ROUND TOWER A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
7) the Tower → Shoreditch(1½ miles) [19 photos]
For the last ten miles or so the edge of Tower Hamlets has followed the water - first the Lea, then the Thames. Now it breaks off to follow man-made boundaries, historic in origin, which makes for a completely different kind of journey. The next mile and a half straddles the dividing line between the City and merely Middlesex, hence some of the contrasts are quite sharp, after which it's Hackney alongside and the two almost merge. A planning battleground lies ahead... [map]
After dallying with the delights of the Tower, the Tower Hamlets boundary slinks back into relatively mundane territory. Shorter Street is a good example - to one side one of the City's peripheral multi-storey car parks, on the other an anonymous office block, as one-way traffic slipstreams through the middle. The Royal Mint used to stand on the corner of Mansell Street before escaping to Wales, now an adjacent site awaits rebirth as Royal Mint Gardens, bringing "luxury lifestyle living" to 500 fortunate apartment owners who'll get their own private cinema on site. Best not mention the seafood outlet andeel slaughterhouse lurking beneath the railway viaduct alongside, where the proper East End survives somewhat uneasily, for now.
Mansell Street is peculiar in that the Tower Hamlets side is lined by offices while the City side is all residential. Almost 15% of the population of the City of London live in Portsoken, the small eastern ward that's essentially Aldgate. The two long slab blocks here are Guinness Court and Iveagh Court, built around 1980 by Guinness Trust Housing on the site of a railway goods depot. The business premises opposite aren't especially prestigious, such is the effect of a Tower Hamlets postcode, running in occasionally-Georgian sequence from a bland Wetherspoons to an even blander Sainsbury's. The Aldgate gyratory is in considerable flux, enduring yet another remodelling in an attempt to finally remove all trace of gyrating. Braham Street has already been replaced by so-called public realm, essentially a semi-green strip with mounds and fountains where workers come for a fag. Soon every scrap of traffic will be forced through the Aldgate High Street crossroads, along with a remodelled Cycle Superhighway, while the former pedestrian subways are bulldozed out of existence. It's not somewhere I'd choose to linger.
Zealous restructuring also means that Middlesex Street will be sealed off, indeed already has been. Originally known as Hogs Lane, the first hints of urbanisation came in Tudor times, and by the 17th century it had become a commercial district specialising in second-hand clothes and bric-à-brac. Petticoat Lane market survives to this day, indeed is world famous, although if you've ever turned up you'll know it's more poundshop than boutique. Sunday is the big day, when Middlesex Street teems with life, while adjacent Wentworth Street market also bubbles away on weekdays (and never come on Saturday). Again the two sides of the road are very different, the City flank all 1970s residential, while Tower Hamlets boasts older smaller more run-down retail units. In amongst these are various traditional textile outlets, and several modern ethnic restaurants out to entice local office workers.
The boundary next follows a really narrow street, Sandy's Row. This kicks off at Frying Pan Alley and bends in the middle at Artillery Passage, with much to explore up perpendicular alleyways (including the last Jewish synagogue hereabouts). Walking this way is a reminder of long-ago London, both its street patterns and its buildings, which is in disappointing contrast to what lies ahead. I'd like to walk along Fort Street but it's closed for construction works, and has been for some time, the adjacent block a depressingly inoffensive brick cuboid with no redeeming creative touches whatsoever. I've arrived at Spitalfields Market, once a characterful trading hub, now a heritage shell whose retail units exist solely to empty tourists' pockets. If your idea of a good time is a hot drink and a browse and a meal and a fashionable purchase you'll love this heritage-lite marketplace, but in reality it's sheep like you whose anodyne tastes are sucking the life out of this corner of the East End, and indeed have almost succeeded.
Rather than approach the piazza we turn left to reach Broadgate, where RBS and Nat West choose to occupy major offices on the non-City side of the street. This busy financial canyon peaks in the shadow of the Broadgate Tower, 33 storeys tall, while the buildings on the Tower Hamlets side are considerably older and lower. They form part of Norton Folgate, another of London's former Liberties, again under considerable threat from developers. British Land would like nothing more than to bulldoze the block they've bought and sequentially boarded up, but last month campaigners successfully persuaded the council to refuse the planning application that would have expanded the commercial district inexorably northeast. A conservation area runs alongside, and a mighty fine one too, including the very marvellousDennis Severs House, its Georgian setting at least temporarily preserved.