Hackney top 10: things to do in Hackney Central
Once the historic heart of the area and the only thoroughfare through the medieval village, Hackney Central is home to some of the most interesting finds in the borough. There’s plenty for history nerds here, alongside a wealth of less cerebral pursuits. These are our top 10 favourite things to do in Hackney Central.
An atmospheric Tudor country mansion now incongruously surrounded by concrete, Sutton House was built in 1535. First a nobleman’s rustic retreat, it became a home for Huguenot wool and silk merchants, a boarding school, church institute, trade union HQ and a 1980s squat. Inside, there’s a Tudor kitchen, the gorgeously panelled Linenfold Parlour, a Victorian study, and the oldest loo in east London.
From Sutton House, it’s a short walk to early sixteenth-century St Augustine’s Tower. The oldest building in Hackney, it was probably built by the Knights Templar. Climb the narrow staircase, passing a rare sixteenth-century turret clock on the second floor, for a panorama of Mare Street and the City.
A little further south is the Hackney Empire, the borough’s most glamorous building; a lavish variety theatre, it was designed in 1901 by prolific theatrical architect Frank Matcham. The exterior is made of red brick with stone cupolas and a swirling wrought-iron canopy, while the lush interior is a riot of blazing scarlet and gilded wreaths. Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields and Stan Laurel all performed here. Visit during Open House for a backstage tour or – better still – book a ticket for a show.
Just next door is Hackney’s 1930s town hall which has retained its Art Deco features, including angular chandeliers and a sprung dance floor. Opposite the town hall and beyond the Picturehouse cinema is Paragon Road, around where, between 1785 and 1852, Loddiges Nursery grew 1600 varieties of tropical orchids in world-famous hothouses that inspired those at Kew Gardens. Though the nursery itself has long gone, Abney Park still has descendants of trees and plants sold at Loddiges.
Adjacent to the Town Hall is the Hackney Museum, a fantastic place to get a handle on the borough. The showpiece is the blackened curve of a thousand-year-old Saxon log boat, discovered in Springfield Park in 1987. Other exhibits vividly evoke Hackney’s story, from the notoriously harsh Hoxton asylums of the 1600s and 1700s to the life of Stoke Newington writer, spy and rebel Daniel Defoe, and the music, clothes and customs of Hackney’s immigrant communities.
A short stroll south will bring you to the E5 Bakehouse café, tucked in a brick railway arch and serving sourdough sandwiches, cakes and coffee, plus hot dishes at lunch and pizza on Sundays. You can watch dough being pummelled and kneaded in the bakery at the back, where they run excellent breadmaking courses.
On the other side of the tracks lies London Fields, from the middle ages a grazing spot for cattle being driven south from Hackney Marsh to slaughter at Smithfield Market. It’s now a very popular park, featuring a beautifully restored lido, a summer flower meadow and tennis courts.
The southern end of London Fields leads into Broadway Market. On Saturday’s the area bursts with thousands of locals and visitors heading to the supremely good and varied food market. With everything from stalls heaped with fruit and veg to Ghanaian hot meals, homemade Scotch eggs, multicoloured meringues and artisanal cheese, bread and salmon. Proceeds from the market go to local charities. Round the corner in the School Yard you’ll find crafts, bric-a-brac and still more food.
Towards the bottom of the road, look out for F. Cooke’s pie and mash shop. Still owned and run by the Cooke family, this place has been serving up the East End’s original fast food since 1900.
Another stalwart of the street, the much-loved Dove offers a range of real ales alongside an impressive array of Belgian beers. With a decent selection of British and Belgian food, a gleaming wood-panelled interior and a gaggle of outdoor drinkers on sunny days, it’s a perfect pit stop after a day of exploring.