Byline: EMILY POTTS
THE street is packed and there is far too much to take in. On the left, a group of men are playing carrom - an Asian game best described as a hybrid of draughts and billiards - on the right, market stalls sell handmade and bang-on-trend jewellery while, ahead, there are food stalls offering tempting dishes from every corner of the world.
On top of all this, loud music fills the afternoon air, giving the street and its surrounds the feel of a music festival. This is London's Brick Lane at its busiest on a Sunday afternoon, and it seems all of life is here.
Helping my friend and I navigate our way through the throng, and pointing out multiple points of interest, plus the odd Banksy artwork, is Hedley, our knowledgeable guide from Insider London.
The East End Explorer tour, which lasts around two hours, takes in anything and everything around the uber-fashionable Shoreditch area, and is enthralling from start to finish.
From pointing out spots where one of Jack the Ripper's victims met her grisly end, to tea-tasting in one of London's best tea shops, with a stop-off in a newly opened cafe complete with a caravan chill-out space in the back and graffiti by up-and-coming street artists on the walls, Hedley makes sure we see the finer details of East London life we would be likely to miss were our heads buried in a guidebook.
First stop on the tour was Spitalfields Market, home to hundreds of stalls selling art, fashion, houseware and plenty more to part you from your pounds. But one thing the market and its surrounds doesn't have is any of the big-name shops that seem ubiquitous on every high street - and keeping them out is a conscious decision made to ensure the area retains its reputation for creativity at the cutting edge. After the market we head towards bustling Brick Lane via the street that Hedley tells us is home to artist Tracey Emin. We take time to stop in the Stolen Space Gallery, where we get some hot tips for what to go for should we be looking to invest in some street art, and peer through the window of the Duke of Uke ukulele shop. It is fair to say that the tour is a mind-boggling mix, but we were happy to jump from one topic to another as it suited the diversity of the area. Should you require a more structured approach, or favour a specific topic, then the folks at Insider London can accommodate. My friend who accompanied me exploring the streets of East London has lived in London for many years, although admittedly always south of the river, and has ventured up to the Spitalfields and Brick Lane areas on many a FACTFILE Sunday. However, she found the tour as entertaining and enlightening as I did and we were both left wanting to explore more of our new-found corner of the city. Eventually, we wound up at Andaz Liverpool Street, our base for the weekend. Built in 1884 and formerly the Great Eastern railway hotel, the building's red brick exterior gives little clue to the modern, fresh decor that greeted us inside. We were invited to sit in the foyer with a drink while staff went about the business of checking us in. During our stay, in keeping with the arty nature of the area, the hotel was showcasing work from Clerkenwell Design Week. Furniture decorated with pretty green and pink foliage patterns by Irish artist Nuala Goodman was at odds with the sleek black, chrome and mirrors of the high foyer, but the contrasting design combination worked and gave a first impression that the hotel is not scared of being as quirky as the area it's situated in. …