Tuesday, August 12, 2008

HS2012High Street 2012

The road east from Aldgate to Stratford has a long and mighty history.
"Took up my wife at the Exchange, and then kissed Mrs. Smith's pretty hand, and so with my wife by coach to take some ayre (but the way very dirty) as far as Bow, and so drinking (as usual) at Mile End of Byde's ale, we home and there busy at my letters till late, and so to walk by moonshine with my wife, and so to bed."
Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 21 September 1667
High Street 2012This has been the main road to Essex from London for the best part of a millennium - a well-rutted route taken by armies and revolting peasants and stagecoaches. Once a rural ride through fields and farmland, it's since become a heavily built-up arterial rat run beset by traffic jams and exhaust fumes. It's a really wide street, almost all the way down, once plied by shuttling trams but now blighted by bendy buses. It marks the start of one of the UK's main trunk roads, the A11. Along its length are scores of fried chicken shops but not one Marks and Spencer. Only a few stretches are bland cloned high street, much of the remainder has lingering commercial and residential character. It cuts through some of the very poorest parts of the capital, through an East End long inhabited by the displaced and disadvantaged. And it's the road on which I live.

In four years time, for a few short hours, this road will be part of the route of the Olympic Marathon. Runners have to get from central London to the 2012 stadium somehow, so the Whitechapel Road and Bow Church are destined for a few fleeting minutes of global fame. The world's fastest long-distance athletes will go puffing right past my front door, just yards from glory in a billion pound stadium, while hovering TV crews look down from their helicopters and beam pictures of run-down architecture to an audience of billions. Heavens, Paula Radcliffe may even stop and squat on my doorstep. It's all terribly exciting, if tantalisingly brief.

HS2012 starts here-ish (Whitechapel High Street)But plans are afoot to promote this East End thoroughfare for longer than a couple of brief running races. Millions of pounds are to be thrown at these four miles of roadway in an attempt to create a more permanent heritage legacy for the East End. It's a unique Olympic opportunity to improve and celebrate the road that connects Aldgate with Stratford. And the project's going to be branded High Street 2012.

I know I know, it's a dreadful name, isn't it? Tower Hamlets council were originally planning to call it "Olympic Boulevard", but it seems tedious bureaucrats stepped in and objected to the use of a protected moneyspinning trademark. No matter that this is a municipal legacy project, not a fast food restaurant, but brand pedants are nothing if not predictable. And so we're lumbered with the less-than-thrilling "High Street 2012". It may be snappy, futuristic and easier to spell, but come 2013 it's sure to sound depressingly out of date.
"The project, called High Street 2012, is a joint initiative between Tower Hamlets Council, Newham Council, Design for London, Transport for London, English Heritage and London Thames Gateway Development Corporation. This ambitious project aims to draw-up a vision that will achieve short-term and long-term public realm and building improvements to the areas along High Street 2012. This will help make it a more pedestrian friendly route, with a character that reflects the diversity of the communities that live alongside it. The vision will be aspirational but also achievable and sustainable, and will continue well beyond the Olympic Games, acting as a catalyst for the further regeneration of East London."
HS2012 ends here-ish (Stratford High Street)The High Street 2012 project is currently at the consultation stage. Talkshops have been held with local residents, and key strategic personnel are aiming to drive forward an agenda of architectural excellence and communal transformation. They've promised to create a really exciting blueprint that brightens up my local linear neighbourhood and acts as a catalyst for future regeneration. If all goes to plan, I could be stepping out of my front door into a thriving cosmopolitan community buzzing with excited tourists and re-energised citizens. HS2012 could be about to bring landscaped public spaces, dynamic transport projects and fully-restored historic buildings to an urban landscape currently devoid of coherent charm. Or else some overpaid consultant will simply tie a few coloured balloons to four miles of lampposts and paint the 2012 Olympic logo repeatedly onto the pavement. Time will tell.

So, for my annual local history month presentation, I thought I'd take you for a journey along High Street 2012. I've been for a wander with my camera all the way from Aldgate to Stratford, and I've divided up the walk up into sixteen chunks. While the 2008 Olympics play out in Beijing, diamond geezer will be tracing the East End heartland of London 2012. It's time to chronicle the current evolution of this ancient road before English Heritage and the planning bods move in. Trust me, there's much to see - including the source of American liberty, the Elephant Man's hideaway and a crucible of women's suffrage, just for a start.

Follow High Street 2012 on a Google Map
Read the High Street 2012 consultation blog (I think they lost interest)
Visit the High Street 2012 homepage (ah, there isn't one yet) (well, we'll soon change that...)

HS2012High Street 2012

Middlesex St to Commercial St

Aldgate Barrs subwaysAldgate's where London changes. To the west the towering blocks of the City, loaded with hard-won wealth and insurance money. And to the east, well, absolutely nothing like that at all. Aldgate's like a financial fault line across the capital, dividing the cufflinked from the unemployed and the well-heeled from the trainered. It's no accident that London's Olympic marathon will run round the western Aldgate roundabout twice, and the eastern roundabout just the once.

And this gyratory system is where High Street 2012 begins. Forget that interesting looking church, and that really ancient pub, and that spot where a Roman city gate once stood, and those lovely well-tended flowerbeds - they're on the wrong side of the divide. No, our first stop is a giant bleak traffic island cut off from the surrounding ordinariness through a warren of desolate subways. For reasons best known to themselves, local planners in the 70s and 80s thought that what this area needed was a mess of large scale office blocks and a subterranean shopping centre. They were very wrong about the shopping centre. The florists and coffee shops of Aldgate Barrs were never busy, maybe because no ground level passer-by would ever have guessed they existed, and this gloomy mall is now boarded up at both ends and lost to the world. I doubt that anybody misses it.

site of Aldgate TowerBut Aldgate is in flux. Major roadworks are underway in an attempt to end the dominance of the car and to give pedestrians priority. And about time too. Stand here in the rush hour and you can watch City workers ignoring ubiquitous safety barriers to risk their lives crossing a relentless four-lane one-way system. Anything, absolutely anything, rather than waste time wandering through that labyrinth of forbidding subways [photo]. At the very top of High Street 2012 a pristine white four-pointed traffic island has appeared, its traffic lights still shrouded beneath bright orange covers [photo]. Even more heretical, push-button pelican crossings have sprouted ready to halt the oncoming vehicles. Deroundabouting is expected imminently. By Christmas a new cut-through feeder road will have been established, which will lead to the pedestrianisation of the whole of Braham Street (to be infilled with leafy public realm). To be honest it's a wonder Boris hasn't yet cancelled the Aldgate Masterplan, given the delays it'll bring to his beloved traffic flow.

Eastern Aldgate is currently a great big building site, in a wholly transformational but not yet got anywhere so still a complete mess kind of a way. One of the centrepieces of this change will be the Aldgate Tower, a curvaceous 16 storey landmark building, currently little more than a few straggly pipes and a series of fenced-off trenches. Nextdoor, on a similarly evacuated site [photo], are the foundations of Aldgate Place (who comes up with these names, have they no imagination?). This'll be another shiny glass tower, sliced diagonally in two because architects like to be a bit quirky like that. But for now only a futuristic entrance to Aldgate East tube station [photo], recently arisen out of the furrowed earth, gives a physical clue to the City extension to come. Give it time, and the prosperous end of town will have inched a few yards further east.

Tubby Isaacsfour local sights
» Tubby Isaacs: A proper East End jellied eel stall, tucked away on the corner of Goulston Street outside the Aldgate Exchange pub. It's £2.50 per pot of wriggly chewy stuff, or four quid for medium or a fiver for large. Established 1919, and there's depressingly little else round here as old, or as loved. (The kid in this photo shot me a withering glance after I took the shot. I thought he was a customer, but it turns out he works here and was just tweaking the condiments. He is not, I repeat not, Tubby Isaacs) [kid-free photo]
» Aldgate East station: Gloomy underground chamber, with most of its heritage tiling removed, which Metronet were in the middle of upgrading/destroying when they went bust.
» Royal Bank of Scotland: Not content with posting record-breaking losses, the RBS's staff have the misfortune to work in a soulless brown HQ isolated in the middle of the Aldgate East roundabout without even a coffee shop to support them. My heart bleeds for the bankers, obviously.
» Sportec: Aldgate's very own Trainer Temple, where the shelves are piled high with Converse, Skechers, Reebok and whatever else the trendy mainstream are wearing footwearwise this season. A big poster of Mikey Streets beams out from below the counter, and there's a tastefully discreet menswear section tucked away at the back. For da yoof, and for everyone. [photo]

Your comments
I remember Tubby Isaacs from trips up to Petticoat and Brick Lanes. At one time (one of) the Tubby Isaacs seemed to get interviewed quite a bit on TV, (60s or 70s). Guess he wasn't the original if it was established in 1919. And yes I did eat eels but what I now miss are just the cockles smothered in pepper and vinegar. Better than lobster. (Les Abbey)
I was (un)fortunate enough to spend a year working in an office on Alie Street, just south of Braham Street, and remember wandering through Aldgate Barrs a few times while it was still open for business. It never had a good feeling about it and half the shops were closed, even then. (Dave)
Did you know that the subway used to talk? And Aldgate Barrs was OK when the building above was occupied, but it spent at least a couple of years empty - occupied again now though. (Eric)
I buy my trackies at that Sportec, though last time I went in, there was too much towel and not enough silk... (CT)

HS2012High Street 2012

Commercial St to Osborn St

As High Streets go, this one's piddly-short. It's no more than 400 metres long, and the western half (which I covered above) barely looks High-Street-y at all . But from Commercial Street east, on one side of the road at least, you could almost believe this was once the heart of the local community [photo]. Almost.

Whitechapel High StreetDon't expect a row of recognisable shops - Costcutter is about as chain store as it gets. A few independent stores hold court, but probably nowhere you'd go out of your way for (unless you have electrical needs, t-shirt requirements or demand use of an online money transfer service). Starbucks have yet to intrude, so the metal tables outside the D&G Espresso Bar see good service [photo]. For something a little stronger there's the White Hart, a proper narrow pub (established 1721). And there's a great big trench down the middle of the traffic-jammed road, very recent, very coned off, very unappealing.

But there is one big tourist attraction - the Whitechapel Art Gallery. It's probably the only serious draw between here and Stratford, which doesn't bode well for any sightseeing potential that High Street 2012 might want to inspire. And at present, with a major rebuilding project underway, it's barely a cultural magnet at all. Rainbow sheeting masks the distinctive castle-like facade, and the main entrance is shut away behind boards and scaffolding. Don't give up now, there's a new entrance hidden round the back, up Angel Alley.

Angel AlleyIt's badly named, is Angel Alley. It's a green-lit narrow passage leading to a devilish shadowy courtyard, and you can well imagine some Victorian prostitute leading her temporary partner up here for a bit of relief. Don't be put off. The brick walls are now lined with lefty murals, including a panel depicting international radical thinkers [photo] - a hint that the Freedom Press anarchist bookshop is tucked away beyond. Further still and a gleaming white doorway leads into what's left of the Art Gallery. That's the shop, then, and a dark room which turns out to be an auditorium where arty films play out to an audience of probably nobody. And that's it, for now. Really, I wouldn't bother, and the girl on the information desk looks similarly unexcited. Come back next year, it'll be much more fabulous by then.

Also reopening with the Gallery, but not in its previous form, is the famous Whitechapel Library [old photo]. There was an outcry when this fabled depository closed its doors three years ago after a century of service to local learners. Jacob Bronowski was one of thousands of Jewish immigrants who learned to speak English here, and the vast collection of Jewish (and later Bengali) literature was hugely appreciated. But the library's stone staircases proved a barrier to disabled access, and these days if a building can't accommodate everybody it has to close. The replacement library may have won architectural awards but, as we'll see further up the road, its only attempt at character is in the fiction section. Let's hope the old building reopens with respectful artistic intentions.

88 Whitechapel High Streetfour local sights
» Albert's: You have to look hard for Whitechapel's Jewish heritage these days. But an intricate six-pointed star emblem above the front door of this long-established menswear store reminds passers-by that here was once the editorial heart of the Jewish Daily Post. [photo]
» Bloom's: ...whereas you'd never guess that the Burger King in Whitechapel High Street trades on the site of what was once Whitechapel's biggest Jewish restaurant. "M Bloom (Kosher) & Son" moved here from Brick Lane in 1952, but was closed down in 1996 to fend off insolvency after inspectors uncovered unkosher practices in the kitchens. Gefilte fish afficionados can still find their fill at Bloom's in Golders Green.
» Gunthorpe Street mural: A tiny sidestreet through an archway, enlivened by an informative historical panel on the wall, and a glazed map of the local area tiled overhead. [photo]
» London Metropolitan University: The City Campus of London's largest unitary university is dotted around the area. But not in a gorgeous way.

Your comments
Above the menswear shop, Alberts, used to be where the anarchists gathered. (Ham)
The architect of the Whitechapel Gallery [Charles Harrison Townsend] also designed the Bishopsgate Institute, Horniman Museum and one of the most beautiful churches in Essex, St Marys in Great Warley. (Mikey G)

HS2012High Street 2012

Osborn St to Greatorex St

Without fanfare Whitechapel High Street morphs into the much longer Whitechapel Road [photo]. The change occurs at the bottom of Brick Lane (except it isn't actually Brick Lane, it's Osborn Street, which turns into Brick Lane a few hundred yards to the north, not that many curry-hunters and deluded local councillors tend to realise this).

Outline of St Mary's Matfelon in Altab Ali ParkFirst up is the area's one patch of open space - Altab Ali Park. It's named after the young Bangladeshi victim of a racial murder back in 1978, remembered through a wrought iron gateway at the entrance to the park [photo]. In one corner is the Bengali Martyr's Monument [photo], simplistically Japanese in style, though these days more a convenient spot to sit and swig cheap lager. The grass is patchy and covered with pigeons, and the whole place has the feel of somewhere frequented by those with nowhere better to go. But look more carefully and there's the stone outline of a large church laid out in the turf, and a handful of gravestones in the corner. It turns out that this park is the churchyard of medieval St Mary Matfelon, the original "white chapel" after which the local area is named. The church was rebuilt several times over the centuries - taller, grander, spire-ier - until bomb damage during the Blitz obliterated it forever. St Mary's lives on now only in name, and as somewhere for incoherent alcoholics to congregate while their mangy dogs squat in the nave.

Up the road an ugly brown office block has been built on the site of the East End's very own Hatton Garden - Black Lion Yard. This narrow alley once contained as many as 12 different jewellers shops and was the place to go for a nice bit of sparkle. Here brides came to select their wedding ring, here Jewish mothers haggled over the price of a necklace, here geezers bought their diamonds. But no longer. Black Lion House, the aforementioned bland shiny replacement, sells nothing blingier than Elizabeth Duke. It's one of High Street 2012's most modern parades of shops, utterly out of keeping with the rest of the street, kicking off with a Tesco Express, moving on to an Argos, passing through a Nat West and ending up with a Starbucks. Wrong wrong wrong, on so many levels. And it makes you appreciate the rest of the Whitechapel Road a little more, and to realise how easy it would be to lose its rough-hewn independent character.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry

There's a real independent treasure on the corner of Fieldgate Street - the Whitechapel Bell Foundry [photo]. This venerable business was founded in Elizabethan times, in 1570 no less, and is Britain's oldest surviving manufacturing company. Cunning of shareholders to specialise in a commodity resistant to centuries of change, because Britain will always need bells. And some right clangers have been cast here. Big Ben for one, at 13½ tons the largest bell ever to emerge from the foundry, and America's cracked Liberty Bell for another.
An apology: It is possible to visit the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and to tour the workshops, if you book far enough in advance, but I underestimated quite how far in advance so I've not been yet. Rest assured that I should be getting inside soon, and then I'll come back and fill the space below with a proper update. In the meantime you might want to keep an eye on the foundry's tour page, just so that you can be amongst the first to book for 2009.

21 Whitechapel Roadfive local sights
» The Nag's Head: No longer a pub, now a "Gentlemen's Venue". Sorry ladies, although I suspect you might not approve of the shenanigans that go on inside over a pie and a pint. There are Pole dancers aplenty, so I'm told, but I doubt that many are from Warsaw.
» White Chapel fountain: Shifted to the corner of White Church Lane in 1879, healthy cholera-free drinking water would have emerged from the centre of a drilled stone for the benefit of the local populace [photo].
» St Mary's cemetery: Under the Altab Ali park lie several notable residents of Whitechapel past. Samuel Rowley, a playwright employed at The Rose theatre, wrote 'When You See Me You Know Me' and 'The Noble Soldier'. Richard Brandon, public executioner and probable remover of Charles The First's head. Admiral Christopher Myng, killed at sea fighting the Dutch. His funeral was attended by Pepys and his bereaved men offered to lead a fireship against the enemy for revenge. John Cass, local philanthropist whose bust survives at Aldgate Church and whose charity school still exists. Richard Parker, who was hanged for his part as spokesman at the Mutiny of the Nore in 1797. (Thanks to reader Mark McM for sending this in)
» Worm gravestone: I'm not convinced this is serious, it's probably just art, but I couldn't help smile on discovering this tiny tombstone in Altab Ali Park (beside a human 1850s original) [photo].
» A11 mileage sign: It's outside Tesco, giving distances to three places which aren't actually on the A11 at all [photo]. Recently hidden from oncoming traffic behind a framed poster plonked in the middle of the pavement, because advertising revenue is more important than useful information.

Your comments
Ah, the Nags Head... I discovered it one afternoon after showing my mum around the Bodyworks exhibition down Brick lane. I was desperate for a drink and so we popped into the Nags Head. I thought something was strange because it was darker than most pubs, but in my blindness for anything other than a quick pint I wandered straight past the naked woman gyrating on the stage. It was only the sound of my mum pissing herself laughing that let me know that this probably wasn't the pub that I'd like to spend any time in. (Tom Reynolds)
Not Poles, but mostly native Londoner, Brazilian and ex-USSR, in my experience I'm told. (pdf)
No mention of the Rhythm Factory? - pretty forward thinking club/bar with a lot of good club nights, live bands in the week and cabaret at weekends. Libertines played here a lot and Peter Doherty often does 'secret' solo shows or with Babyshambles - Probably the only club of its kind on 'High St 2012'. People who work there and run it are pretty cool too. (Martin)

HS2012High Street 2012

Greatorex St to Vallance Rd

It seems entirely appropriate that Whitechapel Road should be one of the two cheapest properties on London's Monopoly board. Admittedly you can't buy a house around here for twenty quid any more, nor a hotel for 450, but it's still true that prices are about a tenth of those in mighty blue Mayfair. In most European cities the upwind west is a more desirable location than the downwind east, and Whitechapel never managed to buck the whiffy trend. Even as early as the late 16th century John Stow was reporting on distasteful development in the area...
"Both sides of the street be pestered with cottages and alleys even up to Whitechapel Church and almost half a mile beyond it, into the common field (Mile End Green); all of which ought to be open and free to all men. But this common field, I say, being sometime the beauty of this city on that part, is so encroached upon by building of filthy cottages that in some places it scarce remaineth a sufficient highway for the meeting of carriages and droves of cattle. Much less is there any fair, pleasant, or wholesome way for people to walk on foot, which is no small blemish to so famous a city to have so unsavoury and unseemly an entrance to it." (John Stow, 1599)
Three centuries later, conditions in the East End had become considerably worse...
"There are many different degrees of social degradation and unavoidable poverty, even in the east. Whitechapel, properly so called, may not be the worst of the many districts in this quarter; but it is undoubtedly bad enough. Taking the broad road from Aldgate Church to old Whitechapel Church, a thoroughfare, in some parts, like the high street of an old-fashioned country town, you may pass on either side about twenty narrow avenues, leading to thousands of closely-packed nests, full to overflowing with dirt, and misery, and rags." (John Hollingshead, 1861)
Whitechapel RoadConditions in Whitechapel have changed dramatically since the 1860s, helped on in no small measure by the Luftwaffe. But this is still a street frequented by Tower Hamlets' poorer souls and immigrant communities [photo]. At the Salvation Army's Booth House hostel, homeless men gather on the access ramp for a fag and a beer. In upstairs solicitors and downstairs travel agents, local families make distant plans for a well-earned trip back home. Shrouded women and prayer-capped men gather on the shadowy pavement in readiness for the appointed hour for worship. Workers from Eastern Europe sit at coffee-stained wooden tables in internet cafes to send smiling photos to loved ones via Hotmail. Along the street are hi-vis outerwear merchants for that job down at the construction site, and betting shops to gamble away the wages later. Other more multicultural wholesalers, meanwhile, offer everything from glittering saris to Friday best suits.

Precisely four years from today, the men's London Olympic marathon will come powering along this central stretch of the Whitechapel Road. The elite runners won't be here for long, not if they can help it, and the TV cameras probably won't want to linger on this substandard streetscape either [photo]. But the world will still see a far less negative image than has existed here in any bygone era. And if High Street 2012 works its magic, the future could be even brighter.

Passing Routemaster outside East London Mosque main entrancefour local sights
» East London Mosque: Completed in 1985 and paid for by the local community (and the King of Saudi Arabia), the East London Mosque's golden dome and triple minarets dominate this part of the street. The brick building's not quite so ornate below roof level, with separate arched entrances for male and female worshippers. Nextdoor is the white-tiled London Muslim Centre with its striking Islamic patterned overhang, and then a rather large office block which looks like it helps to pay the rent. Most impressive, but I've never quite managed to take a really decent photograph of the place. [photo][photo]
» Rivoli Cinema: The site of the East London Mosque was previously home to the Rivoli Cinematograph Theatre (bombed), which was previously the site of a venue for boxing and music hall called "Wonderland" (obsolete), which was previously the site of the New East London Theatre (burnt down).
» St Mary's station: Between 1884 and 1938 there used to be another underground station between Aldgate East and Whitechapel, next to the Rivoli Cinema, serving through services to the East London line via St Mary's Curve. But a mid-street halt wasn't really necessary, and few shed a tear when it was Blitzed a couple of years after closure. On the site today, a Citroen showroom. [photo]
» Express Packaging UK: Printed carrier bag specialists, for all your garment rail requirements and display sundries. An Aladdin's Cave for local retail outlets, with naked trade mannequins on parade in the window. [photo]

Your comments
If you explore the Citroen showroom you'll find in the middle of it an emergency exit door (complete with LU signage) from the closed station (Mr Easy)
There's a tiny vertical fragment of decorated tiling to the left of the Citroen showroom which is all that remains of the Rivoli (which encompassed St.Mary's station on three sides) (Bowroaduk)
...and St.Mary's Curve was disconnected from the LU system about a month ago as a consequence of the East London Line closure. Rumour is that it will be singled, de-electrified, and reconnected for engineers' trains once the ELL reopens. (Bowroaduk)

HS2012High Street 2012

Vallance Rd to tube station

Royal London HospitalThe area either side of Whitechapel tube station really ought to be called Whitechapel High Street. It has all the credentials. Busy shops, a thriving street market, fast food, historic pubs and a Crossrail interchange slap bang in the middle [photo]. But no, this is still just the Whitechapel Road, deemed historically less important by its greater distance from the City. Now very much a Bangladeshi-oriented thoroughfare, but with underlying echoes of an international and criminal past throughout. Oh, and an enormous hospital.

The Royal London arrived in Whitechapel's leafy green fields 250 years ago. It's grown a lot since, into a huge sprawling multiplex spread across several buildings across several acres. The oldest wards are at the front, behind the imposing Georgian facade, while a multi-million pound extension soars craneward into the sky behind. The hospital has two main entrances - one up the steps to reception, and the other via A&E through a bustling courtyard. Here, for the cost of a free phonecall, kindly ambulance workers will unload you from a trolley in full public view and wheel you through into the heart of the hospital. If things are really serious you might instead arrive on the helipad on the roof, via London's Air Ambulance, which regularly interrupts the bustle of the street below as it choppers another patient in or out [photo].

Edward VII Drinking FountainStand on the steps in front of the RLH and you can look across to the bustling retail side of the street [photo]. That pointed stone obelisk is the Edward VII Drinking Fountain, erected in 1911 by the local Jewish community in honour of the recently departed King. He and his wife Queen Alexandra were much revered round here - she merited a grand statue in a courtyard in the hospital grounds instead [photo]. To the right of the fountain at number 259 is an unprepossessing sari shop, specialists in "bed linnen, quilts and stainless steel house hold goods". The bright yellow frontage may be plaque-less, but this is the very shop in which the Elephant Man was 'discovered' in 1884. His real name was Joseph Merrick, cursed by congenital tissue deformity and an oversized skull, and exhibited here (in the Ukay International Saree Centre) as a sideshow freak. Merrick's saviour was physician Frederick Treves, who recognised Joseph's inner humanity and spirited him away to a brief life of medical respectability in the hospital across the road.

See that McDonalds on the corner of Fulbourne Street? [photo] At the turn of the 20th century it used to be a furniture store, and upstairs (in what is now the Eastenders Snooker Club) were the headquarters of the local Jewish Socialists. Nothing special, you might think, but in May 1907 this was the unlikely venue for the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. One of the delegates was Leon Trotsky and another was his nemesis-to-be Joseph Stalin - both meeting 'ere in 'umble Whitechapel for the very first time. Overnight they stayed in a doss house round the corner in Fieldgate Street, along with some other famous Russian bloke called Lenin. Also present at this landmark McCongress were a bevy of burgeoning Bolsheviks and a whole host of undercover Tsarist spies. I doubt they ever shared a happy meal.

Grave Mauricefour local sights
» Grave Maurice: Reggie and Ronnie Kray (yes, I bet you wondered how long it would be before I mentioned them) used to hold court in this classic East End pub [photo]. Reader Andy Gray writes... "I have fond memories of the Grave Maurice in the late 80's. The GM was like a time capsule - walking in through a thick velvet curtain you entered a pub that wasn't retro, it simply hadn't changed for years. All the tables had chintzy lights and the decor was mostly from circa 1960 if not before. The bar staff were charming ladies 'of a certain age' and whilst it was a unique boozer in many respects you just knew that it wouldn't last once they'd gone." The moth-eaten atmosphere may not have lasted, but the Grave Maurice has at least survived as a pub after a recent unwise dalliance as a salsa bar.
» Black Bull: A half-timbered pub with centuries of accumulated brand history, recently ditched in favour of the very non-heritage name "Bar Nakoda".
» Woods Buildings: A grimy brick Victorian alleyway, only recently sealed off behind a locked metal gate, presumably because scores of Jack the Ripper hunters used to walk down it for a bit of genuine slum ambience.
» Whitechapel station: Opened in 1876 as part of the East London Railway, and later linked to the District line via a separate (still visible) entrance nextdoor. This is a compact busy station, cursed by narrow twisting passageways which inhibit free flow from the ticket hall to the island platforms. But give it ten years and a major Crossrail-inspired makeover will be complete, with a brand new western ticket hall emerging in Fulbourne Street. Stalin might not have approved.

Your comments
Not quite correct on Woods Buildings. After numerous complaints to the Local Council over a period of several years by members of the public (as well as the people who's front doors open onto Woods Buildings) the alleyway was gated off due to the fact that numerous people were using it as a public toilet (and I am not talking about just urinating up the walls). The problem only originally started when the Council in all its wisdom / penny pinching closed down the very large, very handy, much frequented Victorian Underground Public Convenience a short distance away that that was located adjacent to The Black Bull Public House. A new "Restaurant" was built on the site of the old toilets and this was accidently demolished in the middle of the night by an out of control Coach on its way to Stansted Airport. (fishislandskin)
I'm forever grateful to the Royal London Hospital after my father went in there with an emergency haematoma in his head. I didn't have any expectation that it would the best hospital to be in, until I learnt the hospital specialises in this sort of surgery, as they have so many boxers in the area! (Clipper)
I understand the doctors' bleeps work in the Grave Maurice. (Debster)
And for those of us with short sightedness, if you need a class old school optician, look no further than Mr Sackwild, half way down the parade. (Martin)

HS2012High Street 2012

Tube station to Cambridge Heath Road

Nothing much changes immediately beyond the tube station. The busy market continues, its green and white flapping stalls obscuring the adjacent bus stop from view. The cheap shops continue, which is perfect if you want a brightly coloured plastic bin, an unlocked mobile or a hookah. And on the opposite side of the road the hospital continues, until halted at a tiger-striped bar which was once the London Hospital Tavern.

Whitechapel Idea StoreAnd then, suddenly, startlingly, a five-storey glass box interrupts the street [photo]. Catch the right light and the green and blue rectangular panes shine out with a simple brilliance [photo]. This is the new Whitechapel Library, and its striking modern architecture was nominated for the Stirling Prize in 2006. Except it's not called a library, oh no. Round here in Tower Hamlets we call it an "Idea Store". You may mock, but this state-of-the-art learning facility (with dance studio, complementary therapy room, cafe and baby changing facilities) has already boosted library attendance threefold. Maybe free internet access is a contributory factor - certainly the Surfing Space on Level 1 is always packed. Maybe it's down to the welcoming entrance - one minute you're walking along the pavement and the next you've been swept beneath the sheer glass canopy of the main facade and escalatored inside. Maybe it's the extensive children's library with integral playgroup, or the top-floor TV set near the coffee and the free newspapers. Maybe it's the allure of the double-sealed stairwells which smell of wheelchair accessible toilet. Or maybe people still come here for the books. One can always hope.

Lingerie stall outside Blind BeggarPossibly the most famous, or indeed infamous, location in Whitechapel Road is the Blind Beggar pub [photo]. It's notoriety was sealed one dark Wednesday evening courtesy of local gangster Ronnie Kray. He and his brother Reggie ruled the underworld north of the river, while a gang called the Richardsons lorded over the south. On 7th March 1966 a gun battle broke out in a club in Catford, a shootout in which one of the Kray's cousins was fatally wounded. One of the protagonists was a burly sadistic meathead called George Cornell, formerly a Kray acolyte but lately defected across the river. Two days later Ronnie heard that George had dared to go drinking in his territory, at the Blind Beggar in Whitechapel, so he dashed round from a nearby pub to exact his revenge. George greeted Ronnie with a sarcastic comment querying his sexuality, so Ronnie whipped out a pistol and shot him three times in the head. Like you do. To the police's dismay not one of the regulars drinking in the pub that night was willing to testify against Ronnie, and so his fearsome gangland career stuttered on unchallenged for another year.

The Blind Beggar today is just an ordinary East End pub with bar food, conservatory and satellite TV. It still gets its fair share of curious visitors, popping in for a half of shandy as an excuse to hunt for evidence of bulletholes in the walls, bloodstains on the carpet or stuck records on the jukebox. And there are still just enough Whitechapel residents to keep the business ticking over, although not as many as before because most of the locals these days don't touch alcohol. But you won't see any gangland villains hanging out on the comfy sofas today, nor downing a pint of Courage Best by the Koi Pond in the exhaust-fumed beer garden. Still too risky, can't be too careful, know what I mean guv'nor?

DVD? Mummy? Dark Knight? DVD?four local sights
» Whitechapel Market: Six days a week the pavement along the Whitechapel Road is thick with stalls selling everything from cleaning fluid to quality cloth [photo]. Burkhaed mothers with pushchairs and slow hobbling grandfathers crowd the remainder of the space - this is no place to try to walk fast. Meanwhile a surprisingly high number of Chinese peddlars hover near shop doorways touting the very latest movie releases on pirated DVD, with police intervention seemingly either ineffective or invisible.
» Lord Rodney's Head: It's just a few doors down from the Grave Maurice, but this old pub's not been so fortunate [photo]. Reader Andy Gray remembers "a true real ale pub run by a small brewery who were even thoughtful enough to provide a Bar Billiards table." And I remember it too, having been dragged there by a real ale mate in the mid 90s - how characterful it was. And now it's a shoe shop. Remember Lord Rodney next time you stay in for the evening with a 12-pack of beer bought from the local supermarket, because his decapitation is your fault.
» Whitechapel sorting office: Once upon a time, before the invention of email, the Royal Mail thought it necessary to build a ginormous "Eastern Sorting Office" on the south side of the Whitechapel Road - a towering featureless brick cuboid from which the East End's post was promptly distributed. It looks rather threatened these days, but soldiers on. In the basement was the eastern terminus of the Post Office mini underground railway, capable of whisking an envelope from here to Paddingtom far quicker than is possible today. Now stamped out.
» Albion Brewery: Founded in 1808 by the landlord of the Blind Beggar, a series of takeovers created the name now arched in gold across the front of the building - Mann, Crossman & Paulin and Company [photo]. Below the clock can be seen St George and the Dragon, a logo stamped onto every bottle of Mann's Brown Ale. Once one of the top ten brewers in the UK, the company was taken over once too often and was closed by Grand Met in 1979. The entrance is now flats, and a huge Sainsbury's has gobbled up the brewery site at the rear.

Your comments
As for the Idea Store. I remember the old libraries and nobody was ever in them. Gorgeous Victorian buildings but usually empty. I've been in the Bow, Chrisp St, Whitechapel and Canary Wharf Stores and they have been full of people. Maybe they did did need to break away from the use of 'Library'? The staff are very helpful and one spent 10 minutes making sure I got the right book, checking one that wasn't there, making sure that I'd be sent an email when it arrived back and letting me choose which library I could pick it up. Libraries/Reading Rooms have been central to East End life for over a hundred years. They've just changed a bit. (Mike)

HS2012High Street 2012

Cambridge Heath Road to Cleveland Way

Mile End is well named. The Mile End turnpike was located precisely one mile from the City, at the foot of Cambridge Heath Road, and here travellers would stop to pay their tolls for the upkeep of the road. But this may not be where you thought Mile End was. It's nowhere near Mile End station (which is one and a half stops further up the Mile End Road). No, the official Mile End can be found at the start of the widest, greenest strip of High Street 2012 - a long thin patch of grass called Mile End Waste.

William Booth pointy statue on Mile End WasteOne beardy man has been honoured with two statues on Mile End Waste [photo]. His name is William Booth, and he's the founder of the Salvation Army. In 1865 this former Methodist minister arrived in the East End from Nottingham and was shocked by the poverty and sin he saw. Walking along the Whitechapel Road one day he came across a religious meeting taking place outside the Blind Beggar public house and stepped up in front of the crowd to preach. His fiery rhetoric so impressed the organisers that they invited him to lead their small open air mission, with services held in an old tent erected on an old Quaker burial ground on Mile End Waste. From such a chance meeting sprung a lifelong vocation to better the lives of the wantonly sinful, and the inauguration of his great quasi-military tambourine-waving charity.
"I saw multitudes of my fellow-creatures not only without God and hope, but sunk in the most desperate forms of wickedness and misery that can be conceived. I went out and looked on the wretched Sons and daughters of debauchery and vice and crime who were all about me. The drunkenness, and harlotry, and pauperism, and slumdom, and blasphemy, and infidelity of these crowds had a fascination for me... I not only saw but compassionated the people sunk in the sin and wretchedness that I beheld, and the everlasting woe that I knew must follow." (William Booth)
17th century warship on Trinity AlmshousesAnother monument to benevolence can be found close by - the Trinity Almshouses. There are 28 redbrick cottages hidden behind the trees, in two parallel rows leading to a small chapel at the end of the avenue [photo]. They were originally built in 1695 by Trinity House, the charitable maritime authority, for the benefit of "28 decay'd Masters and Commanders of Ships, or ye widows of such". At least I think that's what the elegant script says on the twin plaques on the front of the buildings [photo]. A pair of intricate 17th century warships are perched further up, although these are only copies because the marble originals are stashed away for safe keeping in the Museum of London. Local campaigns have twice restored the almshouses after they fell into disrepair, and this far-sightedness has preserved a rare oasis of calm and just off the main drag.

four local sights
» O'Leary Square: In sharp comparison to the Trinity Almshouses, the blocks of social housing on the southern side of the road are far less appealing. It's the first proper reminder along High Street 2012 that people actually live here, rather than just shop and drink. Step beneath the flats into lowly O'Leary Square and you might be able to pick up a beigel (or a slice of cheesecake) from Rinkoffs, the East End's last traditional Jewish baker. If it's still open.
» Mile End Waste: Pedestrian footfall drops off sharply to the east of the White Hart [photo]. Turf and trees are to be found on both sides of the road here - part fenced off, part open - with housing and shops set back further from the street than usual. Just be careful if you choose to walk along the grass rather than the pavement, because it's a more popular spot than it looks and you don't want to step in any Mile End Waste.
» Bust of King Edward VII: Yes, him again. This time it's the local Freemasons who coughed up to cast their favourite just-dead monarch in bronze. A century later he sits in front of Anna's Nail Bar, beneath a canopy of trees, almost entirely overlooked [photo].
» Captain Cook's House: Shortly after marrying a lass from Barking, the great 18th century explorer James Cook bought a house at 7 Assembly Row to which he'd retire each winter to mark up his sea charts. His wife stayed on in the house after his death, outliving her husband by more than 50 years. The property eventually became a shop, ending up as a Kosher butchers before being condemned and demolished in 1959. On the site today is a distillery car park, with nothing more than a memorial plaque on a brick wall to remind passers by of one of the street's most famous residents [photo].

Your comments
From William Booth's quote I'm guessing he was not really a party person. (Mike)
As a child "going up to Mile End Waste" with my grandparents was a regular trip, but we weren't drawn in by grass or trees, but by the very long thin outdoor market of the same name. I can't remember exactly where it was though, does it still exist? (Three-Legged Cat)
The Current Whitechapel Market originally had licensed pitches starting from the junction with Vallance Road going east and stretching as far as the junction with Cleveland Way which is quite a fair way along the "Waste", it was also in its day a very busy market, it fell into decline in the late sixties / early seventies and gradually shrank back until it just about reached the junction with Brady Street. Following the demolition of the Albion Brewery and the building of the new Sainsburys superstore demand for stalls east of the Brady street junction increased as more and more people were shopping at that end of Whitechapel market, this section has now become the most sought after location along the whole of market. So in answer to Three-Legged-Cat No the market does not exist along the "waste" any more. (fishislandskin)
The last time I checked, Rinkoff's were still doing a great trade and had opened an additional outlet, with a nice cafe, on Vallance Road (just along from the house where the Kray twins grew up). Their cheesecake is truly sublime. Mmmmmmm. (Dan)

HS2012High Street 2012

Cleveland Way to Globe Road

High Street 2012 may pass through the centre of all the other settlements along here, but it misses the centre of Stepney. So I've got to miss the elegance of Stepney Green, millennial St Dunstan's and the Stepping Stones City Farm. They're all tucked away to the south of the A11, between here and the Commercial Road, where they can be easily overlooked by passing travellers. So instead I'm afraid all there is to see is another brewery, more pubs, another tube station and the odd shop. A really odd shop.

Wickhams department storeWickhams department store was once known as the Selfridges of the East End. You can see the similarity, on the outside if not the inside, with bold pillared frontage in a stucco style. But Wickhams has one unique feature that Selfridges lacks, and that's a great big gap in the middle [photo]. When the store was being built in the 1920s, one stubborn existing retailer refused point blank to sell up, and so the rest of the store was built around them. "Never mind," thought Mr Wickham, "they'll sell up eventually." But Herr Spiegelhalter the jeweller held out the longest, until 1988 no less, whereas Wickhams closed down back in the 1960s. The giant building is now three separate stores, with only the easternmost DVD dispensary still open. The main shop beneath the tower used to hold a DIY "Direct Bargain Centre", and the central block a food store, both recently shuttered up. There are plans to breathe new life into Wickhams with a new retail development, hopefully sympathetic, although I can't imagine a John Lewis or a Waitrose would last as long round here as did Spiegelhalters.

Charrington's Brewery officesThere are some marvellous old houses interspersed with the new along this stretch of road. A row of four fine Queen Anne residences, tirelessly restored to their original glory by the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust, would look more at home in Chelsea than Stepney [photo]. Further east a brooding Dickensian tenement has defied all pressure to modernise and skulks darkly behind a bricked-off garden. A bunch of E1 solicitors make their money inside an elegant tall detached block, weighed down by an assortment of peculiar arched columns on the roof. These offices are all that remain of Charrington's Anchor Brewery (founded 1757, closed 1994), reborn as the characterless Anchor Retail Park [photo]. Who needs beer when you can shop at Halfords, PC World or Curry's instead?

The southern side of the road is, sorry, far less interesting. It's the same story along most of the Mile End Road, to be honest, all social housing, social housing and not much else. But a few other small treats find their place. Opposite Wickhams is a row of mostly-Muslim takeaways and convenience shops, where beaming old gents lean sedately in doorways and barely a white face passes. A few grim pubs and bars are scattered here and about - the Hayfield's a scream, the E-One's no longer so camp, and the Soma bar is dead and boarded. And see the Khayrat Call Centre at number 182? [photo] It's a postwar building now, but in Victorian times it was the site of Augustus Atwell's butcher's shop, above which his sixth child was born in 1879. You've probably seen her artwork - Mabel Lucy Atwell's drawings of grinning chubby children were once much loved, and are still fairly collectable.

Billy Bunter's Snack Barfour local sights
» Billy Bunter's Snack Bar: Adrift in a sea of pavement outside Wickham's, this tiny road-facing hut dispenses grease and chips 24 hours a day. Outlaw Burger, anyone?
» Genesis Cinema: There used to be lots of cinemas along High Street 2012, but now there's only one [photo] (and it's only nine years old). In its time this site has been home to the Eagle public house (1848), Lusby's Summer and Winter Garden, Lusby's Music Hall, the Paragon Theatre of Varieties (1885), the Mile End Empire (1912) and the ABC Mile End (1960). Locally-produced film Sparrows Can't Sing, starring a young Barbara Windsor, received its Royal Premiere here in 1963.
» Cash machine: I know people round here need cash, but whose idea was it to dump a big blue box in the middle of the pavement. We love our big wide pavements round here, please don't block them (and charge us £1.50 for the privilege).
» Stepney Green station: The middle one of five underground stations along HS2012 [photo]. Apart from a brief deviation into the open air at Whitechapel, the District line runs a few feet beneath the street all the way from Aldgate East to Bow Road.

HS2012High Street 2012

Globe Road to Regent's Canal

There's less to see out beyond Stepney Green, so I'm speeding up a bit and covering a full half mile all in one go. Let's get the southern half mile out of the way first. Ah, the Ocean Estate. It's vast, it's packed full with apartment blocks, and you wouldn't live here. Not given a choice, anyway. The Ocean's one of the most deprived estates in Britain, with overcrowded flats packed with the poverty-stricken and the underemployed. And some very lovely positive people too, obviously, I'd hate you to think the estate was relentlessly grim throughout. The government's thrown lots of money at facilities and cleared up the heroin problem, for example, and you won't find a knife-wielding drug addict on every corner. But you still wouldn't live here.

QMU Clock TowerYou might live on the northern side, particularly if you're a student. Queen Mary's University dominates, spreading out along the Mile End Road from the Victorian Queen's Building [photo]. It could be a Torquay hotel, set back from the road behind a palm-treed lawn and clocktower, but in fact it's the college's main administrative centre. Various other faculty buildings line the street, the most striking of which is the repetitive stone-sliced grid of the Faculty of Engineering [photo] which spans Bancroft Road. The college chapel resembles half of Madonna's bra - all mammary and spiked - while further east a less suggestive Humanities building is about to spring up.

QMU has appropriated two historic buildings for campus use, the first of which is the People's Palace. This was the Idea Store of its day, a Victorian philanthropic centre for concerts, lectures and evening classes, complete with gymnasium, swimming baths and reading room. It was enormously popular with the local population (20000 came to an exhibition of chrysanthemums, for example, and double that to a pigeon show). But in 1931 it burnt to the ground, and the more formal building seen today was erected in its place [photo]. It's proudly understated, with five carvings by Eric Gill (representing Drama, Music, Dance, Brotherhood and Sport) enlivening the front wall. And it's still at the heart of a successful educational enterprise, used today for lectures and graduation ceremonies.

Eric Gill carvings on the front of the People's Palace

And the second QMU takeover is Albert Stern House [photo], built as a hospital and convalescent home for elderly Jews fleeing persecution in Spain and Portugal. A smattering of Hebrew text is carved into stone plaques on the front wall - a reminder of the days when Stepney's population was swelled by more than 100000 Jewish souls. Most of their descendants have long since decamped to northwest London, and so has the hospital, leaving the old building to be given over to student accommodation (think unmade beds, think unwashed plates, think mysterious sickly-sweet smoke). Meanwhile round the back (viewable only by appointment) is the Old Velho Sephardi Cemetery, the earliest known Jewish burial ground in the UK. You can read more about the East End's Jewish heritage here, here and here - there's a lot of it about already.

A Breath of Fresh Hairfour local sights
» Hair Development (UK): If you need a new syrup, you'll want to pop into Europe's leading authority on hairpieces on the Mile End Road. A large sign on the wall proclaims them "Wigbrokers", while another (rather more faded) proclaims them "A Breath of Fresh Hair". Oh the waggish wigsters.
» Mile End Place: Nip off the main road through a dark arched courtyard (near the Wigbrokers) and you'll find this tranquil cul-de-sac of semi-rural cottages, which has somehow kept the big city at bay. Shame it's packed with parked cars, else it would be truly delightful. [photo]
» The Half Moon: During the Thatcher dynasty this building was home to the Half Moon Theatre Company, a radical collective whose dramatic output rallied against the system. But the system rallied back, cutting their grant and causing the theatre to close. It's now a 10-year-old Wetherspoons pub (in a former Methodist chapel, oh the irony), while the theatre company perform for youthful audiences in a smaller building round the corner.
» The Bancroft Arms: The matronly Doreen runs this old pub, conveniently located for the Ambulance station round the corner, the uni over the road and Silvermans military suppliers nextdoor. [photo]

Your comments
Isn't QMU known just as "Queen Mary's" these days? When I was at UC, it was "Queen Mary's College", but I think it changed its name to just "Queen Mary's" when it amalgamated with some other sites back about 10 or so years ago. (Blue Witch)
It's actually Queen Mary, University of London, doesn't need an 's. I know this because my daughter graduated from there last year. It used to be Queen Mary & Westfield College and the "main street" of the on-campus student accomodation is called Westfield Way. (Christine)
Mile End Place is most unexpected, I remember being rather amazed when I first found it. It is a shame that the alley leading to it is often used as a public toilet. It is also a shame that the Bancroft is a really terrible pub. (DTL)
Walking past the old cemetery to get from the Arts building to the library was always an unnerving experience, especially in the dark. The view from the library across the river to Greenwich and beyond is a nice perk for all the time spent in there during 3 years of study. (s)

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