35 years ago, I visited London for the first time and I’ve been lucky to visit it many more times since.
On my first visit in 1980, it felt very large and overwhelming and I felt very young and parochially Scottish. On my most recent, in 2010, surrounded by so many young people of different ethnic backgrounds (many who were clearly residents rather than tourists) speaking so many languages, I felt very old and very British but still definitely not a proper Londoner!
I have always been fascinated by the history and geography of the East End of London: those names like Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Stepney, Poplar, Limehouse, Rotherhithe, Deptford. My interest was certainly encouraged by early reading about the Jack the Ripper murders and the fact that the locations of those dark ghoulish crimes were so close to the wealthy privileged areas of the City. Later came the understanding that the districts in which the poor and underprivileged of London lived were not merely scenes of crime but also centres of political activism and working-class learning and culture. Before the Industrial Revolution, at the time when Nicholas Hawksmoor was designing his churches, the East End was of course one of the parts of London where people of all classes and trades lived side by side.
I saw one tiny part of that East End, Petticoat Lane market, on my very first visit to London, and other places on subsequent trips. Regularly looking at the web-site Spitalfields Life keeps the area in my mind.
Nicholas Hawksmoor’s famous Christ Church in Spitalfields, in 1992
Also in 1992, the property in Elder Street, Spitalfields, which was the former home of artist Mark Gertler.
Spitalfields Life is full of brilliant photographs and information about the present-day residents of the area but I do find it most fascinating on cultural and architectural topics.
Like many formerly working-class districts, Spitalfields has seen a good deal of gentrification over the decades. Although London is a city which usually appears to value its built heritage, recent reports in Spitalfields Life show that not all battles have been won. The Spitalfields Trust is currently striving to defend some streets in the district of Norton Folgate which are at renewed risk of unsympathetic development. The latest news, sadly, is that the first round of this battle has been lost.
Folgate Street, Spitalfields, part of the old Liberty of Norton Folgate, looking west towards Bishopsgate, in 2010. The crowd is gathering for a visit to the brilliant Dennis Severs’ House.
On the edge of Spitalfields, in 2010, lower buildings of various periods are dwarfed by the space-ship shape of Norman Foster’s “Gherkin” building, whose formal name is 30 St Mary Axe.