Silk, Spice, And A Dash Of Danger: Exploring London’s East End In An Aston Martin DB5
Photography by Virgiliu Andone
The Aston Martin brand embodies a special side of Britishness. The exotic, slender machines convey maturity and elegance, but also a fascinating spice, something that goes beyond the typical associations with the homegrown heritage. Whereas a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley draws its soul straight from the gentlemen’s clubs that dot Mayfair, or from the grand estates and castles that are the pride of the island’s countryside, an Aston has something different about it. Call it a zeal for sport, a certain zest that pokes through the graceful packaging.
We brought this DB5 to an area of London that feels every bit as interesting. It’s a neighborhood shaped by sharp contrast and diversity, and it has been, for better and for worse, a cultural icon of the country. It’s a place that was shaped by silk, danger, and spice.
It was silk that started the Spitalfields that we know today. Huguenots fleeing mainland Europe to escape prosecution by the Catholic kings on the mainland found a place to call home on the former grounds of a hospital (in the ancient sense of the word, as in a priory, a sort of inn managed by clerics). They were mainly French and Dutch, and their unique savoir faire elevated the style of the English elites.
A similarly silky feeling is felt in the presence of the DB5, from the thrumming idle of the straight-six, to the smooth radii of the Touring bodywork designed with incomparable Italian flair, to the indulgent suspension, pampering the occupants with a cocooning, comfortable ride that’s all but impossible to get in a modern performance car. Take the Aston on the old streets and it weaves in between the red brick buildings like it’s being poured down the road rather than driven. The old masters would have been proud that such a masterpiece of craftsmanship calls England home.
Danger. It’s Sunday morning, still dark. I drive through the narrow streets surrounding Brick Lane, in search of parking. A maze of cold buildings, most of them covered with murals and layers of overlapping graffiti. We are at the gates of East London. Although the area has moved on from its more dangerous past, you can still feel the remnants of that edge. After a typical Saturday night, you still encounter guys for whom the party refuses to end, you still walk on shattered beer bottles, or you find yourself sharing the pavement with the odd city fox on vermin patrol.
It makes you wonder how it used to be. Following the decay of the silk trade, this place sank to the lowest of the low, to the point that it was known as the most dangerous place in the whole country. How bad was it? Remember Jack the Ripper?
Thankfully these seedy and sordid days are history, and the backgrounds of this shoot show just how much has turned around. Not that Astons are known from running away from danger. On the contrary, in the hands of the ever resourceful 007 they are often the wheels of choice when there are villains to be chased. The DB5, even in its standard guise, devoid of Q tricks, is more than capable of facing danger. For avid drivers, putting themselves in the relative danger of driving a half-century-old GT car is a big part of the appeal of this GT. It’s powerful, and it loves being pushed.
Spice. It was the arrival of Bangladeshi immigrants in the 20th century that was first responsible for restoring the social fabric of Spitalfields. The uncontested curry pole of London became known also as Banglatown after the times when the East End was the first port of call for Bangladeshi immigrants that were about to settle in the UK. With them, along with the many others leaving their native countries in search of a better life on these shores—and the spices they introduced to the hungry British palates—a revolution started.
This revolution didn’t just change the culinary course of the country, but also inspired a surge of general creativity. Artwork, music, design, everything was energized, and the Aston Martin DBs were part of this era. The DB5 has particular pulchritude, and to my eyes it is like an automotive version of a Dutch vanity painting. That style of still life was developed to cater to the desire of the wealthy folks of the day to showcase their lifestyles, perfectly in tune with the best that the world—or, to be more accurate, the Dutch Empire of the day—had to offer.
In those scenes, exotic fruits share the table with intricate silverware and Chinese porcelain, tasteful flatware teeming with oysters, lobsters, and other delicacies. And there was always great care given to portraying an abundance of spice peppered around the scene. The DB5 encapsulates that atmosphere into the soul of a sporting grand tourer. Our silver car, one of the many extraordinarily loved ones in the caring hands of independent South East London Aston Martin specialists Pugsley and Lewis, navigates these streets like an explorer’s ship, forever seeking and looking ahead.
As the rising sun starts its process of washing out the atmospheric early morning, I retreat to Spitalfields Market for a flat white just as the stalls are getting ready to open for the day, and I reflect on the morning spent here with the DB5. It’s no wonder this area is now home to some of the best exponents of the creative industries that the world has to offer, given its history. The Aston fits in perfectly with the neighborhood’s past, present, and hopefully its future.