ROUND TOWER A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
8) Shoreditch → Cambridge Heath(1½ miles) [18 photos]
If I had to call it, this is the least interesting section of my walk round Tower Hamlets. The northwestern edge of the borough butts up against the southern edge of Hackney, kicking off somewhere fairly trendy and then heading somewhere less so. There should be a pretty bit near the end, but then a gasworks gets in the way. But don't let any of this put you off. [map]
Although Shoreditch High Street seems the epitome of cool, the Tower Hamlets boundary runs one street back. It's even called Boundary Street, in case you hadn't got the message. A few on-trend ripples have washed out this far, with a white-blinded organic cafe/bakery at the junction with Redchurch Street offering bourgeois on-pavement dining opportunities. How things change. Off to the east was once the worst slum in London, the Old Nichol, less a housing estate than a maze of jerry-built misery, for families living one rung above the workhouse. Thousands of people were crammed into tiny rooms and cellars, disease was rife, and the area wasn't properly cleared until 1891. In its place rose the Boundary Estate, the world's first council estate, and still a model scheme for how to do these things properly. A series of tall brick tenements radiates from a central circus, where a bandstand sits on top of a rounded pile of slum rubble. It's a restful scenic spot, but I only spy it from a distance walking by.
Shoreditch's 'Oranges and lemons' church lies just across the yard in Hackney, while Boundary Street peters out as a narrow lane with a dead Tudorbethan-style pub at the end. At least The Conqueror is still standing, which is more than can be said for the Mildmay Hospital, over whose remains a fleet of yellow diggers now scavenge. A replacement opened recently close by, but the ward in which Princess Diana famously shook the hand of an AIDS patient is now dust. The latest casualty hereabouts is The George and Dragon, Shoreditch's most achingly kitsch gay pub, on the tip of Austin Road. A "dramatic" rent hike forced its owners to put the lease up for sale earlierthismonth, as rapid gentrification hereabouts continues to snuff out the creative spaces that made it possible. But the pub's not gone yet, and a Drag Sale was in full swing as I passed, with glamorous punters picking over racks of vintage dresses.
After a considerable amount of wiggling, the Tower Hamlets boundary now latches onto one street and sticks to it for the whole of the next kilometre. That street is Hackney Road, gateway to the East, which should be top of your list should you ever desire to buy a wholesale handbag. The brightly painted shops at the Shoreditch end are most likely to sell you expensive bling, while the bargains are with the older traders further up. The first junction with Columbia Road is marked by a portaloo and a Welcome to Tower Hamlets sign, after which boarded-up shops intermingle with minor commercial premises along graffitied brick parades.
I nearly rented a ground floor hovel here when I moved to London, a possibility I abandoned the split second I walked through the door. One of the nearest shops is now occupied by a professional whittler, the magnificently monikered Barn the Spoon, who sculpts his wooden cutlery either here or in the middle of a wood in Herefordshire. Alternative entertainment used to be provided by the enormous bingo hall across the road, formerly an Odeon cinema, but the last balls were drawn inJune after the business received a financial offer they couldn't refuse. The area's elderly residents are now ferried to a neighbouring hall in Camden by gleaming white bus, and the replacement buildings will no doubt appeal to a much younger (and wealthier) demographic.
The second junction with Columbia Road marks the point where the Tower Hamlets boundary cuts a dash to the north. To one side of Goldsmith's Row is Hackney City Farm, a delightful outpost of Haggerston Park, which mixes pettable animals with a rustic Italian cafe in a way that many local families find irresistible. On the other until recently was Queen Elizabeth Children's Hospital, currently being transformed into a few affordable homes and a series of unaffordable apartments under the unutterably pretentious name of Mettle&Poise. Apparently "Mettle represents the area’s resilience and strength, whilst Poise demonstrates the elegance and sympathetic addition the development will bring to Hackney", because there are lots of well paid jobs in on-brand hogwash these days. What housing lies behind is more reassuringly standard, notably the sinuous brick blocks of the 1930s Dinmont Estate, so very Tower Hamlets.
At this point, were geography kinder, I ought to follow the boundary on to Broadway Market. The edge of Tower Hamlets then follows the Regent's Canal, which would be a great walk, except the only towpath is on the Hackney side. And because there's no way out without changing borough I can't even follow Pritchard's Road to the waterside, and bring you tales of pie and mash, boutiques and gentrified food. Instead a diversion round the Bethnal Green Gasworks is required, at least for a few more years before the housing estate it's due to be replaced by is opened. The gasholders lookfinest from the side I'm not allowed to go. Enjoy them while they last.
Straining advertising standards somewhat, the Hotel Shoreditch is a chunky newbuild located far from the area most Londoners would describe as such. Their website says "this is a highly fashionable area so please dress to impress", whereas I doubt Billy's Cafe across the road sees much in the way of haute couture. At the Lithuanian church on backstreet Emma Street I have to divert round a large (and jolly) wedding party billowing onto the tarmac. From here a low key commercial zone finally leads down to the canal, bifurcating round 'The Oval', which turns out to be an elliptical car park. A two-storey office block made of shipping containers looks out over the water, while Empress Coaches (founded 1912) still somehow plies its trade from a characterful cobbled yard. The road beneath the railway is blocked off to vehicles, but thankfully those of us on foot can stroll by to reach the canal bridge at Cambridge Heath Road.