Walk 1: Liverpool Street walk to Hackney Downs

LIVERPOOL STRET walk to HACKNEY DOWNS 2 h 1/4

This train line is part of the West Anglia Main Line running from London to Cambridge, with additional suburban lines branching off in Hackney Downs. The line was opened in 1872. For two years at the start of the line, trains used a terminal called Bishopsgate located on Shoreditch High Street, where the East Anglia Main Line had already been operating since 1840.

Routing note: The area around Liverpool Street station is very interesting, but I have only written comments on buildings directly on my route. Many other buildings will be mentioned on additional routes (East Anglia main line, London Underground, London Overground) that I will post at a later point in time. This walk connects with routes 2, 6 and 11 at Hackney Downs. It connects with route 13 at Liverpool Street. It will further connect at Liverpool Street with Central line walk 7, Circle line walk 2 and District line walk 12.

LIVERPOOL STREET

Liverpool Street station serves two main lines with tracks being clearly separated inside the building. The West Anglia trains leave from platforms facing the main concourse while there are East Anglia trains leaving from platforms facing a sort of underground concourse. Both sets of tracks are below street level, so that you go down an elevator into the main concourse. If you stay at the higher level and walk along the shops on either side of the tracks to the end of the elevated walkway, you have a very nice view from above onto the trains. The only other main terminal with a pedestrian walkway above the tracks is Paddington.

West Anglia platforms of Liverpool Street Station

The view is also worthwhile because of the very impressive construction with arachnean cast iron pillars carrying a roof at very great height. If you are here at rush hour, you can watch the crowds in the third busiest train station in the UK (123 million visitors a year according to Wikipedia). There is a huge station board above the concourse; the present one is electronic but the previous one, a “flapper board”, was impressive for being both the largest in the UK and very difficult to maintain and repair.

Other view of Liverpool Street station hall

The name of the station is weird as there are no trains to Liverpool from this station; it comes from the street passing the station, itself called after the Prime Minister who was in function when the street was created in the 1820s. Lord Liverpool resigned in 1825 when Parliament voted to allow Catholic MPs against his advice.

The station design was described by the chairman of the Great Eastern train company during construction in 1870 as “one of the greatest mistakes ever committed in connection with a railway”. He criticised both the huge cost of buying land so close to the City of London and the idea of sinking the tracks below street level. The idea was to link the railway with the pre-existing Metropolitan Underground Line, but passengers proved not very interested and the link was soon abandoned. In addition, sinking the tracks implied a steep incline between the terminal and the viaduct across the East End.

Liverpool Street Station (Bishopsgate entrance)

The building was partly destroyed by bombs in 1917 and again in 1941. It is also quite popular as a location for films featuring horrific terrorist attacks although none actually happened. An other popular use is unauthorised promotional events as you can surprise commuters and film their enjoyable reactions from above. Because of the destructions, the roof over the concourse and the entrance to Liverpool Street itself are modern in appearance, while the roof over the tracks is still Victorian in design.

Liverpool Street station with Andaz Hotel

In front of the station on the Liverpool Street side, there is a sculpture with three children looking a bit lost. This commemorates the arrival of about 9000 Jewish children from Germany in 1938 and 1939 when Parliament authorised visa-free entry to particularly threatened children. The action was paid for by a private organisation who ran out of funds in August 1939. The children arrived through Liverpool Street Station because Jews were not allowed to use trains in Germany by 1939. As a result, they were smuggled by Quakers into trains to the Netherlands and took a ferry from Hook of Holland to Harwich. Before the present sculpture, there was a glass case with exhibits, but this was vandalised. By the way, a similar concept launched in 1939 failed in US Congress.

The station has two exits, one on Liverpool Street and one on Bishopsgate. Between both, a luxurious hotel was built with a direct gate onto the concourse. The gate has now been closed but the hotel has been modernised and remains a luxurious, impressive building. It is called a boutique hotel, meaning decoration is in part achingly minimalistic-modern, but the word sounds strange if you consider the size of the building.

If you happen to be in the area on Open Day in September, the hotel is worth looking at, particularly the entrance lobby and the astounding Masonic Lodge. Entering the lodge feels like descending in the depths of an Egyptian pyramid and the display of shining marble is overwhelming. You can even sit in the armchair of the grand master, who was none else than a brother of His Majesty the King.

Exit the station on the East side (on Bishopsgate)

L immediately up a staircase into a passageway below a large office building. This building is now used by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. This international institution finances infrastructure and macroeconomic projects primarily in the Balkans and in Eastern European countries including the Caucasus.

The passage exits on Exchange Square.

Exchange Square

This is a large pedestrianised space on top of the train tracks. You can actually look at the station through wiremesh and this is a good place for trainspotters. All around the square, developpers have put up tall office buildings starting in the 1980s. One of them directly above the tracks has long been the third tallest in the City of London. Over the years, the square has become popular with bankers from the surrounding buildings and you can drink champagne or attend posh events after work. There are a few large sculptures in the square, particularly a fat lady typical of Botero. There is also a very nice water feature.

Extension of Exchange Square in Primrose Street

Leave the square at the north end below the office tower

R Primrose Street

(Ahead) Spital Square

At 37 Spital Square, you can find the headquarters of the SPAB, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. The house is typical of the area around 1700 when French Huguenots settled here. These were Protestants expelled from France by King Louis XIV; as most of them were skilled textile workers and tradesmen, they converted buildings just outside the City gates into workshops to ply their trade. There is a reconstructed Huguenot house in the area that you can visit, but I have not been inside.

The SPAB is a very enthusiastic society who did a lot to make important people pay attention to heritage throughout England ever since the beginning of the 20th century. It also saved old handicrafts by encouraging demand for the restoration of old buildings. In some cases, it has been accused of paying undue attention to construction details of limited asthetic value or of preventing sensible contemporary experiments, but it certainly avoided many cases of standard commercial development destroying beautiful old places.

(Ahead) pedestrian passage along the north side of the Spitalfields Market development

Bishop’s Square

A market was opened here in 1682 when the king allowed a local merchant to open it in order to redevelop the area after the Great Fire of 1682. It became a very popular market, also because many textile craftsmen had workshops nearby. This link to textile trade also explains why many Jews settled here at the end of the 19th century. A market building was erected in 1893 to house the very popular market for food and produce; it became so popular that traffic congestion forced a relocation to Leyton in 1991.

Development of the area then lasted some 18 years but the result is an attractive market space where you can browse among stalls selling handicrafts, gadgets, second-hand clothes and similar items. There is also a large number of food stalls popular with office workers at lunchtime. The market is closed on Saturdays and Mondays. There are a number of works of art in the open spaces around the market.

Work of art in Lamb Street

If you turn right into the first square, Bishop’s Square, you can see a map of London at ground level. This shows the fortifications that London residents built with great enthusiasm during the Civil War to prevent royal troops from taking the city. Back in Lamb Street, you will find a sphere made of scaffolding tubing by Julian Wild and called System No. 18. The sphere alludes to the construction work that has taken place in the area. There are a number of other sculptures in the area, some being commented upon on a website (www.spitalfields.co.uk/about_art.php).

(Ahead) Lamb Street

(Ahead) Hanbury Street

Pub opposite the former Truman’s brewery

At the corner of Hanbury Street and Brick Street, the large building on the left with a walkway crossing Brick Street is the former Truman Brewery. The company was founded around 1666 taking advantage of an artesian well (no reference here to pure mountain water like German breweries like to refer to). It soon held a Royal Warrant and became at a point the largest brewery in the world as it produced Porter, the first beer that could be produced in an industrial manner. But it was unable to adapt when Brits fell in love with lager and was taken over in 1971 by a group that torpedoed the brand (the usual behaviour of British brewing oligopolists trying to achieve economies of scale), leading to the closure of the brewery in 1989. Truman beer was better known as “Black Eagle”.

The jumble of industrial buildings has been converted into one of the hippest areas in London for artsy things and nightlife. On weekdays, it is only lively in the evening. On weekends, there are four different markets concentrating on food stalls, design and lifestyle, kitsch and knickknacks, and vintage clothes respectively. You may end up needing a lot of time to take full advantage of the offerings ! Continue afterwards along Hanbury Street.

L Daplyn Street

R Albert Cottages

L Deal Street

St Anne’s Roman Catholic church

Facing the end of Albert Cottages, you will pass a particularly delightful set of houses, Victoria Mews. It feels unusual for the East End. A little further on, the large building on the left at the corner with Underwood Street is the presbytery of St. Anne’s Roman Catholic church. The church is worth having a look; it was built in 1855 and is one of the rather few catholic churches built in early gothic style at that time.

R Underwood Street

L Vallance Road

R into Weavers Fields (a park)

Weavers Fields looking east

Weavers’ Fields is a green space created by chance rather than by purpose. In the 1950s, a number of derelict housing estates were demolished and replaced by higher towers considered more modern at that time. As a result, free space became available and part of it was used for a park as there were few in the area. The borough only took responsibility in the 1980s as it had an extremely tight budget in this decidedly poorer part of London.

CCTV cameras defacing a work of art in Weavers’ Fields

Apart from grass expanses, there are a few sculptures along the edges. They are sturdy masts with no protruding parts and low-maintenance surfaces because the artist was asked to pay attention to serious vandalism risk and to prevent do-no-gooders from climbing the masts. There is also a thin strip of bushes in a corner trying to give a feeling of nature and wilderness. I don’t remember seeing large flower beds. In the middle of the park, there is also a large sculpture showing sportsmen. The council likes to associate this sculpture with the olympic spirit of 2012, but it is older.

Walk to SE exit near train tracks

L Three Colts Lane

BETHNAL GREEN station

Bethnal Green train station

The station was opened in 1872 along with the new West Anglia Main Line. There had been a train station nearby on the older East Anglia line (called Mile End), but the train company replaced it with a new station called Bethnal Green Junction serving both lines. The East Anglia platforms were disused after 1946 and the name was changed shortly thereafter. Most of the station building has been demolished, although a few brick walls remain. There is also a Bethnal Green underground station, but it is several hundred yards away.

Continue along Three Colts Lane

Cross main road (Cambridge Heath Road) into Bethnal Green Gardens

The Gardens take the place of the former “Green and Poor’s Land”, an area bought in 1678 by the owners of the nearby houses to prevent development. It has been in a trust from 1690 until 1901 and the only parts that have been built upon are now the library, the church and the museum. The plot where the library stands is the oldest as there was first a mansion (Kirby’s Castle) and later a lunatic asylum (the park is occasionally called “Barmy Park” because of this). The library is actually a building built by the asylum in 1896.

In 1901, the park passed into the control of the new borough of Bethnal Green: Bethnal Green became a parish in 1743 and a borough in 1900. The name Bethnal is a derivation of Blithehale, a hale being a heath and Blithe being possibly a Saxon name.

St John’s Bethnal Green

St John parish church was built in the 1820s and is one of the more interesting suburban churches. It was built on plans by Sir John Soane, showing that the commissioners of the parish had both money and taste. Unfortunately, the inside burned down in 1870 and the restoration was done by a local architect whose plans are fully in line with standard Victorian concepts. But the outside appearance remains in the impressive style of Sir John Soane.

There was a mini-scandal in 1843 involving the Anglican church in Bethnal Green. The curate of the new parish of St Bartholomew, now merged with St John, was Nathaniel Woodward, whose theological ideas put him close to the Roman Catholic church. He said in a sermon that the Anglican church should have prayers for confession and absolution; in addition, he criticised the established church for having an “inefficent and Godless clergy”. The bishop exiled him to a poorer church in Clapton but Mr Woodward was not discouraged: he is now better known for having founded 11 schools and raised the huge sum of 500,000 £.

L across Roman Road

Exit Gardens at NE exit

(Ahead) Victoria Park Square

R Old Ford Road

L Peel Gardens

(Ahead) Patriot Square, turns L

Former Bethnal Green town hall

On the left on the main road, you can see the impressive facade of the former Bethnal Green Town Hall. The architecture is very Edwardian. It is now a luxury hotel with a restaurant specialising in experimental techniques, while some of the rooms are interesting works of minimalist design. I would infer that this hotel fits nicely with the artsy crowd and media types attracted to galleries and studios in nearby Whitechapel and Shoreditch.

R Cambridge Heath Road

CAMBRIDGE HEATH station

Cambridge Heath station

This is an other of the stations opened in 1872. It has no station building to speak of (just a shed with an oversize corrugated iron roof) and I suppose any offices were under the arches. There are some less salubrious establishments near the station and this makes it prone to offending smells as it is unstaffed. But the view from the platforms gives an interesting feeling for the East End as the tracks are on a high viaduct.

There is no heath around the station and you do not alight here in order to visit Cambridge, but there was a heath until the 18th century and the road to Cambridge passed through this heath. The first houses were built around 1725 and most of the area was developed around 1785 when the estate owner (a charity) began to lease the ground. One of the larger developers was the “London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews” – I wonder why real estate speculation should be a primary concern of such a society, and I also wonder about a time when a society with such a name was apparently a reputable institution.

R Bishop’s Way

Cross canal bridge into Victoria Park

This is a very large and interesting park, but the route only skirts the westernmost part of it and it feel it makes sense to keep the park for an other route (such as a Tube walk from Mile End to Stratford).

L on canal towpath

Regent’s Canal being refurbished

This section of Regent’s Canal was opened in 1820. It was an essential link between the Docks and the Grand Union Canal towards the Midlands, bypassing the congested and winding section of the Thames through Central London. The canal was extremely busy until the 1920s, when coal began to be delivered by train and lorry rather than by boat. The private company who owned the canal managed to replace dwindling coal traffic through transportation of iron products for export as well as a large series of supplies for factories in the western suburbs of London. The canal was nationalised in 1948 but this also marks the start of the decline as the Docks began to move downstream.

Haggerston Lock on Regent’s Canal

The canal is now popular with joggers, cyclists and boating tourists. The concrete towpath also covers important electricity cables.

Exit the towpath at the second road bridge

R Broadway Market

This is a very old driveway for sheep being led to London for slaughter and has therefore been a popular stopping point for a long time. It now has a very successful weekly market on Saturdays. The large number of stalls offering warm food proves that is meant more as a weekend destination than as a place to do your weekly shopping ! As a result, the immediate surroundings are becoming popular with young professionals and real estate prices have risen significantly.

(Ahead) into London Fields

London Fields are not a park but a common where Hackney residents can theoretically let their cows graze. Most Hackney residents are either too poor or too posh to have cows, so that it looks very much like a park ! Because of the lack of similar green spaces in the area, it is extremely popular on summer weekends and ends up looking rather unappetising on Sunday evenings with grass trampled and footballed to death while litter lies around in large quantities. Efficient cleaning services make it look much better come Monday lunchtime.

Plane trees in London Fields

Park users continue to complain about gang activity (petty stealing and group drinking in particular) and park rangers ended up taking benches away so that loitering youths would be less tempted to sit around and intimidate park visitors. There have also been frequent complaints about young people using the common to organise rave parties and other noisy pursuits on summer weekends. As the park is a common, it cannot be closed at night.

I crossed the common a number of times and never felt threatened or even uncomfortable, but it does get crowded and boisterous when weather allows. As there are no dark corners, only grass and a few alleys with mature plane trees, passing through should not be a problem. But the issue does show that Hackney is a deprived borough with shockingly high figures for youth unemployment among people with a minority background.

Remembering sheep drovers in London Fields

The common is documented since 1540 and was used as a grazing ground by drovers who wanted their cattle and sheep to look healthier when led to market in the City. The grazing right only applied as a Lammas right, that is after August 1st, as this made sure crops were not trampled. “Lammas” is a saxon word for Bread Mass, a religious festival held on August 1st. At the south end of the common, you can find a sculpture showing market people with sheep. The sculpture is run down and partly vandalised, but is still quite nice.

Take the right-hand paved cycle route across the common until you find signs R for

LONDON FIELDS station

London Fields station

The station is very similar to Cambridge Heath, but a bit prettier at street level. It was also opened in 1872, serving a rapidly developing area along Mare Street. There is no station building, the offices being contained under the arches of the viaduct. The train company chose to build this extremely long viaduct because it was able to lease the arches to industrial users in this very busy area, making the scheme quite profitable.

Go back into London Fields (the park) and walk towards the swimming pool. This is the only lido in London with a 50-meter length. It shared the history of many London lidos. It was built in the 1930s in a bid to improve health in a deprived part of London, but severe financial restrictions imposed by the Conservative government in the 1980s forced many boroughs to close lidos and neglect open spaces. After 2000, better funding due to the general improvement in the economic climate enabled reopening, although one wonders whether the general situation of public finance could lead to a renewed spade of neglect and closures.

Edwardian development on Dalston Lane

An other sports attraction is the cricket ground, home to a number of good quality local clubs and worth watching in summer.

Exit the common at the N exit

(Ahead) Navarino Road

R Dalston Lane

HACKNEY DOWNS station

Hackney Downs station entrance

Like all stations on the line, it was opened in 1872. It was originally called Hackney Downs Junction as the line divides here with one branch going to Stoke Newington and one to Clapton. In addition, passengers could switch to the very popular service towards Shoreditch and towards the Docklands, calling at Hackney Central. There was even a pedestrian walkway with a special ticketing office between the two stations, but this was closed in 1944. Hackney Central was reopened in 1980, but the connecting walkway has disappeared.

Hackney Downs still looks like an important junction with several platforms covered by awnings on elegant cast iron pillars. The station building is not ugly but it is a small functional cube that is certainly not very old.

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