Lunch in Hackney and a farm in Stepney

As I said yesterday, the two big chores this weekend were the shopping and the laundry. We got the shopping done yesterday before going off to Gravesend, and so today, the laundry finally caught up with us. Or we with it.

We heaved our unmentionables around to that excellent launderette in Marchmont Street, stuffed two machines and left them churning while we retired to the Brunswick Shopping Centre in Bernard Street. Here Tigger reckoned there was a Giraffe where we could have breakfast. She was right. The place was crowded, though, as it is apt to be over the weekend, and the tables pressed close together, so breakfast was not an outright success.

We had come early in the hope that the launderette would not to too crowded (being near a large student hall of residence it is often very busy) and we were right about that. Almost in no time, it seemed, we had the laundry washed, dried, folded, and packed.

Having hauled this little lot back home again, and briefly rested, we prepared to start out again. Where to, though? Ah well, Tigger had an idea about that…

Pogo Cafe
Pogo Cafe
Pogo is a vegan cafe and workers’ cooperative in Hackney

Tigger’s idea was to go to Hackney and have lunch in the vegan Pogo Cafe. That sounded interesting, so off we went. Pogo is a workers’ cooperative which seems to mean that the staff are volunteers.  Inside, it is arranged in a friendly untidy way that made me think of a students’ union lounge. The menu is not to be taken too seriously, apparently, but more as a list of suggestions as to what may be on offer. The food was reasonable, the price moderate, and… well, that’s about it, really. Curiosity satisfied. Will we return? Maybe, if we are in the area.

Holly Villas 1882
Holly Villas 1882
Now boringly renamed Clapton Passage

After lunch we went for an exploratory walk and chanced upon this pleasant row of houses in a pedestrianized road. (But watch out for bicycles.) Today it goes by the boring name of Clapton Passage but a panel shows that is was originally called Holly Villas and was built in 1882. What possesses councils to rename streets with perfectly good names as boringly as possible?

A face in Holly Villas
A face in Holly Villas
This face decorates a corner of a bay window and, as far as I could see, was the only one in the whole row

Along the row, all the bay windows had decorations on their corners, usually motifs of flowers and vegetation. Just one, as far as I could see, was decorated with what looks like a crowned head, staring out pensively at the passer-by. Was this a special order of the house owner or a whimsical detail added by the builder? We shall never know.

Off Market
Off Market
"It’s a small space, basically a shop front. FreeZone (bring/take for free!), InfoLibrary, defending and promoting squatting…" (Self description)

At the end of Holly Villas, we crossed over Lower Clapton Road, whereupon I was almost knocked over by someone pushing a heavy trolley. He entered the establishment pictured above which looks interesting and turns out to be a squatted “space” according to their own description here. It turns out that this was one of the groups raided by the police for no obvious good reason just before the royal wedding: one of the many reports of that is here.

The Round Chapel
The Round Chapel
This is a non-conformist church still used for worship but it also provides a venue for community groups and space for hire

Down the road we took a look at the Round Chapel. The foundation stone is dated 1868 and the church was opened in 1871. It was built to provide a church for the burgeoning non-conformist population in the area but by the 1990s had become derelict and was taken in charge by the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust which has renovated it to be used for church activities but also for community and arts activities.

Side buildings
Side buildings
The building is extensive and hard to photograph

The building is very large and consists of many parts. It is hard to photograph, partly because of this and also because of the beautiful trees which surround it and screen it from view except close up. Even partial views show that it is of a striking and harmonious design, with something of a medieval castle about it.

Boot scraper Foundation stone
Boot scraper and foundation stone
The robust boot scraper dates from when London’s streets were a lot muddier than today

I did notice one unscheduled use of the premises: a rough sleeper making use of the Sunday calm to claim sanctuary and a well earned rest.

A rough sleeper takes temporary refuge on the steps by a side door

Tigger had another destination in mind. She had said something about “city farm” but I didn’t know which or where. No matter, I was happy to tag along, clicking my shutter at the odd interesting object or sight.

This decorative pub was previously called the Lord Cecil

We passed Fitzgerald’s (previously called the Lord Cecil) with its highly decorative façade – note the elephant’s head in the circular plaque at the top.

St John at Hackney
St John at Hackney
This 18th century church has an extensive graveyard now
landscaped as a public garden

Thus we came to the church of St John at Hackney. Completed in 1797, it was designed by James Spiller, a friend and admirer of Sir John Soane. Built on a large scale, the church is capable of seating 2,000.

Some of the tombs
Some of the tombs
The rows of large tombs (only a few shown here) are still a striking sight today

There is a graveyard to match the size of the church. The larger tombs still stand in rows, confined by iron railings, almost like rows of houses in a city of the dead. Just one corner of the burial ground is shown above.

Gravestones stacked against the wall
Headstones and footstones from simple graves have been stacked against the wall

The simple graves have all been cleared from the grounds, as is common these days, and the stones have been stacked against the wall. Does anyone still visit these stones, I wonder?

St Augustine's Tower
St Augustine’s Tower
The tower is all that remains of the earlier church of St Augustine

In the grounds of St John stands the tower pictured above, looking a little lonely now that it is deprived of the church of which it once was part. That church was built in the early 16th century and demolished in 1798. It is Hackney’s oldest building, appearing on the borough’s coat of arms, and marks the centre of the old village of Hackney. It is of course a listed building and the clock dates from 1608.

Farm name mosaic
Farm name mosaic
The intricate and colourful mosaic includes the name of the farm – if you can make it out

At last we arrived in Stepney, now part of the Borough of Tower Hamlets, and considered by many the heart of the East End. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon Stibenhede, meaning “Stibba’s (or Stebba’s) Landing”. Our destination is named in the above mosaic: Stepping Stones Farm.

Le déjeuner sur l'herbe
Le déjeuner sur l’herbe
One of the larger residents of the city farm

City farms are curious institutions. Unlike most commercial farms, they positively welcome visitors and in large numbers. While they keep as wide a variety of animals as possible and perhaps sell farm produce, they often engage in other activities as well, such as art projects and the provision of work experience for young people. For kids – and big kids like me – the main draw is the animals.

Busy hen
Busy hen
One of the many creatures sunning around freely

Most city farms have a few hens running around freely and maybe some ducks as well. They are harmless and seem to adapt well to crowds and being handled. Hens are a lot more sensible than people think!

Angry geese
Angry geese
These geese were berating the donkey for some strange reason

Geese are probably best confined as they can be aggressive at times. This bunch were particularly noisy. Here they are berating a donkey (who ignores them) but later they treated various other animals and people to the same treatment. I can quite imagine geese waking up the citizens of Rome to the threat of impending attack!

Moody donkey
Moody donkey
The donkeys were a bit moody and I was a little concerned as a couple of them seemed to be suffering from skin trouble

Gimme! Gimme!
Gimme! Gimme!
This goat was not bashful about asking for a hand-out (he was unlucky)

Having a drink together
Having a drink together
A couple of the smaller inmates of the farm

More feathers than most
More feathers than most
These hens were prettily dressed as though dolled up for some special occasion

Don't bother me now - I'm busy!
Don’t bother me now – I’m busy!
This sow had found a promising hole and was ransacking it

Fashion note
Fashion note
Demonstrating the latest trends in underwear down on the farm

City farms vary greatly in size, in the variety of animals they contain and in quality. Most are informal and allow close contact with animals, while reminding visitors of the importance of washing their hands before leaving or handling food.

They perhaps sit a little awkwardly between the farm and the menagerie, between entertainment and Serious Purpose. I believe, however, that they play a useful role. If they entertain, that is to the good, because they also educate. Our city lives divorce us tragically from nature and the countryside. In an age when many kids do not know that milk comes from a cow – or even what a cow looks like – and a TV presenter can say that he thinks cotton comes from sheep, it is essential that we renew our acquaintance with this essential aspect of our lives. If parents won’t take their kids to the country, then let the schools at least take them to the city farm.

Carved panel
Carved panel
Part of a monument in St John’s Churchyard Gardens, Hackney

Copyright © 2011 SilverTiger,, All rights reserved.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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5 Responses to Lunch in Hackney and a farm in Stepney

  1. Karen says:

    Hi: lovely pictures and some really interesting writing, Just wanted to let you know about our name and offer some reassurance. We’ve been Stepney City Farm for a while now as the farm is run by another charitable group.

    And our lovely donkeys George and Dunstan are fine – healthy, happy, much-loved and cared for. I suspect they and the geese are actually great friends.

    Do visit again soon.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Thanks for your reassurance. I certainly hope the donkeys are fine.

      Geese are noisy by nature (according to legend, they saved Ancient Rome from a surprise night attack by awaking the inhabitants) so their complaints on the occasion of our visit were not taken seriously. They just seemed to be yelling at the donkeys but they could just have been yelling at anything, really.

      I expect we shall drop again by one of these days.

  2. Lucy says:

    Hey, just thought I’d let you know that the pub you photograph was actually called The Elephants Head (hence elephant’s head!) The remains of The Lord Cecil, with sign, are still around the corner on Lower Clapton Road.

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