Spitalfields is an historic area to the east of the City of London. Since the 1660’s, it has been the traditional first stop for immigrants arriving in London – and has suffered its share of poverty and destitution. Today, however, the area is a melting pot of the creative industries, street art and bohemian residents. Many of the original foundations are still there; represented by its people, cultures and architecture, making Spitalfields one of the most vibrant areas of London to visit. This walk starts at Liverpool Street station. From the station head east.
Old Spitalfields Market
Old Spitalfields Market is one of London’s top fashion, art and collectables markets; complemented by numerous restaurants. It’s on the site of the church, hospital and graveyard of St Mary Spital – established in medieval times.
The market started in mid-1600. Its significance increased with the arrival of French Protestants towards the end of the 1600’s, forced to flee France when the government made being Protestant illegal (the revocation of the ‘Edict of Nantes’). The French brought their skills in silk weaving to England. Spitalfields (and Wandsworth in south west London) were the centres of these industries. In Spitalfields, the wealth created by silk industries has resulted in the largest remaining concentration of Georgian buildings in London – ironically saved by the subsequent economic decline of the area right up to the 1980’s.
Jewish immigrants arrived in the 1880’s, escaping anti-Semitism and violence in Eastern Europe. Silk weaving started to give way to clothing and brewing as the principal industries around Spitalfields – evidenced today by the continuing ‘rag trade’ and former breweries.
At the east end of Spitalfields is Christ Church, Spitalfields. Built in 1729, it catered for the burgeoning population and combatted non-conforming Christian Protestants (i.e. Puritans who declined to recognise the monarch as head of the Church. Many had already left England for religious freedom in North America!).
Dennis Severs’ House
This house at 18 Folgate Street is an original home built in the 1720’s for a family of French protestant (Huguenot) silk weavers. The house is a time capsule created by the American theatrical designer; Dennis Severs. You’re greeted outside the front door and introduced to the house – and asked to be silent during your visit. Candle-lit rooms greet you from the basement kitchen, the dining room and drawing rooms to the servants’ quarters in the attic. All the while you’re taking in hundreds of original period artefacts, the sights, sounds and smells of this Georgian family home. It is a meticulously crafted experience. Book before arriving as entry is time controlled.
In more recent times, Spitalfields has become home to the Bangladeshi community, introducing a prosperous wholesale clothing economy – along with the best curry houses in London. After you’ve browsed the markets and viewed the street art in and around Brick Lance, visit Abdhul Ahad’s ‘City Spice’ at 138 Brick Lane for great food and the real experience. My (medium spice) chicken bhuna with pilau rice and sides of bhindi bhaji and saag aloo were excellent!