Brick Lane, Part 4, Art, Fashion and Furniture

Luna and Curious, Brick Lane
Luna and Curious, Brick Lane

The north end of Brick Lane, from the Truman Brewery, all the way up to Bethnall Green, is the frontier of edgy art, fashion and retail.

Artists, including the Britpack’s Tracey Emin, have worked in the area since the 1980s. Galleries have grown around them. In this stretch of the street, establishments like Brick Lane Gallery, Luna and Curious and NOG, champion contemporary and street art by newcomers.  Walls and underpasses feature Graffiti by masters like Banksy, D*Face and Jet Aerosol.

Up here, the old Rag Trade, first founded by the Huguenots centuries ago,  forges a bold path forward. The Laden Showroom, which supports innovative young designers and dresses celebrities like Pete Doherty and Victoria Beckham, is London’s leading fashion showroom. Vintage stores have new twists. Alongside Rokit’s racks of military regalia, cowboy boots and ball gowns, are original t shirts and crafted jewellery. Tatty Devine’s quirky accessories marry retro dreams to modern possibilities. Furniture stores and cafes take wood and coffee breaks in new directions. At Unto This Last, planks morph into unbelievable shapes as shelves, CD racks and fruit bowls, while at LCD Surf shop punters can surf the net, buy a t shirt, take a board for a dry run, watch surf videos and drink fair-trade, organic coffee.

Brick Lane's North End
Brick Lane’s North End

Also out here, on the cutting edge, at glaring odds with their avant garde neighbours, are two of Brick Lane’s oldest businesses, survivors of its Jewish past. The Beigel Shop, “London’s first and best beigel shop” was founded in 1855 and the Beigel Bake was one of the city’s first all night eateries. Customers still come from all over London to queue for their traditional, crisp beigels.

So, if retro, graffitti and innovation are your thing, head north on Brick Lane you won’t be disappointed!

Brick Lane, Part 3, The Truman Brewery

Half way down Brick Lane, the Truman brewery’s towering brick chimney, on the corner of Hanbury Street, is both symbol of born again Brick Lane and a marker of the beginning of new territory.

The Truman Brewery Chimney
The Truman Brewery Chimney

Since 1998, when it stopped producing beer, the Truman Brewery building has been a creative centre for designers, architects, artists, musicians and artisans. New couturiers present their creations at weekly fashion markets. The annual Free Range Art Exhibition of Youth Art and Creativity, “the world’s largest art happening”, shows the work of young art and design graduates. In the old Truman Brewery, days are easily lost among the 11 acres of galleries, showrooms, shops, cafes and restaurants.

Nights are easily lost too in Truman’s clubs. Shabbily chic Vibe Bar has a DJ, corners with tatty couches to collapse on and a cool courtyard to retreat to. At 93 Feet East, fantastic live music, which includes debutants along with big names like White Stripes and Radiohead, entirely eclipses the décor.

It’s worthwhile losing days and nights in the Truman Brewery!

 

Brick Lane, Part 2, Little Bangladesh

This series of posts was first published as an article in the Travel and Indulgence section of The Australian (newspaper) in October, 2008

In the 1920s the first Bangladeshi, mostly single men from Sylhet in the north, arrived in Brick Lane. Packed into tiny bedsits and rented rooms, they laboured on the docks, in sweatshops and in clothing factories. The first curry houses opened and the great tradition of Anglo-Southern Indian cuisine began.

Outside a Brick Lane Curry House
Outside a Brick Lane Curry House

Now, the south end of Brick Lane is Banglatown, the heartland and the symbol of British Bangladesh. Here, Monica Ali set her controversial novel Brick Lane and here, outraged Bangladeshi took to the streets to protest against Brick Lane the movie which followed it.

Here the call to prayer brings out old and orthodox Islam, the patriarchs, the matriarchs in hijabs and the  fervent, bearded young. Signs in Sylheti and English point the way to the mosque.

Bangladeshi businesses line the pavements; money exchanges, travel agents, barbers, Islamic goods, leather ware, music and book shops. There are food stores stacked with fragrant, brightly packaged produce and piled with exotic fruits and vegetables, like Taj, which flies in Halal meat and fresh fish daily from the Bay of Bengal. There are fabric houses like Epra, crammed with bales of sumptuous sari silk, gorgeous brocades and cottons of amazing colour and design, all at giveaway prices. There are seventy Indian restaurants, the highest concentration in the world.

Curry is now a staple of the English diet and heading down to Brick Lane for a tikka is almost as much a London tradition as stepping out to the pub for a pint. Choosing a restaurant is a ritual; there are menus to browse, celebrity endorsements to check and curry touts’ deals to consider.

Monsoon, self-proclaimed “best of Brick Lane” is endorsed by the Beckhams. Housed in a narrow Hugenot terrace with a wide dark curving staircase, its style is old Raj, with layered tablecloths, heavy silver and fine china edged with Indian filigree. Indian art festoons the walls. The house specialty is chicken tikka masala, best teamed with spicy thali, smoky naan, samosas, coconut rice and Kingfisher beer. (Monsoon, unlike many other establishments, has a bar) A picturesque dessert menu shows pages of flamboyant fluoro-coloured, fruit-flavoured ice-cream extravanzas with fanciful names, like Royal Cup. In the background of lads’, tourists’ and city types nights’ out, family life plays out – a bored schoolboy polishes glasses behind the bar, a teenage girl in a hijab takes a break at back table, a gnarled grandmother watches from the kitchen door, a suave, avuncular maitre d’, patronises the punters and lords it over the long-suffering and endlessly obliging young waiters.

This short stretch of Brick Lane might seem another world, an exotic add-on from the Indian subcontinent, but it’s very much a part of modern Britain.

Brick Lane; Part 1, Now and Then

This series of posts was first published as an article in the Travel and Indulgence section of The Australian (newspaper) in October, 2008

Saris and salwars blend with hip urban wear. An urgent techno beat underscores the plaintive sound of Bollywood. Loud graffitti spills across a scarred brick wall. Skeletal stalls straggle along a stretch of footpath, their feet in the debris of the day’s market. A chic boutique, its window dressed in yesterday’s glamour, shoulders a convenience store. Scaffolding shrouds a Georgian terrace. Curry houses crowd around it. There’s a tang of tumeric in the fumy city air.  Sylheti voices, as mysterious as the Brahmaputra mingle with English, as fast and unfathomable as the Thames. This is Brick Lane, in the Borough of Tower Hamlets in London’s East End, the curry  capital of the UK and the hub of cutting edge London fashion, art, retail and nightlife. It is a place of sharp contrasts, with a vibrant, dynamic present and a long, endlessly shifting past.

Graffitti in Brick Lane
Graffitti in Brick Lane

Brick Lane’s story turns on bricks, brewing and migration.

The Romans built 8th century Londinium with clay from  the area . In the 15th century, the first brickworks was established on rustic Whitechapel Lane, which linked the hamlets of Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. Soon  Whitechapel Lane became Brick Lane and it has remained so ever since.

In the 17th century the first brewery was built;  the fighters of the Great London Fire slaked their thirst with Brick Lane beer.  After the fire, the city was rebuilt with Brick Lane bricks. In 1724 Benjamin Truman founded the Black Eagle Brewery and it was the lifeblood of the lane until 1988.

For centuries the dispossessed and the hopeful poured across the London docks and settled in this enclave between the sea and the old city walls. The first great migrant wave, in the 17th century, brought Huguenot silk weavers, “refugiés” from religious  persecution in France. By the end of the 18th century, the area was a thriving centre of weaving and textiles and the lane was lined with brick townhouses with wide windowed upper-storey workrooms. But in the 19th century mechanized looms and printed fabrics  gave the kiss of death to the old craft. Brick Lane slumped.

Into the Huguenots’ abandoned houses and workrooms poured thousands of Ashkenazy Jews, fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Most were craftsmen, tailors, and leather workers. Of  cruel conditions and punishing hours, London’s rag trade was born.

In the 1920s the first Bangladeshi, mostly single men from Sylhet in the north, arrived. Packed into tiny Brick Lane bedsits and rented rooms, they laboured on the docks, in sweatshops and in clothing factories. The first curry houses opened and the great tradition of Anglo-Southern Indian cuisine began. Within fifty years, Brick Lane was little Bangladesh. The Jewish community slowly sold up and moved away.

In the 1980s a new migration began. These were not dispossessed refugees but pioneers of a new inner urban lifestyle. Innovators and artists set up studios in former factories and warehouses. Developers, entrepreneurs and cashed-up trendsetters followed. A new Brick Lane was born (to be continued)

 

London’s Savoy Hotel

Like so many of the streets, landmarks and buildings that dot that rise of land stretching from Waterloo Bridge down to Charing Cross Station on the northern bank of the Thames, the Savoy Hotel takes its name from Savoy Palace.

The Savoy
The Savoy

Built in 1246 by Count Peter of Savoy, the palace became part of the estate of Henry II who rented it to his wife’s uncle for the extraordinary sum of three barbed arrows. Later, it was home to John of Gaunt, patron of Geoffrey Chaucer, and later still to the Earls of Lancaster. Finally, during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, Savoy Palace was burned to the ground. In 1505 the building was resurrected. It functioned as a hospital until the 1820s when it was demolished to make way for Waterloo Bridge. The Savoy Chapel was the only part of Count Peter’s palace to survive the conflagration, the rebuild and the demolition. It still stands today in Savoy Street.

The Savoy Hotel was built in 1889 by the great theatrical impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte. The building was funded from the profits of the neighbouring Savoy theatre, established in 1881 to stage Carte’s productions of Gilbert and Sullivan light operas. The 19th century Savoy hotel rivalled the world’s most innovative and luxurious. It was a dizzying nine stories high, was made of artificial stone and had hitherto unheard of horizontal windows.  It was one of the first hotels in the world to introduce the ensuite bathroom and full electrical lighting. The Savoy opened with Cesar Ritz (who later went on to found the Ritz Hotel in Picadilly) as manager and Auguste Escoffier, the legendary Frenchman, as Chef.

Over the years, the Savoy has been a popular haunt of the royal, the rich and the famous. It has hosted many great parties, like HG Wells’ spectacular 70th birthday party in October, 1936. The ultra chic and ambient American Bar has feted the opening and closing of countless theatrical shows. The vast River Restaurant, a sea of white-clothed tables, sparkling with crystal and silver, has seen innumerable celebratory dinners.

The Savoy bedrooms have hosted many celebrities. They have also witnessed their share of scandal likeOscar Wilde’s affair with Lord Alfred Douglas which took place in Room 346.

The Savoy’s outlook, across the Victoria Embankment over the river, is spectacular and Monet’s impressionist painting, the Thames, shows the the view from a third floor window.

In November, 2007, the tinkling piano in the American Bar fell silent. Much of the furniture, along with the china, the crystal, the cutlery and the linen fell under the auctioneer’s hammer. The doors to the Savoy closed, a shroud of scaffolding was thrown around its artificial stone walls and a lengthy programme of renovation and refurbishment began.

Fans and frequenters of the Savoy were left wondering what to expect. Had the Savoy as we all knew it and loved it gone for good?  Would those wide sweeping staircases remain? Would that grand dining room, with its windows onto the gardens? Had the American Bar vanished forever? Or would it all be back, the same as it was, but newer, fresher and better, to face the next century?

In October 2010 the Savoy re-opened. The new foyer (The Thames!) houses a winter garden gazebo, under a stained-glass cupola, which is the venue for both dinner and high tea. There’s a  teashop and patisserie (Savoy Tea) and a glass-walled gym with rooftop swimming pool, above the Savoy Theatre. The new black and gold Art Deco Beaufort Bar offers nightly cabaret. The erstwhile River Restaurant, now Kaspar’s,  is also decked out in the art deco style. The American Bar (thank goodness) remains almost untouched. The famous Savoy Grill, now relieved of its Michelin Star, is managed by none other than Gordon Ramsay. There are seven private dining rooms all named after Gilbert and Sullivan Operas.

The bedrooms on the Thames side sport Edwardian decor, while on the Strand side it’s Art Deco all the way..

An interesting addition to the new Savoy is the small museum, next to the American Bar, with a revolving exhibition of items from the hotel’s archives.

The hotel also now offers a champagne river tour, by motor launch departing from the Savoy Pier in front of the hotel and taking in historic spots both upstream and down.

As the hotel critic for the Telegraph wrote: “The Savoy is still The Savoy, only better. … and his counterpart from the Guardian said “The Savoy is back where it belongs – right on top.”

But even so, business is not brisk at the new Savoy and a cloud hangs over its future.

The Museum of Garden History

At a busy roundabout on London’s Albert Embankment, just over the river from the Houses of Parliament is the world’s first Museum of Garden History.

The Museum of Garden History
The Museum of Garden History

Housed in the lovely old St Mary-at-Lambeth church and set in a peaceful, almost rustic     garden, it is staffed by tweedy, be-brogued gentle-folk with unmistakable stamp of the gardening enthusiast. The Museum of Garden History is quaint, other-worldly and a fascinating insight into the British passion for their gardens whether they be grand rambling parks or modest allotments.

An erstwhile baptismal alcove, just inside the church entrance is now a tiny oral history “auditorium”. It booms an whispers its stories in the corner like a tardis. Wall displays trace the history and evolution of gardens and look at the work of great garden designers like Gertrude Jekyll, at gardeners like Capability Brown and at plant collectors like the John Tradescants. One of the central displays outlines the rise and demise of one of England’s great seed merchants as well as examples of the merchandise of the house. Others house historic collections of gardening artefacts – tools, watering cans, gloves and boots along with gnomes and other curious garden ornaments. There are interesting post-war advertising posters which feature mother (with the teapot) the children (at the table) and father (pushing the lawn-mower) in the idyllic shaded garden of their grand, two-storey, unmistakably English house.

The Museum Café sells fabulously colourful vegetarian foods – salads, pastas, chunky and grainy combos, fat muffins and moist cakes, thick with fruit, as well coffee, tea, juices and smoothies.

In the rear courtyard of the church is the tomb of the John Tradescants, the famous plant hunters and gardeners to Charles I. The 17th century knot garden, which is the courtyard’s centrepiece, is planted with specimens discovered and grown by the Tradescants. Also in the courtyard is the grave of Captain William Bligh, carved with words of high praise for his distinguished service in the British Navy (No mention anywhere of the ignominious Bounty affair)

The Museum shop is crammed with charming little gardening knick-knacks, beautiful books, cards, garden produce bottled or tinned in tiny containers, toys and of course tools and clothes for the garden!

 

Charles Dickens’ House

Doughty Street is wide, treeless and somewhat desolate. It is lined with tall, 19th century terraced houses – grand homes, no doubt, in a better past, but now chopped up into poky flats and modest offices. For Sale and For Lease signs in curtainless, fluorescent-lit windows and narrow front gardens speak of a changing present and hint at an uncertain future. 1953

Inside the Charles Dickens House
Inside the Charles Dickens House

The Dickens House and Museum, at number 48 Doughty Street was rescued from demolition by the Dickens Fellowship in 1922. It is blessedly intact and beautifully preserved and restored, true to both its Georgian style and its original function as Dickens’ family home and workplace. Thick lace curtains hang at its windows and boxed geraniums bloom on their sills. Only a discreet plaque on the plain façade tells us that this is the Charles Dickens Museum. The front door is closed but a small sign welcomes visitors and invites them to ring the bell and enter.

Dickens moved to this house in 1837, at the age of twenty-five, soon after his marriage to Catherine Hogarth and just as he was beginning to taste his first success as a writer. The two years he spent here were full. He completed Pickwick Papers, wrote Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby and began Barnaby Rudge. His first two children were born here and his sister-in-law, Mary who was the inspiration for many of his heroines, including Little Nell of The Old Curiousity Shop, died here. 48 Doughty Street was also the scene of frequent literary dinner parties.

The four floors of the Dickens House include authentic Victorian rooms, like the bedroom, the drawing room and the laundry, as well as a model of the Dingley Dell kitchen from the Pickwick papers. There is a beautiful collection of original furniture, including the rosewood drawing room sideboard and table used by the Dickens family. The velvet covered desk, designed by Dickens himself, which accompanied him on all his reading tours, sits in pride of place. The author’s original manuscripts, personal papers, signed letters and the annotated books used for his dramatic productions are on display. The walls are hung with Dickens family portraits by notable contemporary painters. There is a family tree and fascinating little accounts of the Dickens’ children’s final destinies. Two very poignant items in the display are, firstly, the grille, souvenired by Dickens from Marshalsea Prison, where his family was sentenced to a year’s incarceration for debt and secondly the cardboard plaque which bears a reflection from the author on his “sentence” to work in the blacking, or ink, factory at the age of nine.

Charles Dickens' thoughts on work at the blacking factory
Charles Dickens’ thoughts on work at the blacking factory

The Museum also houses a library, which includes many books used by Dickens himself as well as reading and research rooms.

There were only two three people at the Charles Dickens House the day I visited. I wandered from floor to floor and from room to room, in relative solitude, lost among the treasures and steeped in the atmosphere of the place. I gazed down at the garden and browsed in the library. I walked in Mr Dickens world.

The Charles Dickens House is well worth a visit, particularly for those who know and love his work. But even for those who don’t, this house is alive with great stories and full of Victorian treasures. The Charles Dickens House is open from Monday to Saturday, from 10a.m. to 5p.m. Entry is 3.50, 2.50 or 1.50 pounds.

Charles Dickens’ London

In my childhood imagination there were two Londons; the first a grand, golden, royal city, a collage of TV images and magazine pictures of Buckingham Palace, royal coaches, Big Ben, the Tower of London and Beefeaters; the second, a dark, chaotic old place, verging on the grotesque, which sprang straight from pages of Charles Dickens’ novels, of crowded houses, dirty streets, close, noisy taverns, seething courtrooms, dank prisons, oppressive poverty and omnipresent injustice. 1947

Charles Dickens' house in Doughty Street
Charles Dickens’ house in Doughty Street

Most of my first London is here, part of the living landscape, easily recognisable, and, in reality, pretty much as it was in the pictures. Much of the second remains too. As Ed Glinert writes in his book Literary London, “There is little of London that isn’t Dickensian, so intensely did the author walk its streets and use both its major landmarks and its more obscure sites in his stories”. However, hidden behind the overlays of time and progress, the Dickensian London is harder to find and demands more of the imagination. So, armed with Literary London and following Glinert’s guided walk, “From Dickens’ House to Fagan’s Den” I set off to uncover it.

The walk is a rough triangle. It leads out along Holborn’s Theobald Road, a roaring traffic clogged, concrete bounded thoroughfare, into Oliver Twist territory, first to Hatton Garden, site of Fang’s “very notorious Metropolitain Police Station’ then to Saffron Hill, locale of Bill Sykes Three Cripples pub. It continues along Clerkenwall Green, scene of  Oliver Twist’s arrest, then turns into Goswell Road where Mr Pickwick lived. It passes the 21st century village of Barbican and follows Aldergate Street, which sits like an urban gorge at the bottom of cliffs of glass and steel and where, at the long-gone Albion Hotel, Dickens celebrated the completion of Nicholas Nickleby. At Cheapside, where abseiling builders crawl like flies up the side of a fat, round tower and where Mr Jaggers meets Pip in Great Expectations, it turns again.  Leading back along Newgate Street, past the site of the infamous Newgate Prison, where Fagin is excecuted, Barnaby Rudge imprisoned and Magwitch of Great Expectations dies, it crosses the Holborn Viaduct, above the site of Fagin’s den. It passes the 16th century Staple Inn, described in Edwin Drood and still standing, Chancery Lane, the setting for Bleak House and Gray’s Inn where Dickens worked as a solicitor’s clerk. Here, back at Theobald Road, the triangle closes but the walk continues, over to Great Ormond Street past the Childrens’ Hospital where little Johnny dies in Our Mutual Friend. It finishes at Doughty Street, at the Charles Dickens House and Museum.

This was a long day’s walk, punctuated by many breaks and deviations. It was thought-provoking, rather moving journey too. It was trip down memory lane, back to the world of Oliver Twist, Mr Pickwick, Pip, Barnaby Rudge and Dickens himself. It gave a scope and a context to my Dickensian London.

In reality though, there is little left of Dickens’ London,  just a few fragmented glimpses, some plaques and a lot of lingering ghosts among the distractions of towering glass and concrete, the roaring traffic and the constrained grey city suits. London, as Dickens knew and drew it, is long gone, buried with the Victorian world from which it was born. And a good thing too, many would say, probably even Mr Dickens himself. But still, I for one, will always be grateful for and stand in awe of the sensitive soul, the keen eye and the brilliant pen, that wove that London into so many unforgettable stories and gave it life in our imaginations. I’m grateful, too, to Mr Glinert for tracing these places from the stories and setting them down in a path for others to follow.

Literary London by Ed Glinert

Just when I thought I was nearing my list of things to do in London, a particularly thoughtful, highly appropriate and deeply appreciated gift, from my eldest son, sent me off on a new and fascinating round of exploration.

Buckingham Palace
Buckingham Palace

The gift was a book called “Literary London, a street by street exploration of the capital’s literary heritage” by Ed Glinert. Glinert, who was born in Dalston, has already written three books about London “The London Compendium”, “East end Chronicles” and West End Chronicles. “Literary London” also appeared in a previous edition entitled “A Literary Guide to London”. His knowledge of the city, its history and the people who have lived there seems encyclopedic. His knowledge of literature is awe-inspiring.

“Literary London” is a great read. It is brilliantly written, witty and absorbing. It is full of fascinating stories about writers – famous, infamous, little known and unheard of – and the places where they worked and lived. It describes locations and buildings, from the celebrated to the obscure, which have featured in literature. It details the great London bookshops and publishing houses. It gives six great guided walks based on authors including Shakespeare and Dickens and on characters like Sherlock Holmes.

Literary London had me glued to its pages, in the Australian spring and pounding the autumn London pavements through November and into December. It took me to parts of London I would never have found, or dreamed of visiting. It brought to life parts of the city I would have probably dismissed as drab and without interest. It introduced me, too, to writers I would otherwise not have discovered.

The National Gallery

Art galleries and winter go together like summer and the beach – M.M.J. Kerr

Just as hot summer sun and bright blue skies send me sprinting for the beach in every spare moment, so do short grey, drizzly winter days send me scuttling for the shelter of the Museum or the Art Gallery. So, when the darkness of the London nights peel back on rain-streaked windows and a low sky which threatens more, I head across the river to refuge among other, more benign landscapes in the National Gallery.

The National Gallery on a summer day
The National Gallery on a summer day

The National Gallery began its life in 1824 with a collection of just thirty eight pictures. As the collection increased, a larger building was needed to house it. The grand old building, which stands on the northern edge of Trafalgar Square was designed by William Wilkins and was completed in 1836. A new east wing was added in 1876 by EM Barry who also remodeled the interiors. In 1991, the Sainsbury Wing, was added on the site of a bombed out former furniture store.  Now, National Gallery collection fills forty six rooms.

There’s plenty to occupy a rainy day. You can wander from room to gorgeous room across gleaming wooden floors, between walls painted in dark shades of green, burgundy and dark grey hung with masterpieces representing six centuries of painting from all over Europe. It’s a trip through time, beginning in the mid-thirteenth century and ending in 1900, and across Europe through Italy, The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, England, France and Spain. All the great names are there; Botticelli, Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Velasquez, Van Dyck, Rubens, Rembrandt, Canaletto, Guardi, Turner, Hogarth, Gainsborough, the French Impressionists, Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh and so are many of the great and famous paintings, like Caravaggio’s supper at Emmaeus and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Succinct and very helpful little cards beside each painting explain a little of its story as well as its date and the painter’s details. Audio-guides are available to give in-depth explanations and Gallery tours take visitors through selected works.

Should your eyes begin to smart from all this looking and reading, take your lead from the many custodians nodding off at their corner posts, sink onto one of the polished wooden benches or better still into one of the leather couches, conveniently placed along the centre of the galleries and have a quick kip. When hunger strikes, take a break, head for refreshments in the Espresso Bar, the National Café or the National Dining rooms.

In all my visits I have still only covered half of those rooms. Still, this being London and this being winter, I’m sure that there will be many more rainy days.