If you decide on walking London, this route takes you from Angel down to the Barbican, touching on Finsbury, across to Brick Lane, through Shoreditch, Hackney and back north toward the Regent’s Canal. I’m going to simplify the route – you’ll be able to find your way, but just take a map.
Starting at Angel tube station or thereabouts, we take a slow meander down Goswell Road. This allows us time for a catch up, as our Tourist is from a long way away and we’ve not seen much of her recently. We figure she can find the big tourist sites herself, so we’ll take her on a bit of a back streets tour. So the “sights” don’t get noticed really until we hit the provocatively named Pear Tree Lane – named commemoratively because there no pear trees here, as they have been replaced by apartment blocks. One is perhaps derisibly named The Orchard, containing a courtyard with a couple of lonesome looking trees.
We cut down and across Old Street and into Whitecross Street Market. Closed today, the market is another of those lively London enclaves that embody the more local life of this city. With streams of flags, and industrial sculpture and stencil art running down the sides of the street, the market is a wonderful example of colour and urban artistry. London really should fill up its structural grey spaces and walls with paint, colour and texture – these add exponentially to the community’s good mood. Be inventive, place colour and art along the streets, and people will think and act colourfully, inventively and artfully.
It’s worthwhile here taking a quick turn to the east and stepping into the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground. We had to wait a moment for a small film crew to finish the scene they were working on – using a beautiful old Super-8 camera by the look of it – before we could cross into the burial ground. Colourful, and artful. The cemetery itself apparently holds the remains of 120,000 individuals – an incredible number considering its diminutive size; there must be layers of people buried upon layers of other people here. But it is beautiful, green and shaded and full of wonderful old gravestones standing at all angles. Daniel Defoe, William Blake and John Bunyan lie here. An informative burial directory is to be found on the Eastern entrance – but we double back past the film crew again, who are reworking their scene.
Bunhill Fields Burial Grounds
We walk south to the Barbican Centre, one of the strangest and best hidden treasures in London (I know people who have lived here for 15+ years, and have only recently discovered the Barbican) – an enclosed living, artistic and performance space. The housing estate was built after the area was bombed heavily in the war, and the Barbican Centre itself – which effectively completes the enclosure – was opened in the 1980s. With a massive water feature running through the middle of it, the Barbican reminds me of an abandoned Soviet-era Olympic village. It is absolutely not abandoned, now being a highly desirable and jealously guarded housing estate.
Exit to the east and you’ll soon enough find yourself in Finsbury Circus (cross over Moorgate),with its elegant curved building façades that border the oval shaped circus. Other good examples of this arcing elegance can be found on Regent Street, and also Electric Avenue in Brixton.
Further east and you’ll find St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate Gardens. The church is named after an Anglican saint of the Middle Ages, is the fourth church on the site and was damaged in an IRA bombing in 1993. Be sure to look for The Dollhouse, a building to the back of the gardens that appears to have been inspired by a Turkish tea-house. Incongruent and beautiful, it is transformed into an horrendous night club after dark.
Directly across the road from St Boltoph’s is the Heron Tower, with its glass panelled lift that rockets you up 40 floors. A couple of tips – wear tidy casual (no shorts) to get past the person on the desk, and if you haven’t got a restaurant reservation, there is a bar at the top and you can say you are having a drink there.
Throw up your hands in frustration when you get refused entry to Heron Tower, but carry on north up Bishopsgate, past Liverpool Street station and turn off when you get to Spital Square. Spitalfields Market has been a London landmark market in one form or other since just after the Great Fire of London. These days it has become a tourist market – anything you find here you can find in half a dozen other markets around town. You’ll find the “instagrammed” shots of London – the red phone box, the London Eye – and the ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On” merchandise, the Banksy graffiti prints. But it’s OK – you can make this part of the trip as long or brief as you like – there are some good food options through here. We decided brief was the way – and walked straight on through, across Commercial Road and into the St John Bread and Wine for some fat donuts, and then up to Hanbury Street. Coffee, crowds. Markets, stalls, stores, 2nd hand clothes shops.
Our aim is to get across to Brick Lane, to try and find something for lunch. We keep away from the Indian/Bangladeshi restaurants at the southern end of the street, and rather go for the street food stalls in the northern part of this very crowded area. We eventually find our way into the Old Truman Brewery, now converted into a restaurant market with stalls of Sri Lankan, Ethiopian, Chinese and a multitude of other ethnic food variations. It’s very crowded and it takes some time to get a seat to sit and eat, but we are eventually rested and satiated. We carry on to the northern end of the street and across Bethnal Green Road toward the Columbia Road Flower Market.
As you get closer to the flower market, people start walking past with bunches of flowers wrapped in plain newsprint. The market itself is marvelous – a rampage of colour and fragrance. I thought of taking photos through here – but the combination of conversation with the Tourist and the crowds pressing close prevented any decent photography. We carry on up through to the eastern end of Columbia Road.
London has farms. In Mudchute, in Surrey Docks and Kentish Town are city farms, little bucolic oases in the metropolis. Hackney also has a city farm, which can be found simply by crossing Hackney Road, directly from the north eastern end of Columbia Road. This place is wonderful – pigs submerge themselves in mud like diving submarines; donkeys stand so still one begins to fear they are going to make a sudden, violent move; chickens wander about wearing what look like ridiculous feathery boots. There is also a rather lovely café that serves a very decent looking Sunday brunch, and pottery classes for the little people. We buy a Little Brown Jug, and carry onward (to tell the truth, the jug was blue but if I’d said that I would never have been able to link to the Glenn Miller tune).
Westward ho! in an almost direct route to the back of the Geffrye Museum. Originally created as an almshouse for the widows of Ironmongers by Sir Robert Geffrye – at one time a mayor of London – the buildings now house the “museum of the home”. The museum creates a timeline of the history of British furniture, but the weather is far too nice for museums, so we make do with the beautiful deep greens of the gardens.
But we must move on, and carry on north up Kingsland Road, past the urban minaret and detailed tiling of the Suleymaniye Mosque. This course takes us over the Regents Canal and we decide on the other side of the bridge over the canal to take the steps down to the tow path.
I suspect that the canals of London are systematically rediscovered by each new resident, who never knew there was a network of canals servicing London. They are a great feature of the city, and bring us back to a time when they were true thoroughfares, and the sky was dark with the industrial revolution. Today, the towpath that used to be plodded along by horses pulling canal boat is witness to an ongoing battle between pedestrians and cyclists. The canal boats themselves are powered by diesel engines now, and piloted by gorgeous, ringlet-haired women wearing white calico dresses and over-sized RAF boots. The locks that are dotted along the canal are hand-cranked, which means there is truly a struggle by man to tame the water, as a fellow has to really put his back into it to open and close the system.
But now, we are tired and our path has been long. We stop into The Narrow Boat. Time for a Pale Ale.
Good day, long walk.