Streets Of London: Old Nichol Street, E2

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Once the site of a notorious slum, this Shoreditch street has changed dramatically, with community picnics and designer shops

  • With its five-storey, red-brick, Victorian tenements, leafy side streets and buzz of activity, Old Nichol Street is a little like a piece of New York’s Lower East Side transported to the middle of Shoreditch. With one foot firmly in its run-down past and the other in its regenerated future, it’s a vibrant mix of Bengali families, City professionals, creative media folk and cockneys.

    Old Nichol, Swanfield, Virginia and Boundary Streets enclose the Boundary Estate – so-called because it lay at the fringe of the City, apparently beyond where Victorian police would tread – and was the UK’s first council housing project, built in 1890 on the cleared ruins of the infamous Old Nichol slum.


    In the mid-eighteenth century, the East End was the centre of London’s rag trade. Weavers’ houses were built in the gardens of the local nunnery to cope with the explosion in people looking for work. When this industry collapsed in the latter half of the eighteenth century, under pressure from cheaper Continental imports, the houses were sub-divided into workshops where families lived on top of each other, attempting to scratch together a living making matches, shoes and clothes pegs. The last remaining weaver’s house on the Boundary Estate is at 74 Swanfield Street and is, incongruously, a shop selling foam for sofas and chairs. The Old Nichol slum was the thinly disguised and horrifying subject of Arthur Morrison’s 1902 novel, ‘A Child of the Jago’. Victorian social researcher Charles Booth is said to have declared Old Nichol the most poverty-stricken slum in London.

    Following the tireless crusade of Reverend Arthur Jay, the slum was razed in 1900. Built in its place was the Boundary Estate, with streets that run like spokes from the pretty Arnold Circus bandstand in the centre. Formed in 2004, the Friends of Arnold Circus arranges community events each summer, including ‘bring and share’ picnics. Not all residents are thrilled by the activities. At a local meeting, one elderly resident complained that she had put up with enough brass bands playing in the bandstand as a child and shouldn’t be forced to endure them once again. The Rochelle Street School, built in 1899, is now an arts centre; it hosted British designer Giles Deacon’s last London Fashion Week show.

    The Grade II-listed Boundary Estate is still in the hands of the local council – proposals to hand it over to a private housing association were voted out last year – but it is slowly being given a much-needed lick of paint. Repeated crackdowns by the police in recent years have swept away most of the drug dealers and gangs of troublesome youths. However, it’s a long way from sleepy suburbia: tipsy revellers frequently use the estate as a short cut from the Hoxton bars to Brick Lane on Friday and Saturday nights, and less salubrious folk still hang around the area.

    Several years ago, the majority of shops in the vicinity were boarded up; now, low rents are attracting designers. Redchurch Street runs parallel with Old Nichol, and is an eclectic mix. Lisa Whatmough’s furniture shop, Squint (3 Redchurch Street, 020 7739 9275), is full of colourful, reclaimed and reupholstered sofas. Jimmie Martin (5a Redchurch Street, 020 7033 9507) is another furniture showroom; here you can find neoclassical armchairs covered in black leather and retro sideboards sprayed gold with graffiti tags. Vintage furniture fans should make for the shop with no name (45 Redchurch Street, 020 7033 8707); with its glittery handbags on the walls and ceiling crammed with covetable chandeliers, it looks just like a spillover storage room for nearby cult bar Loungelover (1 Whitby Street, 020 7012 1234) and decadent French brasserie Les Trois Garçons (1 Club Row, 020 7613 1924).

    From edgy young designers to famous London names, the west end of Old Nichol Street is currently a construction site thanks to Terence Conran’s latest project: a restaurant and 18-bedroom hotel with the working name The Boundary, due to open in November. Swanky new members’ club Shoreditch House (Ebor Street, 020 7739 5040/www.shoreditchhouse.com) opened in June and has been chiefly attracting the designer-clad media set who live and work nearby. Green & Red (51 Bethnal Green Road, 020 7749 9670) is a sublime Mexican restaurant with a dangerous tequila bar in the basement. The Owl & the Pussycat (34 Bethnal Green Road, 020 7613 3628) is a proper boozer with a small beer garden. The Rich Mix Cultural Centre (35-47 Bethnal Green Road, 020 7613 7498) boasts a cinema, kids’ centre and gallery space. And no visit to the area would be complete without popping into Leila’s (17 Calvert Avenue, 020 7729 9789), an expensive but enjoyable organic café and small deli on Arnold Circus.

    Grocery shopping is more difficult, although there are numerous corner shops (Anisha Cash & Carry, 83 Redchurch Street, is the best of the local lot). With sad predictability, however, Tesco dominates with a large store on Bethnal Green Road. Still, it would take a lot to drive the soul out of this area. The proximity of Columbia Road Flower Market means people carrying armfuls of bargain lilies and sunflowers can be seen in the streets every Sunday, dodging the party folk doing the ‘walk of shame’ home.

    Transport

    Liverpool Street tube and rail station (on the Central, Hammersmith & City, Circle and Metropolitan Lines) and Old Street (Northern Line) tube station, both in Zone 1, are ten minutes’ walk away.

    Estate agents

    Peach Properties (020 7739 6969/ www.peachproperties.com).PJ Morgan (020 7033 4554/ www.pjmorganproperty.com).Winkworth (020 7749 7659/ www.winkworth.co.uk).

    Can you afford it?

    £270 per weekTwo-double-bedroom, ground-floor flat in Sunbury House, Old Nichol Street. £310 per weekThree-bedroom, top-floor flat in Henley House, Old Nichol Street.£280,000 One-bedroom, ground-floor flat in Abingdon House, Boundary Street.£799,950Two-double-bedroom penthouse with roof terrace, Turville Street.

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