LIVERPOOL STREET walk to STEPNEY GREEN
1 1/4 hour
This short walk belongs actually to the Hammersmith & City line but it made more sense to include it under District line as I would otherwise have a missing link in the District line. Originally, the section between Liverpool Street and Whitechapel was operated by the Metropolitan line who wanted to provide direct services towards the Docklands via the tunnel under the Thames now operated by London Overground.
Trains went first to Aldgate where there was a very tight bend and continued towards Whitechapel with an intermediary station called “St Mary’s (Whitechapel Road)”. This line opened in 1884 and could also be used by trains coming from Tower Hill and joining at Aldgate.
Due to operational problems with the junction, a straighter set of tracks was built in 1938 so that trains from Liverpool Street or from Tower Hill could bypass Aldgate entirely. The intermediary station was relocated a little closer to the City and renamed Aldgate East.
The section between Whitechapel and Stepney Green was built and operated by the District Line starting in 1902.
Routing note: This walk can easily be combined with either walk 10 (as a short extension beyond Aldgate East) or walk 12 (as a short extension before Stepney Green). Out of the numerous connections available in Liverpool Street, the one that is most convenient considering the way I wrote the walks is Circle line walk 2. There is also a good combination in Whitechapel with Overground walk 4.
This is a short walk but it may take more time than you expect due to good shopping opportunities. There is a lively garment market in Wentworth Street (check for the days of operation) and an equally lively market on Whitechapel Road. In addition, you are not far from the popular markets in Shoreditch.
The station opened originally as a temporary terminus in 1875 under the name Bishopsgate and trains soon continued to Aldgate although there was still a single terminus platform until 1974. Trains could also switch from the Circle line to suburban services through Liverpool Street main line station until 1904.
When this connection was severed, the Metropolitan Railway feared that travellers might not associate its Bishopsgate station with the opportunity to switch to long-distance trains and the station was renamed “Liverpool Street” in 1908. The deep-level platforms used by the Underground Central Line were added in 1912. Finally, a direct link with Aldgate East bypassing the congested junction at Aldgate was built in 1938.
The Metropolitan Railway preferred to include normal station entrances within commercial buildings in order to make profitable use of the expensive ground and the station entrance is indeed just a modest neo-classical porch under offices. I don’t comment here on the train terminus as I do so in my Liverpool Street network walk 1.
Take the station exit on the corner of Liverpool Street and Old Broad Street
R Liverpool Street walking past the train terminus and the former station hotel
At the end L Bishopsgate
The road is now a major highway into the City and is the only highway into London that has been in use for 2,000 years. It was the roman road to Cambridge and owes its name to pilgrims coming to London to worship St Erkenwald, a 7th century bishop of London.
Soon R ignore Victoria Avenue
take Catherine Wheel Alley (the entrance is under a surprisingly small porch but is well marked; it turns then into a narrow pedestrian passage widening later on)
This narrow street gives you a feeling for London as it was in the 18th century. The street layout is unchanged and some of the brick buildings on both sides do give you the feeling of 19th century warehouses. Obviously, nearly all of them are now posh offices for consultants, attorneys and accountants. In the 18th century, many houses were used by Huguenots, French protestants that had been forced to leave their home country because of their faith and who brought to London a very lively garment industry.
Ahead Middlesex Street
L Wentworth Street
The garment market in this street operates most days of the week and extends to several neighbouring streets depending on the day. The market is much better known after its moniker of “Petticoat Market”, supposedly because this was a convenient place to buy a “petit” or “short” coat. The market was not popular at all with the authorities who felt until the 1930s that it gave employment to many shady characters, did not pay proper taxes and sheltered illegal immigrants. I am not sure that all traders are squeaky clean and properly declared British nationals nowadays, but the market is protected by a 1936 Act of Parliament and is such a major tourism and shopping attraction that it would be suicidal to try to shut it down.
Although the market is very close to Brick Lane, seen as the core of the garment trade for South Asians, there is a rather clear difference. The Asian traders cater to a significant extent to professional buyers like shop owners from other parts of Britain while the Petticoat Market traders appeal primarily to casual buyers. I do not give you pictures of this part of my walk because it would have been impossible to avoid taking pictures of people and infringing their right to privacy.
R Commercial Street
The station opened in 1884 when the line coming from Blackfriars enabled the District Line to connect with tracks into the eastern suburbs. Originally, the junction was located within Aldgate terminus, but this caused operational problems and the District line relocated the Aldgate platforms serving eastern London to a segregated location. This became Aldgate East.
There was a station building originally but the station was remodeled in 1938 and all facilities are now underground. A rather nice temporary porch marked the entrance for years while an office building was being built above it. The porch is actually still standing but is dwarfed by the colonnade of the office building. Experts may note that the platforms look unusually wide and airy. This is due to the use of concrete as this enables longer spans than the traditional brick walls.
L Whitechapel High Street
This is the original main road giving access into central London from East Anglia and this explains the unusual layout. The road is particularly wide, with equally wide sidewalks that are used for a major street market on most days of the week. In the mid-19th century, it was lined with busy factories because those had been driven away from the City in order to lower the impact of noise, traffic and dust. The end of the road close to the City was then developed in the late 19th century as a sort of transition area with offices and trades.
On both sides of the Aldgate East station entrance, the buildings are stately but very different. The one on the City side is the famous Whitechapel Art Gallery, designed by architect Charles Townsend who had a very personal style. He liked intricate friezes inspired by Renaissance motives, which was nothing unusual at the time, but he included them in rather plain fronts without the columns, gables and balconies his competitors loved. Townsend also had a particular inclination towards twin towerlets and the overall combination of his designs is really unusual.
The art gallery was one of the very first in Britain operated by public authorities with the intention of showing young artists. The board nominated over many years remarkable directors who curated seminal exhibitions. Highlights started in 1938 with an extremely daring show of Picasso’s antiwar painting Guernica, causing considerable controversy and even serious diplomatic difficulties for the government. In the 1950s and 1960s, being given an exhibition here made you the talk of the town for cognoscenti. The gallery had to be refurbished in the 2000s and is now competing with many other important venues for contemporary art, but it remains highly regarded for shows dealing with urgent societal issues like feminism, racism etc.
The neighbouring building with the inscription Passmore Edwards Library is now also used by the art gallery as several exhibitions usually overlap at the same time. The building is about as old as the main gallery building but is a much more typical Edwardian design with an uncoordinated mixture of decoration details from different periods and countries (an Italian frieze, a Dutch gable, a separate North German gable, a Jacobean mock tower in the middle etc). Cream-coloured highlights on dark red brick walls were also a typical Edwardian combination. As a result, you can easily see how unusual Townsend’s design was.
R diagonally across Altab Ali Park
The park was laid on the site of an old church, the “white chapel” that gave its name to the road alongside the park. The church was destroyed by bombs in 1940. Altab Ali was a textile worker who was assaulted and killed by racist teenagers in Adler Street in 1978. The park is decorated with details reminiscent of Bangladesh as a reference to the many South Asian businesses in the area. What is a bit ridiculous is that the entrance porch was designed not by a sculptor of Asian descent but by a Welsh gentleman, David Petersen, who is actually better known for monuments including dragons.
At the other end of the park, you do walk past a reminder of the former church, a burial monument from the old churchyard.
R Adler Street
You can see a strikingly contemporary Roman Catholic church here, St Boniface. This unusual saint was chosen because the church is also the seat of the German catholic parish. Boniface was an early medieval bishop who evangelised part of Germany. The church looks so modern because it had to be rebuilt in 1958 after wartime damages. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you whether the building is interesting inside because it was closed when I walked past it.
before the church L Mulberry Street
L Plumber’s Row
A property located between Plumber’s Row and Whitechapel Road housed for the impressive period of 250 years a bell foundry. The owners finally sold the site in 2017 to a developer. Bell foundries are very special businesses that deal a lot with heritage issues and are quite independent from the short-term economic situation, but they do use ponderous materials and polluting metals, so that a location in the middle of densely populated areas is not perfect.
The developer proposed to keep a small industrial activity (producing hand bells used as a cinema prop or as a gimmick to call your teenager daughter to the dinner table) but wanted primarily to build a large hotel. This is controversial and experience with similar situations elsewhere in London makes me think that construction is not likely to start soon. As you can see on my picture, the roadside building is a well proportioned Georgian property with somewhat strange colours for the shutters and doors. The other picture shows you that the actual industrial buildings look as you can expect them to look like, clean but somewhat dreary.
R Fieldgate Street
You walk here along the back side of the East London mosque, an important place of worship considering the many Muslim workers and traders in the area. It was the first large mosque to be built close to central London and therefore has a special role. It is the typical place foreign dignitaries may want to visit and it is also the first place organisations call when they want to discuss societal issues with representatives of the Islamic faith. This obviously led to occasional irritations and public relations debates. Like many protestant churches, mosques are not open to the general public for casual touring.
L New Road
R Whitechapel Road
Before reaching the station, you walk past the imposing front of the former Royal London Hospital. The hospital was rebuilt over a period of 15 years starting in 2006 and the old reception hall on Whitechapel Road was taken over by the borough in order to turn it into a civic centre. The building is from the 1750s and is suitably imposing with a row of mock pillars typical of Georgian public architecture. The combination of pillars with a triangular gable reminded of ancient Greece, seen at the time as the source of all refinement and civilisation.
The station opened in 1876 on a new train line linking the Rotherhithe Thames tunnel with the Liverpool Street terminal. A connection with the present London Underground District line was opened in 1884 using a separate station building called “Whitechapel (Mile End)”. Both stations were called Whitechapel from 1901 onwards.
As an oddity, Whitechapel is a station where the Underground crosses over the Overground. The train line from Wapping continuing to Shoreditch is on the lower level and the Underground lines between Barking and either Tower Hill or Liverpool Street cross overhead.
Because the present station is actually the 1884 London Underground construction, it is integrated into the street alignment as was often done in central London. It does have pretty coloured glass panels above the access arches, but is otherwise hard to notice in the extremely busy road. In order to draw attention better, glass canopies were added presumably in the 2000s.
Continue ahead in Whitechapel Road
On the left hand side just before the large crossroads, you walk past the imposing front of Albion Yard. There is a cast iron strip over the main gate with a mysterious inscription in golden letters: “Manw Cross An & Paulin L”. The letters are botched, the actual inscription should be Mann, Crossman & Paulin after a former owner. The building with the elegant neo-baroque gable at the rear of the main court is a former brewery built partly in the 1860s and partly in the 1900s. The building was converted to upmarket flats in the 1990s.
Ahead Mile End Road
One of the first houses in this pleasantly leafy main highway is a somewhat over-the-top villa that was probably built as a private residence for a businessman in the heyday of the industrial East End in the 1900s. A few details like the design of the main gable show a faint influence of Arts & Crafts while the overall disorderly mix of styles remains very Edwardian. The building was converted to offices and of late to a restaurant.
Just after this villa, you walk past Trinity Green, a set of particularly venerable almshouses. It is one of the oldest buildings in the East End, built in 1695 although it had to be refurbished after war damages in the 1950s. It is called Trinity Green because the almshouses were built as a retirement home by Trinity House, the manager of lighthouses around Britain.
Interestingly, this particular listed monument was the origin of the whole system of listing worthy monuments when a campaign was started in 1895 to prevent its demolition. There is a stone plaque on one of the houses giving details but you should definitely also notice the beautiful models of ships on either side of the gable, a reminder of the profession of the residents.
Almshouses were built by guilds and similar institutions until the 1700s because the government was not expected to provide for impoverished elderly people. Retirement pensions did not exist as people usually spent their old age in the house of one of their children but people who could not rely on such a situation ended up in dire difficulties.
Affluent people would therefore bequeath a bit of land or funds to build alsmhouses; in line with religious beliefs of the time, a committee set up strict rules of behaviour, chose carefully deserving residents and made sure that a chapel got a place of honour in the middle of the development. The one in Trinity Green is particularly large because it was supposed to reflect on the importance and generosity of Trinity House as the sponsor. It is a nice early baroque building in a typical style that also inspired so many official buildings in the United States.
By the way, there is an interesting democratic counterpart to almshouses in Flanders. Starting in the 13th century, widows founded associations who built and managed retirement communities. They were similar to a convent but residents did not formally speak vows, were not asked to make a hefty donation on entering the convent and discussed among themselves appropriate rules to follow. The correct name in Flemish is begijnhof.
Just after Cleveland Way, you walk past a very official looking building with an imposing colonnade and a fat cubic tower. It definitely looks like some sort of town hall from the 1920s but the original inscription has been erased and it do not know what it was.
R Assembly Passage
L Redman’s Road
R diagonally across Stepney Green Park
The park is actually a Common as the name “Green” implies but most of it was built over in the 19th century as housing was needed for the many workers of the factories in the area. After World War II, bomb damages gave an opportunity to demolish the tenements and replace them with a council estate. This in turn became derelict and the area was landscaped into the present park in 2000. It gives Stepney a suburban feeling that sets it apart in this very densely populated part of London. This being said, the park has no special amenities, as usual for a common.
After the playground L on Stepney Way towards the parish church
The parish church of St Dunstan’s has core parts from the 15th century although it was rebuilt to some extent in 1899. It was the original main parish church for the East End. It sits in a large churchyard and therefore looks very pleasant and stately. There are a few interesting details inside that I saw on an Open Monument Day including the elaborate clockwork from 1802 and the intricate mechanics needed to move the ten bells. Parish churches rarely have so many bells but this makes sense as the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was a parishioner.
On a more artistic level, there is a pretty monument set up by the children of a captain “as a testimony to his virtue and their love”. There is also an intriguing glass window with a soldier in a Navy blue uniform in front of Christ on the Cross. I found that Christ looks suspiciously like a twin brother of the soldier. I am of course less sure that the rather suggestively denuded body was also modeled after the body of the soldier, but who knows ? One very unusual detail is that the Cross is depicted on the background of a harbour quay. The Virgin Mary is occasionally connected with the seas (“Stella Maris”), but it is very rarely the case for Christ.
With the church to your back, R (northwards) on Stepney High Street
At the next corner, you walk past a college. I noticed a remarkably intricate mosaic on the wall of the low foreground building. It is definitely an excellent way of enlivening an otherwise boring concrete wall. The upper band of the mosaic shows local monuments and is pleasant without being particularly original. The middle band symbolising the river Thames is a cute collage of children’s designs and the lower band is quite amusing with a wilderness fantasy including a crocodile and a very big snake alongside many other animals and flowers. Definitely worth a leisurely look.
About ahead White Horse Lane
L Beaumont Square
The central section of the square is peaceful with well kept flower beds. It is bit unusual to see high railings around normal flower beds, I suppose the borough had a few problems with dog walkers not paying enough attention to poop issues.
R along the further end of the square past a private hospital
Leave the square along the large brick building, the road turns R soon as Maria Terrace
L Beaumont Grove
The station opened in 1902 together with the train line.
The building is a surprisingly sizeable structure looking much like a suburban train station. Although you are still quite close to central London, Stepney indeed feels very leafy and suburban so that the style of the station is fitting.
I don’t have details about its history but I was surprised that it looks much more Victorian than Edwardian. It is also devoid of fanciful architecture ornaments, the kind of which is to be expected on a building from 1902.
At platform level, one is plain but the other one has been beautified in 1902 with a row of columns and a lattice painted light green, a very unusual effort that is worth a compliment. The private companies that operated the Underground lines until the 1930s actually seldom spent money on making platforms look nice because they were managed like suburban train companies where a conspicuous station building was important and absorbed most of the funds.