The Boroughers 11/02/18:Tower Hamlets Eastenders

The Beastie Boys, a popular beat combo of the last 30-odd years, once made an album called To The Five Boroughs. It’s pretty good, you should all ch-check it out. What it betrays, however, is how shit a new year’s resolution “visit all the boroughs of New York City” would be. Five? Five? Load of shit. We ‘ere in London have got 32 plus the City, and throughout 2018 my girlfriend Helen and I are going to visit all of them, in a project we’ve called The Boroughers. This is our fifth adventure, a day and a bit in Tower Hamlets.

(Yes, I write this as if anyone new ever stumbles in here, despite knowing full well it’s the same 15 or so of you; indulge me.)


Tower Hamlets is just north of the river, marking our third water crossing in a row after the dismal Harrow and Barnet days. But at least it’s actually on the river, so we can look back to the safety of the south if things get too scary.

And scary it might be. During a 2.5hr nap on Saturday morning I received a couple of texts.

Hard to know how to react to this. I mean, it’s very nice that someone is stalking our project by actually reading the Boroughers microsite, is interested in what’s going on, and that they don’t want us to die. But OTOH it clearly demonstrates a belief that there’s a chance of us dying in Tower Hamlets. I mean, yeah, it’s not the swankiest borough - home to the Krays and Jack the Ripper ‘n all - but hey, they’ve actually entered the Mayor’s campaign to be inaugural Borough of Culture. They’ve even got their own microsite, TH Back The Bid. Surely it’ll be fine, right? Right?


As usual, we spent the night before trying to find out stuff that we didn’t already know. Here’s what we came up with:

  • Sylvia Pankhurst, famed suffragette campaigner and resident activist of the east end, is buried in a royal grave in Ethiopia
  • Victorian prudishness led to the renaming of Petticoat Lane to Middlesex Street, because underwear and town planning shouldn’t mix
  • Peppermints made in Tower Hamlets were once so impressive that Madagascar adopted them as currency

There is no bloody way that last fact is a fact, IMO. Helen found it on a website that I couldn’t find even when googling for “madagascar peppermints currency”, three words which are definitely on the page.

Tower Hamlets

Right, so, off to Tower Hamlets we go. It was a Sunday, meaning we could leave earlier than usual because no parkrun or anything getting in the way (I’d run my 192nd the previous day; 27m30s). Waking up, Helen somehow had it in her head that the best way to travel would be in flying sleighs pulled by giant rabbits. Something about a dream about London being overrun with the things. She even drew a picture of how it would all work and mocked up some “book your giant rabbit sleigh-puller” app. Er, OK then.

Downstairs and this week I was not banned from witnessing the picnic preparation. It’s somehow been A Thing from day one that we set off from Thames Ditton with sandwiches. For this trip, we had this:

These are small bread sandwiches containing ham, and shaped using pastry cutters into flowers. Flower ham-lets, see? I swear, Tower Hamlets is a rich, rich borough in terms of pun potential.

For the first time this year, we had glorious sunshine as we headed north.

I was dehydrated as fuck, failing to have anything to drink at home and then being unprepared for the lack of diet coke vendors before 9am. Holy smokes, it’s not even 9am!

Flower Ham-lets, see? Or even “flour ham-lets”, ‘cos of the bread. Flour, see?

The train stays empty, and crawls to Waterloo. Ordinarily we’d have changed at Clapham Junction but the Overground wasn’t running, so intead we do the commuter-tastic bus. On a weekday this place is absolutely bloody heaving, but on Sunday morning it’s nice and dead as we wait for the 243.

This is an excellent bus route. Immediately after setting off it goes over Waterloo bridge, with its stellar views in both directions and, today, no traffic. I thought I leaned out of the way to allow for a photo, but apparently not.

Hello, CIty of London.

It goes up past Holborn then hangs a right, going through Clerkenwell and that before Old Street then Shoreditch. We get off just past the town hall, yet to actually enter Tower Hamlets. Oh, wait, we’re still not there. Is there a welcome sign around? Fuck yeah there’s a welcome sign.

And, since you’re entering this borough, would you mind NOT FUCKING DUMPING thanks?

Well OK then! With the weather still excellent, we walk against the flow of flower-clutching folk to Columbia Road. After skirting the edges of housing estates we arrive, the road closed and suddenly there’s some fairly nicely architected shops and other businesses.

Oh, and a ton of flower stalls. Columbia Road is home to a massive flower market every Sunday, see, and this is why we’re here. It’s a bit popular.

The place is heaving with tourists and customers alike, and the air noisy with the fantastic sound of Cockney salesman touting their wares. These aren’t yer two-syllable “flowers”, these are flaaahs. Cheese plants are a fiver, c’mon folks, cheese plants only a fiver. Tulips? Get yer tulips ‘ere. “Free hugs, I’m givin’ out free hugs! Want a free hug madam? Sir?” we’re asked. “No fanks mate”, I reply, secretly delighted to reveal my Laaandaaaan accent.

Flowers and plants. Lots and lots of flowers and plants.

Helen is actually pretty gutted by the whole experience. On the one hand she was surprised by its size, thinking the market would be bigger. On the other, she’s gutted at how impractical an idea it would be to buy all the stuff she wanted to buy, which was basically all the plants in the world. We resolve to come back here as customers when we finally get round to fucking moving in together.

At the end there’s a pub, plus a little side square with like a vinyl record shop and coffee places and whatnot.

By the alleyway is a man with an acoustic guitar busking No Diggity by Blackstreet, doing the horn solo with just his voice. I throw a couple of quid ‘cos I’m enjoying it a lot. Bag it up.

The old lamp posts are cool ‘n all. Weather still holding.

But, well, that’s it for here. It’s still early, and time for us to move to the second stop of the day. It would be a 40 minute or so walk, or slightly less by public transport, apparently. We walk back into Hackney and get on the Overground from Hoxton to Whitechapel, just a couple of stops.

When we disembark, we walk through Whitechapel station for what feels like 20 minutes. It seems unfeasibly large.

On the main road we’re tempted to pop into the Whitechapel “Idea Store”. It’s a library, but Helen reckons there’s a museum, and it does say there’s a gallery on the fourth floor. I don’t like the look of the geezer I’m stood next to in the lift.

There’s a sign to the art gallery bit, which we follow around the corner until the next sign...which points back the way we came. Wait, what? Oh, that stuff on the wall that’s mostly writing is the gallery? Er, kind of. It doesn’t seem to be art; it’s a bunch of biographical info about the Bengali innovators at nearby Toynbee Hall – those who have helped the fight against poverty locally, as well as devote their time and energy into the integration of Bangladeshi, Somali, and other immigrants. It’s quite uplifting.

A few doors down is a pub famous for being where Ronnie Kray murdered George Cornell. Oh and the Salvation Army was formed here ‘n all.

We can’t see plaques commemorating either, but there is a burger menu.

Leaving the bustle of Whitechapel Road, we walk up past the Royal London Hospital to our right and housing on the left. One frontyard has a peculiarly ostentatious bust in it.

Parts of the hospital do not look quite finished yet, and the blue skies are getting less blue.

A left turn onto Stepney Way, and a surprisingly long walk through some fairly impoverished housing, at odds with the shiny school opposite with a very long name. We knew that the borough is probably the most financially diverse in the city, country, maybe even Europe. Lots of Tower Hamlets still suffers poverty and even in this century a significant percentage of residences here had no central heating, yet the borough also includes Wapping and Canary Wharf, where you can smell the money. Stepney does not seem to have had much if any wealth trickle down, and its in this context where we find our next stop.

You’re goddamn right it’s another farm. Animals are great wherever they are, and it’s impossible to doubt the value of access to wildlife for inner city estate kids. It would be easy for us to complain about this being a fairly shit farm but that would be really unfair.

Especially, I mean check out these goats. These are great goats!

And as for the sheep... I can’t recall what kind of sheep they are, or their names - but for the fact that their names all start with W, and one of them is Womble. Oh, Wombles we love you!

Whatever breed they are, it makes them look a little, facially, like alpacas - which is good, because there’s no actual alpacas here.

The other sheep, with the black and white faces, stay in their hut. OK well fine, whatever.

We’re warned by a perilous stick figure not to climb on the log stack, and elsewhere a blackboard warns us at the bees are feeling aggressive right now. I’m glad I chose not to smear my hands with sugary syrup today, not that we actually see any bees.

It’s kinda untidy, but who wants a pristine farm anyway? It’s a working farm as well as education: the animals are bred for market or meat, and there are signs everywhere saying “don’t steal the fruit and veg, if you want some please buy it in the shop”.

Up in another corner are some more sheep. Or are they goats? Fuck it, I can’t remember, I just know this fella has some impressive horns.

The donkeys have considerably more space, and are much less depressed, than the Barnet ponies. In fact they have so much space and food that they don’t need to beg us for owt, and ignore us completely.

Big animals done, it’s time for the birds and “small furries”. This means CHICKENS. FUCK YEAH CHICKENS.

The farm’s website warned us that the geese were the loudest animals, and they weren’t bloody wrong. They’re in a barn with a bunch of other animals, all in some form of quarantine or other protection (e.g. from aggression, or recovering from operations).

The bulbous head ones begged for food and would not stay silent or still.


A couple of rabbits were in the “recovering from operation” bit, but back outside the barn there were a load more hutches. No flying-sleigh-pulling giants, sadly.

We popped into the cafe, what with being hungry, and it smelt fantastic. But every table was in use, and all of them had loud young kids. Good for them, and obviously the whole venue is more for their benefit than ours, but we were having none of that so we buggered off. On the corner there was a church with more grounds than seem necessary, and suddenly a bit of Stepney actually looks quite pretty.

It doesn’t stay that way. With very little left on our list but it still being remarkably early, I manage to convince Helen we should go check out the Green Bridge, which links two parts of Mile End Park. To get there we can walk along the towpath of the Regents Canal, onto which we are cheerfully greeted by two stark warnings in one.

The canal is lovely, actually. The flats lack character but the sun shines pleasantly. The towpath is heaving with runners in both directions, some of whom would do well to wear looser shorts.

As we leave the canal and head towards the bridge, some tame squirrels are easily fooled into thinking I have food, though they spot my lie every bit as quickly.

Blue is now the minority colour in the sky, and we’re walking past borough-themed bins and some weird street furniture. The green bridge isn’t very green.

Just before we go over it, there was a map of Mile End Park; it said, as I’d claimed all along, that there were places to eat at the bridge, and that furthermore just on the other side there was an “art mound”. Hey, a mound? I love mounds! I mean, I didn’t know I loved mounds, but if you’re going to put “art mound” on a map then it turns out I think that’s ace. Mound me up!

The mound is unimpressive, looking more like a shit paddy field. Helen is not a fan of this taking up more time that could be better spent eating.

At the top of the mound, we can look back at the canal and the flats and some cranes. There is seemingly no art. I love this.

There is, however, a sign saying “we remember when this field used to be all pubs”. What! Yes, there used to be a boozer here in the 1800s but it “fell out of favour” and now all there is is a goddamn art mound. Now I like mounds, but I like pubs more. Bring back the pub!

All the restaurants and stuff we were promised are under the green bridge. We go for a cheeky Nando’s, on the basis that Helen’s never been and my dislike is based on experiences so long ago (like, 15 years or so) that it may no longer be accurate.

It takes us a while to figure out we need to go up to the counter and order, because obviously that’s what you do in a restaurant where they greet you and walk you to a table and hand you a menu and don’t tell you anything. For fucks sake. Helen orders a bunch of chicken and chips and I have a beer from Mozambique. Ridiculous ordering fiasco notwithstanding, I drop my dislike of Nando’s ‘cos I think the food is pretty bloody nice. Helen doesn’t like hers at all.

Our next destination is Limehouse, to which the shortest and nicest route is to wander back down along the canal all the way to Limehouse basin. But we’ve so much time to spare, and are yet to experience any proper intra-borough transport we can judge in the bonus rounds. So fuck it, let’s make things difficult for ourselves.

First, we’ll cross the giant junction and watch a pigeon almost get run over. Waiting for the lights I read a little bit of local history and take a photo of a weird sign.

Specifically, I learn that Mile End is where the Peasants’ Revolt happened, culminating in the king of the day coming down here and agreeing to all the demands made of the protestors... only to get back to the palace and renege on the fucking lot, and have the organisers hung. Now that’s some serious monarching right there.

Mile End station is not impressive. It’s a few minutes wait for the train to Bow Road, which we have to exit and walk another 300 metres or so to Bow Church DLR station.

The DLR is, of course, great. Helen is desperate to “drive” the driverless train by sitting at the front, and we’re both taken aback to discover that today, our driverless train has a fucking driver. You what?

Up above the streets and houses, we wind through more of the borough eventually getting off at Poplar, just next to the big DLR depot.

We have to change here because the DLR network is a bit disjointed, and Limehouse is on the lines to Bank and Tower Gateway, except today there are no services to Bank. It’s a 7 or 8 minute change, and our hopes of being able to snarf the front seat on the next leg are low.

At least we can spend the time staring at buildings whose occupants are responsible for managing unimaginable amounts of money.

The train arrives, and it’s really bloody busy. Apparently everyone wants to go to Tower Gateway today. We can’t even get a seat, let alone the front one, so in the end we’re not that bothered about getting off just a few stops along.

Finally, we’re at Limehouse. There’s a few small reasons to be here rather than one big one; my primary interest is the Craft Beer Company pub, immediately next to the station, which I’ve earmarked for a pint. With its location so convenient we set off to tick off a few other things. The station is on Commercial Road, a big fuck off A road heading east out of the city, and around here there are mostly derelict shops with a handful still in business. Supposedly there’s a cash machine that serves you in Cockney somewhere near here - “Lady Godiva” for fiver, etc - but the couple we try aren’t them.

Further up the road we cross by the Troxy, a bit old cinema with something going on - stewards outside, barriers with signs saying “tickets only” etc. There aren’t crowds, but a slow steady stream of Muslim folk heading in, leading me to make the perhaps rash assumption that there’s a religious event going on even though the place holds sporting events (boxing, MMA) etc.

Parallel with Commercial Road is Cable Street. Some history took place here, so we went to look for a plaque and a mural.

Having not checked any maps, we’re surprised how long the road is. Walking slowly along it, we see neither mural nor plaque, but some bad Spanish (I think!) anarchist graf does catch my eye. Always libertaty!

We walk and walk and walk and walk. There’s nothing but pretty bleak housing and then, hang on! There’s a plaque! We found it, the plaque for the battle of...

Oh. It’s just some chemist.

Bloody hell. Where’s the bloody mural? We’re up past Shadwell station, the next on the DLR line, by now, and I’m just checking if it’s labelled on Google Maps when Helen points out the wall opposite.

Oh! Right! That’ll be the mural, then.

This commemorates the Battle of Cable Street, a big fucking ruck in 1936 featuring Oswald Moseley’s blackshirt fascists, the police, the east end locals, some unions, some Jewish groups, communists, and sundry other anti-fascist groups. It all properly kicked off, with the fascists being told in no uncertain terms to get fucked.

Evidence that modern day antifa groups come here as a bit of pilgrimage is present. I have no idea what homonationalism is.

Next door is a park with a quite impressive church, and a crypt I wish was a pub.

Having walked so bloody far we’re virtually at Tower Gateway now, and we know there’s a working music hall round here, Wilton’s. It’s not open; hopefully it looks better when it is.

Back on Commercial Road I’m saying, let’s get back on the DLR at Tower and go back to Craft Beer Co because I still really want a pint there. But actually, holy shit, we’re literally standing right in front of the Jack the Ripper Museum. This was a genuine accident, we had no idea it was around here and weren’t interested anyway - an East End feminism website had put us off. But since we were literally on its doorstep it seemed a shame not to go in, and so we did.

It might have been wise to ask how much it was before just asking for tickets, since it’s a fairly eye watering £12 each, but whatever. The friendly lady hands us a couple of pamphlets and explains to us there are 5 storeys here, and the recommended route is floor 1, 2, 3, 4, then the basement. Each floor is essentially a single room, this being a converted Victorian house, and each room is themed. First up, a recreation of a crime scene.

“Murder! There’s been a murder!” Is shrieked from the walls.

The lady had also been keen to tell us we can pick up/touch anything we want, and that the second floor contained a bunch of stuff related to theories about how Jack actually was.

What we walk into, then, is a Victorian sitting room with numerous desks, each decked out with the paraphernalia related to the assumed occupation or interests of the suspects. A self-portrait of Walter Sickert greets us, then desks full of medical stuff.

It’s small, and it’s expensive, but so is beer and you don’t hear me complaining about that. This is actually really fascinating, and not gruesome or salacious.

Helen tries on the hat of each suspect, and they all fit. How very suspicious.

The fez doesn’t really fit me, I think it’s fair to say. Which makes it pretty conclusive that I’m not the ripper.

The third floor is about the police and journalism of the time, inextricably linked. The wall speaks to us with conversation between police officers poring over the clues; a cabinet has the actual equipment used by one of the PCs who found a victim; the wall is decorated with covers of Police News.

The top floor is a recreation of a typical bedroom in a doss house, and is dedicated to the victims. A sombre song is being piped, and here there are other people. En route in the corridors we read about the horrendous conditions experienced by essentially everyone in the area at the time. Statistics like an infant mortality rate of 200 in every 1000 speak volumes.

The last room, the basement, has a warning on the door: do not enter if under 16, or likely to be upset by graphic photographs of the victims. Neither of us are exactly looking forward to it, but I think I’ve seen the photos in question before, so we brave it. The room is a quiet, respectful place, mixture of mortuary and chapel of rest, with information about each of the canonical victims plus some others which have not been definitively linked, but could be. The photos are, I believe, important to show, given that they exist, and they are not presented sensationally.

Leaving, we both agree that it was a surprisingly good museum and none of the criticisms levelled at it – largely, that it glorifies a misogynist murderer – aren’t true. The focus is largely on the victims and conditions at the time, and there is definitely no sense of “man, Jack was a badass and he never got caught!” or whatever.

A few minutes up from the museum and we’re at Tower Gateway, just as a DLR is about to set off. Missing out on the front seat again, we get off at Limehouse and absolutely cannot find the Craft Beer Company. How the fuck is this possible? A while back we got off at exactly this station and it was right bloody there in front of us, yet this time it’s disappeared. What the fuck? Turns out this station is confusingly long and we’d got out at the other end. Finally, here’s a pub.

It’s pleasantly empty and full of hipster beer. The ones I really want are way too strong for a Sunday afternoon, so I settle for a stout which I’m soon angry to discover I’ve had before. Helen goes for something typical for her tastebuds, enabling me to point and go “Sour Hamlets!”

Sour Hamlets! See! Because it rhymes with Tower Hamlets!

We’ve walked a hell of a distance now and have fuck all left on the list. The internet isn’t helping us find Cockney ATMs and I’ve lost any real motivation to find one, so let’s go ... but hang on, there was a sign at the last crossing to “Narrow Street” and “Riverside Pubs” in “Historic Limehouse”. Shall we just sneak a little bit more in?

Yes, we shall. Narrow Street isn’t narrow any more, but has some old cool architecture, and a pub in which Charles Dickens drank; it’s now owned, apparently, but Sir Ian Mckellen. We pop in but don’t see him, nor any empty seats, so carry on walking past a big seagull statue, Shoulder of Mutton Alley, and onto the Thames Path. Lots of water, and a bit of a dry dock, here. It’s pretty. The sun is setting but the skies are playing games. Tourists zoom past on speedboats.

Turns out we’ve walked all the way back to Canary Wharf. One other thing we learnt this weekend was that the name Canary Wharf comes from the fact that this was the designated delivery point for goods arriving from the Canary Islands.

But, fuck all that, let’s get on a boat. There’d been a debate: one last try at driving a DLR, or get on the water? I’m glad we go for the latter, if only because I get a stupid kick out of using so many different forms of public transport in one day. I promised Helen we’d use the DLR when visiting Newham later in the year, for more attempts at driving. She was OK with this.

Also, “I’m on a boat and we’re going under Tower Bridge!” is always a winner. And lo, we’re done with Tower Hamlets... for now.

UFOs attack London over the Shard, County Hall and London Eye, but no-one seems to care.

It’s been ages since the cheeky Nando’s and we’ve spent fucking ages on our feet ‘n all, so it’s time for Las Iguanas. Helen is delighted by the menu featuring an alpaca-themed drink, but as it’s a £50 bowl of punch for 4+ people it’s not wholly appropriate. So we have beer, fondue and tapas, and fuck off home.

Regular readers will know that here’s where we present our scores for the borough; the particularly observant among you will know that actually that wasn’t all we had planned for Tower Hamlets, however; there’s the small matter of a return visit to Wilton’s, 2 days later.

«two days pass»

Tuesday the 13th

Today, as I type, is Tuesday 13th of Feb 2018. Some of us have had a day which would excuse a bout of triskaidekaphobia. It started with a message on Facebook messenger: “Have woken up with sore throat. Not ideal for singalong”. Helen’s physical symptoms only worsened as the day wore on, when fate piled on midway through the afternoon with the news that our 8.5 month attempt at selling my flat and buying a different one together fell apart, for the third and final time. C’est finit. Over, finished, gone, done, out. Seeya!

So, our visit to Wilton’s this evening. We’ll skip it, shall we? I’m afraid so. It’s mildly annoying; this was actually the very first thing we noted down for Tower Hamlets, indeed the original centrepiece of our visit until we expanded the resolution into half/full day visits. The evening was meant to be full of music hall music courtesy of Carradine’s Cockney Sing-a-long, 2.5 hours of belting out stuff like My Old Man’s A Dustman and etc. But, no. We left our respective places of work, met on a rainy platform at Clapham Junction, got a train to our bit of Surrey and had a curry. Which means...

Our hamlets (scores)

No extra work required here. Being the scrupulously judgemental folk we are, we noted down our visceral scores on Sunday afternoon, realising it was important to record them before the memory of our visit becomes distant, and to not be overly influenced by what would doubtless be a great night out on Tuesday. But since no such great night out materialised, I can just transcribe what we wrote two days ago and then get back to being annoyed by how shit AFC Wimbledon are.

To recap: we rate our experience on a 1-7 scale across 3 categories, eventually ending up with a score out of 7*3*2 = 42.


  • Fun: 5. Lots of nondescript walking but nice weather, animals and a decent pint.
  • Learning: 5. I learnt plenty - Peasant’s Revolt, Toynbee Hall, Narrow Street, Cable Street, Jack the Ripper, etc.
  • Nice: 2. The rich bits are sterile and the poor bits are bleak.


  • Fun: 4. Boats and the DLR are awesome, but not getting to drive a DLR along with a substandard farm makes this neutral.
  • Learning: 3. Pretty much everything I learnt, I had to look up myself on my phone.
  • Nice: 2. Very few aesthetically pleasing bits to please me.

So, that’s 5+5+2+4+3+2 = 21/42. Totally middle of the road neutral. Have a banana!

Created By
Darren Foreman

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