All Times And Places Meet In Brick Lane



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Brick Lane is a rare marriage of many times and many places into a compelling vibrancy that defines London.

London’s simple street names are satisfying, grown into existence through use, tied up with a story. They immediately echo in our heads from the mouths of all their imagined utterers over time. Within seconds a street name has us standing in a hubbub of people of all centuries, each with stories of their own, and the name, the location, become as vibrant within us as without. In Brick Lane’s case, the story goes that it got its name for the good quality clay in the area — ideal for brick-making — back in the 16th century when the area was mostly rural land. After the Great Fire in 1666, demand for bricks was high, and Brick Lane became the favoured place to get them. In some ways then, you could see Brick Lane as a point of origin for much of the built city that grew up around it, extracted from the earth itself.

Brick Lane today thrums with a deep soul of endless multiplicity: of architectural eras, folk fables, functions, cultures, subcultures, cuisine, markets, galleries and places of worship. These are the heirlooms of the succession of immigrant communities who have settled here and left their mark. The French Huguenot who settled here in the 17th century, fleeing religious persecution, the Irish immigrants of the 1840s, fleeing the potato famine, the Jewish communities from Eastern Europe around the turn of the century and the South Asian immigrants from Bangladesh of the 1950s and 1960s.

Brick Lane london
Photo by Alan Station [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

The result is a rare marriage of many times and many places into a compelling vibrancy that to my mind defines London. You can stroll past the elegant houses of the 17th century weavers who made Queen Victoria’s wedding dress, through alleys once stalked by Jack the Ripper, buy fabrics or clothes from Bengali tailors or stop for South Asian cuisine – I recommend The Shampan. Or buy kebabs, take Turkish Tea or traditional salt beef beigels, buy vintage clothes from the 1980s or London beer to honour the historic Truman Brewery that once dominated the area. I remember when I lived here, stepping out of my door right onto the street and just letting myself be caught up in the fantastic whirlwind of variety, people from all places doing, eating, saying, selling things of all kinds, an immediate antidote to any limitation or fixity in perspective, and instead a sense of anything being possible.

I particularly recommend a visit to Brick Lane at the weekend, when among the usual array of cafés and restaurants, bars, clubs, galleries, vintage shops and everything else, you’ll find a street market full of independent sellers. It’s mostly fashion, but then on nearby Dray Walk you’ll find the food market, and foods from everywhere you can imagine, from Japan to Egypt, Morocco and beyond. Be sure to stop by the nearby Whitechapel Gallery if you’re an art lover, and if you love shopping, keep walking up to Bethnal Green road and Redchurch Street for newer boutiques and restaurants.

Brick Lane, London E1 6RL

Feature photo by Garry Knight [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

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