Roll out the barrel
Markets, pubs and museums in a hip historic borough
PASTORAL PAUSE: London Fields is Hackney’s most popular picnic spot and a leafy thoroughf fare for getting from one place to another. Once a grazing stop for livestock on their way to Smithfield Market, it’s now an international hipster magnet on sunny weekends, and an essential green space for local kids year round. The decked terrace of Pub in the Park is a perfect spot to take in views of the cricket and the passing fashion parade, a pint of ale or a Pimm’s in hand. The restored 1940s London Fields Lido, a 50m open-air heated pool, has queues out the door in summer, but a swim in the cooler months is a lovely way to burn off a pub lunch, with steam rising off the water and bare plane trees and grey skies. More: pubonthepark.com.
FINE FARE: Hackney has two well-known markets falling at either end of the price spectrum, f from truffled mushrooms on sourdough to pound-a-bowl Bramley apples. Broadway Market runs every Saturday, with plenty of stalls to gather fare before finding a patch of grass in London Fields. Ridley Road is the more traditional London market experience — loud, bright and cheap. The cavernous Dalston Mill Fabrics is popular with fashion students, and in summer, don’t miss cheap boxes of Indian mangoes and paper bags of English cherries. For fast snacks, there’s a 24-hour bagel shop or the Turkish Food Centre, where you can buy warm flatbread, baklava, hummus and freshly baked lahmacun, a rolled Turkish pizza. More: broadwaymarket.co.uk; ridleyroad.co.uk; dalstonmillfabrics.co.uk
CURTAIN UP: Hackney Empire, a grand 1901 music hall on Mare Street, is now a busy theatre i in the heart of the borough. The classical interior of gold-leaf painted panels and rich red velvet curtains offers an atmospheric setting for a hectic schedule of pantomimes, plays, music, comedy, opera and even poetry readings. The Stage 3 bar and cafe is a lively spot for a drink while admiring the wedding parties that spill out of the registry office and on to the steps of Hackney Town Hall for photos. Theatre lovers may also like to check out the Arcola, another local theatre that prides itself on supporting emerging talent as well as more established names. More: hackneyempire.co.uk; arcolatheatre.com.
TARRYT IN THE TUDOR: For a taste of the borough when it was a country retreat for wellh heeled Londoners, stroll through St John at Hackney’s pretty church gardens to Sutton House, a National Trust property built in 1535 by one of Henry VIII’s courtiers, Sir Ralph Sadler. The Tudor red-brick exterior, wood-panelled rooms and vast fireplaces give it a stately presence on Homerton High Street, with murals from the 1980s reflecting its more recent history as an illicit music venue and squat. The courtyard and cafe are peaceful places to soak up the hushed atmosphere of this 500-year-old building, and there’s a second-hand bookshop and classic National Trust gift shop. Sutton House hosts a diverse range of events, from “herb suppers’’ to hat-making workshops and children’s theatre, so it’s worth checking the website and planning your visit accordingly. More: nationaltrust.org.uk/suttonhouse.
BELIEVE IT OR NOT: The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities on Mare Street is not for the fainthearted.h The London home of the First Tuesday Society, an eccentric organisation with a focus on Victorian arts, taxidermy, the occult and gin, there are exhibitions and a cocktail bar on the ground floor and in the basement, a macabre collection of antiques and curiosities depicting an “incoherent vision of the world”, including two-headed stuffed kittens, extinct bird feathers and spooky toys, all presented with very black humour. More: thelasttuesdaysociety.org.
SENDS IN THE CLOWNS: An annual service, held at All Saints Church Hackney on the first Sunday i in February at 3pm, commemorates the life of English clown and entertainer Joseph Grimaldi, and has become something of an international media event in recent years. Clowns, many elderly, appear in costume and perform afterwards. Not ideal for those who fear clowns, but a strangely moving spectacle nonetheless. Though not strictly in Hackney, if you have small children in tow, a visit to the East End is incomplete without a noisy afternoon at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. The doll houses on the first floor are a fascinating microcosm of London life, ranging from intricate Victorian terraces once played with by princesses, to open-plan 60s homes designed for communal play. More: clownsinternational.com; vam.ac.uk/moc.
HOW SWEET: Violet Cakes is a little corner of California in a whitewashed building on Wilton W Way. Owner Claire Ptak trained with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, in California, and her cooking is a celebration of seasonal ingredients, from poached quince to fresh English berries. The counter is piled with her creations, including rye brownies, peaty ginger and molasses cake, and tiny cupcakes topped with vibrant fresh fruit icings. Newspapers, pots of strong tea and toasted sandwiches of sourdough and Neal’s Yard cheese make this a memorable yet affordable spot for lunch. The Violet Bakery Cookbook features many photographs of the area, alongside Ptak’s detailed recipes, making it a wonderful gift. More: violetcakes.com.
DINING DIVERSITY: Hackney’s restaurants reflect the area’s multicultural character as well as i its newfound hipster identity, with pop-up eateries, small craft breweries and organic bakeries squeezed into railway arches and restored shopfronts. For reliably good Turkish food, Mangal 1 on Arcola Street is busy but worth the wait, serving meat and fish from its ocakbasi barbecue, which heats the room nicely in winter, alongside crisp rocket salad and pita bread. Bistrotheque, located down a cobbled lane off Mare Street, is a rambling, dimly lit cabaret bar and restaurant in a converted clothing factory. An established Hackney classic, it serves French bistro food and a good-value prix fixe menu, as well as weekend brunches. Buen Ayre is a tightly packed Argentinian restaurant with steaks served on tabletop parrillada grills, accompanied by glasses of Malbec. And for something a little more rustic, the Hackney City Farm’s cafe, Frizzante, is a barn of a room with some outdoor seating in the gardens and a blackboard menu of home-style Italian food, Sunday roasts and big breakfasts, as well as evening agroturismo events in summer; these are mellow affairs with live music and Italian wine. The area’s many pubs also serve excellent food; popular choices are The Prince Arthur and The Spurstowe Arms, both close to London Fields. More: mangal1.com; bistrotheque.com; buenayre.net; frizzantecafe.com; theprincearthurlondonfields.co.uk; thespurstowearms.com.
BOUTIQUE BUYS: Running between Regent’s Canal and London Fields, Broadway Market and i its surrounds are home to many independent shops selling local crafts, vintage homewares, books and clothes. The Broadway Bookshop stocks a wide selection by the borough’s myriad authors, who often drop in for evening readings. The East London Design Store is good for prints and jewellery. And be sure to admire the daring floral arrangements at acclaimed London florist Rebel Rebel, which sources exquisite English blooms from small growers. More: broadwaybookshophackney.co.uk; rebelrebel.co.uk; eastlondondesignstore.com.
Hipster hangout London Fields, top; full house at the Hackney Empire, above left; Broadway Market, above right; clown at the annual All Saints Church service to commemorate entertainer Joseph Grimaldi, below