Our daughter Vanessa called to see if we wanted to accompany her on a walk to research Spitalfields, in London. The area is roughly around Liverpool St. mainline station and here is the view as you walk out of the station - a real mixture of old and new.
Vanessa is SO interesting to walk around with. She always spots the most unusual and interesting things. We'd had a stroll around this area about five years ago and were astounded to find it had changed a lot.
Although, well, some things haven't changed - Dirty Dick's pub for instance. The pub is perfectly clean but Dirty Dick Bentley's story lives on. Two hundred years ago he was a rich young man, heir to a successful wine business, quite a dandy and engaged to be married. He invited his friends over to meet his intended bride and laid on a splendid dinner, but she did not arrive, and instead, a messenger came with news of her sudden death. Like Charles Dickens' Miss Havisham, Dirty Dick shut up the dining room, vowing to leave the food for the rats and mice. After this, he became reclusive and miserly.
The shop became ruinous and the upper parts were demolished in 1870, when the present pub was built. Some of Dirty Dick's cobweb festooned vaults still remain beneath it though. And, if you are interested, the London Fortean Society meet in the vaults each month to discuss strange happenings and ghostly phenomena. Does Dirty Dick haunt their meetings? Who knows .... but he is certainly immortalised in that old Irish song, "King of the Cannibal Islands" where the King's house was "like Dirty Dick's."
In fact, taking a longer perspective - half a century or so - Spitalfields does keep changing. Sometimes it's posh, sometimes it's slummy, and sometimes it's where everyone wants to be. It just depends on fashion. We have a slight family connection with it ourselves. A relative died not too long ago, at the age of nearly 104. She had been born and raised in Spitalfields during one of its slummy periods and she hated it so much she refused to talk about it for the rest of her life. She was quite pleased to learn that the immigrants flocking there today are metropolitan trendies from all corners of the globe.
And so we came to this property below. In its heyday, the early 18th century, it was the home of Anna Maria Garthwaite, one of the pre-eminent textile designers of her period, who arrived in then-smart Spitalfields from Lincolnshire. A hundred years later, her house was probably still fairly respectable, but a hundred years after that, a whole family might have lived in just one room of it in the most wretched conditions.
Now, Spitalfields is so super-cool that this house has been preserved lovingly in its original state for use in films, media events and videos.
Another house nearby, 19 Princelet Street, belongs to a community trust. Also an ex-slum, it is just too fragile to open regularly to the public. It's quite like New York's brilliant Tenement Museum but is much less organised, and it also has had a Jewish synagogue in its basement, built over what was once the house's garden. I attended one of 19 Princelet Street's rare open days a few years ago and found it particularly atmospheric, just because it hasn't yet been made completely safe for everyday visitor opening (although the trust is fund raising, and individuals can walk around safely). When the immigrants arrived, and tramped up the stairs carrying their bundles, they probably did worry that they'd fall through the floor.....
Well, our relative certainly did.
I could write a book about our walk around this area, but I'll just give you a few of the highlights. Below is the charnel house of St. Mary Magdalene, excavated very recently when Bishops Square was built above it. The strange figure shown is NOT real, and human remains have been removed. This bone house was attached to the 13th century priory and hospital of St. Mary, and now you can view it through a glass floor near where city workers sit and eat their lunchtime sandwiches.
Before Spitalfields became cool, it was very drab, and frankly a bit scary, with lots of the huge old buildings converted into dingy, old fashioned offices and really squalid little flats and shops, and parts were almost deserted at night. I remember once driving through in the car and noticing that it had so many beautiful old buildings and would be a great opportunity if we were into colonising neglected bits of London. But apart from the fact we weren't, it would have made me very depressed to move there at that time. It really was awful.
However, its narrow, crumbling streets had for centuries offered a place of safety, friendly faces and familiar language for immigrants fleeing from persecution or famine. In those days, most immigrants were from the Bangladeshi-Sylheti communities, and for a while, Brick Lane, the centre of the area, became the place to go for top class Indian food. Down a side alley we found the remains of a beautiful wooden mural, now damaged and covered in graffiti. If you look carefully you can see the cultures of Britain and the Indian subcontinent mixed together.
This is the red bus you can just see at the far end of the mural in the picture above.
Here's one of the remnants of Banglatown, as it was called - a big, and definitely not beautiful, cash and carry store.
Just to the left, you can see some street art on the wall. A better view is below. Street art is big in the area now, and I could have spent half the day photographing it. You can't call it graffiti - a lot of time and work has gone into these strange images.
Even the local pub has got in on the act, with a man made of beer bottle tops on the wall.
The area's dominated by Christ Church Spitalfields, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. I'm not the only person to get a bit spooked by Hawksmoor's churches. There is always something a bit strange about the exteriors to me, off balance and weird (this facade is VERY narrow). And Peter Ackroyd wrote a very good and disturbing novel set in the area around this very church.
On a sunny summer day it didn't look too creepy, though..
And inside, it is graceful and attractive. I noticed it had many memorial plaques to missionaries to the local Jews, who were one of the groups of immigrants who settled here. I didn't approve, although I know times were different then and they thought they were doing the right thing. And I certainly didn't realise you could be a missionary without leaving your own home.