Just a mile from the internationally recognised symbol for London that is Tower Bridge, in a quiet corner of London’s East End, is a time traveller’s dream. The Cable Street Inn is an 18th-century ex-public house (pub), situated opposite a mural which depicts the famous ‘Battle of Cable Street’, the great put-down of Britain’s rising Fascist movement in 1936. It was also formerly frequented by the notorious 1960s East End gangsters, the Kray Twins, and most likely once hosted another famously gay man, the playwright Oscar Wilde.
With such a colourful past peppered with famous (and infamous) gay figures, it seems fitting that the current owners should be a couple of creative men of distinction. Film director Julian Cole and choreographer Jean Abreu have turned their unique, historical home into a guest house that should be on the list of every discerning OutThere visitor to London. As a life-long Londoner with a keen interest in my city’s past I thought I had a pretty good understanding of its history, but staying here proved to be a real education and a genuinely delightful experience. Over a modern take on a pub lunch in their airy drawing room, Julian and Jean tell me their story and how they came to own such a remarkable place.
In the 1990s, Julian regularly collaborated with my hero Derek Jarman and as a film student, modelled for the contemporary artists Gilbert & George. With Derek’s encouragement, Julian felt compelled to turn the lens back at the ‘living sculptures’ and spent the next fifteen years regularly filming them. The result is a remarkably candid feature-length film WITH Gilbert & George, which has been acclaimed as the definitive documentary on the eccentric artists. The experience solidified Julian’s belief that to create something of real value takes time, a philosophy that he has carried through into the Cable Street Inn.
He first bought the building as a working (but barely surviving) pub twenty years ago. Its glory days well behind it, the pub was running at a loss and being an 18th-century building, it was in Julian’s words, “a bit wonky.” That, combined with the fact it was in a conservation area and therefore a protected building, meant that a lot of the more risk-averse potential buyers were put off by the prospect of buying what could easily become a money pit. By the time Juian made his very modest offer to the owning brewery, it had been on the market for nearly two years and they accepted without hesitation. The amount he paid for it in 1997 however has been far superseded by the investment he has made, lovingly restoring and sympathetically extending the building. The inn now houses three generous guest bedrooms with en suite bathrooms and a glorious garden terrace where guests can sit in quiet contemplation of the surprisingly rural-like surroundings. The garden sits in the shadow of the beautiful 1720 Hawksmoor church, St. George in the East. There is also a generously proportioned, period drawing room where guests can breakfast and chat to Jean and Julian – a situation the couple feel works well, giving the guests privacy, but also being on hand to offer assistance, to provide recommendations, or of course to point out some fascinating details of the history of the local area.
Many visitors to London traditionally stay in West London and only ever see the well-trodden sights of the Royal Parks, major museums and expensive shopping streets of the West End. Some are lured by the British Film Industry into areas like Notting Hill, looking for something more authentic. But those who have done their research will know that to find the real London, both of the past and the present, you have to head East. When Notting Hill was barely a collection of fields, Cable Street had already been a thriving, international melting pot for hundreds of years. So for those looking for a quintessentially London experience away from the predictable tourist spots, the Cable Street Inn provides the perfect base. From here you can easily walk to some of the capital’s most interesting and diverse areas. To the south you have Wapping with its riverside walkways and Dickensian vibe. To the west you have the Tower of London which marks the beginning of the City of London, with its futuristic, monolithic architecture including the Barbican Centre and Lloyds of London, and just a few streets to the north you can lose yourself in the vibrant street life of Whitechapel, Brick Lane and Columbia Road.