Monica Ali’s book might have brought it international fame, but as a destination piece, it did Brick Lane no favours. Did anybody really want to visit a place that seemed like a poor cousin to Southall, different only in that it was inhabited by Bangladeshis rather than Indians, full of curry houses and shops that sold flashy saris and salwar-kameezes from the last decade? Add its location in London’s East End, and Brick Lane’s desirability was well into double digits. In the negative.
So when I asked what was the one place I should see in London, to be told “Brick Lane” was a bit of a stunner. Since it came from an Indian friend, it ruled out any chance that I was being sent for a glimpse of the “exotic”. This meant… honestly, I had no idea what it meant as she dragged me along on a Sunday morning.
Around the corner: A couple at one of the many coffee shops on Brick Lane.
Masses of people surged around me, sweeping me along down the road, allowing me only short glimpses of boutiques selling vintage-wear, indie designer stores, and the many restaurants and pubs, outdoor food stalls and pavement sellers, before depositing me at Sunday UpMarket. It took a moment for me to catch my breath and my friend took the opportunity to give me a thumbnail sketch of the area.
Historically, London’s East End has been favoured by immigrants—Huguenots in the 17th century, Russian Jews in the 19th century and Bangladeshis in the 20th—and the newest wave is that of the “creative class”, which has embraced its affordability. They have, in turn, led to the area’s renaissance, one in which Brick Lane has a starring role. Once a place to buy fruits or eat curry, it is now visited daily by 24-hour party people, City workers, artists, designers, squatters, sellers of tat, music aficionados, and a lot of the weird and the wacky. I could see why. It had buzz, it had vim, it had vibe… and, oh boy, it had crowds.
A stall at the Columbia Flower Market
Sunday UpMarket, where I had been debouched, was no exception. The weekly Sunday indoor market at the Old Truman Brewery draws the crowds because it has something of a reputation in fashionable circles, particularly in the area of food. On the fashion side, it has stalls with clothes, accessories and jewellery: some quirky, some cool. There’s also a smattering of art, and some home décor. But consider the shopping an appetizer for the main course, the huge section of food stalls that dish out cuisine of all sorts—Ethiopian, Spanish, Moroccan, Caribbean, Japanese. The snaking queue suggested that the Japanese stall was the most popular, and I joined it. This was my introduction to okonomiyaki: Who’d have guessed that a pancake made of cabbage could taste so good!
The crowd had thinned out by late afternoon, so we turned on to Dray Walk and walked into the iconic Rough Trade East, considered London’s best independent music store. Here, LPs are still sold (Gucci’s Frida Giannini, a huge LP collector, visits when she’s in London) and in-store gigs are a regular feature. It’s possible to spend hours in there, and I did my best, though this meant resisting the temptations of Spitalfields Market, which was a stone’s throw away; and of the nearby delis, galleries and pop-up stores selling luxury fashion at discounted prices.
Okonomiyaki a Japanese cabbage pancake stuffed with cheese
While it’s a major attraction, Brick Lane isn’t the be-all of Bethnal Green. On the main road is the Town Hall Hotel & Apartments, a hotel that opened in the erstwhile Town Hall in spring 2010. More importantly, it houses El Bulli-trained chef Nuno Mendes’ restaurant Viajante, which serves up tasting menus of three, six, nine or 12 courses and won its first Michelin star in January 2011 (no, you don’t get to choose your meal; no, you don’t know what you’re going to get; and, no, staring longingly at it is not helpful in scoring a table).
It’s en route Broadway Market in nearby Hackney. There’s another market of note in the area: Columbia Road Flower Market, but more on that later. Broadway Market, while a fine place to go shopping on any given day, really comes alive on Saturdays, with stalls selling organic food, artisanal cheese and some absolutely scrumptious baked goods. It’s a far more relaxed affair than Brick Lane and the lulling walk to it, along Regent’s Canal, is the main reason. Passing moored barges on one side and cyclists on the other, by the time you arrive at Broadway Market, you’re more than ready to grab a seat at the pavement cafés and while away the day. Impossible, of course, the lure of the market’s wares is too strong and the rewards great—there’s a plum and almond tart that’s seared in my memory.
Eat, drink: Boiler House—the food hall of Sunday UpMarket.
The towpath can be absolutely addictive, and walking further along it, I find a whole lot more of Regent’s Canal on view as I walk towards Victoria Park. Green, quiet and dappled with sunlight (it was my lucky day), the path almost let me forget there was a city around it. It was with definite reluctance that I emerged into Victoria Park, whose charms—especially those of the Pavilion Café—while many and undeniable, seemed too manicured in comparison.
There comes a point when you have to ask yourself just how many markets you can see before eschewing them for the rest of your life. Thankfully, it’s not a question I had to answer when I came to Columbia Flower Market. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t interested in the flowers, though you’ll be hard put to ignore them, because Columbia Road is one of the last bastions of independent stores: boutiques, garden stores, stationery shops, tea rooms and cafés. If you thought you were tired of the retail experience, this is where to go to put the fun back into it.
Also See | Trip Planner/London (PDF)
That is also pretty much the appeal of East End: It’s one of the few places left in London where you can still find a surprise around every corner.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org