Markets are the lifeblood of any community, often reflecting the dominant culture of an area, and the needs of a community. The East End of London, with its vicinity to the docks, has welcomed immigrants and refugees from all over the world, and the area is defined by the varied cultures and communities that have inhabited it.
Brick Lane Market
My walk begins on a surprisingly bright Sunday morning. Brick Lane is the first market I intend to visit, and as I make my way down Hanbury Street, one of the many streets intersecting the lane, I notice an uptick in tourists. Brick Lane has garnered quite the reputation in the last decade or so, as the spot for some the best Indian restaurants in the UK, as well as the home of young creatives, and a thriving vintage market. Graffitied artwork adorns the bare brick walls, and photographers line up to take shots of well-dressed young people against the gritty background. I step towards the main thoroughfare and I’m immediately struck by the sheer amount of people walking around.
Above there’s a bridge, with Truman in golden lettering glittering in the sunlight. Truman’s brewery was once one of the largest breweries in the world, and pubs all over the East End proudly bare signs that Truman’s is served within. I continue, walking under the bridge and almost collide into someone taking photographs, something that is exacerbated by the large numbers of people and the unique aesthetic of the Lane. Despite the griminess of the area, people flock to it, and new shops are constantly opening to cater to the large number of visitors. A chocolate shop stands on one end, a ukulele shop on the other and in between, a collection of food stalls, with food from across the world at prices that make me flinch.
Gentrification is a word often bandied about when talking about the East End and its effects are obvious to see, with more diverse options, but also much higher prices. It’s easy to see why some are so fiercely opposed to gentrification, but I’d argue that it breathes new life into areas that are often overlooked.
As I near the end of Brick Lane, two shops stand out, largely due to the queues outside. The Beigel Shop and Beigel Bake are neighbours, specialising in the same thing; bagels, and there are a multitude of articles that can be found online, furiously debating which is superior. These shops hark back to the days when the East End had a large Jewish population, who had fled the pogroms of eastern Europe, and it’s a curious sight these days, after passing by so many Indian restaurants to see evidence of a once thriving community that has largely vanished. It’s no surprise that it’s the restaurants that survive; food has the uncanny ability of uniting people and can help trace divergent histories unique to a place.
Columbia Flower Road Market
I continue my journey, now heading towards Columbia Road Flower Market, another popular spot for both tourists and locals. An old market, it was founded at a point when east of the City was fairly rural, and in the 17th century the protestant Huguenots fled France and settled into the area, bringing their expertise with silk and love of flowers with them. I smell it before I see it, the scent of earth and flora, permeating the air through the city’s pollution and what a welcome scent it is. I turn the corner, and a packed street is before me, cobbled, with stalls on either side. It’s overwhelming, and vendors holler their prices, (‘Twenty roses for a fiver!’ strikes me as a particularly good deal), and I struggle to make my way down.
Christmas trees seem to be the main attraction and I see them hefted onto people’s shoulders after purchase. Trade is brisk and despite it feeling like something of a tourist trap, there are a large number of locals milling about, bartering loudly with vendors who seem straight out of EastEnders. The market is filled with stalls, but brick and mortar shops also line the street, reminiscent of Covent Garden. Angela Burdett-Coutts, at one point England’s richest woman, funded the initial market, as well as the shops and flats above, hoping to create a success in an area so downtrodden. However, things didn’t go as planned, and the market was closed. It was an Act of Parliament that changed things, allowing for Sunday trading, taking into consideration the large Jewish population and their need to observe Sabbath on Saturdays. The market is now a staple in London, famous for its cheap prices and bright wares.
I manage to finagle my way out of the dense crowd and make my way down another cobbled street, where a busker stands with a guitar, serenading passer-by’s. I stop for a moment, marvelling at how village-like the area seems, before heading off towards Victoria Park, a nice way to end a Sunday walk.
It’s the following day, and I undertake another walk, this time to less famed markets. I start off not too far from Brick Lane, a mere five minutes away, yet it couldn’t be more different. Whitechapel, known the world over for less than savoury reasons, largely the unsolved murders of Jack the Ripper. Yet at the turn of the last century, Whitechapel was a prominent hay market, in a period of time when horses were a vital part of London’s transport. Whitechapel has changed many times over the years, but there are hints of the past if you look closely. Hidden between two stalls stands an ornate drinking fountain and the plaque below states that it was built to memorialise the death of Kind Edward VII, and funded by the ‘Jewish inhabitants of East London, 1911’.
These days, Whitechapel is more pedestrian, serving the local community with fresh produce and fish, as well as Islamic style clothing and food from South Asia. There are plans to rejuvenate the area, and there is no doubt that the area will change once more.
My dalliance with Whitechapel market done, I head down Cavell Street, a much quieter, leafier area, largely residential. Named after a prominent nurse who served on the frontlines of the First World War, it’s dominated by the new Royal London Hospital, a gleaming blue block of buildings, a far cry from the older, more sedate building that used to house the hospital. Towards the end, traffic increases and I’m on Commercial Road, my last destination before me.
It’s a small market, one that isn’t well known, or as interesting as others in the local area, but has its own charm. It’s a frigid December morning and the stall owners are wrapped up well, shouting their offers to passer-by’s. Watney Market as it’s known sits a few minutes away from Shadwell station, between two brown council estates and serves as the main shopping district for the inhabitants of Shadwell. The long established Bangladeshi community have their stores, providing fish and spices imported from the motherland. Curiously enough, there’s also a Wimpy bar, a relic of yesteryear when fast food was still a novelty.
There’s a charity shop, a hardware store and a fabrics shop. The range and variety of businesses within this relatively small area marks out how functional this market is and the clientele are largely the locals. The gleaming glass and steel of the much newer Idea Store towards the end of the market also highlights functionality over aesthetics, despite the modern design. It’s a library and a council ‘One Stop Shop’ rolled into one. The market feels a little rundown, but the Christmas lights stretching down the length of the place makes it cosy. Watney Market has been in existence for over a century and used to be one of the most popular markets in East London, boasting over 100 shops, including an early iteration of Sainsbury’s, now of course, one of the largest supermarkets in the UK. However, in the 1960s, a new plan was introduced, to completely demolish the market and build modern homes, as well as a new marketplace. The market was then again torn down in the 1990s, and low-rise homes were built instead, as well as space for stalls. Watney Market has seen much change in the last 60 years or so, but stubbornly refuses to die. Perhaps that’s the beauty of marketplaces; their refusal to be completely disappear. My walk has allowed me to appreciate the long history of the area, in particular the markets and how they are very much shaped by the communities surrounding it, providing an invaluable insight into what makes the East End so unique.
All images taken by the author.
Bibliography: All accessed and checked on 13/12/18