How the East End became high-end

London is still on a post-Olympics high, and no district of the city is more fashionable than the former stomping ground of gangsters the Krays, writes Dave Kenny

GASPARD has seen it all before. He sits at his shop window and watches the pseuds and the fashionable glide down the street. Young men in tight-fitting jackets, with convoluted hairstyles, waft by.

Beautiful young women hurry back to their boutiques clutching lattes skinnier than the young men’s jeans. It’s London, it’s Tuesday and everyone is looking cool, insouciant.

This is not the West End. It’s the East End, the haunt of gangsters the Krays and Mad Frankie Fraser, where people on market stalls shout “Shut it, you slag”. Not any more it ain’t, my old son: the East End has become fashionable.

Gaspard is unimpressed by us. Beside him, in Maison Tres Garcons, is a table-full of glittering trinkets. In the back room, there is a table made from a clock face, and a gaudy 1970s chandelier for £680. A scented candle? That will be £49.50. Gaspard’s shop is the coolest shop in Shoreditch.

He licks himself and I pat him on the head. “Good boy,” I say, wanting to ask the dalmatian’s master a stupid question, but not having the courage. Maybe later…

Outside, the streets are tough and gritty-looking, but that’s part of the charm. Buildings are covered in spectacular graffiti by Banksy, D*Face and Ben Eine. The new artistic East End hasn’t supplanted the old; it has just given it a cool makeover.

Shoreditch is so cool that, since the late 1990s, it has been home to several of London’s top nightclubs, notably 93 Feet East and The Vibe Bar.

Down the street from Tres Garcons is Lounge Lover bar, where Madonna had her 50th birthday. There is a stuffed hippo head (or was it a bust of Madonna?), a giant vase, palm-frond chandeliers and cell-like recesses where the beautiful can sip cocktails and air-nibble canapes. Kate Moss is a regular, but don’t let that put you off visiting (if they’ll let you in).

The best way to see Shoreditch is on Shank’s Mare. Wander in any direction and you’ll see a chic boutique selling designer butterfly-themed jewellery, or a perplexing pop-up art gallery. We visited one that featured animated portraits of beautiful people projected onto its walls. It was as if the moving paintings in the Harry Potter films had been styled by Stella McCartney.

It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, but I couldn’t see the point of it. It seemed more of a celebration of the subjects’ vanity than art. Still, I’m all for artists being given free rein. Or enough rope to hang themselves.

A cab-drive away, in Spitalfield, there is a superior example of ‘living’ art that has been praised by David Hockney. It’s Dennis Severs’s house, No 18 Folgate Street. It’s a time capsule, made up in the style of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Each room gives the impression the occupants have just left. The tables display half-eaten bread, and there are different smells and background sounds.

Visitors are asked to tour the house in silence and keep their cameras shuttered. The house’s motto is ‘aut visum aut non’ (‘You either see it or you don’t’).

It sounds pretentious, but it’s not. It’s quirky, a little spooky, and will linger in your memory.

If you’re in the mood for more history, head to Greenwich. The river ferry is a great way to see London from the Thames.

Greenwich is a beautiful town with tidy, ship-shape streets steeped in naval history. It’s home to the Royal Observatory, the National Maritime Museum, and the Queen’s House. The architecture is magnificent and the whiff of empire still hangs in the air.

At the observatory, you can straddle the Greenwich meridian, with a foot in each time zone, and take a ramble around the park. We visited in late October and the paths were strewn with beech- and copper-coloured leaves. It was breathtaking and lovely.

There’s good shopping in Greenwich, too. Wander around the boutiques before dropping into the quirky, indoor flea market, around the corner from the Cutty Sark. It sells everything from Second World War medals and Stormtrooper helmets to complete sets of Ladybird books. It doesn’t sell fleas, though.

Time your visit to Greenwich with a gig at the O2. Go early and make a non-stop round-trip on the cable car across the Thames, with its spectacular views of Canary Wharf, the Barrier, and the Olympic Park.

Back in the O2, you can visit the museum of popular music or go for a walk across the venue’s roof, before dinner and the gig.

If you’re not too wrecked after your Saturday night at the O2, get up early and walk to Columbia Road Flower Market. Columbia Road is a narrow street of 1860s shops and houses where, on Sundays, families and hungover couples go to hang out or buy fresh flowers.

The market is famous for its laid-back atmosphere, although it can get very busy at peak times. Grab a coffee from one of the ‘doorway’ vendors and browse the vintage furniture, jewellery and clothes shops.

Afterwards, have lunch in one of Brick Lane’s famous curry houses. Brick Lane is the heart of the city’s Bangladeshi-Sylheti community and is the UK’s ‘curry capital’. Bengal Village, Preem and Prithy are highly regarded. The Needoo Grill, in nearby Whitechapel, is being hailed as one of the best Indian and Pakistani restaurants in London.

A few streets away, on Boundary Street, is the wonderful Dishoom Bombay Café, which is inspired by India’s Irani street cafés from the ’60s and ’70s. The menu is a collection of street food and top-notch Indian cuisine.

Chicken and pomegranate salad with mint and coriander, grilled prawns with chicory and pink pomelo, crunchy calamari, spicy lamb chops ... Is that your tummy rumbling or mine?

Finish the afternoon off with a stroll to a pub for a read of the Sunday papers. It doesn’t get much better than that, does it?

The East End is not the first place that springs to mind when you think of London breaks. However, it caters for all tastes: history, art, culture, street life, food, shopping. The Eastenders are an attraction in their own right: warm, witty and proud of their corner of London.

I’m hoping to revisit the East End in the New Year. The first thing I’ll do is head back to Maison des Trois Garcons, home to Gaspard the dalmatian. I want to pose that question I didn’t have the nerve to ask earlier. It’s obvious, isn’t it?

‘How much is that doggy in the window?’

Flights

CityJet flies from Dublin to London City Airport (LCY), with fares starting at €54 one way, all inclusive. LCY is the only airport in the capital and is only a 15-minute train ride to Canary Wharf.

CityJet is ‘old school’ when it comes to passenger service. All seats are assigned, all drinks and snacks are included and all fares are inclusive. There is a 20-minute check-in time at LCY, the shortest of any UK airport.

www.londoncityairport.com and www.cityjet.com

Accommodation

We stayed at the Marriot Hotel, West India Quay on Canary Wharf. It’s 10 minutes away from Westfield Stratford City, Europe’s largest indoor shopping mall.

Prices start at £130stg for a standard Guest room at weekend rate (two people sharing). The stay for breakfast rate is £155. This requires a Friday or Saturday night stay. For terms and conditions see www.marriott.co.uk

What to see

The Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace… An open top bus tour is a great way to see it all.

The borough of Greenwich: Christopher Wren’s Old Royal Naval College is awe-inspiring. www.visitgreenwich.org.uk

The Olympic Park at Stratford: Although the stadium is closed for building works until mid-2013, there are bus tours on Wednesdays, Thursdays and some weekends. Contact parktours@springboard-marketing.co.uk

Dennis Severs’ House: www.dennissevershouse.co.uk

The shopping

Shoreditch has a diverse array of unusual boutiques. If you like statement-making art prints, including works by Banksy, check out Nelly Duff.

Browse prints, hand-printed cushion covers, and mugs by illustrator Rob Ryan at Ryantown.

For fragrances, visit Angela Flanders on Artillery Passage or Colombia Road. www.angelaflanders-perfumer.com

Maison Trois Garcons is a must-see for Gaspard the Dalmation. www.lestroisgarcons.com/shop/index.html

The food

Dishoom: Highly recommended. 7 Boundary Street, London E2 7JE. Tel: 020 7420 9324. Open seven days until 11/12pm.

www.dishoom.com/contact/dishoom-shoreditch

The Boisdale Canary Wharf (across from the Marriot West India Quay): The Boisdale serves a £19.75 ‘Jacobite’ menu featuring Vichyssoise, potted hot smoked mackerel, Loch Duart Gravadlax and Buccleuch estate chicken. There’s haggis too.

It can be pricy, and I’ve had better food, but as a music venue it’s worth a visit. Ask Jools Holland. Email: reservations@boisdale-cw.co.uk


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