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London’s Vibrant East End

A Pearly Queen and King in the East End (Dalma Heyn photo).

By Dalma Heyn

The East End of London was once as high on a tourist’s must-see list as the Kibera slums of Nairobi.  Skid Row had its homeless; the Bowery, its alcoholics; but for the sheer warehousing of the drug-addicted, disease-ridden, mentally ill and suicidal, and the swell of immigrants—the Huguenots, the Irish, the Jews, the Bangladeshi—nothing in the industrial world quite compared to this slum of all slums. Pushed out of London proper in the late 19th century by the city’s expansion, the poor continued to populate this “forbidden planet” north of the Thames and east of what is now the financial district, the walled City of London. Orwell wrote of its miseries; Jack London, too. And the Queen Mum herself, responding to repeated attacks on the docks and factories in 1940, said,”I’m glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”

It wasn’t till years afterward that the face of the typical East Ender softened flatteringly from derelict/convict to lower-class workman. By the time the TV show of that name appeared on the air in 1985, lower-class workman had risen to Cockney charmer. Airbrushed an image or real, till now I’d never thought to haul our family down to the docks (let alone down to the financial district, which, with its over 15-million square feet of office and retail buildings, moneyed malls and chic restaurants, is hardly for kids).

But the Four Seasons Hotel Canary Wharf had an idea for holdouts like me: Bring your teenager along for a weekend stay with us here in the financial district, and we’ll whisk him or her down for an afternoon to the East End. This they do with the aid of Urban Gentry, a tour company that sends a hip young guide—ours was under the age of 23– to take your hip young kid to the hippest area of London. (If your child or grandchild is over 18, she can go alone with guide.) The Four Seasons also gives your teenager the use of a Flip Video camcorder for the day so she can upload wherever. (Come November 2010, the hotel will pick the best teen video of the year and award a complimentary return stay before March 2011.)

Emily and Adam in London (photo by Dalma Heyn).

So we found a weekend that our teenage grandchildren, Adam and Emily, could go—and we used the East End as our excuse to show them London for the first time. Our guide was Mae Shuinmo, a lovely fashion-school grad with a knowledge of and enthusiasm for the East End’s history, shops, artists and fashion that matched the excitement and energy of this welcoming new territory. (Emily: “She’s cool!”) Alongside such historical sites as The Tower of London, Hawksmoor Church, the Bricklane mosque, Whitechapel Gallery and The Women’s Library, lies an enclave where big-money projects are planted amid a roiling street culture more inviting than any I’ve seen since the market in Istanbul—more varied than the Haight or Carnaby Street ever were, even in their day.

Look one way, you’ll see gorgeous 18th century townhouses, then tiny family businesses, then Victorian terraces; look another, and you’ll see flower marts and art galleries and the quirkiest little shops selling things you’d never thought of to buy. Want penny candy you haven’t tasted since you were five? Foodstuffs from Istanbul or Brazil? A manicure in ten minutes? Military garb from, I don’t know, Peru? Old 78s? Mod pants, pointy shoes like Twiggy wore? How about a handlebar for your ‘60s-era Schwinn?

Every decade and as many cultural movements are represented in this festival of Hippies, Dollies, Beats, Bohemians, Mods, Teddy Boys, punks, ravers, Goths (the sparkling green makeup! the body decorations! the piercings! the neon-pumpkin hair!), bankers, you-name-its, each person marching to his or her own sartorial and cultural drummer. No defining look or style or belief or music emerges here; no two shopkeepers, kinds of art or musicians, even, look remotely the same. Neither retro nor modern, it’s individualistic and eclectic and wonderfully bizarre; a region whose style is no style.


Spitalfields, the old graveyard for Roman London, is now a mass of stalls occupied by artisans, fashion and design grads, who fill their spaces with everything from the aforementioned old bikes to newly uncovered retro finds from McQueen and Margiela. Bricklane curry houses sit next to artists’ (like Banksy, and Ben Eine) homes. The most definitive thing one can say about this 22-acre hotbed of action is that it’s got, in addition to tatty old worn-out sneaker stalls, terrific little restaurants—and the still-cheap, if touristy, Petticoat Lane market. (Is some of this excitement because of the Olympic Games, coming to London in 2012? I think so: Plans suggest a massive transformation for this area, when a park that will house the Olympic Stadium is built in the nearby Lower Lee Valley.)

Four Seasons Hotel Canary Wharf.

In our frantic attempt to introduce London to Adam and Emily in barely more than a weekend, we lucked out: Not only is The Four Seasons Canary Wharf elegant, spare, situated on the edge of the Thames, and as sleek and modern as the businessmen and women who fill and surround it (“Look at the bathroom in the lobby!” said Emily.) it’s just a five-minute walk from the Canary Wharf Underground station, and a 15-minute ride from Green Park station. And while High Tea at Fortnum and Mason is still wonderful (don’t forget to book it ahead of time), and Buckingham Palace still draws crowds with the changing of the guards, our most glorious dinner was at the Four Season Canary Wharf Hotel‘s revamped Quadrato Restaurant . Executive chef Marco Bax’s northern Italian cuisine, with its introduction of “little bites” –like Nana Muta (smoked duck and artichoke) and Cruna Di Piselli (sweet pea soup, tea-marinated salmon) and the breadsticks (“I love them!” said Emily) were suberb. And the Four Season’s nefarious plot to get visitors like us back again to their part of town worked, as Emily pronounced, “I really want to come back to London!” and Adam said, “Yeah. Me too.”

The Gen Y Weekend Package is available from February 6, 2010 and includes a 2 1/2 to 3 hour Sunday tour with transfers to the area and a break for tea and cake. At £460.00 + Vat (17.5%),the package includes a Saturday night stay in a Deluxe River View room at Four Seasons HotelCanary Wharf with complimentary English Breakfast for two adults and one teen. An adjoining room can be booked at a special weekend rate. Contact Four Seasons Hotel Canary Wharf

DALMA HEYN is the bestselling author of two books on marriage (The Erotic Silence of the American Wife and Marriage Shock: The Transformation of Women into Wives) and one on dating (Drama Kings: The
Men Who Drive Strong Women Crazy
), now out in paperback. Her travel articles and essays have appeared in various magazines, including Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler and Diversion. She has appeared both as author and social observer on Oprah!, The Today Show, Larry King Live, The Charlie Rose Show, and Good Morning America.

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