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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.