Recently, Mr S and I took a trip to London. Our last few sojourns to the city have focused on ticking off the sights; British Museum, Houses of Parliament, Harrods, trip on the Thames. This time we took the opportunity to go at a slower pace and see some places off the traditional tourist route.
We stayed with family in the East End, an area that is slowly going through a process of regeneration. As the developments at Strafford and the Olympic Park, and the towers of Canary Warf, stretch out their fingers in to the adjacent districts of Whitechapel, Mile End and Bethnal Green, small indicators of change can be seen. Coffee shops, hipster boutiques and patisseries are sprouting like mushrooms amongst the council housing. Gleaming fleets of ‘Boris bikes’ offer alternative commutes along the redeveloped waterfront.
However, it is still possible to find traces of the old East End, and we came across a particularly delicious one on a walk up Brick Lane. Although the immediate neighbourhood, and the borough of Tower Hamlets in general, is now predominantly muslim, it was once home to a large Jewish population. At the top of Brick Lane an old institution remains in the form of two unassuming shop fronts, one yellow and one white, the bagel/beigel shops. On local recommendation we chose the yellow and were rewarded with the soft chewyness and salty savouryness of a freshly cooked bagel with salt beef, pickles and mustard.
Brick Lane itself is an interesting place to take a stroll and home to a famous market on weekends. As a fan of street art and graffiti there were plenty of opportunities for me to get my camera out. I must be an infuriating person to walk with, or indeed behind, stopping without warning to record some small detail for posterity, before running ungainly to catch up, camera in hand. Fortunately, Mr S is well accustomed to these eccentricities and carries on with his intended journey regardless, as I loop around him like a herding sheep dog.
I have commented on other’s posts which feature murals and the like that it is not a common art form in the UK. On reflection I think that it would be more accurate to say that it is uncommon in my home city where the facades of buildings are often so ornate that the stone mason’s work requires no further embellishment. There simply is no place, both in terms of location and appropriateness, for organised street art and, thankfully, those taken to free styling have confined their efforts to the parts of the town less gifted with architectural beauty.
Whilst some change is welcome, everyone wants to live in safer, cleaner, more prosperous communities, it is important to maintain an element of tradition, to add to rather than remove and replace. This is what Brick Lane’s bagels provide, and the pearly kings and queens who still pose for photos in their finery. It is also there in the architecture, where, amongst the new and shiny, pockets of the old remain. A short walk down to the Thames river from where we were staying is a pub called the Prospect of Whitby, which (along with a number of others) claims to be the oldest riverfront pub in London. It still boasts flagstone floors, timber beamed ceilings and fireplaces perfect for providing warmth on a cold winter’s evening. Another East End elder is The George in Southwark which has been earmarked for demolition. The old building stands out from its ugly, post-war, low-rise neighbours, a lone survivor of the Blitz. A prominent ‘Save the George’ campaign is ongoing, with celebrities, including the supermodel Kate Moss, lending their backing to the preservation of this marker of times past.
The juxtaposition of old and new struck me again and again on our wanderings around the city, which has been re-styled consistently for two thousand years or more. The imposing metal work and glass of the structures in the Olympic Park, the megalithic temple to retail of Westfield Shopping Centre, the skyscrapers named for their form rather than their function, the shard, the gherkin, the cheese grater, the walkie-talkie, sit alongside previous decades’ attempts at the new, the 1960s brutalist modernism of the Southbank Arts Centre, the Victorian Tudor revivalism of Liberty department store and the neo-gothic extravagance of the Houses of Parliament.
The variety and originality of London’s buildings is an important part of its strength and appeal. The same is true with the diversity of its inhabitants. Both are a celebration of difference that can only be achieved through tolerance and an understanding that, however alien something or someone may look on the outside, it is the same physics, the same biology underpinning their existence as that of their neighbour. In these troubled times it is a lesson we need to remind ourselves of more often.