Exploring Brick Lane on a Sunday Afternoon

Sometimes when I walk around London with my camera, I also carry a notebook and a pen.

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After a while of wandering, I sit in a coffee shop or a park and reflect on my day over a cup of tea.

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I’ve always been drawn to pretty notebooks, the thrill of opening the first blank page and setting down my thoughts.

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It’s easy to forget the little things about a place – the smells, the sounds – that photos can’t capture.

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A few weeks ago, I decided to hop on the tube over to East London.

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It has always been one of my favourite places to take pictures.

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Such a vibrant area of the city, so full of life.

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I shared some photos of Petticoat Lane already, but here are some more from nearby Brick Lane.

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I took a few minutes of video too, just people watching, picking up the sounds.

But I thought I’d do something different here and share a few thoughts directly from my notebook:

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I’m sitting in Allen Gardens on Code Street, the sign for which is also written in Bengali, as are the other street signs in the area.

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It’s not very pretty, but it’s a green space behind the crowded markets of Brick Lane.

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It’s a Sunday, the day the streets fill with vendors and shoppers, tourists and locals.

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It must be the most diverse place in London.

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Recently, it seems to have hyped itself up a bit more than usual.

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New cafes have popped up between Bangladeshi sweet shops and barbershops, their walls, doors or shutters adorned with original street art by Stik, C215 or Malarky. 

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Street style here is brilliant.

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People take risks with their clothes, wearing clashing patterns that come together perfectly in a mix of high street, vintage and subtle designer.

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There are so many photogenic people who stand out from the crowd for one reason or another.

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Down side streets, there are photo shoots happening everywhere against the colourful painted walls.

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Friends taking pictures of friends – budding models, clothing designers, fashion photographers – all collaborating to get their names out there. 

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Everyone seems to be super hipster cool, sifting through racks of vintage clothes and shoes, sitting on kerbs eating Chinese noodle dishes from aluminium tins with plastic forks.

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There’s also the local Bengali community, beckoning tourists into their restaurants, each of which is, of course, the best in all of London.

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The guests in the windows are all white, all tourists.

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There are covered Bangladeshi women filling bags with colourful vegetables from the wooden street stalls.

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There’s the tourists who have come by to soak it all in, lugging giant cameras, stopping people in the street to ask for directions to Columbia Road Flower Market or how to find their way back to the tube. 

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Everyone has a camera with them now.

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Phone cameras, plastic fisheye cameras, DSLRs, 35mm film cameras, Diana cameras.

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They’re pointing them at street art, at musicians, at their food, filling Instagram feeds with square filtered photos of guitars and shoes and colourful stacks of muffins.

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Look around you in any direction and 10 photos are being taken. 

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Street art is on everyone’s radar now, more so than ever before.

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It covers every (legal and illegal) empty surface here and on most surrounding streets.

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East London is one of the top places in the world for street artists to come and leave their mark.

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There’s a huge international street art community represented on the walls around here.  

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Walk through and you’ll bump into one street art tour or another.

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The level of talent has exploded. Much of the art is gallery worthy. 

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There’s still scribbly graffiti tags as well but it’s becoming more and more rare to see them. 

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Every street sign pole is covered in stickers.

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Most poles and railings have bikes chained to them.

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There are clever, quirky or creative signs. 

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Stalls sell handmade jewellery, vintage dresses, fake flower crowns to wear in your hair. They sell silk scarves, boxed up Barbie dolls and old-fashioned roller skates. Dig a bit and you’ll come across boxes of postcards from the 1970s, ancient hair pins and neon earrings shaped like cassette tapes.

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There are ceramic dishes and retro sunglasses for sale, photography coaster of London scenes and handmade birthday cards. You can find doc martins with Union Jacks on them, giant stuffed orang-utans, disused street signs. There’s stacks of old books with yellowed pages, mechanical parts and hand knit sweaters. 

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People walk through the street carrying big bundles of flowers wrapped in brown paper from Columbia Road around the corner. Lilies, sunflowers, roses.

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There’s music: reggae, afro-beats, blues, a bit of house.

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There are buskers playing Johnny Cash on guitars.

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A drunk guy with long thick dreads saunters through the crowd, singing at the top of his lungs, “I shot the sheriff”.

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On repeat. And nobody looks twice.

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A train clanks across the bridge on the other side of Allen gardens where I’m sitting in the grass. 

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People are laughing around me, drinking cans of beer. A barefoot middle-aged guy in his 50s squats down next to me and says, “Whatcha writing, love? Ah, never mind, I’m a nosy old fella me. Just tell me to fuck off.” He ambles back to his patch of dirt before I can say a word.

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Someone belches in the distance and laughs louder.

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Bike wheels spin down the streets. Some people stop to pose next to a nearby mural.

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The air smells of late afternoon curry cooking inside someone’s home, preparing for dinner.

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The sun is shining brightly.

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It is the end of Summer and a beautiful day to be outdoors.

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And then I pack my notebook away and I leave Allen Gardens. I walk back, slowly, through the crowds, to Liverpool Street.

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I’m always as happy to head back to west London as I am to spend a day in the east.

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The east leaves me feeling creative and inspired and the west gives me a clear space to organise my thoughts.

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I don’t think I’d like to live in the east, though.

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Someone once said to me when I moved to London many years ago, “Live in the west, play in the east”.

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And that’s stuck with me I guess. I’ve lived in Knightsbridge, Kensal Green, Ealing Broadway, Earl’s Court, Southfields and South Kensington. North, south, west and further west, but never east.

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West feels more like home, though I’m not sure I can explain why.

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I love the neighbourhood feeling of where we live now, the quiet and clean streets, the small gardens, the grand houses.

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The east draws me in with its eccentricity, its creativity, its quirkiness, the richness of its history.

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There’s a clear line between the two halves of the city and many more lines in between, but I guess that’s what I appreciate most about London as a whole.

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It’s the diversity – of the areas themselves, of the people who inhabit them, of the buildings, the beliefs and plenty more.

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And you?

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Do you live east or west?

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Would you consider moving to the other side? (Not even counting the ongoing north-south debate!)

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Why or why not?

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Let me know in the comments.

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I’m curious!

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Photographing London’s Petticoat Lane Market

Petticoat Lane Market is messy.

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It contains boxes and tables and racks full of cheap clothes from “Top Shop, Asos and Urban Outfitters” etc, mobile phone covers, granny panties and saggy bras, tourist souvenirs and heaps of shoes.

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But it’s colourful and it’s one of the oldest markets in London.

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Just around the corner, when you enter from the Liverpool Street end is a building covered in work by street artist Ben Eine (who also spray-painted the entire alphabet on a long series of shop shutters on this street in 2010).

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Petticoat Lane as a street has been trading fabrics and fashion since 1608. The main road is actually Middlesex Street now, its name changed by the Victorians who felt it was a bit too risqué, or so the story goes.

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Sir Alan Sugar started his business career in a stall in Petticoat Lane Market, boiling and selling beetroot for a bit of extra cash.

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It was also prime Jack the Ripper territory as is memorialised in the Jack the Clipper barber shop just on the outskirts of the market area on Toynbee Street. But don’t be scared. It was named one of London’s coolest independent hairdressers by TNT.

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The market, and this whole area around Petticoat Lane, Spitalfields and Brick Lane and beyond attracts stunningly diverse crowds. It feels like a true global city. You could be anywhere in the world; it’s as if the whole world has gathered here.

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Music pumps through speakers on tables that are selling rows and rows of used CDs, “Who Let the Dogs Out” the featured sounds as I walked by, a few people in the street tapping their feet and bobbing their heads.

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Across the way, there’s a nut seller, which made me think of Christmas. You could smell them from a few stalls down – the smoky, woodsy scent of open fire.

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This man selling a variety of lipsticks was one of my favourite shots of the day.

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In the distance, the City and the Gherkin loom over brick council houses and the conglomeration of market tables.

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Vendors cry their sales: “Just a fiver. Get your designer goods for just a fiver! Come on ladies!”

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It’s a market full of life where people make a living from old fashion trading and locals stop by to bag a bargain without encountering the fluorescent lights of Primark.

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It’s also an interesting area to walk around when the market is not in full swing. The permanent shops along the pavement have names like “African Queen Fabrics” and “Cockney Touch Clothing”.

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I’m not sure how long they’ve been around, but dotted along the pavement are painted hats, shoes and other items that are for sale in the market.

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It’s not a very big market and I reached the other side before long. But first I took a little detour down Toynbee Street where I found the Jack the Clipper shop.

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It’s a pretty run down area, full of rubbish and derelict buildings, weathered posters peeling off of walls.

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Some of the posters looked more freshly pasted.

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But it also has what may just be a hidden gem covered in graffiti – Mama Thai, which has great reviews on Yelp despite questionable outward appearances! Has anyone ever eaten there?

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When I reached the end of Petticoat Lane Market, I walked on toward the just as colourful and diverse Brick Lane, but more photos from there soon!

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Hope you’re all having a great Monday! What did you get up to this weekend? Anything interesting? Was anyone else around Brick Lane? I seem to have stocked up the old Instagram account a bit and did some baking on Saturday afternoon when the rain started (If you can handle it, look for a recipe for Red Velvet Brownies with Cream Cheese Frosting on my other blog Little Observationist later today around lunch time…!).

Street Art: Jana & JS

Absolutely adore the new paste-ups that Austrian and French couple Jana & JS have added to the collage of street art in the East End. There’s quite a few around that I’ve missed, but I’ve run into two so far:

If you find the other pieces, please add to the Flickr pool and I’ll share them in a post.

In case you were wondering, Jana & JS live in Austria. They are also keen photographers and that influences a lot of their work, but they’ve been creating street art since 2003. This is the first time their work has been seen on the streets on London. If you’re reading this from somewhere else, keep your eyes open as well because they are a well-travelled pair and have also put up work in Austria, France, China, Spain, Croatia, Slovakia, Germany, etc.

Gözleme on Brick Lane

The bland colour of the pastries didn’t stand out to me from the boiling vats of vibrant Sri Lankan curries or bright green veggie plates covering the Ethiopian stall, but the lovely Turkish cook handed me a piece of Gözleme and all other options went out the window.

I’ve tried the Spanish paella, the Tibetan momos, the Peruvian quinoa stew and the Japanese okonomiyaki and all was delicious so it was time for something different.

Last weekend, I brought a few friends to the East End to experience Brick Lane and Columbia Road on a Sunday afternoon. We shuffled through the crowded flower stalls listening to the Cockney vendors shouting their wares and then slowly made our way down Brick Lane (where we saw a photographer taking photos of the backs of people’s heads with a wide angle lens), in search of lunch.

The mingling scents of different types of food hit you as soon as you walk inside the main food hall. It’s overwhelming. But I know have a new favourite – the Turkish Gözleme from the friendly vendor who tossed an extra tomato over my shoulder into the little container as I walked away. He told it’s food to avoid bad eyes (göz means “eye”).

It’s made on thin pastry, with bits of tomato, mushroom, spinach, parsley, feta cheese and mince meat. And it’s delicious. The pastry is filled and folded and cooked on a hot griddle until it’s golden brown then cut up and stacked in four pieces (of which I could only manage to eat two…so share!)


The end – iPhone photo with suicidal tomato

We ate outside in the courtyard, in the sunshine, before heading off to one of my favourite places – 1001 – to wash it all down with some drinks!