The story of Spitalfields

I love discovering London’s hidden stories and last Saturday I joined Blue Badge Guide Paula Cooze to discover to the story of Spitalfields.

It’s not the first time I’ve ‘toured’ with Paula, having started my fan-dom in September 2013 in the shoes of Matthew Shardlake followed by an architectural wander around the City four months later and then an amble around the Globe mid 2014.

So you can see that it’s been some time since a missive from Paula has found its way into my inbox and it was perfectly timed as Spitalfields is an area I brushed past earlier in the year and I have been itching to do ‘more’.

Wave after wave of immigration has shaped this gritty pocket of London and what was once slum housing and dangerous streets, has become regarded as one London’s places to be. In fact the gentrification of Spitalfields is fostering considerable debate and even protest, the most recent being the attack on the Cereal Killer Cafe at the top end of Brick Lane in September.

It’s a part of London bursting with expression, riven with side streets and alleyways and clothed in a patchwork of colour and smell. I was so excited that, in babbling on about it to friends after I’d booked my place, I actually inspired a couple of them to come along.

Spitalfields was named for the priory of St Mary Spittel, founded in 1197 in a field right next to the site of the current market. The area lay just outside the walls of the City of London and attracted many merchants and craftsman who were not part of the restrictive City Guilds operating inside the walls.

The multicultural history of Spitalfields is steeped in the ‘rag trade‘ and a fitting place to start our trip down memory lane was with a visit to Petticoat Lane. This street – now called Middlesex Street – was home to many Spanish immigrants in the early 17th century and although the famous market was only formalised in the 1930s, it has always been the place to come for cheap, second-hand clothing.

Petticoat Lane(640x360)

The Huguenot silk weavers arrived in the late 1600’s to capitalise on the area’s burgeoning reputation as a garment district and were followed in the early 1800’s by the Jews fleeing the pogroms in Russia. Both fled persecution with little but their trade and so their sewing machines were a life-line, the only way for them to earn a living and survive each day in this then slum-ridden part of London.

Silk for sale (640x360)

This beautifully preserved silk weaver’s shop and residence in Raven Row is now an art gallery so you can take a wander through to see how the more affluent lived in the past and how the locals are expressing themselves today.

Cover up (367x640)

When we turned around from the silk weaver’s windows, Paula pointed out this controversial facade running along the back of Lilian Knowles House.

We headed down Artillery Row – the name a nod to King Henry VIII’s gifting of the area to the military during his reign in the 16th century – turned left into Crispin Street and passed alongside the Providence Row Night Refuge (now called Lilian Knowles House). It was here that Paula added yet another immigrant community to her story – the Irish, arriving in the mid 1700’s with their dreams of escaping the potato famine in Ireland to build a brand new life in America. The majority could not afford the dream and so stopped where the money ran out – in London.

We walked around past the ‘new’ frontage of Spitalfields market, stopping to admire number 40 Brushfield Street. Verde & Company Ltd is a tribute to both the slow food movement and the history of the area – Paula mentioned that author Jeanette Winterson is one of the owners…and that a hot chocolate will set you back about £5. (Just as well the more affordable – not by much – Patisserie Valerie is across the road.)

Jeanette Winterson shop (640x360)

We then turned right to head north(ish) though Bishops Square, pausing at the old Huguenot silk weaver’s residence at 18 Folgate Street (which has been painstakingly restored by Dennis Severs – pundits really rate the multi-sensory tour)…

Cotton Merchant (358x640)

…and with a quick left down the alley at the end of Blossom Street (the most inappropriate name for a street ever), we emerged at the bottom end of Shoreditch High Street. Ambling along Bethnal Green Road and back down to Brick Lane Paula explained to us a little about the street art scene.


This commissioned street art adorns a local locksmith on Bethnal Green Road. That’s the entrance on the right painted as the opening of a vault.

still there

Nice to see two of my favourites from my walking tour through Shoreditch in June – Gregos on the left and Ronzo on the right.


Life imitating art? Or is it the other way around….


Street art frames transportation for the young…while this Vespa was one of many I saw, perhaps appealing to the young at heart?

After cutting through the Old Truman Brewery complex and along Commercial Road (this is the side of Spitalfields Market that has had its original facia preserved), we made our way down Wilkes Street – where Keira Knightley‘s pad is up for sale – and into Fournier Street.

Keira's pad(640x360)

Keira’s townhouse has been up for sale for a while – I’m not sure whether it’s the price (the guide price on is a paltry £3 million) or the purple that’s deterring prospective buyers…


Wonderfully preserved buildings along Fournier Street.

And it’s here that Paula told the last of her stories and bade us all farewell. Another great tour from Paula – done.

It’s extraordinary to think that we spent a story-packed couple of hours in such a small area – here’s a rough map of our route…

Spitalfields Walking Tour map

So I’d really encourage you to have a look around the area for yourself – I’ll be checking out a visit to Dennis Severs’ house to really immerse myself in history.

But really, to get the full story, you’ll have to wait – perhaps patiently – for the next time Paula crosses the city.

Play time

Since my visit Down Under for Christmas last year, I must confess to a renewed addiction for jigsaw puzzles. I’ve always loved them and a big part of family holidays when I was growing up was commandeering some large flat space, spreading out a thousand odd pieces and then hunching over them between sun-kissed beach sorties or for a whole day at a time if the rain was drumming a monsoonal metre on the roof.

But like most things in this day and age, jigsaws have moved on-line and I have developed a bit of a penchant for finding an hour or so to puzzle on my tablet.

I do love a puzzle. As a child travelling between parents and grandparents, a crossword/puzzle book was always tucked alongside my ‘book of the moment’ and these days, between a spot of Lumosity brain training or Words with Friends on my daily commute and a more leisurely pen-in-hand meander through The Times MindGames on a Saturday, it would really seem that puzzling has become the habit of a lifetime – well mine anyway.

This week, in scanning through some business reading at work, I came across another childhood habit that seems to be storming into the pantheon of grown-up amusements – colouring, or more specifically colouring books.

Euromonitor reports that sales of adult (no not THAT adult) colouring books are soaring and no longer content to dip into the annals of their offspring, grown-ups are looking for our own expression of creativity…and a little bit of stress-relief. The Secret Garden colouring book has sold more than 1.5 million copies and with the likes of Crayola, Bic, Faber-Castell and Staedtler coming to the party, Euromonitor postulates that this may become a phenomenon to rival the juggernaut that was – and is – Harry Potter.

And the nostalgic play trend doesn’t end there. Tonight, Channel 4 (UK) will feature a behind-the-scenes look at Lego. Yes those building blocks of childhood are every bit (see what I did there – every bit?) as ubiquitous today and one could argue that Lego’s position at the top of the toy-maker league table has been a result of an ability to extend their appeal beyond the young to the young-at-heart.

There are many studies and opinion pieces out there about the benefits of creative play for kids but as we get older, downtime like this is valued less and less (although one could argue that the absence of it in our lives makes us value it more – just consider how excited we get about going on holiday to ‘relax’ and ‘do nothing’).

But just as we might train physically to improve our muscles, puzzles and creative pursuits build different muscles, those of the brain. Brain training company Lumosity talks about its approach being grounded in neuroscience and more particularly neuroplasticity, explaining how the brain is ‘built’ to rely on previous patterns of behaviour (or neural pathways). Without challenging these patterns, our brain can lose its power to adapt.

I am no scientist but as we’ve already established, I do love a puzzle and luckily at the end of each of my commuting brain ‘trains’, there’s a little top scores list and an overall brain summary to chart my progress and offer any encouragement in improving the lower scoring areas.

One such example is that of spatial awareness. I maintain that Australia has so much space per person that the development of this ability in my early life was somewhat moot but in London I have developed a reputation for falling over (without the influence of alcohol) or pondering when exactly I bumped into something to produce an emerging ‘mystery bruise’.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of dancing and yoga which has helped this but indulging in a bit of sashay step or downward dog on the tube each day will probably raise a few eyebrows…and definitely tread on some toes. So Lumosity’s Penguin Pursuit continues to be my nemesis but as long as my scores improve, I will continue to work on it and enjoy the few minutes of fun that my three different games each day affords me on my commute.

So finding space to play, to ponder, to puzzle appears to be gaining momentum in a society seeking mindfulness and balance. And I think it’s a good thing. The watch out will be if it becomes a chore, another should in the long list of things we should be doing to have a happy and balanced life.

So let’s create, build, run amok, let loose and blow those cobwebs off our childhood…and just play.