London’s East End has undergone a remarkable renaissance; travel editor Winsor Dobbin discovers.
Back in the 1978, when I was barely out of short pants, I joined hundreds of thousands of other young people at a Rock Against Racism concert in Victoria Park, Hackney, in the East End of London.
The Clash and X-Ray Spex headlined but the Tom Robinson Band stole the show. That was the last time, my unreliable memory tells me, that I visited Hackney, or Bethnal Green or Shoreditch or any of the locales that are now among the hippest in London. The East End has always been known as multi-cultural; an area the poor and migrants went to live.
The East End has undergone an amazing transformation, however, with the one-time working-class region now home to hip bars, eateries and markets as younger folk have moved in and gentrified without the region losing any of its quirky edginess.
Given the proximity to the City of London and the cost of accommodation in London, it was only a matter of time – but having no cravings for jellied eels, no desire to watch skinhead bands or the need for a punch up in a pub, I’d had no reason to visit the area for decades.
Nowadays think street art, idiosyncratic boutiques, neighbourhoods constructed of former transport containers and dark, mysterious night spots. The East End is also starting to become home to trendy hotels – and it makes a welcome change to staying in the West End or Knightsbridge. Much more affordable, too.
The latest arrival on Hackney Road – a short stroll from Bethnal Green – is Mama Shelter London. The Mama Shelter hotel brand started in Paris a decade ago and has now spread across the globe.
In a city that is among the most expensive for accommodation on the planet, Mama Shelter London offers great deals for advance purchases and has a party central ground level with bars and an eatery.
The completely revamped former RE Hotel London has 195 rooms starting from a very affordable £99 a night.
There are free movies (porn, too) in the rooms, fast and free wifi, and quality toiletries in the en-suite bathrooms.
The restaurant comes with an outside courtyard that features a retractable roof. Inside, the vibe is vintage lamps and a chalkboard ceiling that’s covered with graffiti by graphic designer and artist Beniloys. There’s also a giant table football game. There are private karaoke rooms downstairs, with pinball tables and retro video games.
The food offerings include pork belly baos with char sui sauce, pak choi and hajikami ginger; crab doughnuts with pickled cucumber, share plates of cumin-roasted cauliflower and Asian rice paper wraps and, of course, croque monsieur. Local classics include pie and mash – and there is an excellent selection of London-themed cocktails.
Mama Shelter London is within a 10-15-minute walk of Bethnal Green Underground station. There is a bus stop outside hotel, with buses going to Liverpool Street, London Bridge, Waterloo and Oxford Circus.
A drunken stumble away is the Queen Adelaide pub, a former lap dancing bar scrubbed back to a traditional East End boozer with draught beers and ciders. The many pubs and clubs of Shoreditch are just down the road and within a few steps of the hotel you’ll find attractions as diverse as a store selling Georgian “natural” wines, a Lebanese shisha and kebab shop open until 2am and a Lithuanian church.
Oh, and plenty of barber shops specialising in dreadlocks, and vaping stores. It doesn’t get much more diverse.
This is a fun, affordable hotel in an exciting location.
Six East London highlights within a short walk of Mama Shelter
Victoria Park: This Hackney landmark is one of London’s most popular open spaces. There are festivals held here during summer and fireworks in autumn. There are two lakes, a boating pond and plenty of spots for picnics.
The V&A Museum of Childhood: This Bethnal Green museum houses one of the world’s finest collections of children’s toys, dolls’ houses, games and costumes. Take a stroll down memory lane with Star Wars characters.
Broadway Market: Take a stroll along the banks of the Regent’s Canal before hitting this hippest of hipster hangouts; an eclectic shopping street and market which extends as far as London Fields. The market is home to over 130 stalls each Saturday, selling a range of fresh produce, takeaway food, vintage clothes, flowers, coffee, books, arts and crafts.
Columbia Road Flower Market: Held every Sunday in a lively street in Bethnal Green, this is a colourful weekend institution in east London. Arrive early to avoid the crowds or turn up late to pick up a bunch of bargains.
Sager & Wilde: Underneath the railway arches on Paradise Row, this is a friendly wine bar with a mix of old favourites and wines from around the globe. The food is good, as is the service. A favourite spot for off duty Mama Shelter staffers.
Brick Lane: Once known for its slums and being the area in which Jack the Ripper hung out, Brick Lane is now famous for its many Bangladeshi curry houses, galleries, restaurants and markets. The Old Truman Brewery is home to a market where up-and-coming designers sell clothing, handbags and jewellery and the entire quarter is dotted with chic vintage boutiques and ethnic eateries; from Caribbean to African; Venezuelan to bagel houses.
Mama Shelter London is at 437 Hackney Road, London, E2 8PP. See www.mamashelter.com.
The writer was assisted by Accor Hotels and the Eurail pass.