Posts Tagged ‘Spitalfields’

I have visited London many times, and as a UK citizen I feel almost as if I am a resident of the great metropolis. Even though I feel disenfranchised with previously strong institutions, I still claim a stake in the capital which I wouldn’t in other cities of the UK. In this greyish vacuum between being a tourist and local, I often feel a deep sadness and nostalgia when I visit places which have changed in directions which I feel a little queezy about.

Without doubt, my favourite location in London is the area between Liverpool Street and Brick Lane – where Whitechapel meets Shoreditch. Every time I have visited London I have made an attempt to get there. It’s a well worn route so I will try to describe to describe it with various layers of time piled on top of each other. As I try to imagine it I realise that it’s not a journey thought the actual locality but more of a journey through my own memories of the place.

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I leave the station and walk down through the large banks of the City of London. The City of London Police station is where I once spent some time, a very brief time. I was once interrupted during an outdoor McDonald’s breakfast by two very polite policemen who wanted me to take part in an identity parade. They spoke in that dusty old man London accent that you get in original Sherlock Holmes dramas with Jeremy Brett, the accent used by Johnny Depp in the ripper movie. I obliged and spent some time standing next to various young adults, all of whom had short dark hair and a similar build to myself. Since I was a teenager I have always been followed in shops and generally suspected of wrongdoings, this was the final proof. The lawyer decided that we were not right so I never actually got to have the witnesses inspect me. There was an element of anxiety despite the Police telling us that it’s impossible for any of the identity parade to be incorrectly sent down. I think I may have watched too many movies to fully believe them. Anyway, I got paid so I was happy

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Outside the police station I head down the Bishopsgate  then make a right turn into the wide street running down to Spitalfield’s Market. I love the houses in this part of London, they are very London in colour and seem to watch disapprovingly as their friends and neighbours  get turned into start-up tech firms and overpriced bistros. I think most of the houses and buildings were used as storehouses and shop-fronts when the East India Company was still going. At leasts some of the pubs seem to have remained intact and kept their character – like the 10 Bells on the corner. I walk through the line of franchises into the vast market, a lady with a local accent mistakes me for a foreign tourist because I don’t shave and I wear sunglasses ” I fought you woz Spanish or samfink!” I smile and move on to another stall. The cafes get hipper and seem expensive so I plot my escape. Opposite the  large right angle of original terraces I am  interrupted by the eccentricity of Hawkmoor’s church on the corner. This spawns a cross London quest in which I try to visit as many Hawksmoor churches as possible. The quest is made all the more interesting by running out of battery and forgetting my A to Z map of London.

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Christchurch looks on silently as if unaffected by the earthly pursuits of buying vintage furniture and comparing new cocktails. For Christchurch guards one of the points of the underworld pentagram which connects the other Hawksmoor Churches. The streets near Fournier Street remind us of the Huguenots and of course Jack the Ripper. This part of London has always been the first port of call for many immigrant communities. In some cases they only remain in the proper nouns of streets and surnames, in others they can still be smelt. As I approach Brick Lane I enjoy the smell of the Bangladeshi spices in the numerous curry houses. I’m sure they are good but I have no intention of eating there. A brief sensation of Northern pride prevents me from analysis, Manchester’s Curry Mile must be much better. Brick Lane is colourful and bewildering, the novelty of Bengali Street names on such typically domestic streets quickly wears off as I spot Rough Trade East. The ghost of John Peel tells me to go in and find a gem but I settle for a catalogue instead. I really really want to buy a T Shirt but I have never been good at being a fan of anything. Moderation stops my impulse buys and hunger takes over.

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I have a OCD capacity to know everything about food. One of those foods is the humble bagel – invented in Poland for pregnant women. The bajgiel was eaten by the Yiddish speaking Jewish community in Krakow. Many of the Jewish diaspora emigrated to this part of London too. One of my many food quests led me to search out two beigel shops towards the end of Brick Lane. After getting past the post industrial chic of the warehouses I finally make it. It seemed like a shorter journey in my head but it doesn’t matter because salt beef makes everything vanish. If mindfulness is living in the moment and forgetting all other thoughts then I may have just experienced it. The lady put huge quantities of salt beef on the בײגל and then doused it in strong English mustard. I stand on a corner eating my beygl and my journey stops.
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I’m not sure why people choose to eat cereal for double the price but that’s the price of being hip these days. I backtrack to the cereal killer cafe because it wasn’t there when I last walked past. I noticed the cereal fetish with many North Americans in Korea. Someone tried to explain it to me once but I didn’t understand. I believe it may be mixture of nostalgia and brand loyalty. I appreciated the concept and quirkiness of the imported cereal, and I do admire the willingness to follow crazy ideas. However, I think I fall into the category of feeling slightly ashamed that people would spend a fiver on a bowl of cereal when you could buy a full box and a pint of milk round the corner. My breakfast habits have changed beyond recognition since wolfing down crunchy-nut cornflakes as a kid. These days I only eat oatmeal or refrain from cereal all together. If you think it’s difficult to quit eating cereal, I assure you it’s not – just read the ingredients. Most of what you find in boxes of cereal is pseudo food and by the way, what does fortified actually mean? I’ve never found a castle in my cereal.

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My hunger is busted now so I try to find a coffee. If all coffee is a little overpriced and if most cafes look and feel the same then why not go for something different? This is why I choose to support another hipster, and if you wanted proof then he has the beard to prove it. I get a coffee from a converted black cab. Admiration and anti-hipster reflexes conflict again in my conscience. The solid authenticity of this neighbourhood really does clash with some of the modern elements. If anything, Shoreditch and its environs echo what is going on the real world day to day. There is no authentically industrialised inner city any more. There are no jobs for life, no job security. The service sector has taken over. You don’t need to make anything or be good at anything. You just need a new concept and hope people are dumb enough to buy into it. I leave my favourite neighbourhood with mixed feelings and as if to raise more questions Russell Brand walks past me whilst nattering into his mobile. Is he an authentic East End boy done good, looking out for social justice? Or, is he just another hipster?

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Nicholas Hawksmoor is one of those strange figures of British history who have remained buried at the bottom, not much recognition, not famous, nobody seems to care much. He should be mentioned in the same breath as Newton, Blake, Shakespeare, or Dickens. He should be one of those we mention without needing to use his first name or his profession. So why is he little known outside the fields of Baroque architecture and London history?

 English Baroque never became as fashionable as its continental counterparts, I believe this is a principle reason why Hawksmoor never quite made it among those lofty names. He has also been overshadowed in notoriety and in the legacy of his work by his master – Sir Christopher Wren.

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Hawksmoor was ‘spotted’ by Sir Christopher Wren. He subsequently worked for Wren as a clerk in the last 20 years of the 18th century. This is both a blessing and a curse for Hawksmoor because much of his work has been overshadowed by the figure of Wren. Wren’s shadow is cast from the huge cupola of St Paul’s over the last 300 years of British Architecture. This period was also characterised by the rebuilding of London after the great fire. I said blessed because Wren is undoubtedly a genius of this period. The job of an architect was not really conceived before Wren. The idea of planning construction sites and project managing was not really a professional concern, it was left to the skilled labourers and masons. Working with Wren during this time must have given Hawksmoor many opportunities which allowed him to develop and exploit his skills. Hawksmoor worked with Wren on the Chelsea Hospital, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace and Greenwich Hospital. Wren was also surveyor general. It’s easy to see how Hawksmoor’s influence can be overshadowed by the celebrity of Wren, but many argue that some of the features and developments of Wren’s projects owe much to Hawksmoor. Imagine the modern celebrity chefs who lend their names to famous restaurants only to have another more than competent chef actually cook the meals. I think there is a distinct possibility that their close professional relationship created a level of trust whereby Hawksmoor could carry out the projects of Wren’s ‘brand’ without much interference. Wren also had many other concerns at that time so I think it’s safe to assume that not every Wren project was completed in its entirety by Wren

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By 1700, Hawksmoor was a major architectural force with his own style; his own baroque style.  I say his own Baroque style consciously, because unlike many architects of that time Hawksmoor never completed the almost obligatory Grand Tour. He did not see the famous sights first-hand, and had to rely on pictures and engravings. The lack of first-hand experiences may have hindered his style, but I choose to believe that it prevented cheap mimicry and afforded him a rare objective approach when studying ancient monuments and edifices. Anyone who has seen his churches can see that he paid close attention to the monuments of ancient Rome and even Greek, Egyptian, and Hebrew works. How many churches in England have a pyramid in their graveyards? His grand tour was carried out in the library where he travelled effortlessly from Medieval Europe to Ancient Egypt in the space of a few pages. He was free from the constraints and prejudice of direct contact and instead had to rely more on the free-flowing artistic imagination to complete his works.

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This continuity of history, be it Christian, pagan or anything else, is explored in the baffling yet brilliant book ‘Hawksmoor’ by Peter Ackroyd. I read the book after visiting his churches in London. The narrative switches between the slightly mundane modern murder investigations to the initial drawing board of the architect/mason. Many themes are explored which you can see clearly in the fabric of the unusual churches. The main theme being the relentless rationality of Wren compared to NIcholas Dyer’s satanic mysticism.  I won’t go into too many details about the book here because I want to talk about my journey through the architecture. However, the book provides an unbelievable analysis of religious architecture in relation to the history of belief itself. The book really helped to explain the continuity of history in the church both physical and religious. Some of the prose adds another layer of meaning to most of the structures built by Hawksmoor. The book has also left a cult of the occult. The belief is that the pattern of the churches relates to some diabolical pentagram. I cannot confirm this but what I will say is that there is an otherworldly quality of the churches. Each building seems to exist on a separate timeline than our Judeo-Christian heritage. In many ways the churches seem a little dislocated from their physical surroundings too. Too grand to sit between  the simple dwellings of East London, and far too mysterious too be nestled between the large Victorian Banks and Institutions of Central London. To the untrained eye they may look the same in colour and texture as their neighbouring buildings, but on closer inspection they bear little resemblance to the safe classical buildings we commonly see. I wondered why Hawksmoor had so many churches to his name so long after the great fire. I found my answer when I visited  Christchurch in Spitalfields.

In 1711, parliament passed the following:

Act for the building of Fifty New Churches in the Cities of London and Westminster or the Suburbs thereof.

The act was passed for various political reasons, but it was supported by Queen Ann as a way of providing a pastoral guidance for the godless masses, especially in the East. London at this time was turning into a huge metropolis and the infrastructure had not caught up with the demands of the growing population. There was also a concern about the growing number of non conformist meeting houses, especially in the Spitalfields area which contained large numbers of Huguenots . The creation of large churches was a way to erect towering steeples to watch over the less imposing meeting houses. Whatever the reasoning, it was a serious commission, a commission which included Christopher Wren, John Vanburgh, Thomas Archer and a number of churchmen. Hawksmoor served as one of its surveyors and remained  until the commission ran out of enthusiasm and money in 1733. The declining will for the 50 churches meant that only twelve churches were actually completed. I believe they ran out of money because they were far more grandiose than originally intended. Some of the churches were collaborations but six of the churches were designed or rebuilt by Hawksmoor:

Christ Church, Spitalfields Hawksmoor 1714-29

St Alfege Church, Greenwich Hawksmoor 1712-18 (rebuilt)

St Anne’s Limehouse Hawksmoor 1714-30

St George’s, Bloomsbury Hawksmoor 1716-31

St George in the East Hawksmoor 1714-29

St Mary Woolnoth Hawksmoor 1716-24 (rebuilt)

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I spent the best part of a day travelling across London to look at the churches. Unfortunately St. Georges in the East was closed and as I was in the East I failed to visit Bloomsbury, this is strange because I have been in that area many times. If you live in London, or if you are spending a reasonable amount of time there I highly recommend setting aside a full day to visit the churches. I started in Spitalfields and headed East. Actually, I forgot my map and notes but a leaflet from Christchurch was enough to get me going to Limehouse and beyond. I will not label all the pictures or describe how to get there, I believe it should be a personal journey. If you need a guide then consider following the gruesome murders in Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor. Good luck!

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