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The Weekend in East London

Rebekah Joy
Rebekah Joy

For years the old saying "West is Best" has rung across old London Town. Nobody ventured much past Liverpool Street Station. Jack the Ripper started it, the notorious Kray brothers added to the smear campaign, throw in a plague or an epidemic or two and the jobs complete. Filthy. Grimy. Dirty. West Londoners turned their noses up at the East and black cab taxi drivers refused to go there. Whatever the excuse snobbery misses out as the East is now one of the most colourful and interesting environs of London.

I lived in Clapton Pond, Hackney (A.K.A Murder Mile for two years).

'How pretty' I thought, the English people hang flowers on their lamp posts.

‘No,’ replied a flatmate, ‘that’s where somebody has been killed.’

Such are the delusions of a sheltered upbringing in little old New Zealand.

Cheap rent and a 24 hour bus service (so much cheaper than the tube) gave me little choice, I moved in. Disturbed at first, I gradually grew accustomed to the bizarre rituals of my Caribbean neighbors, the chicken bones and spit globules that lined the streets and the ducks that always went missing from the pond (cheap chicken anyone?) I actually ended up loving the grit and grime, the colour and music, the goat curries and kebabs set against an old Victorian backdrop.

"How much is the bus to Piccadilly?" I asked my flatmate.

"Bendy buses free, double deckers 80p init?" she replied.

Deep in the heart of the English winter I avoided the double deckers at all cost. Three, four, five drove past. I stomped my feet and pulled my scarf tighter ignoring the cold until the bendy arrived. This was my ritual as I job hunted for several weeks. Until one fateful day an inspector asked me for my ticket.

I laughed. "Don’t be silly, bendies are free."

Turns out they aren’t, just nobody pays for them. Voted Britain’s worst design TFL are losing millions because passengers simply hop on and off without paying. In my case HRH received twenty quid and my name sent to the courts. Luckily for me not being on the electoral role meant they were unable to prosecute.

Apart from that experience, in my opinion, the best (and by far the cheapest) way to explore Hackney, or East London is by bus (just don’t forget to pay). Charge up an Oyster card (available from any tube station or 'offy' for two pounds) and head to Victoria Station. The number 38 bus takes you from South London to the terminus of Clapton Pond in the East, passing Piccadilly, Chinatown, the theatre district, and Angel Islington.  If you want to go further east to Walthamstow or north to Camden simply use your Oyster Card. Oyster Cards are supposed to peak at a maximum of five pounds a day usage, the balance being restored to your card at midnight (I am positive I got over charged several times). If you’re prepared to walk you can access many of the East’s highlights from the 38, or catch continuing services. Download a map from TFL and explore the district.

In recent times Shoreditch is probably the most popular destination the East has to offer. Accessed from Old Street Station (there is a Shoreditch Station but it is going through restorations) or an easy walk from Bethnal Green, slightly longer from Liverpool Station, Shoreditch is London's answer to trendy. Beneath the shadows of some of the most deprived blocks of council flats, Shoreditch is now one of the most up-to-the-minute areas in London. Dodge the concrete council maisonettes and head to Hoxton Square. Spread out before you is an eclectic mix of bars, restaurants, art galleries and cafes. Try the local ethnic eateries on Kingsland Road (Au Lac especially recommended) where an entire meal often works out cheaper than a cocktail at any of the neighboring bars. Lounge bars, cocktail lounges, experimental drinking establishments and good old fashioned English boozers are tucked away in nooks and crannies. People and music spill out onto the old brick streets in all directions. It’s a good idea to do some research before you leave, as some of the places are hard to find. Hoxton Bar and Kitchen, Medicine Bar, The Bricklayers Arms, Favela Chic and Loungelover (where Madonna had her 50th birthday party) are the most renowned, but be prepared for queues, waits and wankers (pardon my French). Also within walking distance of Shoreditch is the legendary Brick Lane. Come here for the best and cheapest curries in London, but don’t buy from the first vendor you see. The further you venture the better the deal. Be tempted, pause, contemplate and move on as touts try to cajole you in to their premises with free drinks or dishes, the banter is all part of the experience. As with anything interesting or different in Britain, an official move was put in place to stop the fun. Touting in Brick Lane may soon be a thing of the past, so enjoy it while you can.

If you’re in the east on a Sunday, head to Spitalfields market. Voted London’s best market it has unfortunately gone under cosmetic surgery.  No longer full of dilapidating old stalls and cheap street vendors, Spitalfields is now posh. More is the pity, as it was lovely as it was; still it makes for a good browse. The newly established restaurants are open seven days a week and many of the stalls are also open Thursdays and Fridays. Venture out of the building into one of the side streets to either Petticoat Lane Market (loads of rip offs and cheapies) or the Brick Lane market where you’re much more likely to find a second hand bargain. Further along is Bethnal Green High Street where you can loose yourself in Indian glitz and sparkle at any of the Indian boutique stores.

If you are an early bird then a definite must is the Columbia Road Flower Market. Get there on Saturday mornings from 6 to see London’s most dazzling display of plants and flowers. Other infamous East End markets include Roman Road Market, Walthamstow Markets (the longest in Europe) or the astonishing Dalston Market. At Dalston/Kingsland Street Station (or just a skip hop and jump from the number 38 stop) turn the corner and step right out of Cockney London into Africa. I promise, you’ll do a double take. You may need an encyclopedia as the array of vegetables, seafood, meat and dishes can be startling. Follow the sounds of Nigeria, or just trail the cabbage and debris to be emerged in real culture. Open weekends, expect a bargain.

Other worthwhile activities in East London (although the north tries to claim them) include: Dining at one of the many trendy eateries in Stoke Newington’s Church Street, taking in a show at the famous Hackney Empire, unwinding at Victoria Park, joining a Jack the Ripper tour, hiring a canal boat down the River Lee or exploring the site of the 2012 Olympic venue (if it ever gets finished).

Whatever you’re fancy, if your open minded and want a little more spice than the west can offer then head east....

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