Night On Brick Lane
Contributing Photographer Phil Maxwell sent these recent photographs of Brick Lane at night which inspired me to make a short nocturnal progress from Whitechapel High St to the Bethnal Green Rd by way of this most-celebrated East End thoroughfare and write you an account.
Even on Tuesday evening, I discovered a hubbub of activity down in Whitechapel High St when I reached the tail end of Brick Lane, more properly known as Osborn St at its southern extremity.
This was where I first arrived in 1976, coming round the corner from Aldgate East Station and walking up Brick Lane in search of the London I knew from Daniel Defoe’s ‘Journal of a Plague Year.’ It was Defoe who first recorded the paving-over of Brick Lane three centuries earlier but I do not recall what I expected to find that day. Once I reached the Truman Brewery, there were so many trucks loading and unloading in the street I felt as if I had entered the precincts of the brewery itself and overwhelmed by the intensity of activity in this unfamiliar zone, I ventured no further.
I cannot count the number of times I have walked up Brick Lane since then and now I can travel the journey in my mind almost as clearly as on foot. Yet it is a street that is constantly changing, even if daily familiarity can render these changes imperceptible.
I wonder if Brick Lane was originally the path to and from the White Chapel, which formerly stood where the park is now just across the road from the foot of Osborn St? There is curious line of canteen-like curry houses catering to the corporate City customers in Osborn St before you reach my favourite travel agent which still advertises tickets for Concord, facing the mysteriously-large electricity substation opposite. Until recently in Osborn St, there was also Elfe’s, the monumental masons, serving as a discreet memento mori to those enjoying their dinners on the other side of the road.
Brick Lane proper begins at the junction with Wentworth St where, across the crossroads, The Archers faces the Brooke Bond Tea factory at One Brick Lane which is now an unlabelled outpost of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. At this point, the mix is established of curry houses, money changers, grocers, gaudy sweet shops, interspersed with newly-arrived estate agents, all casting a multicoloured glow onto the pavement and turning the passers-by to silhouettes against their vivid illuminations.
Just before the junction with Fashion St, Leo Epstein presides over Epra Fabrics, the last Jewish business in this part of Brick Lane. Only he had gone home long ago when I passed last night, even if the lights were still burning within. Here you find a cluster of new arrivals from across the globe, a Japanese barber, an Argentinian grill and a French bistro to add to the cultural mix in the shadow of the minaret.
Walking on, I entered the busiest section of Brick Lane, where I was personally offered seven meals accompanied by free rounds of drinks before I reached the Truman Brewery. Yet if had acquiesced to all these deals, I never should have made it beyond Hanbury St.
The meeting of Hanbury St and Brick Lane is surely the epicentre of the world. In the neon glow, you encounter discount vintage hawkers and curry touts full-on, while becoming an unwitting participant in Street Art tours and occasionally stumbling over the street artists at work in the dark – all while doing your best to avoid the speedy drivers showing off and the cyclists weaving through the crowd.
After Woodseer St, the atmosphere changed. On a week night, the madding crowds packing in to Dray Walk were absent. There was no police van or portable pissoir. Instead, pedestrians walked quietly beneath the walls of the great brewery overhead, dark now the Vibe bar no longer overflowed the courtyard with inebriated revellers. Fifty yards up, the familiar sight of the writers group, meeting after-hours at the Brick Lane Bookshop, indicated a more sedate mid-week atmosphere.
Beyond here the buildings give way to the railway bridges above and below. At weekends, this becomes a seething torrent of humanity crowded between the food stalls but on a quiet Tuesday night, lonely walkers hurried through.
This last section of Brick Lane is devoted to leather, vintage clothing and coffee shops but, once these close for the day, the bars take over – picking up a lively passing trade. And the twenty-four hour Beigel Bakery is the final landmark, before you reach the end of the known world at the Bethnal Green Rd.
Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell
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