Long associated with poverty, over-crowding and grime, East London came under the spotlight as the location of the 2012 Olympic Games, held in Stratford. The East End, synonymous with cockneys, also has a history of being the first stopping-point for immigrants and so being deeply multicultural. Proud of its heritage, the area retains a distinct character, where inner-city poverty, fashionable gentrification, genuine cultural diversity and both trendifying and impoverished artists bump up against each other. Over in Docklands, skyscrapers and glamourous riverside developments have been built on the site of the former docks, once so important to Britain’s trade.
In the 1990s, the depressed areas of Hoxton and Shoreditch, to the north and south of Old Street, became fashionable as young artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin moved in, creating studios in redundant warehouses. As they became successful, art dealers and web designers followed and urban desolation became urban chic.
Commercial galleries radiate from Hoxton Square, the location of the fashionable White Cube gallery. Despite a rash of trendy café-bars and rising property prices that has forced out the less successful artists, the area admittedly still looks inner-city bleak, and many of the more successful artists have now moved on. However, the Hoxton and Shoreditch area remains a major nightlife hotspot and a magnet for the trendy and artistic.
A few minutes’ walk to the north-east, on Kingsland Road, the Geffrye Museum is the only British museum to deal with the interior decorating tastes of the urban middle classes from 1600 to the present day. Housed in a square of former almshouses built in 1714, it is a fascinating social chronicle.
Once London’s poorest area, Bethnal Green is now rapidly gentrifying. It is home to the V&A Museum of Childhood, a branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Displays range from classic children’s toys to the development of nappies and the roots of adolescent rebellion.
Less than a mile away, the Ragged School Museum has a reconstructed kitchen and classroom to show how life was once lived by London’s East Enders. The ‘History of the East End’ represents the changes the area has seen, from immigrants to abject poverty, to the Blitz and recent regeneration. On Sundays, the Columbia Road Market specialises in flowers and plants.
Spitalfields contain several 18th-century streets of architectural interest, such as Fournier Street, where Huguenot silk weavers lived. Dennis Severs’ House in Folgate Street is laid out as if occupied by an 18th-century family and lit only by gaslight. At the end of Fournier Street is Christ Church, considered the greatest of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s churches. To the west lies Spitalfields Market, a former wholesale fruit and vegetable market, which now has antiques, crafts and organic food stalls. To the south, Petticoat Lane Market is still flourishing, packed on Sunday with over 1,000 stalls specialising in cheap clothes.
To the east of Fournier Street is Brick Lane, home to a large Bangladeshi community and famous for its cheap curry houses. It also has some of East London’s best nightlife, much of which is held within the Old Truman Brewery, which is also home to quirky shops and a Sunday market.
On Old Castle Street, a Victorian bathhouse has been converted into The Women’s Library, with a collection of suffragette memorabilia and banners. The Whitechapel Art Gallery was founded by a local vicar and his wife in 1897. It mounts high-profile exhibitions in a spectacular space. To the south (just east of the Tower of London) is St Katharine’s Dock. Built in 1828, it is a smart yacht marina, with a variety of restaurants and pubs.
London’s obsolete docks were transformed in the 1990s with high-tech office buildings such as the Canary Wharf complex, whose main tower is Britain’s highest building, at 800ft (244m). Amidst the modernity, many former warehouses in the India Quays have been converted into bars and restaurants. An incongruous attraction is the 34-acre (14-hectare) Mudchute City Farm on Pier Street. The Museum in Docklands on West India Quay recounts 2,000 years of history, and includes a model of Old London Bridge.