Spitafields: a bridge between history and modernity of London


Walking along the streets of Spitalfields the alternation of old and decrepit buildings with the modernity of the skyline seems to put the whole city in prospective, showing as much the history of London as its modern face. In this sense nowadays this district is probably one of the most suggestive in London.

This is particularly evident reaching Spitalfields from the North Side. From Nolton Gate I turn on the right on Commercial Street where the modern skylines in glass make space to old low houses with the walls covered by graffiti, which witness how the area is now populated by artists, students and young people.

Though the district is probably one of the most run-dpwn of the city in the last years it has been rediscovered for the sparkling nightlife. Brick Lane hosts some of the most in vogue pubs, clubs and bars of London and is becoming a target for tourists as well.

But it’s behind the attractions of Spitalfields that are hidden those secrets which tell the story of this neighbourhood and of how it and its population has changed.

According to Daniel Defoe at his time this was the real city. Here historically all those people who for some reasons desired to hide found refuge. I understand why. The tiny streets remind me a Mediterranean village full of alleyways in which I found myself lost in need to ask for directions.

Soon it became the favourite destination for the immigrants who brought in their spices and the cookery skills which rises from the poverty. This explains the origin of Spitalfields Old Market at 105 Commercial Street.

It opened since the1638, when King Charles gave a licence to sell flesh, fowl and roots. It now attracks over 25,000 visitors per week according to stall manager Eric Graham. While I walk among its stalls I’m pleasantly surprised noticing how it has now evolved offering a various range of products: from fair trade cushions and rare vinyls to lovingly crafted notebooks and hand carved toy trains.

The market is open from Monday to Friday from 10am to 4pm and on Sunday from 9am to 5pm.

Continuing along Commercial Street I reached another building which tells so much about the history of this neighbourhood.                                                                      At 9 Brune Street a red brick made building hosts the Jewish Soup Kitchen, which since the 1902 offered a meal to the poor Jewish in the district. Brune Street is extremely characteristic. The poorness of the buildings contrast with the modernity of the skyline which stands at the bottom of the street, and in which the street seems to mirrored appearing like a museum under the open sky.

Giving the back to the skyline I can easily image the queue of people waiting for a hot meal, having a perfect picture of how it appeared almost a century ago. The run-down council houses in front of the building, where children play ballgames, link the past of this place with its present.

Another community has ancient roots in the area, even older than Jewish.          The Huguenots in fact moved here since the 1685 after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. They brought with them their silk skills starting the historic association between the silk industry and the neighbourhood, which is so evident from the architecture of the buildings in Fournier Street where I direct myself.

The big windows on the top floor, which I can see from the street, guaranteed to the weavers the necessary light to do their job. The Western corner of Fournier Street hosts the Ten Bells Pub, where I stop for a cold drink.

Looking at the pictures on the wall I discover that this pub is famous to be linked with two victims of Jack the Ripper. One of the waitresses, Martin, 21, tells me that it’s here that some of scenes from the homonymous movie with the American actor Johnny Depp were filmed. The place is always fully attended both with local people and tourists.

After a short break at the pub I go back to Brick Lane, which is well frequented either during the day. The presence of many Bangladeshi restaurants is a bit annoying if you are not into having a meal, with waitresses who stop you in the street almost forcing you to step in the restaurant. Though the doorway representative, that’s apparently the name of waitress on the door, because of the high competition among the restaurants are open to negotiate the price for the meal including a free drink if you’re good enough in negotiation.

Brick Lane is not only Bangladeshi and Thai food or night bars.                         Boutique, vintage clothes and kitschy accessory shops are other good reasons to visit it. Looking for a gift for a friend for the second time I find myself lost, but inside a shop this time. Tatty Divine at number 7 Gibraltar Walk, a side street of Brick Lane, offers huge collections of homemade jewellery and clothes. They are celebrating their tenth anniversary in these days, having been probably the first company to open a boutique in Brick Lane, renewing a trend already in vogue half a century ago by Fashion Street.


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