The regeneration of London's East End over the past three decades has seen the former derelict docks converted into office space, abandoned warehouses turned into luxurious flats and boutique hotels, and former factories becoming home to fashionable bars and clubs. Yet less than 5 miles from the Olympic stadium in Stratford with its gleaming new facilities including the £2 billion Westfield Stratford City luxury shopping and leisure centre, and under 4 miles from the resplendent towers of the Canary Wharf financial district, lies a street that has managed to embrace change under its own terms while retaining its unique gritty vibrancy and bohemian character: Brick Lane.
Probably best known to most for its celebrated Brick Lane Sunday market, echoes of the street's colourful multi-ethnic history and culture remain indelibly stamped and mirrored in the existing eclectic mix of businesses that thrive side by side in Brick Lane today, in its creatively converted former warehouses and factories.
Few stores selling a fabulous selection of silks remain in the south end of Brick Lane as testament to the area's status as one of the major weaving and tailoring centres of yesteryear. From the arrival of the Huguenot refugees in the 17th Century who brought with them their weaving skills, to the Irish weavers that followed and the Ashkenazi Jews who provided much of the labour for the infamous garment sweatshops of Victorian England, today's fashion scene is very much alive in Brick Lane but in the guise of its many boutiques and accessories shops showcasing the work of up-and-coming designers while it remains a favourite haunt and venue for fashion and design college gatherings and events. Today Brick Lane is predominantly populated by the Bangladeshi immigrants who set up home in the area in the early 20th Century and has earned its reputation as London's curry capital for the profusion of curry houses that jostle for business in this busy street.
The East End is also famed as a breeding ground for some of the UK's best known contemporary artists including David Hockney, Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin. Brick Lane and its surrounding streets are peppered with avant-garde art galleries such as the Brick Lane Gallery, Stolen Space Gallery and EastGallery, where collectors and contemporary art aficionados flock to view the cutting-edge creations of existing and budding wunderkinds. Brick Lane facades have also acted as a long-time canvass for one of the world's most renowned anonymous Graffiti artists, Banksy, and the street has become the in-place for graffiti artists to display their work to an appreciative public albeit for a moment in time, before being faded by the weather or painted over.
In addition to its popularity among Londoners and tourists as the place to spend a Sunday mooching about the market, the converted 18th century Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, hailed as the "hub of East London's cultural scene", has established itself as the hang-out of choice for aspiring artists, musicians and designers as well as young bankers and wealthy professionals from nearby gentrified Stratford and Dalton. Housing over 200 small creative businesses including cafés and delicatessens, it comprises 19 buildings linked by a series of alleyways and courtyards. Its Vibe Bar is a popular crowd puller while live music venue, 93 Feet East has become an East End institution. The covered Sunday Upmarket provides a quirky alternative to the bustle of the street market, with over 140 stalls selling one-off fashion items & accessories, crafts, interiors and music. Its famous food area, gives visitors a chance to sample homemade specialities from around the world, from hand-rolled sushi, Caribbean sea bass and Spanish paella to Indian street snacks and Thai food.
With today's young affluent travellers seeking to experience "life in the raw", immersing themselves in the local ambience and culture while unwilling to forsake the luxurious surroundings, service and amenities they have come to expect from a 5-star hotel stay, and with business travellers hankering for an antidote to the sterile environment of the corporate world in which they move; the East End and particularly neighbourhoods such as Stratford have begun to be identified by the savvy hotel developer as being fertile ground for the burgeoning Boutique hotel sector.
A review of London's Boutique Hotel scene published by hospitality industry consulting and services organisation, HVS ("Design or Lifestyle?" Aug 2010) predicts that the potential for this sector to expand in the East End particularly in neighbourhoods such as Bethnal Green and Shoreditch bodes well for the future. It cites the demand emanating from the financial district in addition to a growing need for weekend accommodation in these neighbourhoods due to the emergent trendy nightlife and restaurants, as playing a crucial role in extending the map of desirable boutique hotels in the capital further east. Easily accessed from London's City airport and serviced by public transport and with the world's eye now firmly fixed on London's East End, the all-embracing eclectic and electric buzz of Brick Lane certainly provides the perfect milieu for accommodation of this kind...
- Monday 06 August 2012