A walk on the wild side
Public transport in London is perhaps the best in the world, but driving has increasingly become almost impossible to contemplate for most people, with endless delays caused by reduced speed limits (with strict enforcement), restricted driving lanes and delayed traffic-light sequencing. On top of that, the Congestion Charge is now payable every day (including weekends) and at £15 (€17.75).
With this in mind, your columnist, when faced with an important commitment on the eastern side of the capital for a week, opted to stay locally and, whilst there, decided to re-visit an old but enduringly fascinating and favourite story – The Krays.
The 2015 blockbuster movie ‘Legend’ was aptly named. East End twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray created a glamorous image during their lives of crime, rarely seen before or since. Some stories are undoubtedly true, others not so – as with all myths and legends – but their names live on in the history of London.
Bethnal Green is right next to the glamorous square mile of the City of London with its gleaming skyscrapers where some £40 billion (€47.4 billion) of the UK’s annual wealth is generated. However, it has always been an overwhelmingly working-class area and is now very much a bustling multi-ethnic community with colourful street markets and huge diversity. A very different place from the 1960s when the Krays ruled this area and further afield with an iron fist.
Unusually hot, summer sun greeted your columnist for a walk last undertaken some 20 years ago.
The Krays lived with their beloved mum in Vallance Road, which connects Bethnal Green Road to Whitechapel Road (famous for both the location of the Royal London Hospital where the ‘Elephant Man’, John Merrick, was treated and for being home to most of the still unsolved Ripper murders).
Violet Kray’s home has long since been demolished to make way for more modern housing, but across the road, Repton Boxing Club is very much unchanged, and this is where the twins learned to box. The entrance bears the slogan ‘No Guts, No Glory’.
Nearby is one of many pubs linked to Ronnie and Reggie. In 1967, they purchased The Carpenters Arms for their mother Violet and, apparently, Ronnie’s favourite seat was the one at the back, facing the door so he could see who entered. A picture of the twins still hangs behind the bar.
Between this pub and Bethnal Green Road is the beautiful 18th century St Matthew’s Church, which almost looks as though it should be in New England. This is where not only the twins’ funerals were held but also that of their mother and older brother Charlie.
Bethnal Green Road has perhaps the most authentic and unchanged sight on this tour. E. Pellicci’s café opened in 1900 and remains very firmly in the hands of the founding family. Both inside and out, the classic Art Nouveau and Art Deco décor is now Grade II-listed by English Heritage. This is where Ronnie and Reggie would have breakfast most mornings and, to this day, it remains very much a locals’ venue with traditional fare and a rowdy, welcoming, East End vibrancy.
Just north of the same road is perhaps the best-preserved area of traditional working-class housing left in this area of London. The Blitz in World War II did significant damage to the East End, which was further compounded by some astonishingly insensitive city-planning decisions in the 1950s and 60s. Miraculously, this area has survived more-or-less intact, and the hub is the famous Columbia Road.
This is where you can find the magnificent Royal Oak with its fine, fully-restored period interior. Whilst it was more than likely frequented by the Krays, it was certainly used in the 1990’s film where the twins were immortalised by popstar-turned-actor brothers, Martin and Gary Kemp.
With its authentic surroundings, it has also been used in other films including Guy Ritchie’s ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ (1998). The shops in Columbia Road re-capture a bygone age with listed façades containing everything from trendy health food and designer furnishing to more traditional ironmongers, bakeries and bric-a-brac shops.
The route back to the tube station took your columnist across a bone-dry park to perhaps the most infamous venue on any Kray Tour. The Blind Beggar is on the junction of Cambridge Heath Road and Whitechapel Road. This is the pub where George Cornell was sitting at the bar when Ronnie Kray stormed in, angry and out of control.
He shot Cornell once in the head and calmly walked away. There were witnesses, but all initially refused to testify against Ronnie. Ultimately though, this incident was seen as the beginning of the end for the twins’ criminal empire and eventually Ronnie Kray was convicted of Cornell’s murder in March 1969, some three years after the murder.
The pub is largely unchanged and very atmospheric. The menu features a Lord Boothby Hotdog (after the infamous peer linked to the gangsters) and a Jack the Hat Burger (after the man murdered by Reggie Kray). Gangster London Tours also start here and can be booked at https://theblindbeggar.com/tours.html
An unrelated but interesting and poignant monument is right beside the nearest tube station and is both moving and disturbing. Bethnal Green Station was the site of the worst civilian disaster in the UK in World War II. Tube stations were routinely used as effective air raid shelters. The Central Line in particular is very deep, and the tunnels offered safety from the nightly bombings of The Blitz.
On March 3, 1943, there was a particularly terrifying night of bombing and, as people rushed for shelter in the tube station, there was a crush – 173 people died, including 62 children and many more were badly injured.
In 2017, the Stairway to Heaven Memorial was opened. Designed by local architects Harry Patticas and Jens Borstlemann, it features an inverted stairway of 18 steps in teak and is a full-sized replica of the original staircase. The names of the dead are carved into the wood and there are 173 holes allowing light into the interior of the structure. Find out more at https://stairwaytoheavenmemorial.org/
Truly a walk on the wild east side of the UK capital!
Richard leads parallel lives with homes and business interests in London and Portugal. He provides consultancy services to leading businesses in insurance and financial services, property and media sectors. He has four sons, two dogs and enjoys a busy family life. He likes swimming, keeping fit and an outdoor life.