There are any number of cities in the world in which the rich and the poor live cheek by jowl, but the stark disparity between the City of London and the East End is striking nonetheless. And it has been that way for a very long time. Fortunately for the adventuresome tourist, it is easy to explore both areas with informative guides. For my tour of the City, I signed up with Corinna of the “Hairy Goat,” who specialises in photographic tours.

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Corinna hails from “Down Under”, so we had some things to chat about, but it had to wait until the tour was over and she had a half hour to grab a sandwich before her next meet up. Running around “like a hairy goat” is one of the Aussie expressions she picked up somewhere along the way and it stuck with her. Corinna’s hectic work life seems like an apt description of the phrase.

Many of the outstanding details of the City are subtle and hard to spot, so it is very helpful to have someone along who can point them out and suggest angles. In addition to filling your head with history, she points out possible pictures that bring it alive. I had just started experimenting with slow shutter speeds and the effects are evident in my pics that afternoon.

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The boundaries of the City of London remain largely unchanged since the Middle Ages, and it still covers the “square mile” to the East of the City of Westminster and north of the Thames. This is the oldest part of London, stretching back to Roman times and even earlier. Aldgate, Ludgate, Bishopgate and Moorgate indicate where the main gates in the City wall were located.

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There are medieval and Christopher Wren churches, St Paul’s Cathedral, the ultra-modern Barbican Centre, Guildhall, Leadenhall Market, the Museum of London, narrow courtyards and claustrophobic alleyways butting up against spectacular modern buildings like the Gherkin and LLoyds, which represent the business of the City today– high finance.

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Many of the institutions that now reside in high rise buildings started in coffee shops, so it seems appropriate that the Royal Exchange has devoted most of its ground floor atrium to a coffee shop. The Monument to the Great Fire was erected near the point where the fire began in a baker’s house in Pudding Lane in 1666. Fanned by a strong east wind, the flames raged through the city for three days. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of the City. It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants. Even though there only six verified deaths, many more were probably cremated in the inferno. Then, as now, the poor didn’t count for much.

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Ben from Alternative London Tours had a large group in tow when we set off to see the street art that seems to have taken over the walls in the East End. Like many people, I got my introduction to “street art” through the work of Banksy, that elusive character with the hoody who seems to have been everywhere with paint cans and stencils. Ben’s job was to introduce us to some of the artists who have been following in his footsteps, leading the the whole scene in new, more sophisticated directions.

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We began our tour at Spitalfields market, what used to be London’s largest wholesale fruit and vegetable market. In 1991, it was moved lock, stock and barrel. All that remains is part of the Victorian structure. As in Canterbury, the Huguenots from France were some of the first refugees to settle in the East End. In the late 19th century, they were followed by the next wave– Jews. In the 1880’s there was an influx of 100,000 Russian, Polish, German, Austrian, Dutch and Romanian Jews. As they became more affluent, they moved to the outer suburbs or abroad, and the next wave of immigration began.

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Today, the East End is the most ethnically diverse area in the entire city as well as the poorest. Historically, it has suffered from under-investment in both housing stock and infrastructure. From the 1950s, the area represented the structural and social changes affecting the UK economy in a microcosm. It had one of the highest concentrations of council housing, the legacy both of slum clearance and war time destruction.

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The area around Old Spitalfields Market and Brick Lane, called “London’s curry capital,” has been extensively regenerated and, among other things, has been dubbed Bangla Town. Ben brings our attention to a building which has gone through several incarnations, first as a Christian chapel, then a synagogue, and now, a mosque.

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The progressive closure of docks, cutbacks in railways and the closure and relocation of industry contributed to a long term decline, removing many of the traditional sources of low- and semi-skilled jobs. However, beginning in the 1980s, there have been a number of urban regeneration projects, most notably Canary Wharf, a huge commercial and housing development on the Isle of Dogs. Many of the 1960s tower blocks have been demolished or renovated, replaced by low rise housing, often in private ownership, or owned by housing associations.

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Much of the area remains one of the poorest in Britain and contains some of the capitol’s worst deprivation. This in spite of rising property prices and the extensive building of luxury apartments in the former dock areas and alongside the Thames. With rising costs elsewhere in the capital and the availability of brownfield land, the East End has become a desirable place for business. And the City of London is right next door.

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There are a lot more pics at my Flickr site. Click on any of the photos running alongside this post and you’ll be taken to “Red Flier,” where you can check out the rest of my pics.

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