London Village - Bethnal Green
London Village - Bethnal Green

Published The Times November 30 - Main Photo Casa Blue Café, Brick Lane Copyright Sabrina Delbesio

It used to be one of London’s worst slums but this fashionable district is a true rags-to-riches story

Bethnal Green, a name said to derive from the Anglo-Saxon for “happy corner”, was described in the 1911 Survey of London as having streets “full of costermongers’ barrows and mingled odours of unwashed garments and fried fish”.

After benefiting from a push for better housing, Bethnal Green suffered a setback during the Second World War, sustaining huge damage from Nazi bombs that destroyed thousands of homes.

The area’s chequered history is reflected in its architecture, with Victorian terraces next to social housing estates, light industrial warehousing and upmarket new-builds. It retains a gritty flavour, but that edge is rapidly eroding: investors, renters and young owner-occupiers covet the relative affordability of the housing stock and revel in its proximity to swankier East London postcodes.

Where is it?

Dubbed the heart of London’s East End, it’s in the Borough of Tower Hamlets. Haggerston in Hackney lies to the north, Shoreditch and Spitalfields to the west, Whitechapel to the south and Globe Town and Mile End to the east.

How do you get there?

Bethnal Green Tube was the site of a tragedy in 1943, when 173 people died in a crush to take shelter from an air raid. The Stairway to Heaven Memorial trust is fundraising to complete a memorial outside this Central Line station, which is only two stops from Bank. Stratford, with its Westfield shopping mall and Olympic attractions, is two stops in the opposite direction. The well-connected Liverpool Street mainline station and Mile End Tube for the District and Hammersmith & City lines are one stop away.

What’s new?

Verdigris Gardens, a development of 53 one, two and three-bedroom apartments on Old Bethnal Green Road, sold late last year within three months of launch, mostly to UK owner-occupiers, according to Bridge, the Shoreditch based estate agency. Top of the price range is The Bishop Bonner, a mid-Victorian former music hall turned residence for sale through Ellis and Co for £2 million.

Where can I eat?

Bethnal Green residents are excited by the recent opening of Viajante and The Corner Room, in the swanky old Town Hall hotel and apartments — the head chef is Nuno Mendes. Not far away is Bistrotheque, a restaurant and bar very popular with the fashion crowd and a must for Sunday brunch. E. Pellicci, an Italian restaurant on Bethnal Green Road, is iconic. It was a favourite of the Kray brothers and is still run by the family who opened it in 1900. Locals also head to Gourmet San on Bethnal Green Road for authentic Sechuanese food.

What about the nightlife?

Broadway Market has a continental feel in the evening with The Dove and The Cat and Mutton pubs frequented by the likes of Alexa Chung, Pixie Geldof and Kate Nash. Alternatively head to Bethnal Green Working Men’s club for dancing and vintage clothes fairs.

What about the cultural life?

The renowned York Hall, and Repton Boxing Club, with its many Olympian alumni, are in the area. Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood houses the V&A’s national collection of childhood objects.

Is there any green space?

Philanthropy came to the East End with slum clearance and Victoria Park, the first public park to be built specifically for the people. Recently given a £12 million makeover, it is a local haven with ponds and play spaces. Other parks include Weaver’s Fields and Museum Gardens.

What are the schools like?

A mixed bag of state primary and secondary with Bonner Primary judged outstanding by Ofsted inspectors and Bethnal Green Technology College rated the most improved school in London. For tertiary education Queen Mary’s College, University of London, is in neighbouring Mile End, and for private the Corporation of London has City of London Boys and Girls schools inside the Square Mile.

Upsides Affordable when compared with other neighbourhoods so close to the City.

Downsides No large swathes of Victorian houses. The ones that survived the bombs share space with some edgy council estates.

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