East of the River

bow garage

I love it when friends move flats. It means I get to explore new areas of London that I’d probably never visit otherwise. My intrepid university friend Emma has done a lot of moving since we left our student digs in the summer of 2007 (it seems so long ago!) and now she’s settled in Bow, East London. It’s not my favourite part of town, I must admit, but I was keen to go exploring when I visited last weekend. When I got off at the station, I was initially underwhelmed; the main road was grubby, run down and generally very unappealing. I thought it was certainly not somewhere I should like to live. However, as I turned into Emma’s road, everything changed. Instead of dilapidation and dirt was a row of pale yellow brick Georgian terraces with beautiful wrought iron railings smartly separating their courtyard gardens from the pavement. It couldn’t have been a more incongruous sight if it tried. Inside Emma’s lovely house, it was an oasis of calm, and I was shocked to find a very peaceful back garden with barely any noise to be heard apart from the chimes from nearby Bow Church. Little did I know that this was going to be just the beginning of a day full of surprises!

bow quarter

After lunch and chatting, Emma decided she needed to go to the garden centre to get a bird feeder (she grew up on a farm). I laughed. A garden centre? In Bow? Surely not! I cried. Just you wait and see! replied Emma, and off we went. We walked down her street, past the Regency terraces towards a lovely Victorian railway arch. Behind the arch was a huge Victorian bus garage with some brilliant art deco signage – another pleasant architectural surprise. Then we walked past a cluster of Victorian buildings that looked vaguely industrial. We pressed our noses up against the wrought iron gates and craned our necks to look inside. It reminded me of a seminary I had found while wandering in downtown Manhattan one day. What had been its original purpose, I wondered? Later research revealed that it was originally the Bryant and May match factory, once London’s largest and scene of the famous Match Girls strike. I’d love to be able to go inside and explore! As we wandered further on towards Roman Road market, I suddenly stopped and gasped. At the end of a side street, I had a clear view of the Olympic stadium and the hideous Anish Kapoor sculpture. I couldn’t believe it! We were within spitting distance of the Olympic Park! What more was East London going to offer me?!

olympic stadium

So much more, as I was about to find out. Victorian East London began to make way for the large council estates of the 1960s, and while a lot of these buildings are incredibly ugly, there was something quite striking about the stark modernism of these high rise flats. Many of the residents now have a view of the Olympic Park, as well as the massive expanse of beautiful Victoria Park, which we soon found ourselves wandering into. At the edge, on a former patch of wasteland, was the garden centre. Called Growing Concerns, it was built and is staffed by local residents, and includes a lovely coffee stand with an honesty box. It is a gorgeous little oasis, filled with colour even in the depths of winter, and a fantastic example of what local communities can achieve when they work together. I am no gardener, but even I felt inspired! Even better was realising, when I wandered down some steps and through an arch, that I was on the bank of a canal complete with narrowboats. I was beginning to feel like I didn’t know my home city at all!


After Emma had bought her bird feeder, we went into the park for a walk. I loved the fact that on one side of the park was a council estate, and on the other was a crescent of large Victorian townhouses that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a smart street in Chelsea. We were also walking alongside a canal that was bordered by old warehouse buildings, now smart new flats, with the struts of the Olympic stadium’s roof jutting above the horizon in the distance. What could be more representative of London’s diversity, history and ever regenerating landscape? I was entranced. I’m so used to dismissing East London as either a bit of a dump or a hive of hipsters that I’ve never really given it a chance. I feel like the scales have fallen from my eyes, and I can’t wait to do some more exploring in future!



  1. I lived in the East end for 22 years, I moved to Devon last month, your entry makes me all nostalgic, trust me there is lots, lots more to see in the East End and you need to walk it. The East end simply drips with history and is full of nooks and crannies and lovely old buildings. Happy sightseeing, there is much to see.

    1. Just moved to Devon! What bliss! Glad I could trigger some nostalgic memories for you, Avis, and don’t worry – I’ll be doing plenty of walking round there for now on!

  2. I loved London when we visited there – twice – about 10 years or so ago, and I’d love to return there again (soon!). I loved the city centre, of course, but I also loved the East End. And hey Rachel! This is perfect timing for you to now watch ‘To Sir With Love’ – set in … yes…the East End.

    Thanks for sharing your great afternoon there with us, Rachel. You’ll love it even more the next time you go for a return visit.

  3. This is why I would love to live in London. You just don’t get to see these interesting things on short visits as a tourist. I love ‘urban exploration’ but I live in a town that is so small that I’d seen every corner of it after living there a year.

  4. “A bit of a dump or a hive of hipsters” made me think of you as a languorous lady from Scott Fitzgerald. Which utterly says something about me not you. And now even I’m confused.

    I think I only went to the East End once, staying with a friend in Hackney. It was very grim. But as you say there are so many nooks, crannies and even large areas which are pleasant, side by side with those which are not.

    1. Ha! I like the idea of being a langorous lady!

      Hackney is largely grim. But there are hipsters opening up organic cafes everywhere these days, and there are pockets of loveliness amidst the grime. It’s not a place I would want to live, but I can see the attraction for some!

  5. Your enthusiasm sparks a bit of excitement, Rachel, making me want to go out and explore a bit of my own environment. It sounds like a very fine fine day and how lucky we are to have you sharing it with us.

  6. The architectural writer, Geoffrey Fletcher, wrote a series of illustrated books on soon-to-be-demolished London in the 1960s. First editions are a bit thin on the ground but The London Nobody Knows, which contains quite a lot of Stepney/Hackney stuff, was re-issued in 2011. There is also an evocative documentary film of the book (1967) narrated by James Mason, and this is generally available as a mid-price DVD.

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