London’s East End has not always had the best press. Indeed, for centuries “grime ’n’ crime” might have been considered its USPs. Now, however, in just a few brief years, it has been transformed from downtrodden and forlorn to cutting edge and up and coming.
“It’s not that there’s less interest in west London,” says Dominic Grace, director and head of London residential development at Savills. “The swing east, however, has definitely happened, and an increasing number of people have discovered it.” According to figures produced in June 2014 by Savills, over the past year alone eastern boroughs have experienced some of the greatest growth anywhere in the city. Waltham Forest, home to the Olympic Village, topped the charts with an extraordinary 28.1 per cent property price rise, while neighbouring Hackney also experienced a far-above-average increase of 25.5 per cent.
London’s population, set to reach a historic high of 9m by 2020, has grown at a considerably faster pace than the housing needed to accommodate it. This has fuelled a precipitous rise in prices and an urgent quest for new locations. However, the capital has always been renowned for its resilience, and younger buyers, no longer able to afford the homes their parents once occupied, have enthusiastically colonised previously neglected territories. Shoreditch and Clerkenwell, the most central of these eastern new-found lands, began their rise to cool in the Big Bang 1980s and recessionary 1990s, when redundant light-industrial space was converted for “live-work” use by creative souls longing for New York-style lofts. These early adopters set a bohemian tone.
A few aspiring Young British Artists, however, are not enough to create a housing boom, and more recent shifts in the local economy have rapidly moved buying decisions from interestingly edgy to economically sound. “The advent of the ‘East London Tech City’, the technology cluster around Old Street, is very much part of the story,” says Liam Bailey, global head of research at Knight Frank. “Not only have young graduates moved into the area, but they’ve now been joined by advertising and media companies that would never have considered it a decade ago. Once you get a certain density of creative people, then the lifestyle options improve.” The improvement has, of course, been marked, and today some of London’s most fashionable restaurants, bars and boutiques (as well as markets such as Brick Lane, Columbia Road and Spitalfields) have provided the new generation of East Enders with a street-cred that is fading fast in west London’s costlier postcodes.
The eastward rush, however, has also been driven by more fundamental infrastructure improvements, with vastly better public transport, street maintenance and landscaping – alongside the demolition or renovation of some of the more problematic housing estates – delivered in the wake of the Olympic Games. “The Olympics deadline couldn’t be missed,” says Savills’s Grace. “It was accompanied by a massive turbo-charged programme of regeneration, transforming an area, much of which had been industrial wasteland, with a critical mass of reconstruction. It’s been the perfect example of place-making.”
The East End is, of course, not one amorphous mass, but, like the rest of London, a series of nuanced enclaves, exploding from the City fringes out to Docklands, Stratford and Victoria Park. “I see it primarily as three areas,” says Matt Cobb, director of residential property at Farringdon-based Hatton Real Estate. “Clerkenwell and Farringdon are the longest established; Shoreditch and Hoxton are the cheeky young things; while Hackney and Whitechapel are quickly playing catch-up.” Cobb himself has recently witnessed a significant alteration in those interested in buying here. “Five years ago, Whitechapel’s Brick Lane was full of weird and wonderful people. Now, though you still have that crowd, on Friday nights you’ll also get a flurry of suits.”
The London borough of Hackney, which lies to the east of Islington and to the north of the City, contains a cluster of E postcodes (E5, E8, E9), as well as an extensive array of parkland and communal gardens. One of the Olympic “host” boroughs, it has gained significantly from recent improvements. “When I first started working here 12 years ago,” says Natalie Hall, residential director of estate agent Fyfe Mcdade, which has offices in Shoreditch, Islington and Bloomsbury, “Hackney was a bit undiscovered. I used to drive people here from Clerkenwell, saying, ‘Why don’t you have a look at this?’ Now, though I hate the word, it’s become fashionable.”
Undoubtedly an element in its new modishness is changes to the way locals can get about. Though parts of Hackney are only a brisk walk from the City, in the recent past buses were the only means of reaching destinations further away. Today, the widespread adoption of cycling has combined with the overhaul of the London Overground and reinstatement of Dalston Junction station to provide a speedy arterial route to much of London.
In terms of housing, one of the undoubted appeals of east London is the diversity of the property on offer. “Wapping and Canary Wharf were the first areas to be regenerated, but new-built property here catered largely for those working in financial services,” says Knight Frank’s Bailey. “There were a lot of smaller flats, many intended as pieds-à-terre. For the eastward trend to become fully established, you had to have a range of housing, and the East End as a whole offers everything from Victorian family homes and ex-industrial buildings to the thoroughly modern.”
London Fields, the novel by Martin Amis named after a Hackney park, is perhaps not quite as widely known as Notting Hill, the movie with Julia Roberts, but the same sort of crowd that peoples these imaginary worlds has, appropriately, now colonised many of Hackney’s smartest early Victorian houses. “We find a lot of buyers are moving from west to east,” says Fyfe Mcdade’s Hall. “It’s not only that you get more for your money, but they feel Notting Hill has changed and lost much of its individuality. For these buyers, the east is still exciting.” Patricia Dobson, who recently sold her house near Portobello’s famous blue door to make this leap, confirms that was her rationale. “The social landscape’s changed completely in Notting Hill. It used to be arty and intellectual. Now it’s full of tourists. The house I’ve bought here was not significantly cheaper, but at least I won’t be living in a theme park.”
The most sought-after homes in Hackney are found in the Georgian and early-Victorian streets surrounding London Fields, in Albion Square, Albion Drive, Malvern Road, Gayhurst Road and Lavender Grove (where Fyfe Mcdade is selling a picturesque three-bedroom Victorian terrace house for £1,525,000). Here, values are double what they were in 2007, but remain satisfyingly lower than their counterparts in the west.
The tech crowd often prefers its living glossy and glassy, and a clutch of new developments is rapidly rising to meet this demand. Hatton Real Estate, for example, is currently offering a three-bedroom duplex penthouse (£4,750,000) on City Road, with panoramic views of London’s skyscape and the Silicon hub. Meanwhile, for those prepared to wait a little bit longer, Canaletto, also on City Road (from £1,825,000 through Knight Franks), and Berkeley Homes’ Goodman’s Fields in Aldgate (apartments from £900,000, also through Knight Frank; £2.5m) both offer contemporary living at its high-spec best.
Whitechapel has been a historic haven for refugees for nearly four centuries, but today is under keen observation by investors. By the time Crossrail – stopping off here on its super-fast journey from Canary Wharf to Heathrow – is completed in 2018, local house prices are expected to have risen by 25 per cent, according to a 2013 Knight Frank report, hastening the transition from rundown to refined. “It’s the most interesting developing market in London,” says Lochie Rankin, director at Lichfields. “There are some wonderful Victorian terraces, and we’ve also recently been working on behalf of a consortium of bankers and traders interested in developing loft-style properties. Many financiers want to live somewhere with a more hipster vibe than the traditional enclaves of Chelsea or Notting Hill.”
Those looking for existing East End heritage living might wish to consider a first-floor one-bedroom flat (£899,950 through The Modern House) in De Havilland Studios, an art-deco former aircraft factory in Clapton designed by Owen Williams, one of Britain’s best-known architects of the 1930s. Alternatively, tucked away among the glittering towers of Canary Wharf is the Grade II-listed Nelson House (£3m through Knight Frank), a six-bedroom double-fronted former dock master’s residence with outstanding river views.
The development of St Bartholomew’s Hospital in Farringdon, another future beneficiary of Crossrail, is one of the most dramatic recent departures on the City fringe. This month has seen the launch of property developer Helical Bar’s reinvention of the site – under the name Barts Square – as 235 homes in refurbished and new low-rise blocks (with prices starting from £750,000, through Savills). By 2017, residents will have begun to enjoy a rejuvenated neighbourhood, with a mix of period resonance and luxurious contemporary living space, as well as a perfect storm of transport links to Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton and London City airports.
The best of the past and the best of the future, with a ticket to anywhere.