Shard and Tower
As usual, the splendour of the Tower provided a stunning scene, its sweeping curves exuding history and still outshining its sparkling neighbour, the Shard. Designed to resemble sails at the top, this feature was as lost on me as the oil company Q8 (Kuwait) version of this in its petrol stations. This Qatari contribution to the London skyline has many fans as well as those who have deep reservations about an incongruous juxtaposition with its historic companions.
The St Katharine Dock boasts sympathetic renovation and new build to reflect its own history. The old river barges with their millionaire, ostentatious berthfellows alongside the regal splendour of the Queen’s barge, used for her Jubilee trip along the Thames, provided a rich feast for the eyes, the shapes and colours breathtaking. The rents of the businesses surrounding the dock must be colossal. None seemed to have any customers, apart from a tea shop Turkish Mum’s Specialities (does this mean there is only one mother in the whole of Turkey?) The reasonably priced shoe shop had no customers and the dignity of the dock compromised by The Fab Bagel Shop, the medieval banqueting suite with crude, giant replicas of suits of armour either side of its entrance and the art gallery / shop, proud of its ‘proper art’ as judged by the employee / proprietor in attendance. None of the internationally sourced, outrageously priced, production line, impasto palette knife paintings of provocative women, kittens in baskets, the photo-realistic stylised representations of jugs, fruit and books or the blown glass fish seem relevant to the historic docks. Where are the local artists, the skilled interpretations of river views or the built environment? I am flummoxed by how this shop does any trade at all. It was so full of its wares that perhaps it doesn’t. Why would tourists buy the sort of tacky memorabilia usually on sale in their own countries for their own tourist industries?

On the way to the beautifully preserved Dockmaster’s House was a traditional Routemaster decked out as an Honesty Bus. Harking back to a different era of trust and keeping your front door unlocked, I’m sure that better weather would see tourists seeing and using this attraction. The Dockmaster’s house is beautiful but the cold, lonesome security guard must pray for even a slight disturbance to break the chilly and windswept monotony.

Altab Ali Park
The finale of my epic day was to be a late lunch at the Tayyab, a Punjabi restaurant in Whitechapel. The downside to this occurred when I was informed that we would be using the oldest London transport to get there, Shanks’ pony. My usual protestations in these circumstances attract the use of a black cab, but not today so I decided to get on with it and enjoy the scenery. This included the Whitechapel Art gallery, a plethora of cheap clothes shops and side-streets of terraced, old houses, probably worth a fortune nowadays if not part of some landlord’s portfolio of property. The Altab Ali Park encouraged us to halt our walk to explore its history and environment. This used to be the site of the 14th century St Mary Matfelon church which had a white chapel, hence the name of the area. It was renamed in the 1990s after the 1978 murder of a 25 year old Bangladeshi man, killed by 3 teenage racists. It contains an incoherent, ad hoc series of artefacts, which some say refects the diversity of the local community. Re-designed by muf/architecture/art as part of the 2012 High Street improvements from Aldagate to the Olympic Park. Centuries of the Maddock family are tombed alongside seemingly unearthed rocks (on closer inspection, beautifully carved) and tree trunks and terrazzo tiles, possibly marking an unearthed grave. Which are original and which are new is difficult to tell but over all the park has a vaguely apocalyptic appearance. It celebrates the life of Altab Ali and is a strong and clear tribute to the fight against all racism.

Whitechapel Bell foundary
Continuing, we passed St Boniface’s German RC church and wondered why there would be a German church here in Tower Hamlets considering its bomber history. As well as the Bangladeshi community here there were also up to 1000 German immigrants in the area, employed by the sugar refinery on the Thames. Almost at our destination now, we passed the old Whitechapel Bell Foundry, its giant bells on full view. Finally to Fieldgate Street and the promise of real food. At 3pm there were still lots of customers. Photographs decorating the walls boasted clients such as Cher and Sade. Warm and comfortable ,we dined on poppadoms, dhal, lamb chops, dried meat, nan bread and lassi. The only concerns were the size of the tables (too small for even a modest feast) and their close proximity to each other but perhaps this reflects the popularity of this restaurant. There is also a large lower ground dining area. Its open kitchen demonstrates the confidence the owners and employees have in their food preparation. I thoroughly enjoyed the meal, very reasonably priced at £24 for two. It is licensed but on this occasion we didn’t partake. This was to be reserved for Searcy’s Champagne Bar at St Pancras after a relaxing, almost door-to-door single bus journey from Whitechapel to King’s Cross.

Guest Post by FMW

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