London. This all changed in the 19th Century. It was transformed from cattle pasture into London’s most industrialised area, teeming with people and activity.

Dunstan's Wharf, Limehouse, London, England

Dunstan’s Wharf, Limehouse, London, England

Sailmakers House, Limehouse, London, England

Sailmakers House, Limehouse, London, England

Doorway, Limehouse, London, England

Doorway, Limehouse, London, England

Mid-19th Century, this area was the powerhouse of trade and communication with the British Empire. A relationship born witness to by the series of docks and wharfs dotted all over this area, all of which serviced the massive maritime ambitions of the British nation. Trade and Empire can still be recognised in names: West India Dock, Ontario Way, Cuba, Tobago and Malabar Streets. Today those connections are maintained by the international workforce involved in international finance at Canary Wharf.

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, London, England

View of the River Thames from the Isle of Dogs, London, England

View of the River Thames from the Isle of Dogs, London, England

The streets here were lined with wharves and hundreds of warehouses, built to house goods arriving or departing to every corner of the globe; it was the engine of Britain’s economy. That status made the Isle of Dogs a target in World War II. Starting on 7th September 1940, and continuing for seventy six consecutive nights, this area was bombed with heavy explosives and incendiaries. The Blitz had come to London.

Heinkel bomber over Isle of Dogs © Wikipedia Commons

Heinkel bomber over Isle of Dogs © Wikipedia Commons

The Blitz intended to destroy Britain’s the economy and the nation’s ability to fight. The warehouses and wharves burned for days on end, as did their contents. One bombing raid set fire to 380,000 tonnes of timber at Surrey Docks. By the time The Blitz ended a third of the Isle of Dogs’ warehouses, and tens of thousands of homes, had been destroyed. Bombs from World War II continue to be unearthed even today.

Ironically, the end of the war was even more destructive for local communities. The end of Empire and shifting global trade made the docks obsolete. Britain was bankrupt and rebuilding was little more than a pipe dream. This area remained – and still is in parts – a severely deprived area. Even the Docklands development of the 1980s, which bequeathed us Canary Wharf, did little to solve entrenched poverty.

Dry dock for SS Great Eastern, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Dry dock for SS Great Eastern, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Along the Thames Path occasional signs impart bits of forgotten history. One stated I was stood on the site where the Great Eastern was built. The SS Great Eastern was the brainchild of legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. When it launched in 1858 SS Great Eastern was by far the largest ship ever built, capable of sailing to Australia without refuelling. Sadly, the SS Great Eastern was a commercial failure, ending its days in ignominy as a floating advertisement for a department store.

Leaving Canary Wharf behind, I arrived at the most exciting section of my walk. A small glass-topped dome marks the entrance to one of London’s hidden wonders: the Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Descending the iron stairs, you walk the 370 metres through a tiled tunnel less than 3 metres in diameter underneath the River Thames. A few fun-filled minutes later you emerge next to the Cutty Sark in Greenwich. The northern end of the tunnel has a section of steel reinforcing it where it was damaged by bombs in 1940.

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

It’s thrilling to walk through the tunnel. It has been used for all sorts of filming, events and ridiculous activities – bizarrely, it forms part National Cycle Route 1 (from Inverness in Scotland to Dover on the English Channel). More ridiculous, a marathon was run in the tunnel to mark it’s centenary. It takes 58 laps to run a full marathon in the tunnel, and there’s not much scenery en route. One hundred runners took part, and British marathon legend, Hugh Jones, won the race in a very credible 2 hours 45 minutes.

Rather him than me.

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London, England

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London, England

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London, England

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London, England

The Geffrye Museum, a window into the soul of the English Middle Classes

It may not sound like the most promising concept, but social history as told through the evolving interiors of people’s homes is much, much more fascinating than it may at first appear. The excellent Geffrye Museum is first and foremost a history of the English middle classes. The evolution of the parlour, or living room, mirroring revolutionary changes taking place in society. This is best reflected in the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the home and the shifting roles of the sexes this caused.

The almshouses of the Geffrye Museum, London, England

The almshouses of the Geffrye Museum, London, England

Geffrye Museum, London, England

Geffrye Museum, London, England

Geffrye Museum, London, England

Geffrye Museum, London, England

In a form of reverse snobbery, a museum dedicated to the middle classes is anathema to some. You could take the view that the Geffrye Museum is just about nice furnishings, and the evolving tastes of different generations. All very light-hearted and insignificant when set against the class struggle. In reality, it charts radical changes within society by opening a window into the intimate lives of our ancestors. I, for one, won’t look at people’s soft furnishings in the same light ever again.

It shouldn’t be, but one of the surprises of the Geffrye Museum is realising that our obsession with owning ‘stuff’ is very modern. A walk through the 400 years of history on display is to be confronted with the fact that, until very recently, our living spaces had very few things in them. People were the focus of most living rooms, the space designed around human interaction.

1695 parlour, Geffrye Museum, London, England

1695 parlour, Geffrye Museum, London, England

1695 parlour, Geffrye Museum, London, England

1695 parlour, Geffrye Museum, London, England

1745 parlour, Geffrye Museum, London, England

1745 parlour, Geffrye Museum, London, England

The difference between a home in 1790 and a home in 1890 is stark. The 1890’s home is full of ornaments, paintings and furniture – cheaply produced on an industrial scale, and affordable for the middle classes. The average middle class home in the 1790s had only just been introduced to the concept of the carpet. The 1890s parlour has more in common with contemporary homes than its historical predecessors. The technology has changed – the TV replacing the pianola – but we are still cramming our homes full of stuff.

1790s parlour, Geffrye Museum, London, England

1790s parlour, Geffrye Museum, London, England

The Industrial Revolution saw a massive expansion in the number of people able to call themselves middle class, and allowed them to ape the tastes and styles of the aristocracy. In a class obsessed society like Britain, this was groundbreaking. The Industrial Revolution also changed the relationship both men and women had towards their  home. The world of work had changed dramatically by the mid-1800s. Men increasingly left the home in the morning and returned in the evening. It was from this period that the home becomes synonymous with femininity, with women left to ‘manage’ the home while their husbands went to work.

1850s parlour, Geffrye Museum, London, England

1850s parlour, Geffrye Museum, London, England

1890s parlour, Geffrye Museum, London, England

1890s parlour, Geffrye Museum, London, England

1890s parlour, Geffrye Museum, London, England

1890s parlour, Geffrye Museum, London, England

The middle class home had been a workplace – merchant houses – and men and women spent the day there. The social revolution that came with new working patterns changed society’s view of the ‘ideal of womanhood’. Something women continue to deal with 150 years later. Middle class women were thrust into the role of home makers, judged only on their domestic accomplishments (singing, piano playing). This bred a whole new genre of literature on household management and domestic economy. Leading the charge, in 1859, was Mrs. Beeton’s Book on Household Management.

1950s living room, Geffrye Museum, London, England

1950s living room, Geffrye Museum, London, England

1990s loft apartment, Geffrye Museum, London, England

1990s loft apartment, Geffrye Museum, London, England

One of the Geffrye’s most fascinating tableaux is when you arrive at the interior of a 1950s house. The whole room is oriented towards the television. For the first time in four hundred years of domestic life, people in a room turned away from the other people in the room to face a box. A radical change in human behaviour. This trend has intensified as technology has advanced; computers, gaming consoles and multiple TVs have led to a further fracturing of human intimacy within the home. Of the 1990s loft conversion, with its merged kitchen/living/sleeping space, the least said the better.

The almshouses of the Geffrye Museum, London, England

The almshouses of the Geffrye Museum, London, England

Gardens at the Geffrye Museum, London, England

Gardens at the Geffrye Museum, London, England

One of the joys of visiting the Geffrye Museum is that it is housed in some beautiful early-18th Century Almshouses. Constructed by the Ironmonger’s Company at the request of Sir Robert Geffrye, Mayor of London and Master of the Ironmonger’s Company, they are a rare example of architecture from this period in East London. The grounds of the museum are lovely, with people having their lunch in front of the building and period gardens at the rear. Perhaps best of all, the Geffrye Museum is free – there is a small charge to visit a restored almshouse, but this is only occasionally open.

Gardens, Geffrye Museum, London, England

Gardens, Geffrye Museum, London, England

Gardens at the Geffrye Museum, London, England

Gardens at the Geffrye Museum, London, England

Gardens at the Geffrye Museum, London, England

Gardens at the Geffrye Museum, London, England

A walk along the lower reaches of the “Dark River”

Prior to the Roman Occupation, the British and Irish Isles were populated by Celtic tribes. The Roman Empire never made it to Ireland and they eventually settled on Hadrian’s Wall for containment and trade, instead of conquest and occupation, in Scotland. England’s Celtic population was absorbed into the Roman Empire, and successive waves of migration from Continental Europe saw much of its culture disappear.

Celtic history continues to live on through language (not to mention the gene pool). The River Thames derives its name from the original Celtic: Tamesas, meaning ‘dark’.

Canary Wharf and River Thames, London, England

Canary Wharf and River Thames, London, England

A walk from Limehouse Basin to Tower Bridge along the river through the Wapping district, is to walk through London’s history: a history built on the tides of the Thames. From Roman-times, this area has been central to England’s (and later Britain’s) maritime trade. It became home to all the trades that kept the merchant fleet afloat: sailers, sail makers and maritime instrument makers all congregated here. Huge warehouses containing goods of all descriptions lined the banks of the Thames.

Globe Wharf, now luxury apartments, River Thames, London, England

Globe Wharf, now luxury apartments, River Thames, London, England

Thames Tunnel Mills, River Thames, London, England

Thames Tunnel Mills, River Thames, London, England

Pubs, gambling dens and brothels proliferated, and the area had a very unsavoury reputation – the Prospect of Whitby, a pub overlooking the river, was once known as the Devil’s Tavern because of its violent reputation. The area attracted thieves, smugglers, pirates and lowlifes of all sorts. Its not surprising that there was a ‘hanging dock’ over the river, where criminals would receive “a short drop and a sudden stop”.

The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

Phoenix Wharf, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

Phoenix Wharf, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

Here, amidst the chaos of narrow, crowded and frequently dangerous streets, travellers and exotic goods from around the world would arrive into one of the world’s truly international cities. Passengers and cargo alike, would be disgorged into the teeming streets and congested alleyways that formed Wapping.

As if to offset this seedy world, the area also has plenty of churches – and there were numerous nineteenth century Christian Missions active in this area. One of the most famous churches is St. John the Baptist. Constructed in 1617, it was demolished in the 1750s to make way for a new church. It stands, incongruously, next to the Turk’s Head pub: as so often, virtue and vice go hand-in-hand.

St. John's Church, Wapping, London, England

St. John’s Church, Wapping, London, England

Old school near St. John's Church, Wapping, London, England

Old school near St. John’s Church, Wapping, London, England

The cemetery is the burial place of Thomas Rainsborough, a colonel in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army during the English Civil War. Rainsborough was a leader of the Leveller movement, and their spokesman at the Putney Debates. During the debates, Rainsborough argued for universal suffrage for all men, regardless of their wealth or status. It was a radical position in 1647, and one that brought him into conflict with Cromwell.

Rainsborough was buried in 1648 following a procession of thousands of Levellers through the Wapping area. His tomb contained an inscription declaring that Rainsborough had made, “Kings, Lords, Commons, Judges shake, Cities and Committees quake”. The latter presumably a reference to the Putney Debates.

Plaque to Thomas Gainsborough, St. John's cemetery, Wapping, London, England

Plaque to Thomas Gainsborough, St. John’s cemetery, Wapping, London, England

Cemetery at St. John's Church, Wapping, London, England

Cemetery at St. John’s Church, Wapping, London, England

Cemetery at St. John's Church, Wapping, London, England

Cemetery at St. John’s Church, Wapping, London, England

This part of the Thames was an economic thread to the rest of the world. From the sixteenth century onwards the river teemed with boats of all shapes and sizes. Traditionally, ships docked at wharves constructed on the river. However, the expansion of Empire, and the huge growth in global trade, led to the construction of London Docks and St. Catherine’s Dock in the first half of the nineteenth century. Most of the old wharves are now apartments.

Aberdeen Wharf, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

Aberdeen Wharf, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

Old Wharf, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

Old Wharf, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

In the late nineteenth century the area shed its notorious reputation for poverty and crime. Yet, in the early twentieth century the area was economically depressed. Things got worse with the world-wide depression of the 1930s. This was the working class East End, home to significant immigrant communities, including a large Jewish community. In the 1930s, the scene was set for ugly confrontations between Oswald Mosley’s pro-Hitler, proto-fascist ‘Blackshirts’, and anti-fascist groups. This struggle culminated on 4th October, 1936 when Jewish, Socialist and Communist groups joined with Trade Unionists and Irish dockers to block a march by Mosley’s British Union of Fascists through the East End. The ensuing bloody confrontation became known as the Battle of Cable Street.

Mural commemorating the Battle of Cable Street, London, England

Mural commemorating the Battle of Cable Street, London, England

The Second World War brought wholesale destruction to Wapping from German bombing. In 1945, Wapping was devastated. It remained run-down and derelict until the 1980s, when, not coincidentally, two things happened: Margret Thatcher’s government set up a Development Corporation to regenerate the area; and Rupert Murdoch moved News International (owner of four British newspapers) to a new headquarters in Wapping. Murdoch’s move was designed to crush the power of the printing unions. As if mimicking the conflict of the 1930s, fierce battles were waged in the streets of Wapping between strikers and police. After a year of strikes and dispute the unions lost.

Nineteenth century warehouse now luxury apartments, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

Nineteenth century warehouse now luxury apartments, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

Today Wapping is a Thatcherite dream come true. Within sight of Tower Bridge, regeneration had pumped money into the area: former warehouses to the Empire are now ‘luxury’ apartments occupied by bankers and finance executives; glitzy restaurants have mushroomed. You don’t have to look too far to find entrenched poverty amidst the new-found glamour, but that was never part of the Thatcherite narrative.

House boats near Tower Bridge, River Thames, London, England

House boats near Tower Bridge, River Thames, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

If there is one area of London that charts the city’s history, it must be this stretch of the River Thames…and that’s even before mentioning Tower Bridge.

The great green lung in the east, Lee Valley to the River Thames

Think of London’s great green spaces and, chances are, the manicured central parks (St. James’, Green, Regent’s,) or the largest of the old royal hunting grounds in Richmond, will spring to mind. This sprawling city has far more to offer than just the royal parks though. Speak it quietly in these days after the royal birth, but in the east there’s a republic of green space, mandated by Parliament for the people.

Head to the fringes of the Borough of Hackney and you’ll discover one of London’s ‘green lungs’, dwarfing all the ‘Royal Parks’. The less well known Lee Valley is a fabulous 26 mile long, 10,000 acre park; four times larger than Richmond Park and encompassing two historic waterways: the River Lee and the Lee Navigation. The former provided fresh drinking water to London, the latter a vital transport link connecting the River Thames, the Regent’s Canal, the Hertfordshire Canal and the Grand Union Canal.

Walthamstow Marshes, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Walthamstow Marshes, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Canal boats on the Lee Navigation, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Canal boats on the Lee Navigation, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Canal boat bookshop on the Lee Navigation, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Canal boat bookshop on the Lee Navigation, Lee Valley Park, London, England

From Finsbury Park it is a short walk to reach Springfield Park and the Lee Navigation at the northern tip of Walthamstow Marshes. From here it’s possible to follow the course of the waterway south all the way to the River Thames at Limehouse Basin. Another hour’s walk west brings you to Tower Bridge and the heart of the city. This network of waterways provides access to large parts of London, you could spend days exploring the city using only its historic waterways.

What is perhaps most surprising when you wander down these waterways today, is how many boats use them and just how many people are living on the canals of London. This is either a lifestyle issue or an indication that London’s housing crisis has reached breaking point. Either way, the canals are probably busier now than they have been since the start of the twentieth century.

Canal boats on the Lee Navigation, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Canal boats on the Lee Navigation, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Canal lock on the Lee Navigation, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Canal lock on the Lee Navigation, Lee Valley Park, London, England

The Lee Valley comprises areas of urban green space, wildlife reserves, industrial heritage sites and riverside walks. It is a lovely and, until recently, under-utilised green space, much of which was located in less-than-salubrious districts of London. All that changed when London won the bid for the 2012 Olympics. The sprawling Olympic site is located in the southern part of the Lee Valley, and has pumped much needed regeneration money into this neglected region.

One area worth a visit is the old Middlesex filter beds. There’s not much to see today, but this amazing piece of technology purified water for London right up until the 1960s. The water was taken from the River Lee further to the north (where it was cleaner) and stored in reservoirs, before being piped to the filter beds by aqueduct. Here it was filtered through sand and gravel, purifying the water by killing diseases like cholera. It was then pumped to supply homes in north-east London. Brilliantly simple. Today it is a nature reserve.

Middlesex Filter Beds on the Lee Navigation, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Middlesex Filter Beds on the Lee Navigation, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Part of the filter beds on the Lee Navigation, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Part of the filter beds on the Lee Navigation, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Signpost on the Lee Navigation, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Signpost on the Lee Navigation, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Following the Lee Navigation south takes you alongside the Olympic Park, and you can come off the river close to Victoria Park to get a better view of the stadium and the Orbit sculpture designed by Turner Prize winner, Anish Kapoor. They make for dramatic additions to the skyline.

Anish Kapoor's Orbit, London Olympic site, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Anish Kapoor’s Orbit, London Olympic site, Lee Valley Park, London, England

London Olympic stadium, Lee Valley Park, London, England

London Olympic stadium, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Further south, you’ll pass the lovely old building of Three Mills. This ancient industrial site was recorded in the Doomsday Book, and the mills are probably the oldest known ‘tidal mills’ in the world. In the sixteenth century they ground flour to provide bread to London; by the seventeenth century they were grinding grain for use in the distilling of gin to supply the city’s notorious ‘Gin Palaces’. The gin business was successful: they were still producing it in 1941, when production had to stop due to grain shortages during the Second World War.

Three Mills, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Three Mills, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Three Mills, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Three Mills, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Three Mills, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Three Mills, Lee Valley Park, London, England

Plodding along the Lee Navigation, you’ll soon reach Bow Locks and eventually arrive in Limehouse Basin. It is here that the River Thames is connected to the canal system in east London by a set of giant locks. Occasionally, you’ll see small canal boats motoring along the River Thames between Limehouse Basin and the Grand Union Canal, which intersects with the Thames in west London.

Limehouse Basin, Lee Valley, London, England

Limehouse Basin, Lee Valley, London, England

Locks between River Thames and Limehouse Basin, Lee Valley, London, England

Locks between River Thames and Limehouse Basin, Lee Valley, London, England

Walk the few yards beyond the locks and you reach the Thames with magnificent views of Canary Wharf. Then it’s off towards London proper, but that’s for next time…

The River Thames at Limehouse Basin, Lee Valley, London, England

The River Thames at Limehouse Basin, Lee Valley, London, England

Hula Hooping at the Whitecross Street Party

East London is truly an extraordinary place. I’ve spent a dozen years living in the area around Hoxton, in that time it has been transformed in a way that is barely credible. Although it retains some of its working class industrial heritage, the area has been consumed by a avalanche of fashionableness, making it the destination of choice for trend-minded twenty- and thirty-somethings.

The area’s development into the uber-fashionable began with the arrival of a new generation of young British artists, drawn to its large and affordable (at the time) warehouse spaces. This was followed by waves of bankers and financiers (it is very close to the financial heart of the city), and, most recently, high-tech and media industries. The remarkably ugly roundabout at Old Street has been given the title The Silicon Roundabout – London’s version of Silicon Valley.

Giant tentacles burst out of a window, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Giant tentacles burst out of a window, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Areas that were once a bit run down have been transformed. Whitecross Street is one of those places. Traditionally a working class area, it has in recent years become painfully fashionable, including a fabulous weekly food market on Thursday and Friday. Observing the crowds at the recent Whitecross Street Party only reinforced that reality. It was a pastiche of a traditional British street party, all a bit retro and tongue-in-cheek, but really good fun, with lots of music and food.

The first thing we came across, wedged into a side street between Local Authority housing estates, was a duo doing a spoof of a local radio station ‘roadshow’. To say their retro hip-hop moves were daring, is an understatement. It was as excruciating as watching your aunt and uncle body-popping at a family gathering. I particularly liked the radio station’s claim of being Radio so local you can smell it. It was all a bit hip-hop panto. Brilliant.

Hip-hop caravan, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Hip-hop caravan, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Walking a little further down the street we found ourselves drawn towards a crowd of people. As we joined the throng a troupe of quirky hula hoopers started to hula their way around another side street. You had to be there, it was hilarious – 1920s Hollywood done with a smile and an ironic shimmy.

Hula-hooping, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Hula-hooping, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Hula-hooping, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Hula-hooping, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Hula-hooping, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Hula-hooping, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Hula-hooping, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Hula-hooping, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

It seems like this sort of event happens all the time these days, attracting a diverse crowd of Londoners and tourists. For once the weather played along, with temperatures reaching 30 Celcius. Hot work for hula hooping.

Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Wood block game, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Wood block game, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Whitecross Street is an area where street art doesn’t just flourish, it is encouraged and patronised. There are some permanent street art ‘displays’ as well as more recent wall art. Not surprising then that there was a street art installation during the street party. I love the giant nodding dog peering over the top of a building.

Animal lollipops, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Animal lollipops, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Dog street art, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Dog street art, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Tattoos, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Tattoos, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Tattoos, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Tattoos, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Street artists at work, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Street artists at work, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Street artists at work, Whitecross Street Party, London, England

Street artists at work, Whitecross Street Party, London, England