by Tharik Hussain
All photos within this article are property of Tharik Hussain. Please do not copy or reproduce any of the work here without permission from the author. A version of this article was originally published in Destination Jeddah’s May 2014 Travel Issue, titled ‘Boho London’ (Pages 60-63).
The coffee is from Italy, the boat was built in Worcestershire and my host is a serendipitous middle-aged man called Phil with a broad northern accent that I mistake as ‘Geordie’.
I am looking out of the Boston Belle Riverboat cafe in London’s East End, it is early spring and the sun winks at me in flashes as it reflects off the retro glasses of hipsters cycling along the towpath. The men in skin-tight chinos rolled up to reveal their white ankles ride colourful single-gear bikes and the women in vintage-chic outfits elegantly peddle classic models, complete with wicker baskets at the front - the perfect accessory to carry home their rustic bread and vintage scarves bought from the market above.
Some of these uber-cool Londoners stop at the canal's exit for the Cat and Mutton Bridge where Phil has cleverly moored. Others continue on past the community of narrow boats that make this stretch of London’s Regents Canal feel almost rural.
“It’s amazing how easily you can forget you’re in London on the canals,” says Phil preparing one of his signature espresso coffee pots as a pretty young couple stoop down to enter his quaint little boat. Around me the wooden interior has been decorated with interesting works of art and red storm lanterns hang from the ceiling.
On the opposite bank, giant rusting gas cylinders rub shoulders with crumbling properties where huge Buddleias peer from broken doors and windows; their purple flowers enjoying the view over this little bohemian corner of east London. Many of the old buildings have been reclaimed by local artists, musicians and the odd squatter and the ones that haven’t echo the ‘old east end’, where according to one 80s American guide book, the capital’s famous black cabbies refused to stop for fear of being mugged.
Originally from Sunderland, Phil is part of the new community witnessing an exciting change.
“You get tourists, local artists, film people, musicians, and other creative types along here now ... it’s a ‘hidden gem’, you see.”
Flanked by picnic-perfect London Fields on one side and the ‘boatie’ community on the other, the Broadway Market in Hackney is part of a growing number of alternative spots in this once run-down London neighbourhood. Nowadays organically-farmed steaks are freshly griddled in front of you; giant marinated olives will be served from rustic wood buckets and all of it can be washed down with juice freshly squeezed in an iron Victorian press.
For bookworms, antiquated books can be bought at the Word on the Water boat shop just along from Phil; in the Broadway Bookshop or any number of stalls in the heart of the little market. Many of them selling exciting local publications found nowhere else, like “I’ve lived in East London for 85½ years”, the delightful story of east Londoner 'Joseph' told through a collection of beautiful pictures.
And then there is Benjamin the butterfly seller, whose specimens all died natural ‘ethical’ deaths. The frames and little glass pendants he presents them in make for unique gifts.
Ethics is a running theme around here.
“We deliberately try to make sure what is sold on the stalls does not directly compete with the local shop owners,” explains Andrew Veitch, the Broadway Market Project’s Executive Director, as we sit outside The Dove pub, famous for its gourmet foreign beers.
This is why Broadway is a Saturday market Andrew explains; to avoid clashing with local markets that trade on Sundays.
“We set out to create a pleasant, laid-back, social atmosphere ... we never imagined it would be as successful as this.”
Andrew’s company has worked wonders, the Broadway Market feels safe, friendly and laid-back. As you walk around, the smell of open-fire cooking and the sound of myriad languages fill the air whilst somewhere in the midst a busker can be heard playing. It is easy to see why so many friends and families treat this as an ideal weekend hangout; delicious market food in a genuinely relaxed atmosphere.
Sabine, who has lived in Australia, is typical of the Broadway crowd. Happy to give me a few minutes, we chat briefly as she waits to meet a friend.
“I used to live in West London, and there is nowhere like this,” says the art agent, lured to the area by its 'mellow vibe'.
“I love this place, it has such a nice atmosphere and is so easy going and relaxed and when you start looking about, there is so much going on.”
It's true; there is an exciting buzz about the area around Broadway with new venues opening up or being reinvented all the time. As we sit Sabine lists some of these including the reopening of the Cat and Mutton pub with a new restaurant and cocktail bar.
Soon Sabine’s companion for the day Dan arrives and the pair of them bid me farewell. They are off to watch a free docu-film about Hackney at an exciting new project called Lime Wharf.
Their agenda for the day involves nothing more than simply catching up and 'hanging out' together because that's what people do around here on a Saturday, nothing more, nothing less.
When should I go?
The Broadway area is in its element in late spring or summer. Combine it with a weekend exploring the area around Brick Lane and Shoreditch on a Sunday for the ultimate ‘hip’ London experience.
What not to miss
Just five minutes’ walk from the Broadway Market is Lime Wharf on Vyner Street; a vibrant, creative hub that serves the most amazing bagels and offers free arts and crafts sessions for the whole family as well as regular live music and film showings.
The Broadway area is edgy without being scary, alternative without the pretence (yet!), and just a great place to chill and explore all the exciting new things propping up around every corner.
Who should go?
The open-minded, laid back and intrepid type that have already seen ‘postcard London’ and want to meet the hip, creative and funky Londoners of the gritty east end.
How to get there?
London buses 55, 48, 26, (Hackney Road - 2 min walk) or 394 all serve the area; Rail stations Cambridge Heath and London Fields (5 mins walk); Underground station Bethnal Green (10 mins walk) or alternatively hire a Barclay’s Bike and cycle along the towpath to the Broadway docking station.
Tharik Hussain is a freelance travel writer, journalist and photographer living in London, UK, with his two daughters and wife.
Tharik has a BA in Media and Cultural Studies with Journalism and an MA in Islamic Studies. He is a former news journalist and now regularly travels across the globe documenting his experiences. His wanderings have taken him to almost every corner of Europe, across North Africa and into parts of Asia, the Middle East and the USA.