When you think of London, what springs to mind? I can guarantee for a lot of people it will be Big Ben, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament. But what about the more hidden London? The London with more locals than tourists, a melting pot of culture, quirky, individual shops, and some of the city’s darkest and bloodiest history.
Sitting very slightly east of the City of London (I am talking about the original square mile here) is Spitalfields, Bricklane and Shoreditch, a buzzing neighbourhood with so much to offer. Easily accessible from London Liverpool Street, the narrow streets could trick you into thinking you have stepped into the Victorian times, just without the unsanitary stench that lingered back in the 1800s.
Like normal, I stepped off the train at Liverpool Street without any sort of plan. Other than having breakfast with a friend we hadn’t even chosen a place. This is an area you can walk the main streets, back streets, side streets, and it doesn’t even matter because you will always see something interesting.
Spitalfields, whilst being described as being in the East End, is still very much part of Central London. The land once belonged to St Mary Spital, a priory or hospital that was constructed on the east side of the Bishopsgate thoroughfare in 1197, this is where the name ‘Spitalfields’ came from. The district was rural up until the 17th century when streets were laid out for Irish and Huguenot silk weavers, the end of the century saw large amounts of terraced homes being built to home the weavers, this building continued into the 18th century alongside grand urban mansions built around the newly created Bishops Square.
The area is an interesting mix of old and new, with the skyscrapers of Liverpool Street just a stone’s throw away, Spitalfields is characterised by cobbled streets, cafes, olde pubs and one of London’s oldest markets. This was also one of the worst criminal slums in England and an old hunting ground of Jack the Ripper who slew a number of local prostitutes in the 1800s. If you want to learn more about this still unidentified serial killer, there are a number of Jack the Ripper tours operating in this area.
The famous Spitalfields Market was established in 1638 when Charles I approved the selling of flesh, fowl and roots, the market now sees around 25,000 visitors each day.
It was during the Victorian Era where the area went into decline due to the weakening of the local silk industry and the area fast turned into slums. As more and more migrants arrived in London, the pressure on housing was reaching a breaking point. Landlords were dividing houses up into multiple dwelling so families were having to live in tiny, unsanitary conditions, leaving a cholera outbreak imminent.
The area around Brick Lane saw a huge influx of Bangladeshi immigrants, making it one of the best places in the world to enjoy a curry. However, this area offers so much more than Asian cuisine, the nearby area of Shoreditch has fast become one of London’s most popular areas for the younger generation. Historically an entertainment district, the streets are still dotted with bars, restaurants, cafes and ample nightclubs, Friday and Saturday nights do not tend to be quiet here.
The area has undergone considerable gentrification in the last 20 years, becoming one of the biggest transformations in London within the last 30 years. The word Hipster is thrown around a lot, but the general consensus is that Shoreditch contains the largest proportion of ‘hipsters’ in London. Quirky and alternative establishments continue to pop up, including a cereal cafe, cat cafe and of course there are plenty of places for bushy-bearded, skinny jean wearing cool kids to get their flat whites.