If you are hoping to get in training for this year’s Olympics – even as a spectator – there’s no better preparation than a dish of steaming hot meatballs and spaghetti cooked by Maria Pellicci at the East End’s most famous family-run cafe, E Pellicci (332 Bethnal Green Road, E2, 020-7739 4873). This exquisite, marquetry-lined restaurant has been in business for more than a century. The food is fresh and keenly priced, and everybody sits together so you can enjoy the true East End spirit.
For traditional East End fare, two of the best pie and mash shops with sparkling tiled interiors unchanged in decades, are F Cooke (9 Broadway Market, E8, 020-7254 6458) and G Kelly (Roman Road, E3, 020-8980 3165, gkellypieandmash.co.uk)
Each Sunday, the East End becomes one huge labyrinthine market where you can lose yourself among thousands of stalls. Start at Spitalfields – dominated by Nicholas Hawksmoor’s towering baroque masterpiece, Christ Church (Commercial Street, E1, 020-7377 2440, ccspitalfields.org) – then wander up through Brick Lane via the Truman Brewery to the Columbia Road flower market (Columbia Road, E2, 020-7613 0876, columbiaroad.info) for bargain bouquets and gorgeous shops and restaurants.
My top shopping destination, though, is Des and Lorraine’s (14 Bacon Street, E1), an unreconstructed, unapologetic East End junk shop where true wonders are still to be found. Ask Des to show you the mermaid brought back from the South Seas by a sailor in the 19th century. Not far away is fashionable Redchurch Street – the Carnaby Street de nos jours – where I can never resist Labour and Wait (85 Redchurch Street, E2, 020-7729 6253, labourandwait.co.uk) for their connoisseurship of traditional hardware. Just beyond, in Calvert Avenue at the heart of the towering red brick Arts and Crafts edifices of the Boundary Estate is Leila’s Shop and Cafe (15-17 Calvert Avenue, E2, 020-7729 9789), notable for luscious displays of fresh vegetables and the East End’s liveliest cafe society.
To those seeking souvenirs of their Olympic visit, I propose the Spitalfields Antiques Market, where hundreds of dealers set up every Thursday in the Old Spitalfields Market Hall (Commercial Street, E1, 020-7247 8556, oldspitalfieldsmarket.com) Dennis Severs’ extraordinary time capsule house in Spitalfields (18 Folgate Street, E1, 020-7247 4013, dennissevershouse.co.uk) offers the chance to enter the mythic world of 18th-century London. I recommend it on one of their “silent nights” when speech is forbidden.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry (32-34 Whitechapel Road, E1, 020-7247 2599, whitechapelbellfoundry.co.uk), dating from 1570, is Britain’s oldest manufacturing company. Tours need to be booked in advance, but it is still worth dropping in to visit the shop at this venerable establishment where they cast Big Ben and the Liberty Bell.
Vyner Street, just south of the Regent’s Canal near Victoria Park, has countless art galleries. You can happily work your way along until you find something that takes your fancy. Yet perhaps the most exciting art in the East End is in the street – look out for the exuberant Malarky frieze in Redchurch Street, Roa’s three-storey crane on Hanbury Street and Ben Eine’s alphabet painted on the shutters of the shops in Middlesex Street.
For something more peaceful, head south down the River Lea towpath that borders the park. After a mile you will come to Three Mills Island, with its magnificent, tidal 18th-century House Mill (Three Mill Lane, E3, 020-8980 4626, housemill.org.uk). Continuing on via Bow Locks, you can walk to Limehouse Basin and the Thames path.
For a flavour of Charles Dickens’ London, visit The Grapes (76 Narrow Street, E14, 020-7987 4396, thegrapes.co.uk) in Limehouse. Legend has it that Dickens was made to dance on the counter here as a boy, and of all the riverside pubs, this one has best kept its charm. Just one room wide, it is a jumble of narrow spaces that open out on to a balcony over the Thames.
Finally, as an antidote to the shiny new Olympic park, I propose a stroll around Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park (Southern Grove, E3, towerhamletscemetery.org), where a deep broadleaf forest has been allowed to grow, overwhelming the cemetery with new life.
The Gentle Author, spitalfieldslife.com