Tuesday 17th March 2015
WHITECHAPEL STATION- various venues
Back when I was a nipper, one of my prized possessions was a copy of Jeff Wayne’s concept album, The War Of The Worlds. With the exception of Richard Burton reading the opening stanzas of HG Wells’ novel over some rather atmospheric analogue synths, I could take or leave the music. My mates liked it, and I didn’t want to own up to not liking what all my mates liked. Dizzy Gillespie lay a couple of years in the future for me at that stage. What I loved about that album was the big picture book you got with it, and while it’s tempting to have a rant about the youth of today never getting that total album experience again in today’s world of the download, I’ll cut to the chase and say that of all the magnificent double page spread pictures, the one which really got me going was the one called Brave New World. In the book, one of the characters proposes that the only way for mankind to survive after the Martian invasion is to start all over again by building an underground civilisation. Wells was taken with the idea that mankind would end up building cities underground, and it is a theme which crops up not only here, but in The Time Machine, Things To Come and many of his short stories too. It’s interesting to note that when Wells was active in leafy Woking, industrial scale tunnelling had been one of the great trademarks of Victorian Britain, it’s brick-lined arteries spreading through the green and pleasant land to speed up the economy and to demonstrate man’s control over (or under) nature. And so it’s very possible that one of the contributory factors on Well’s fascination was the almost avant-garde notion of sinking whole railways under the capital city.
Here’s the picture from the album-
You can plainly see that it derives much of its shock value from being a straight transplanting of Victorian wrought iron and brick giganticism from the surface to the cavern. I spent ages looking at this when I was twelve and even now I can while away the odd idle minute admiring that huge cast iron wheel on the left or wondering how noisy and smelly it was with those trains chugging along up at the top. Given that everything in the seventies, no matter what it was meant to be, looked like an advert for G-Plan, this picture really stood out as an example of something different, a view of sci-fi from a Victorian perspective.
And a view of sci-fi from a Victorian perspective is exactly what you get if you ride the Met line east out of Baker Street, change at Aldgate and take the District line over to Whitechapel. The earliest bit, from Baker Street to Farringdon is bats enough, and will be covered in other instalments here, but by the time you get to Whitechapel, the Victorian lunacy is in full and unrestricted glorious glazed tile and brick arched flow. No wonder Wells was getting his knickers in a twist about all of us turning into morlocks and ending up down there, especially as back in the day they were running steam. In tunnels. Like in the picture on the album.
The first bit to be built was, ironically the bit that is now the Overground station in 1876. This sits at right angles to the Underground platforms, where I arrived, which were built over the top of the Overground line in 1884, thus enabling such illustrious Londoners as say, Jack The Ripper, who really started hitting form in 1888, a choice of speedy cheap and efficient ways away from the place of work. At the time, the two sets of platforms were built and owned by two different companies and so something of a Victorian architectural brawl broke out, with the two companies apparently wrestling each other to the ground in an imbroglio of vaults, beams, tunnels, stairwells and arches. One of the results of all this constructional pagga is that on the way out of the District line side, you get views out of bridges of bridges over bridges over tunnels like this-
…and strange glimpses down into conjoining tiled universes like this-
On your way through to the ticket hall and exit, there are signs that as well as being a site of World Architectural Interest, Whitechapel Tube has been running on a budget since it was built. In the roof we have a smashing blend of Edwardian and art deco lights, installed as and when the dough became available and never changed, and then to bring it up to date, some really smashing stainless steel ducting with cameras, respectfully and unobtrusively blending into the heritage.
The actual exit is quite magnificent and still boasts a beautiful Victorian conservatory roof-
Here and there, you still see signs of the original elegance, in such lovelies at this-
They’ve tried tarting it up on the outside, with some trendy Paris-Metro style porch things. I wonder how they keep the rain off anyone stood in the middle-
Even these days, the fisticuffs are still flying around Whitechapel tube. Planked off in the middle of the station is all the new stuff for the Crossrail development. If stuff on the internet is to be believed, then there won’t just be a couple of new lights up in the booking hall, there’s going to be a full-scale rebuild, which looks all well and good in a Waitrose kind of way-
I kind of like the way it is now though. With all the stuff from all the different eras slapped together in a higgledy-piggeldy way, it is kind of the tube station equivalent of that section of Giant Redwood trunk over in the Science Museum, where all of history is laid out for you to see in one eyeful.
Upon leaving the station, the casual visitor will immediately spot that Whitechapel is no longer the stuff of Jack the Ripper, John Merrick or The Krays. The bulk of the local population is Bangladeshi, which is what makes this place an orgy of delights for both Tube Station fan and curryholic. Although the area boasts some notable formal curry restaurants, the tactic we adopted for this trip was to go grazing. This was induced by the fact that within the immediate vicinity of the station, the places on offer seemed to be offering the nosh in a cafe style, so in the interests of complete and accurate journalism a selection needed to be tried. Greed and indecision had no part.
As we came out of the station, we turned right, and walked past the busy market stalls which generally were selling a mixture of pashminas, buckets, batteries and tissue paper. At the end of the block was this place-
Although it had shut down some time ago, there was a geezer selling samosas and bhajis from a couple of handcarts in one of its alcoves. These smelt amazing, and so we tried the bhajis.
You got four of these for a quid. The dark spots are big flakes of green chilli. And it seemed as if they had been fried separately in salt before being conjoined to the onion and ghee. They were some of the best things I’ve ever eaten, with the salty chilli punctuating the loamy fabulousness of the onion.
The whistle whetted, we then called in here-
We were attracted by the chap making roti in the open window in the front. Wanting to save space for a third helping of something elsewhere, we went easy on the ordering. The menu is simple- it’s all laid out in big metal tubs under the counter. We chose a chicken curry and, as the place prides itself on its fish dishes, something involving small whole fishes in sauce, both on rotis. We sat down in the back. This place is the real deal. The Bangladeshi lads in there having their lunch don’t use cutlery. It’s fingers and bread, and so the management provide a washing facility in the corner of the room-
A complimentary salad, cucumber raitha and dried chilli garnish then appeared. The chillis were amazing, and the salad was fresh. Then the curry turned up. It turned out that the chicken dish was a special of the day and was actually roast chicken and egg curry. Double-cooked chicken in a curry. It was amazing, but the thing which really hit the ball out of the stadium were the little fishes in sauce-
Annoyingly, I made a note of what they were called on my iPhone, which promptly crashed. I think it began with a Z. My advice would be to print this picture and take it in with you. You might feel like a bit of a nonce, but I promise you that it will be worth it. They were bony, and took a fair amount of dismantling, but the flavour in them and their sauce was phenomenal. High street curry houses just don’t do flavours as subtle and interesting as these. The Z fish curry is without a doubt on the list for the first round of The Ultimate Fantasy Curry. It will come as no suprise that the lads at Poncho Khana are so busy making their amazing gear that they have no website. Good on them, I say. You’ve got to get down there yourself.
Feeling splendid, we then walked back in the direction of the station and, attracted by the amazing display of Bangladeshi sweets, cakes and breads in the window, nipped in here-
It’s a bit more hi-tech in here. The curry buffet was very nice, and exceptional value. Again, you get flavours which are quite obviously the real deal, but not in quite the profusion of the little caff down the road. Of note however was the cow’s liver curry, and the endless supply of lamb chops. Feeling it rude to not try the sweets on offer, we chose from the multi-coloured barrage of treats these jilebis.
Sometimes you still see these in a high street curry house, but they are on the decline. So incredibly sweet they are practically salty, these are essentially deep-fried golden syrup, and after a curry, they are bloody marvellous, washing all the heat and salt away in the tsugary tsunami. I can also say that it’s quite unusal to see ones as fat as these- we’ll be serving them for pudding at the next round of the U F C.
So, there we go- a fabulous voyage on the disparate and exciting architecture of the Victorian tube to the disparate and exciting world of eating curry in modern day Bangladeshi Whitechapel I’d say we spent around £20 each on the whole lot, and what a splendid adventure it all was. Highly recommended for a trip out!
Ponchokhana, 241 Whitechapel Road E1 1DB 020 7247 7712
Feast & Mishti, 245 Whitechapel Road, E1 1DB 020 7377 6112
Bloke selling Bhajis off a stall- Whereabouts unknown.