I live in the small leafy village of Bow, a tiny medieval settlement by the river Lea and one of the original Tower Hamlets. Well, that's what the place was once. However, if you've ever driven through East London you probably know Bow better as that concrete wasteland with a church in the middle of the road. This is rather closer to the truth today, but there's still plenty of evidence around here of the old village and what happened as it grew up to become absorbed into the largest city in Europe.
The old Roman Road from London to Colchester crossed the River Lea here, originally at a fast-flowing ford. A stone bridge was built as a replacement about 900 years ago, and its bow-shape provided the name for the new village of Bow that grew up around it. Close by was St Leonard's Priory, a Benedictine nunnery founded in the time of William the Conqueror, and mentioned by Geoffrey Chaucer in the prologue to his Canterbury Tales.
That 'church in the middle of the road' was founded in 1311 and formed the centre of the medieval village. Bow was also home to a number of breweries and riverside flour mills and the village soon became the bakery of London. Fresh loaves were taken by cart into the City each morning and with this prosperity came further growth. Samuel Pepys was a regular visitor to the green fields and great houses of 17th-century Bow, often riding out from inner London to take the clear air.
Bow grew rapidly during Victorian times, from a population of two thousand in 1801 to more than forty thousand in 1901, as the village was swallowed whole by the ever-expanding city of London. Many fine terraces and squares were built to the north of the main road, but there was also terrible poverty. The railways came, the riverside became heavily industrialised and the whole area tipped slowly into slum conditions along with the rest of the East End. Charles Dickens saw fit to set part of Nicholas Nickleby here, although admittedly not the most exciting of chapters.
The Second World War took a heavy toll on Bow's buildings and their occupants, quickening the rebirth of the area as the remaining slums were cleared in a ground-breaking redevelopment scheme. Much of the old village centre round the church was buried forever beneath ugly ill-thought-out concrete, but elsewhere many of the better Victorian terraces have survived. The gentrification of Bow is well underway, and any estate agent will tell you that the area definitely is on the up again. But alas, it's very hard to stand here now and picture rolling fields, lush pastures and Samuel Pepys riding by.