Hidden gems of east London

The history tucked away in old ‘villages’

Living, working or visiting London it’s difficult to see it as anything other than a major metropolis – unquestionably one of the most vibrant and exciting cities in the world.

But this cosmopolitan, urban jungle belies its history.

Present-day London was created when a series of villages gradually merged.

And traces of those bygone rural days are still evident, even in the bustling East End.

The City – the financial heart not just of London but the UK – has spread its tentacles eastwards, transforming huge areas of the East End, traditionally the capital’s poor relation, and rejuvenating the outer boroughs.

Dickensian London has been swept away with the skyline constantly evolving to reflect the aspirations of the new buildings’ 21st century occupants.

But there are vestiges of the past which continue to thrive alongside the gleaming exterior of today’s ultra-modern facades.

St Dunstan’s bells are featured in the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons’. Source: Flickr

St Dunstan’s in Stepney, for example, dates back to the 10th century and still has a farmyard only a short stroll away. The church’s bells, of course, have been ingrained in the memory of countless children for many generations through their reference in the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’.

Another area of tranquillity is Well Street Common in nearby Hackney. The area is common land with a community orchard, children’s play area and trim trail.

But one of the finest examples of village life anywhere in the capital is in Waltham Forest.

Walthamstow Village is a beautifully preserved area centred on St Mary’s Church which was founded in the 12th century, although all that remains of the original Norman church are some pillar bases.

The village, which has been designated as a conservation area, also boasts an imposing 15th century timber-framed building, dubbed the ‘ancient house’.

The village has some charming lanes which remain pedestrian-only simply because they have never been developed into roads.

One, Vinegar Alley, cuts through the churchyard and is overlooked by 16th century almshouses.

It gets its name from two plague pits near the church that were used during the Black Death in 1348 and the great plague of 1665.

Both were filled with vinegar in the hope that this would stop the diseases from spreading. It didn’t.

Walthamstow Village is a hidden gem but that doesn’t mean it has been preserved in aspic.

Orford Road has an abundance of excellent restaurants and pubs with craft beers and fruit liqueurs and gin from a local distillery on offer.

And the village isn’t Walthamstow’s only attraction.

A short walk away is the William Morris Gallery which has the world’s largest collection of the radical Victorian arts and crafts designer’s work exquisitely displayed in his childhood home. 

The gallery, set in Lloyd Park, is open on Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 5pm and entry is free.

The market at Walthamstow. © Robin Webster (cc-by-sa/2.0)

And for those who prefer to shop until they drop, there’s Walthamstow High Street, which the local council describes as the longest street market in Europe.

The claim may be open to debate but as there are more than 350 pitches along the market, which runs from the town square to St James Street, the assertion seems reasonable. There are also scores of shops and businesses in the vicinity to add to the mix.

Shoppers can also get an authentic taste of London life as the market has a Manze’s pie and mash shop.

Manze’s now has listed status. Source: Wikimedia

Pie and mash had been a staple diet for Londoners since the late 1800s. A recent trend to put gravy on the dish is still regarded as unacceptable by real Londoners who will always ask for the green ‘liquor’ and then smother it with copious amounts of malt vinegar! 

The pie and mash shop in Walthamstow High Street opened in 1929 and was awarded Grade II listed status by Heritage England in 2013.

The owners say that football superstar David Beckham’s love for pie and mash helped to make the dish trendy again! Aficionados will argue that it should never have gone out of fashion in the first place.

If Walthamstow can be accused of having delusions of grandeur some might claim these are confirmed by the town hall which became the head office of the newly-created Waltham Forest Council in 1965.

The town hall was originally built for Walthamstow Council after it launched a design competition for its headquarters.

Philip Dalton Hepworth’s design was chosen from 70 entries and features a Portland stone building incorporating simplified Nordic classicism with art deco details.

The building is fronted by a grand, circular fountain while the adjacent assembly rooms have hosted concerts by major artists including tenor Placido Domingo and violinist virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin.

Walthamstow has excellent transport links into the City and central London with Victoria Line stations at Walthamstow Central and Blackhorse Road and the Central Line at neighbouring Leyton. There are also rail services into Liverpool Street from Wood Street, Walthamstow Central and St James Street. And on the outskirts of Walthamstow there is woodland where majestic hornbeams evoke the ancient woodlands of Epping Forest, helping to make the district one of the greenest and leafiest areas of London in which to live.

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Len Roberts

Len Roberts trained on a local newspaper in East London and has worked on daily, evening and weekly titles and the BBC. He was deputy editor of several weekly newspapers in Essex before moving into financial journalism. He was editor of Professional Pensions and helped launch a website aimed at sophisticated investors.

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