Tuesday 3 January 2012

A cold Sunday in Spitalfields

Princelet Street, Spitalfields by Yekkes

A view along Princelet Street, Spitalfields

Spitalfields was once a regular haunt for me on Sundays - a visit to the market, something to eat from a stall or in nearby Brick Lane and maybe a drink in the Ten Bells before going home to prepare for another week at work.

I recently walked around Spitalfields on a freezing cold Sunday before Christmas and discovered that a lot of my old favourites are still with us, although much is different, and inevitably some of the "character" has been lost or changed.

Beginning with the market, as many people will know, half of the original structure was demolished some years ago and has been replaced by an arcade of shops. There are a few goodies - Montezuma's Chocolates is welcome anywhere in my book, but some of the others - coffee chains, restaurant chains and dull clothes shops could be just about anywhere in any city, but I suppose they can pay the rent. I also have a confession - I had a drink and a cake in the Spitalfields branch of Patisserie Valerie. I am not ashamed - the quality of the patisserie seems to have survived the expansion of  the Old Compton Street original branch which opened in 1926.

The remaining market is also a shadow of its former self with far fewer stalls than before, but some pretty good bread, cakes (bit of a theme emerging) and olives on offer. You can still find clothes stalls, some good, others not so and a few really good stalls selling hand made children's clothing including one using Marimekko materials! Most of the old book and music stalls seem to have fled, but a couple of book dealers remain as well as numerous stalls selling prints and posters. 

Perhaps more interesting now are some of the shops built into the perimeter of the covered market. I especially like One Deko which sells interesting slightly deco influenced furniture and the small Fred Perry store (OK its a chain, but has enduring appeal and sells good hats, shoes and bags).

Back in the market itself, artist Jenny Rose, whose family has very long connections with the area is also well worth a look. Jenny uses old sheet music in her work as well as references to the history of the area - some of her art carries Hebrew lettering and "ghosted" images from the past over current street scenes. She's also very friendly and happy to talk about her work.

Of course, Spitalfields was also the setting for a major part of the Jack the Ripper story and the pub across the road from the market - The Ten Bells is said to have been one of the places where the murderer picked up his victims. It still has some of the original Victorian fittings including some pretty great tiles and gets uproariously busy at weekends with students, tourists and even a few locals. Its also a stop for the many Jack the Ripper tours on offer.

Christ Church and Ten Bells Pub, Spitalfields by Yekkes

Above - Hawksmoor's Christ Church and the entrance to the Ten Bells

Away from the market, there are some dark side streets with lots of history, some in better condition than others. Fournier Street, earmarked for demolition in the 1970's is now out of reach of most of us with properties exchanging for well over a million and artists Gilbert and George among the residents. The street is still mainly residential but has a couple of "niche" shops at the Commercial Street end and a large mosque that began life as a church before becoming a major synagogue in the late 19th century at the other end. It now has a minaret built on the Brick Lane side of the building.

Princelet Street is close but is still a little rough around the edges. Like the Brick Lane mosque, number 19 reflects the demographic history of the area.Once home to a Huguenot weaver, it contains a 19th century synagogue that was built over its garden as well as an exhibition on immigration to the area. Sadly the building is in poor shape and is rarely open. You can find out more about it here.

Princelet Street, Spitalfields by Yekkes

A bricked-up window in Princelet Street

19 Princelet Street was also home to one David Rodinsky, the former caretaker of the building who disappeared in the 1960's, his room remaining untouched for many years, down to the food being left on the cooker and the table. His story is the subject of the book "Rodinsky's Room" by Rachel Liechtenstein. Well worth a read for more about the building but also about the area. 

Rodinsky lived in Spitalfields at the very end of the once dominating Jewish community's presence. Only a remnant now remains, but there are still a couple of working synagogues in Spitalfields - Sandys Row synagogue, east of the market and the grand Bevis Marks synagogue (although technically in the City). There are other reminders of the Jewish past here - the former soup kitchen for the Jewish poor, now flats in Brune Street (pictured below) and the occasional name on an old shop sign.

Soup kitchen for the Jewish poor, Brune Street, Spitalfields by Yekkes

All of this in just a few streets...and this is only part of it!

Below - Artillery Row - a narrow back street in Spitalfields, reminiscent of Victorian times

Artillery Lane, Spitalfields by Yekkes

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