Three villages of East London

Sarah Linklett



Stand in the middle of St Dunstan's churchyard, which can be traced back to medieval times, and you can see ancient gravestones that slope this way and that. The church dates back to the tenth century and, if you follow the path that leads away from church porch and cross the road, you can stop and lean on the rough wooden fence and watch the pigs rooting around, snorting with contentment.

An old donkey may be watching you as you decide how many eggs to buy from the farm shop. And on Sunday the church bells will drown the sound of the farmyard, but not the country smells, which you either love or hate.

This is Stepney, just outside the City of London, in the borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the most deprived and built-up areas of the capital. And those ten church bells are sung about in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons when they ask, 'When will that be?'

Well Street

Well Street Common

From here it is less than an hour's walk to another of London's perfectly preserved open spaces from the long ago days before villages and towns were joined together in what is now Greater London. For centuries, people have come together on the village common and they can still do that today. Well Street Common is one of the best green spaces in the country. With its Green Flag award, it is a beautiful simple site, mostly open grassland crossed by numerous paths. There are mature chestnut trees and an orchard containing apple and mulberry trees.

Walk around this peaceful grassed area, enjoy the wildflower meadows with bluebells and speedwell in spring and you can hardly believe that you are, in fact, in Hackney.

Over to the side of Well Street Common stands the Church of St John of Jerusalem. Built by the Victorians its tall spire was later clad in copper which has turned light green and can be seen from miles around. Look inside and you will see the crosses of St John painted around the altar, a familiar shape we associate with the St John Ambulance Brigade.

Outside on the Common, local residents organize events that any village would be proud of, with sports and activities all- the-year-round and an annual Festival that attracts crowds of people.



Travel a bit further through East London to Walthamstow Village, where St Mary's Church was founded over nine hundred years ago at what was once a rural crossroads. All around its churchyard are buildings hundreds of years old, all perfectly preserved including a row of fifteenth-century timber-framed houses.

Explore this area and you will find lanes and alleyways that can still only be used by pedestrians because they were never developed into roads. Vinegar Alley cuts through the graveyard, overlooked by sixteenth- century almshouses, which still give shelter to local residents. Walk the other way for a few minutes and there is another row of almshouses, each with their flower-filled front gardens. Over the centuries so many older people must have been glad of being cared for by the parish and housed in these diminutive homes.

But next to the almshouses is a reminder of the hardship of days long gone — the workhouse. These villages were not the rural idyll we like to imagine. Vestry House was built in the eighteenth century to house poor people. It does not look like an institution, but more a quaint house with a garden that is once again filled with the sorts of herbs and vegetables that the inmates would have grown.

Local residents who are fortunate enough to live in Walthamstow Village take a real pride in their own gardens and organize regular clean-ups of alleyways and open spaces. They have planted gardens on street corners, tending them all the year round and organize community events.

Visit any of these three East London villages and it is possible to imagine you have returned to the times when, as much of London, the area was a series of villages separated by fields and forests. Stand and look or, better still, sit and watch the village scenes. Listen to the sounds of the church bells and the birds singing and enjoy the fresh air of these peaceful settings, preserved so well from days long gone. These villages are not just open-air museums. Each has a real sense of community with people working together to preserve the past and to enjoy living in a village — in East London.