High Street 2012 9) MILE END ROAD Globe Road to Regent's Canal
There's less to see out beyond Stepney Green, so I'm speeding up a bit and covering a full half mile all in one go. Let's get the southern half mile out of the way first. Ah, the Ocean Estate. It's vast, it's packed full with apartment blocks, and you wouldn't live here. Not given a choice, anyway. The Ocean's one of the most deprived estates in Britain, with overcrowded flats packed with the poverty-stricken and the underemployed. And some very lovely positive people too, obviously, I'd hate you to think the estate was relentlessly grim throughout. The government's thrown lots of money at facilities and cleared up the heroin problem, for example, and you won't find a knife-wielding drug addict on every corner. But you still wouldn't live here.
You might live on the northern side, particularly if you're a student. Queen Mary University dominates, spreading out along the Mile End Road from the Victorian Queen's Building [photo]. It could be a Torquay hotel, set back from the road behind a palm-treed lawn and clocktower, but in fact it's the college's main administrative centre. Various other faculty buildings line the street, the most striking of which is the repetitive stone-sliced grid of the Faculty of Engineering [photo] which spans Bancroft Road. The college chapel resembles half of Madonna's bra - all mammary and spiked - while further east a less suggestive Humanities building is about to spring up.
QMU has appropriated two historic buildings for campus use, the first of which is the People's Palace. This was the Idea Store of its day, a Victorian philanthropic centre for concerts, lectures and evening classes, complete with gymnasium, swimming baths and reading room. It was enormously popular with the local population (20000 came to an exhibition of chrysanthemums, for example, and double that to a pigeon show). But in 1931 it burnt to the ground, and the more formal building seen today was erected in its place [photo]. It's proudly understated, with five carvings by Eric Gill (representing Drama, Music, Dance, Brotherhood and Sport) enlivening the front wall. And it's still at the heart of a successful educational enterprise, used today for lectures and graduation ceremonies.
And the second QMU takeover is Albert Stern House[photo], built as a hospital and convalescent home for elderly Jews fleeing persecution in Spain and Portugal. A smattering of Hebrew text is carved into stone plaques on the front wall - a reminder of the days when Stepney's population was swelled by more than 100000 Jewish souls. Most of their descendants have long since decamped to northwest London, and so has the hospital, leaving the old building to be given over to student accommodation (think unmade beds, think unwashed plates, think mysterious sickly-sweet smoke). Meanwhile round the back (viewable only by appointment) is the Old Velho Sephardi Cemetery, the earliest known Jewish burial ground in the UK. You can read more about the East End's Jewish heritage here, here and here - there's a lot of it about already.
four local sights » Hair Development (UK): If you need a new syrup, you'll want to pop into Europe's leading authority on hairpieces on the Mile End Road. A large sign on the wall proclaims them "Wigbrokers", while another (rather more faded) proclaims them "A Breath of Fresh Hair". Oh the waggish wigsters. » Mile End Place: Nip off the main road through a dark arched courtyard (near the Wigbrokers) and you'll find this tranquil cul-de-sac of semi-rural cottages, which has somehow kept the big city at bay. Shame it's packed with parked cars, else it would be truly delightful. [photo] » The Half Moon: During the Thatcher dynasty this building was home to the Half Moon Theatre Company, a radical collective whose dramatic output rallied against the system. But the system rallied back, cutting their grant and causing the theatre to close. It's now a 10-year-old Wetherspoons pub (in a former Methodist chapel, oh the irony), while the theatre company perform for youthful audiences in a smaller building round the corner. » The Bancroft Arms: The matronly Doreen runs this oldpub, conveniently located for the Ambulance station round the corner, the uni over the road and Silvermans military suppliers nextdoor. [photo]