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Urban Walks - London's East End, Bishopsgate to Bethnal Green

A houseboat on Regent's Canal

Jack the Ripper's haunt, the Ten Bells

Brick Lane
by Isabel Clift

[From Summer 2010] They're only a stop apart on the Central line, but you can see a huge chunk of East End life in London on a walk between tube stations Liverpool Street and Bethnal Green... you just have to take the scenic route.

My walk begins after a day at the office, when a relatively long, wind-down stroll is just what’s needed. I step off the tube at Liverpool Street, emerge at the station’s Bishopsgate exit and immediately crick my neck up – it’s impossible not to when you’re standing at the foot of Heron Tower, the City’s newest skyscraper that’s still under construction. From behind its monolithic silver-blue side, a curved sliver of The Gherkin building flashes in the evening sun.

This is where the tectonic plates of London’s financial district, the City, and the style-conscious East End meet. I turn left and manoeuvre my way up Bishopsgate through the current of people in suits heading for the station, and turn right at the corner of Brushfield Street. At the end are Commercial Street and the Ten Bells Pub, a pleasingly scruffy building in contrast to rest of this brushed-up bit of Shoreditch. Jack the Ripper’s victims drank here, a claim to fame that’s brought so many punters through the door it probably ceased to be an evocative East End boozer many moons ago – still, it’s a fact that makes me look twice at the pub every time I walk this route.

I make a right again at Hanbury Street and am confronted with a shop impossible to pass if you’re a bag or shoe person (I am both), or if you don’t mind a bit of wear and tear in your purchases (also guilty). I’m talking Absolute Vintage, a warehouse-like vintage store with two-storey high ceilings and walls lined with shoes in a rainbow of colour-coordinated sections. Chanel bags are kept in locked glasses cases, leather suitcases stand in rows on the floor. There’s a whole corner dedicated to matte black biker boots. I admit I duck in here like I’m magnetised by invisible force.

It’s a fun diversion, and the shop’s somewhere near the top of a veritable mountain of vintage stores that have sprung up in the past ten years with the area’s gentrification (there’s a weird correlation here in replacing real scruffiness with a polished-up version of it). I finally extract myself and reach Brick Lane at a junction part-way down Hanbury Street. To my right are the neons of the street’s Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants, to my left the yellow disc sign of club 93 Feet East and the jutting tower of the old Truman Brewery. Where I stand marks a rough division in Brick Lane’s commercial enterprise – the former bit trading on the street’s South-Asian immigrant heritage and the latter on its credibility with young Londoners. I walk left, and pass more vintage stores shutting for the evening, emptying Turkish cafes, people sitting on the curb with post-work bottles of beer. It’s all very relaxed and quiet – the perfect time to see this part of Brick Lane away from the gridlock of the Sunday Market.

Columbia Road is next on my route – to get to it I turn right at the junction of Brick Lane and Bethnal Green Road, left at Turin Street and left again at Gosset Street, following the road round for a minute or two before hitting on Columbia Road’s cobbled surface. What’s the big draw here? Mainly that the curving row of colourful, village-y shops is such a spick-and-span contrast to Brick Lane and Bethnal Green Road’s gritty functionality. The skyscrapers of the City feel a world away – though turn around and you see Broadgate Tower with its smooth, zigzag-patterned facade dominating the skyline. I pass shops with names like Supernice and Suck and Chew, then stop at The Royal Oak pub. It’s time to get a G&T. Inside is polished and wood-panelled, with the feel of a Gentleman’s library with a bar replacing the bookshelves. I meet my friend on the back patio and we enjoy our drinks next to the pub kitchen’s open door, where the chefs’ chat, a radio playing chart music and the ringing order bell give our talk a happy background buzz.

After my drink I bid farewell to my friend and am back on Columbia Road. I’m going to finish the route with a stroll along Regent’s Canal, my favourite bit of the East End. At the top of the street I cross the Hackney Road and walk up Goldsmith’s row, with the faint sawdusty scent of Hackney City Farm (which flanks the left side of the path) in the air. Perhaps it’s the presence of the farm, but here’s where your surroundings really start to feel like an uber-trendy model village – a place that’s cool and gorgeous to look at and knows it, too. I pass the flower-festooned facade of The Albion pub, and the urban-rustic stylings of the Little Georgia cafe (which has a cult following) and cross the bridge to the junction of the canal and Broadway Market. If you come on a Saturday, Broadway’s crowded with stalls selling artisan foodstuffs, handmade lingerie, photography books and the like, and on sunny days it’s hard to move for sunbathers and home barbecues on London Fields beyond.

I take the steps down to the canal towpath and walk eastwards. If the walk from Bishopsgate was a (very mild) workout, then this is the chill-out section at the end. The giant circular steel structures of Bethnal Green’s gas holders tower above, and from the bridge you can see London’s tallest skyscraper, Canary Wharf, through the larger one’s framework. It’s a reminder of the urban sprawl beyond, but as you walk deeper it dips below eye-line. I amble my way along, dodging waves of evening joggers and cyclists, and stop to take a look at an elaborate graffiti work of skulls and gummy teeth under one of the railway bridges (a Google later tells me it was done by graffiti crew Burning Candy – and apparently there are Banksy works further west). The canal walk feels like a behind-the-scenes tour through local life here, and that’s the magic of it. You stroll a few feet from peoples’ bedrooms in brightly-painted houseboats, marvel at the sleek new warehouse conversions on the opposite bank mixed in with decrepit actual warehouses, peer into peoples’ back gardens that open out onto to the water... it’s all so normal, really, but all so utterly interesting. When I turn a corner and the evening light’s at the right angle, the canal looks like a stream of gold.

My walk finishes at the Roman Road Bridge. On climbing the steps to the street, it’s a ten minute stroll west down Roman Road before hitting Bethnal Green station. Most likely, the tube ride away will be a sharp introduction back into the wonderfully crowded, grimy, noisy, world that is this city.

If you go:
For London accommodation, see’s collection of luxury hotels in London.
Eating, Drinking and Other:
The Ten Bells, 84 Commercial Street Tel: 020 7366 1721
Absolute Vintage, 15 Hanbury Street Tel: 020 7247 3883
The Royal Oak, 73 Columbia Road Tel: 020 7729 2220

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Photographs by Isabel Clift

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