Bethnal Green starts only a few hundred yards east of the shiny, gleaming towers of the City and the arty cool of Shoreditch, but it is not long before the traveller down the Bethnal Green Road is transported to the bustling streets of Dhaka or Chittagong, and then with another shake of the kaleidoscope the journey ends in the Roman Road, where the heart of the old working-class East End still beats.
Today, Bethnal Green is a place of noisy ethnic colour and contrasts. Close to Shoreditch, it is where the young and fashionable come to share flats as close to London’s hippest quarter as they can afford. Here, they live cheek by jowl with the capital’s largest Bangladeshi community. It is where house hunters looking for affordable homes snap up the two- and three-bedroom flats on council estates, or sniff out two- and three-bedroom Georgian and Victorian cottages in one of the charming conservation areas.
Signs are, too, that life is looking up in Bethnal Green. Along Cambridge Heath Road, in what has been dubbed the “Civic Quarter”, the fine old baroque town hall building has been turned into a boutique hotel with Nuno Mendes’s restaurant Viajante, one of the capital’s most fêted new restaurant openings. On the same street the long-established outpost of the V&A, the Museum of Childhood, had a well-deserved facelift five years ago when architects Caruso St John designed a new façade and entrance lobby.
Close by are Bethnal Green’s library, the Sir John Soane-designed St John’s Church — now undergoing repairs — and York Hall, a famous east London boxing venue which also has one of London’s few council-owned spas with Turkish baths, steam treatments and a sauna.
Properties in Bethnal Green: the area offers a mix of Georgian houses along the main roads, warehouse conversions and ex-council flats. The real gems are found in the various conservation areas where there are two- and three- bedroom Victorian terrace houses and spacious converted flats in larger houses of the period.
Who comes, who stays
Bethnal Green is popular with young renters working in the creative industries based in Shoreditch and Hoxton. Bargain hunters and buy-to-let investors purchase the ex-council flats. Young professionals aim for the pockets of Victorian houses.
This is a young person’s area; couples often move out to the suburbs once they have children.
Postcode: E2 is the Bethnal Green postcode but it also includes Haggerston and parts of Shoreditch.
Best streets: there are pretty, flat-fronted, straight-off-the-street cottages in the Jesus Hospital Estate conservation area around the Columbia Road Sunday morning flower market which sell for between £450,000 and £600,000. In the Globe Road conservation area, to the east of Cambridge Heath Road, there are small terrace houses in Cyprus Street and Gawber Street which sell for between £500,000 and £575,000 and much larger houses in Approach Road, although most of these are divided in to flats.
The Old Bethnal Green Road conservation area contains the Denys Lasdun-designed Keeling Tower, which was sold by the council to a private developer in 1999, where flats sell for between £160,000 and £375,000. Nearby in the Winkley Estate there are three-storey terrace houses with workshops behind them where Bethnal Green’s furniture industry once thrived. Houses here sell for around £500,000.
What’s up and coming
Andrew Phillips, of estate agents Foxtons, says the whole of Bethnal Green is due for an upwards appraisal. “It is between £200 and £300 per square foot cheaper than Shoreditch but it is catching up.”
What’s new: the Silk Gardens in Parmiter Street, east of Cambridge Heath Road and close to the town hall building, is a development of 63 three-, four- and five-bedroom homes with roof gardens and allotments, available through housing association Family Mosaic (020 7089 6340). Prices start at £127,250 for a 25 per cent share of a flat with a market value of £509,000.
Schools: Bethnal Green’s schools serve their local community well, even though many middle-class families choose not to stay in the area. Bonner primary school in Stainsbury Street is judged “outstanding” by the government’s education watchdog Ofsted. Globe in Gawber Street and St Elizabeth’s RC in Bonner Road are both “good with outstanding features”. The Gatehouse School in Sewardstone Road is a co-ed prep school for three to 11 year-olds.
Oaklands School and Morpeth are two small co-ed comprehensive schools which are judged to be “outstanding”. Neither has a sixth form but the Cambridge Heath Sixth Form College opened in September last year and Lloyd’s of London is sponsoring three students a year, with grants of £3,000 a year towards their university tuition fees.
Shops and restaurants
What are known as “concept stores” reign at the Shoreditch end of Bethnal Green Road. A mini department store called 123 sells — among other things — clothes remade from vintage items; Type sells furniture and art; Labour and Wait is famous for its old-fashioned utilitarian-chic clothes and home accessories, and in nearby Cheshire Street — the Bethnal Green rather than the Shoreditch end — there is Beyond Retro, a huge warehouse and probably London’s largest selling vintage clothing.
Columbia Road comes alive on Sunday when the flower market is one of the nicest places to go on a sunny morning. The shops which line the street are all independent. Worth seeking out are: Jones Dairy in Ezra Street, a deli and café; Campagnia Gastronomica, another deli and café but this time specialising in food from south-ern Italy; Treacle for English cakes, Café Columbia for that East End speciality — filled bagels. Ryan Town sells the work of paper cut-out artist Rob Ryan; Two Columbia Road is good for mid-century furniture; try B Southgate in Ezra Street for antique leather chairs, while Fred Bare sells hats from a rustic-chic interior.
Long-standing retailer Idonia Van Der Bijl is good for gifts, while Angela Flanders is one of the capital’s best perfumers. Prick Your Finger is a charming knitting and crafts shop on interesting Globe Road. There is a large concentration of modern art galleries on Vyner Street and a good time to explore is on the first Thursday of the month when they stay open late.
Bethnal Green has a surprisingly interesting range of places to eat. There is everything from the retro E Pellicci, an Italian café on Bethnal Green Road, to smart restaurants such as Viajante in the Town Hall Hotel and Bistrotheque on Wadeson Street, to newly arrived Braun, which serves fashionable starter-size dishes, and the Royal Oak gastropub, both on Columbia Road.
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Leisure and the arts
The Victorian splendour of Victoria Park is a short walk across the canal on the northern edge of Bethnal Green, while Mile End Park in Bow is a linear park alongside the canal which runs between Limehouse and Old Ford Road. Weavers Field is where the annual Baishaki Mela Bangladeshi festival is held every May.
York Hall on Roman Road is the nearest council-owned swimming pool. The Rich Mix on Bethnal Green Road is the local arts centre which puts on theatre, film, dance and poetry events. The Aubin cinema in Redchurch Street, Shoreditch is located in the Aubin & Wills fashion store in an old warehouse building.
Transport and commuting
Located on the Central line, Bethnal Green is in Zone 2, one stop away from Liverpool Street, two stops from Bank and seven stops from Oxford Circus. Trains from Cambridge Heath and Bethnal Green railway stations take eight minutes and six minutes respectively to Liverpool Street. An annual travel card to Zone 1 costs £1,104.
Council: the local authority is Tower Hamlets (Labour controlled); Band D council tax for the 2011/2012 year is £1,195.34.
Bethnal Green: buying
One-bedroom flat £233,000
Two-bedroom flat £312,000
Two-bedroom house £527,000
Three-bedroom house £534,000
Bethnal Green: renting
One-bedroom flat £275 to £400 a week
Two-bedroom flat £300 to £500 a week
Two-bedroom house £350 to £550 a week
Three-bedroom house £450 to £700 a week
Four-bedroom house £500 to £1,000 a week
Pictures: Graham Hussey