27 March 2010

My friend Simon and I ventured out to Whitechapel on Thursday night for a spot of curry and gin. I love the area at night, when it is an odd mix of eerily silent alleyways and nooks and crannies juxtaposed with the revelries on Brick Lane with its bars and dozens of curry houses.

At street level, much of Spitalfields seems just as it must have done in Victorian times, with narrow streets lined with the sombre former houses of silk merchants and Victorian style painted signs on the shops and pubs. Above street level, however the brightly lit Gherkin keeps guard while all around are the shimmering glass office buildings that make up the financial heart of the City of London. It makes for an odd atmosphere, both decaying and at the same time ultra modern. I love it.

Simon and I wandered down Brick Lane in search of curry, first amused and then progressively more annoyed by the curry house touts who line the street, offering discounts and free alcohol and promising ‘very nice curry, the best in London’ to anyone who passes. It made me laugh though to recall that according to most films about Jack the Ripper, any single man who walks the streets of Whitechapel would be endlessly accosted by the whores who apparently lined the pavements. Nowadays, the prostitutes are elsewhere and the curry touts have taken their place.

After curry (we opted for somewhere that not only didn’t actively ask us to come inside but also looked promisingly crowded), we went for a stroll and a quick gin in the Ten Bells. I adore strolling around Whitechapel at night, although on this occasion, Simon wouldn’t let me jump out on a Jack the Ripper walk so I contented myself by making menacing hand gestures behind them instead.

I returned to Spitalfields the next day, retracing my steps from Liverpool Street and along Artillery Lane, which is a perfect evocation of how a winding Victorian street would have looked, complete with menacing looking back alleyways. It all looks so different in bright sunlight and with the city boys and girls bustling about the place, shouting into their mobile phones and carrying boxes full of pie and mash or cupcakes.

I made straight to Commercial Street and took photographs of the Ten Bells and Christ Church before taking a stroll down Brick Lane, where the atmosphere was dramatically different to that of the previous night. I went down Hanbury Street, where Annie Chapman’s body was discovered in the garden of number 29, feeling suddenly self conscious as the locals stared at me. I don’t think I look like the average Ripperologist, which they must surely be used to by now. In fact, I’m not sure what the average Ripperologist even looks like, but I’m guessing not many are All Saints and Converse clad women in their early thirties.

I was beginning to run out of time so I had a quick stroll through the streets, daydreaming about living in one of the silk merchant houses by Christ Church. They may look boring and rather forbidding to the untrained eye but I think that they are charming. This was followed by a detour through Spitalfields, where I considered pie and mash, dropped into Lulu and Lush to give my friend Zazz a quick hug and have a rapid catch up session and bought some chocolate goodies from Montezuma for the boys at home.

After this there was nothing more to do but pay a brief pilgrimage to the service road of White’s Row car park, which is all that remains of the notorious Dorset Street, which was once known as ‘The Worst Street in London’. This dreadful place started life as a row of houses belonging to prosperous silk merchants but over the years it became a shocking and squalid slum, inhabited by brothels, criminals and cramped and revolting lodging houses. It’s fall from grace is admirably charted in the book ‘The Worst Street in London‘ by Fiona Rule.

Miller’s Court, home to the final victim of Jack the Ripper was a nasty little alleyway just off Dorset Street. Nothing now remains of it, but it was located by one of the garages on the left hand side of the photograph above, where the red car is parked. I usually like to walk down the road but on this occasion the gates were locked at one end and a barricade at the other. At the end of the service road, looms the Victorian edifice of the Providence Row night shelter, which was established in 1860 and provided a refuge to the numerous homeless and dispossessed of Whitechapel.

If you get a chance to visit Spitalfields, don’t be afraid to go there. It has been gentrified on an epic scale in the last ten years but still retains much of its murky Victorian atmosphere, if you know where to look for it.