Dodgy local politics. EDL rallies. Allegations of creeping Islamism at the East London Mosque. Homophobic sticker campaigns. A re-routed Olympic marathon. The worst child poverty in England. Tower Hamlets is rarely out of the news, albeit usually for the wrong reasons.
Fortunately there are more pleasant aspects to life in the borough. For most non-residents a visit might consist of little more than the tourist hotspots of the Tower of London, Spitalfields, Columbia Flower Market, and maybe a spell working at Canary Wharf. Leaving those more obvious attractions aside, there’s plenty more to see and do, as our list shows. Add your own suggestions in the comments.
Visit Mudchute City Farm
Mudchute is among the best of London’s city farms, if only for the incongruous vista of grazing cows and sheep juxtaposed against the looming skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. The farm also boasts pygmy goats, a pair of Old Gloucester pigs, llamas and other assorted fauna. If that doesn’t sate your agricultural desires, Tower Hamlets sports two other city farms: one in Stepney, and one in Spitalfields, where the annual Goat Race is held.
Go to the Ragged School Museum
Inhabiting the Victorian warehouses where, in 1877, Thomas Barnardo opened a school for ‘ragged’, or homeless, children in the vicinity, the Ragged School Museum contains a wealth of material from life in London’s poverty-stricken east end. It’s located beside the canal near the Ben Johnson Road bridge. We once spent a night in the school to ascertain whether or not it was haunted (SPOILER: it’s not).
Eat at Tayyabs
As any fule kno, Brick Lane (despite its reputation) isn’t the best place in London for a curry. Fortunately the surrounding area has a handful of good spots, none more so than Tayyabs. Such is its popularity that getting a table can be a tall order, and lengthy queues are the norm most evenings. The restaurant was recently voted Best Cheap Eat in the Observer Food Monthly awards, which will only add to its allure. Best bet is to visit late or early, or else get a takeaway.
See where some of London’s most notorious crimes happened
Ghoulish it may be, but Tower Hamlets is home to some of east London’s more notorious criminal acts, including the Jack the Ripper killings, the Ratcliffe Highway murders, the Siege of Sidney Street and the Blind Beggar pub, where Ronnie Kray murdered rival gang member George Cornell in 1966. There’s plenty of guided tours around for the Ripper, but the best bet is just to grab a history book or two and go sleuthing.
See London from the top of the Balfron Tower
The eagle-eyed reader will recall that we originally located the Balfron, Erno Goldfinger’s tower block, in Newham. It’s in fact in Poplar, within heckling distance of TH’s council quarters. Completed in 1967, the building preceded the better-known (and very similar) Trellick tower by a number of years and, while it has had neither the notoriety nor the latter-day gentrification of its west London cousin, it remains one of the more striking examples of Brutalist architecture in the capital. Though mostly private residences, the building is accessible for Open House each September, and the occasional art project.
Visit Trinity Buoy Wharf
London’s only lighthouse and a millennium-long artwork are some of the attractions to be found on this hidden spit of land beside the Lea River inlet. The Wharf is home to a number of artists, who live in converted shipping containers and share their environs with, among other things, chewing gum-based art, the 1,000-year Longplayer project and the strange culinary institution that is Fat Boy’s Diner. To get there, head for East India DLR station and follow the signs.
Walk along the Wapping foreshore
When the tide is low and the weather clement, the foreshore at Wapping becomes an appealing suntrap, and locals can be seen dragging their deckchairs and parasols down onto the rocks. It’s also a good spot for beachcombing, with the flotsam and jetsam of the Thames regularly washing up ashore. Bookend the trip with brunch at the nearby Wapping Project, a power station-turned-restaurant and art gallery, and ruminative drinks at the Prospect of Whitby.
Wilton’s Music Hall
Perennially under threat of closure, the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built music hall somehow battles on, thanks to committed enthusiasts, regular packed-out shows and campaigns and endorsements from those such as Simon Callow and David Suchet who’ve trod the boards. Opened in 1858, the building is now grade II* listed remains in a parlous state, though its dilapidation is partly responsible for the unique atmosphere it sustains.
Walk ‘High Street 2012′
In the years leading up to the Olympics, much was made of the plan to re-brand the route between Aldgate and Stratford as ‘High Street 2012′ by sprucing up the dilapidated shops and crumbling houses, giving the 2012 marathon finale a setting fit for the television cameras. As it turns out, budgetary cuts, and the disgraceful decision to re-design the course so that it avoided Tower Hamlets entirely, meant that High Street 2012 didn’t live up to billing. Which is a shame, as a walking tour along the road makes a good introduction to the east end’s greatest hits, many of them lionised in this mural painted last year. Start at Aldgate and head east; you’ll pass such landmarks as the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (where Big Ben and the Liberty Bell were forged), the boarded-up old Royal London hospital (once home to Joseph Merrick), the Booth memorial (where William Booth established what would later become the Salvation Army), the beautiful old Wickham’s department store, Mile End’s Living Bridge and more. In fact, you’ll eventually reach…
Tower Hamlets Cemetery
Among the many great things that our death-dwelling Victorian forebears left us were the ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries, built to inter the rapidly growing number of Londoners. Tower Hamlets Cemetery is one of them. It has long since stopped accepting new burials (the last was carried out in 1966) and in its overgrown state is a wonderful spot for an afternoon’s exploring. The cemetery is located just off the Mile End Road, behind a suitably sinister-looking former mental hospital. We had a good romp around it a few years ago.
Lighthouse / konstantinbinder
Wickhams Department Store / davidsankey
Wilton’s Music Hall / mctumshie
Wapping foreshore / ThePhotoSchool
Mudchute City Farm / Dean Nicholas
Other instalments in this series: Barnet, Brent, Bromley, the City of London, Ealing, Enfield, Hammersmith and Fulham, Haringey, Hounslow, Lambeth, Lewisham, Redbridge, Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, Southwark, Wandsworth, Waltham Forest, the City of Westminster and Newham.