East London’s Hackney has long been acknowledged as the hipster heartland of Britain’s capital. Hackney is to London what Brooklyn is to New York. This is the breeding ground for new fashions, music subculture and ironic fads before the rest of the country catches on. While the unstoppable march of gentrification has swept through most of the borough, the latest corner to be cultivated by the cool crowd is an area called Clapton, now swiftly up-and-coming.
Venetia's — Photo courtesy of Tyler Wetherall
Located in the northeast edge of Hackney, bordered by the River Lea, Clapton may have rows of white Georgian townhouses and plenty of green space, but for many years it was better known for crime and dereliction than anything else. That is until recently. These days, barely a week passes without a new spot opening up, usually in that stripped down, shabby chic Berlin style, and soon populated by men with interesting facial hair and women in vintage dresses and red lipstick.
One new restaurant gaining citywide attention is Sodo, praised for its deliciously thin and crispy sourdough pizzas. The ingredients are sourced from Hackney-based urban farmers’ collective, Growing Communities, and their craft beers hail from independent London breweries like Beavertown. The shared wooden tables – refurbished from old doors – are packed out almost every night. Equally interesting is gastropub The Windsor Castle, which recently reopened, now boasting head chef Oliver Rowe, who has done his time at arguably London’s best restaurant, Moro, and starred in his own BBC TV series Urban Chef.
So far, despite development, the area remains refreshingly independent, without a Starbucks or McDonalds within sight. Residents have already blocked two petitions by leading UK supermarket chains Tesco and Sainsburys to open up around the main high street of Chatsworth Road, and are determined to keep it that way.
L'Epicerie — Photo courtesy of Tyler Wetherall
It’s this strong sense of local community that makes Clapton stand out from other trendy parts of London. This is one of those rare places in the city where people know their shopkeeper’s first name and greet their neighbours in the morning. Most of the small businesses here are run by people who live in the area, from the family behind Swedish café Cooper & Wolf, with its Nordic cool style and mouth-watering smoked salmon breakfasts, to the young couple who opened cute hole-in-the-wall café 46B Espresso Hut (they do great doorstop sandwiches, too).
The pace of change here has been stratospheric ever since Chatsworth Road Market reopened. Once one of the city’s biggest markets, it petered out in the 1980s, until local residents rallied to bring it back in 2010. Now, every Sunday, the street fills with gastro stalls selling everything from Italian cheese, personally sourced by Ian and Gian at O Toma O Morte, to Hiroshima style okonomiyaki pancakes at Sho Foo Doh from Japanese chef Fumio Tanga, who has lived in the area for 12 years. It’s much smaller than its London Fields equivalent, Broadway Market, but that also makes it less crowded and more manageable.
With bunting strung between the buildings and performing street musicians, it feels like a buzzing village fete. A mix of locals and young, trendy Londoners browse the vintage clothes, crafts and antiques, before stopping for a snack from gourmet delicatessen L'Epicerie or to check out retro boutique Thea (65 Chatsworth Road). Later in the day, a little crowd gathers outside the Old Dentist Surgery, now an events’ space, to watch a live folk band play.
Cooper & Wolf — Photo courtesy of Tyler Wetherall
Evolution of Clapton
Things weren’t always this way. A decade ago, Clapton was given the menacing moniker of Murder Mile, harboring the deadliest street in Britain. But it also happened to have cheap rents and good primary schools. As popular neighboring areas of Dalston and Stoke Newington priced out young homebuyers and bohemian types, they moved to Clapton, bringing with them their ingrained need for soymilk flat whites and artfully displayed bric-a-brac. Soon the countless derelict shops and empty pubs were being renovated, turned into the likes of Triangle (92A Chatsworth Road), a design and homeware boutique, or Bluetit (121 Lower Clapton Road), a fashionable hair salon.
While Londoners from further afield are just starting to discover Clapton, it remains decidedly off the tourist map. This is partly because it is beyond the normal tourist comfort zone of the Tube, only accessible by Overground (the nearest station being Homerton) or bus. But some outsiders are making the journey regardless, as the only hotel, boutique Russell’s of Clapton (123 Chatsworth Road; russellsofclapton.com), run by a former Hot Chip band manager, has been fully booked since it opened in 2011.
Clapton is still rough round the edges, and up-and-coming, rather than established, but for any visitors looking to find that ‘local’ experience, it’s worth venturing this far afield. Right now, it still offers a glimpse of authentic London life in all its guises, from the West Indian grocery store selling plantain and dried fish to the hip new bakery, Doree, with its cute cupcakes and vintage decor.