Shabby to chic
'Ello', 'ello ... crowds come for Brick Lane's eclectic mix of balti houses, cafes, beigels, bars and galleries. Photo: Getty Images
Wot's this? East London boy Keith Austin returns to Brick Lane, 'a perfect microcosm of modern London'.
We're at the top of Brick Lane, in east London, and the smell of hot salt beef is wafting across the street, along with a faint whiff of curry and the unmistakeable tang of kebab.
It's a perfect microcosm of modern London. Along its one-kilometre length from Bethnal Green Road to the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Brick Lane has salt-beef beigels, curry restaurants, balti houses, Turkish restaurants, Thai, Mexican or Swedish food, any number of small bars and coffee shops, vintage-clothing shops, mosques, art galleries and hookah lounges where the young and fashionable sit on the footpath puffing away on the sheeshas affectionately known as hubbly bubblies.
Graffiti: Brick Lane comes alive
Graffiti brightens up the streets in London's Brick Lane. Photo: Keith Austin
First, a confession. I grew up hereabouts and love Brick Lane. My father bought his unshelled roasted peanuts here each week, I bought my first Green Lanterns here from the comic stall and, later, the vinyl 45 of the Clash's White Riot, which kicked off the punk phase.
The Brick Lane beigel shops are institutions. There are two just doors apart: Beigel Bake, open every day 24 hours; and Beigel Shop ("Britain's First and Best, est 1855"). If you haven't had a beigel from the Brick Lane beigel shops, you quite simply haven't lived. Nigella Lawson used to drop in here on her way to work at The Sunday Times, in Wapping, long before she was a domestic goddess.
Truman's Brewery has been here more or less continuously since 1666. Once the largest brewery in London, its buildings, warehouses and yards have been redeveloped and now house shops, restaurants, clubs, markets and art galleries. The bar in the front courtyard is a jam-packed summer venue.
I have a soft spot for Truman's, too, because my grandfather worked here, driving the big Clydesdale horse-drawn drays and delivering beer around the capital. I never met him but my father told me that, as he lay delirious and dying of cancer, he would talk to those huge docile beasts as if they were his children.
And, always, it never ceases to amaze me how Brick Lane transforms, changes, reinvents itself. In my day you could have fired a rocket down its length on a weekday and hit nobody, but today it's a vastly different beast.
That said, a midweek stroll is a contrast with the frantic, frenetic activity of Sunday mornings when the stalls come out again and the lane expands into side streets and entangles itself with the more upmarket, er, market in Spitalfields.
It's good to see a whole new generation is discovering Brick Lane's attractions and the imminent arrival of the Olympic carnival in nearby Stratford will draw others to explore this unsung part of London. For, while East London has a long and fascinating history, it has been the capital's poor relation and, therefore, some way off the tourist trail. Until fairly recently, most maps in guidebooks showed London only as far east as Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, as if beyond that were the badlands.
These days, the capital has expanded to the east and gradual gentrification has resulted in once-frowned-upon parts - including Brick Lane - becoming hideously fashionable.
Brick Lane has been a microcosm of 19th- and 20th-century immigration to London, from Jewish refugees in the early 19th century to Ugandan Asians in the 1970s and the Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis of the British Commonwealth in the latter half of the 20th century. My own family, on my mother's side, were Protestant Huguenots who escaped to London from Catholic France.
Buildings that once housed churches have been converted to synagogues and latterly, in some cases, mosques. As the pop group Madness sang in The Liberty of Norton Folgate, their recent homage to the area:
"The perpetual steady echo of the passing beat
A continual dark river of people
In their transience and in its permanence ...
Whether one calls it Spitalfields, Whitechapel,
Tower Hamlets or Bangle Town
We're all dancing in the moonlight
We're all on borrowed ground."
The "borrowed ground" of Brick Lane today is a curious mixture of old and new, like a favourite, tattered doll that someone has taken the time and trouble to patch. Renewed interest in the area has given it a vigorous new lease of life.
There was a time, for instance, when the two Brick Lane pubs once run by my family (an uncle and a cousin) lay - like many public houses in the area - empty and derelict. Today, one is a clothing outlet and the other (The Jolly Butchers) is a coffee shop. But while these pubs may be gone, there are still bars galore.
The Bethnal Green Road end has, on one side, the eclectic Casa Blue bar - popular on summer nights when it throws open its big folding windows - and on the other side the Verve bar. Those of a more traditional-beer bent could do worse than take a few steps back and cross the road to check out the Mason and Taylor craft and real-ale bar, on the corner of Redchurch Street and Bethnal Green Road.
Next to Casa Blue, the Hunky Dory Vintage Clothing shop does a roaring trade - as do the many second-hand, sorry, vintage shops (the London Fashion Exchange, the Vintage Emporium and Coffee House, This Shop Rocks, Vintage With Love - everything downstairs £10 ) that inhabit this northernmost section of the road before the new railway bridge.
It's also a sign of the times that this end of the lane is festooned with bicycles tied to racks, joined, just past the railway bridge, by a pod of grey-and-blue "Boris bikes", introduced by mayor Boris Johnson, which have done so much to transform the streets of inner London.
And if it's a feed you're after, the choice is almost numbing: Swedish at Fika (pickled herring, knackerbrod and God Lager); the beigels, of course; Mexican at Loco Mojito; curries and mezze at the Hookah Lounge; shawarma and falafels at the Damascu Bite; Thai food at the Kinkao; and more conventional fare at Vibe, The Brickhouse and 93 Feet East. Then things change again under the Truman Black Eagle Brewery bridge and the street becomes the curry mile, a cornucopia of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants for which it is rightly famous - this, after all, is where the street signs are bilingual, rendered in English and Bengali.
Here, and in the nearby streets, you'll find places proclaiming themselves "Master Chef of the Year", "One of the World's Best Curry Houses", "The Oldest Restaurant in Brick Lane", and various winners of this and best at that.
In the evenings, expect to be harassed and harried and cajoled into every restaurant and balti house you pass. Again, Madness caught the vibe with the Folgate song: "And a smiling chap takes your hand and drags you in his uncle's restaurant (here, here, here, here!)."
There is, indeed, an ongoing conversation among Londoners about whether all the spruiking and hawking is beginning to spoil
the experience, but I kind of like it. I've yet to meet anyone here who doesn't take kindly to a bit of banter. Have fun - play one off against another and you'll be surprised what sort of deal you can get.
Finally, always keep an eye out for the terrific graffiti that adorns every spare wall. In particular, check out the huge black-and-white crane by Belgian street artist Roa, near the Blitz shop, in Hanbury Street, and the little Indian god sculptures that pop up here and there.
Feast your mince pies* on these
The Carpenter's Arms
This pub, once owned by the notorious Kray twins, is just a short stroll from Brick Lane, and well worth the effort. A traditional bar area is small and intimate, unlike the beer and wine lists, which are enormous and wonderfully eclectic. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed — as is the service. And the food (moules mariniere; goat cheese, caramelised onion and butternut squash tart; cottage pie cooked in ale) is a cut above. With the market in full swing, it's a great spot for Sunday lunch.
73 Cheshire Street, Bethnal Green E2; www.carpentersarmsfreehouse.com.
Time Out London called this a "colossal new vintage emporium" and "London's first vintage department store" when it opened in August 2011. It's the joint project of a group of second-hand dealers and worth a visit if only for a coffee from the vintage machine imported from Italy. It's full of clothes, old-school Levi's, books, LPs, framed movie posters, old cigarette machines and the sort of stuff - armless mannequins, weird mechanical dolls - that gives you nightmares. Fantastic!
55-59 Hanbury Street, Brick Lane, E1; www.blitzlondon.co.uk.
Brick Lane Bookshop
This independent bookshop is an absolute treasure-trove of information and books about the East End. You can still get your Julian Barnes but if you have a hankering to learn about local history, or an explanation of cockney rhyming slang, this is the place for you. Good for locally themed postcards and author events.
166 Brick Lane, London E1; bricklanebookshop.com.
Mendoza showcases a style of menswear that can only be described as Edwardian dandy meets '60s swinger. Not for the faint of heart, or even the fashion-conscious, this is an amazing collection of shirts, ties, suits, accessories, coats and capes. Mendoza's brown herringbone wool Regency coat is straight out of A Clockwork Orange.
158 Brick Lane, London E1; mendozamenswear.com.
It's not the biggest or the swishest pub in the world, but what The Archers — on the corner where Brick Lane becomes Osborn Street — loses in size it makes up for in traditional style. It's a little forbidding on the outside (and in need of a spruce-up) but inside it's pretty nice and old-fashioned. Good for a pre- or post-curry pint. Just don't bring any cats for swinging purposes.
42 Osborn Street, London E1.
Spitalfields City Farm
A reminder that this used to be countryside not long ago. Sheep, chickens and the like are just a short walk away. The park next to the city farm, overlooking trains speeding across the old red-brick railway arches, is awash with picnickers on sunny days.
Buxton Street, E1; spitalfieldscityfarm.org.
* "Eyes" in Cockney rhyming slang.