The Korea Herald


All fun and Games: London’s East End, Olympics-close, invites a fresh look

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 23, 2011 - 20:05

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LONDON ― Never mind the sprints, relays and marathons coming to London this summer. Look at the competition now among the flower vendors of Columbia Road.

“Who’s got a fiver?” hollers one grizzled man with a fistful of roses.

“Four for 2 quid!” bellows another.

“Five pounds a bunch!” howls yet another.

These guys sound better than the extras in “My Fair Lady,” and they’re here every Sunday morning at Columbia and Ravenscroft streets, supplying blooms, succulents and a soundtrack to accompany London’s ascendant East End, which is soon to be neighbored, sort of, by the Olympics.

What if you dodged the July 27-Aug. 12 Games but hit London and the East End? The cultural and infrastructural benefits that come with the Olympics have already begun and will last long after the last shot is put.

New train stations opened last year in East London’s Hoxton and Shoreditch High Street. Two thousand rental bicycles will be added to East End neighborhoods by 2012 as part of a Barclay’s campaign to make blue bikes as common in London as red buses and black cabs. And a new exhibition of landscapes by David Hockney will take place Jan. 21-April 9 at the Royal Academy of Art, which isn’t in the East End, but maybe a new train could take you there.
Brick Lane, once an industrial artery, later a stronghold of Bangladeshi immigrants and now a favored haunt of bohemians and creative types, fills with shoppers and browsers on Sundays. (Los Angeles Times/MCT) Brick Lane, once an industrial artery, later a stronghold of Bangladeshi immigrants and now a favored haunt of bohemians and creative types, fills with shoppers and browsers on Sundays. (Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Even without such bonuses, the East End is an increasingly interesting place to be. On a visit to London early this year, I spent most of my time in the East End neighborhoods of Shoreditch, Hoxton, Spitalfields and Brick Lane, which lie roughly midway between central London and the new Olympic Park, eight miles east at Stratford.

You can begin with a stroll to St. Paul’s Cathedral, whose dome has served as the city’s bowler hat since the 17th century. Nearby stands the Museum of London (150 London Wall,, which through June 10 will offer a major “Dickens and London” exhibition.

You’ll also be handy to the City, where London’s financial titans ply their trades, and Clerkenwell, the neighboring area where many a pound is spent in design shops, restaurants and the often-jammed Fabric nightclub (77a Charterhouse St.).

My home base was the Hoxton hotel, which opened in 2006 near the Old Street tube station in Shoreditch. Accouterments include industrial-chic concrete floors, naked ductwork and the popular Hoxton Grill restaurant; desk clerks are outfitted with Champagne and candy bars to sell between handing out key cards. The Guardian and Observer newspapers’ 2011 readers’ poll named the Hoxton “best U.K. hotel.”

Close at hand, a visitor can go clubbing on Curtain Road, browse contemporary art at White Cube Hoxton Square or cross the Thames by foot on the sleek Millennium Bridge. That will put you face to face with the Tate Modern, a vast former power station that has been reborn as a home for art made since 1900. It’s spectacular. It’s free. Do it.

One part of the new prosperity is the Old Spitalfields Market. The enterprise dates to the late 1600s, and many of the buildings are from the Victorian era, but the market got a dramatic redevelopment in 2005 that brought in several sleek buildings (and, some would say, chased away some charm). On Sundays, you can browse arts, crafts, Kate Moss T-shirts, fancy soaps that look like dessert and fancy desserts that look like soap.

The best meal of my visit was across the street from the market at St. John Bread & Wine (94-96 Commercial St.), which opened in 2003 as a more casual offshoot of the Michelin-star-winning St. John restaurant in nearby Smithfield. Both St. Johns revere “the whole beast” and load their menus with offal and cuts of meat seldom seen anywhere else. I ordered the deviled sprats ― just because it sounded good ― and soon confronted a plateful of 6-inch fish, heads and skins attached, all so tender and savory that it was a joy to swallow their bodies, bones and all.

Later in my stay, as I meandered along Coronet Street near Hoxton Square, I glanced in an oddly lighted shop window and noticed a pair of women on a pair of narrow beams, each tiptoeing and resolute, arms aloft to maintain balance. Then I checked the shop name: Circus Space. It was a gymnastics class. And if that’s as close to the 2012 Olympics as I get, that will be fine.

By Christopher Reynolds

(Los Angeles Times)

(Distributed by MCT Information Services)