herald

Sunday 23 November 2014

East is Eden

IT'S cutting edge London, filled with shops, galleries and restaurants . . . and it's not the West End. Siobhan Norton finds a world that's a far cry from Walford.

GASPARD is undoubtably lord of all he surveys in Maison Trois Garcons. With his proud posture, he escorts me in dutiful silence from trinket to curio.

Although there is much to catch the eye in this interiors shop, not least the eccentric and beautiful decor, my gaze keeps wandering back to him.

As I reluctantly leave, purchases in tow, I glance back to see him watching from the window, his brown-eyed, solemn gaze following us down the road.

While the shop's beautiful Dalmatian may have captured my heart, I soon realised this was only the beginning of my love affair with London’s East End. And while it may seem tough and gritty on the exterior, an artful soul lies beneath.

For Eastenders, it seems the average market stall has come a long way from Walford's tackfest manned by Bianca in her silver puffa jacket. Now, fashion magpies are lured from every angle by an array of baubles.

Shoreditch, with its gritty, graffitied streets, scream hip from its pop-up galleries, celebrity hang-outs and glorious antique shops. Here, the old Georgian houses that housed silk weavers have been restored (and are in high demand), and old industrial buildings have been transformed into restaurants and gallery spaces.

It is also home to Brick Lane, where the clamouring spices of hundreds of excellent curry houses add an exotic air as you browse markets offering everything from tat to treasure.

Here, it would not be unusual to see Kate Moss browsing for vintage fur, or Tracey Emin making her way to her studio. I saw neither, but at every turn, the beautiful people more than made up for it. Of course, the natural choice for lunch was curry – but Dishoom on Boundary Street, a new eatery, was more cafe than curry house, with an amazing menu of tantalising fusion dishes.

From the urban jungle surrounds to leafy Greenwich. Here, after a visit to the famous date line and observatory, I passed the Cutty Sark in my beeline towards the market.

Old, mismatched crockery compete with original artworks for attention. I racked my brains as to who would appreciate a Charles and Camilla commemorative plate for a Christmas pressie, before settling on some more ‘conventional' gifts.

Here in Greenwich, although the O2 arena and skyscrapers of Canary Wharf are almost within spitting distance, it is easy to forget you are in urban London, with it's sprawling park and village feel.

The Old Maritime Museum and Old Royal Naval College lend an air of ancient grandeur to this original centre of science and exploration.

Indeed, in East London, the weight of time is evident everywhere. Although some areas have undergone huge regeneration and carry an ultra-modern gleam, with the Docklands Light Rail and Emirates Cable Car effortlessly traversing borough and river, other parts have been carefully preserved.

One such treasure is Dennis Severs' house, sitting innocuously at No 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields.

This artist created a living time capsule, refurbishing the house as it would have been over the years from the 18th Century, and living in the same manner as its original occupants.

Food has been left discarded on the table, as if the family had just risen, and there is no protective glass or warning signs – this is more of a sensory experience than a museum. Back in the 21st Century, it was time for some modern-day refreshments. And the choice is staggering. Lounge Lover hosted Madonna's 50th birthday party, and is the kind of place where you definitely reserve a table, and then pray you are cool enough to gain entry.

But once inside a relaxed vibe and cocktail (plus some excellent neck-craning to see who's who) will make it worth your while. For a slightly less socially stressful experience, Boisdale in Canary Wharf will serve you up a giant steak, even bigger cheese board, and an evening of relaxed jazz music.

The Queen Vic it ain’t...

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