After mid-morning coffee with a friend in Fitzrovia and a mooch in Park Cameras my feet led me to Somers Town, that uncanny zone between Euston and St. Pancras at the heart of the old Ossulstone Hundred.
“I will not declare that those who have not visited Somers Town have missed much. … At every street door women stand gossiping with each other, and others talk out of the windows; while others yet wheel perambulators along the pavements. There is much waste paper and other refuse in the roadway”
A Londoner’s Own London, Charles G. Harper
Written in 1927 Charles G. Harper was clearly not impressed with Somers Town, and neither was James Bone who described the area in his 1925 book The London Perambulator as a “debatable land”.
There were no ‘gossiping street door women’ on Friday lunchtime and I was drawn further into Somers Town by this beguiling remnant of former times, Churchway, that led to the front door of one of the area’s more well-known establishments, The Coffee House on Chalton St.
In the 18th Century The Coffee House had been a popular meeting place for French refugees fleeing religious persecution:
“At this time the coffee-house was a popular place of resort, much frequented by the foreigners of the neighbourhood as well as by the pleasure-seeking cockney from the distant city. There were near at hand other public-houses and places of entertainment, but the speciality of this establishment was its coffee. As the traffic increased, it became a posting-house, uniting the business of an inn with the profits of a tea-garden. Gradually the demand for coffee fell off, and that for malt and spirituous liquors increased. At present the gardens are all built over, and the old gateway forms part of the modern bar; but there are in the neighbourhood aged persons who remember Sunday-school excursions to this place, and pic-nic parties from the crowded city, making merry here in the grounds.”Old and New London: Volume 5. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878
Chalton Street Market is in a post-Christmas slumber. The fabric trader I talk to says January is very quiet. Even so he has his full range of embroidered and sequined shawls and throws on display. I buy one that has been reduced to £2.
Children’s clothes hanging from a metal rail flutter in the wind, a table is laid out with a mound of assorted clothes priced at 50p, loud reggae blares from the Crepe stall. In the 18th and 19th Centuries it had become a centre of small trades:
“At the end of the last century this district, rents being cheap, was largely colonised by foreign artisans, mostly from France, who were driven on our shores by the events of the Reign of Terror and the first French Revolution. Indeed, it became nearly as great a home of industry as Clerkenwell and Soho. It may be added that, as the neighbourhood of Manchester and Portman Squares formed the head-quarters of the emigrés of the wealthier class who were thrown on our shores by the waves of the first French Revolution, so the exiles of the poorer class found their way to St. Pancras, and settled down around Somers Town, where they opened a Catholic chapel, at first in Charlton Street, Clarendon Square, and subsequently in the square itself. Of this church, which is dedicated to St. Aloysius, we shall have more to say presently.”Old and New London: Volume 5. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.
I turn off Chalton Street into Phoenix Road past Breathless Latex Couture and on into Brill Place. The great antiquarian William Stukeley, famous for his surveys of Avebury and Stonehenge, believed that the name Brill was derived from the Saxon name Burgh meaning high ground or hill, an idea slightly undermined by the fact that the area is relatively flat compared to the nearby high ground of Islington. Stukeley also placed Caesar’s Camp in the area.
Brill Place is all that remains of an area that had been known simply as ‘The Brill’ and had a thriving Sunday market that is said to have drawn thousands of people from the surrounding area. Curiously, there is a reference in Old and New London (1878) to ‘barrows’ on the Brill that ‘were swept away during the formation of the Midland Railway Terminus.’ If this is a reference to ‘barrow’ as in ‘burial mound’, does that mean there are perhaps Saxon and/or prehistoric burial sites under St. Pancras International? The thought is tantilising, after all what drew Stukeley to the site in the 18th Century aside from St Pancras Old Church and the River Fleet.
According to Wikipedia, author Gillian Tindall “has suggested that the lumps and bumps in the fields to the west of the church that Stukeley interpreted as a Roman camp were actually traces of the original medieval village of St. Pancras, before the centre of the settlement moved north to the area now known as Kentish Town.” All we can do now is speculate on this intriguing aspect of the history of Somers Town.
But whether you are seeking out romantic legends, the former stomping grounds of French emigres, a latex suit, or just some pretty fabrics, it is well worth your time sliding along the side of Euston Station for a wander around Somers Town. After all, this is where William Blake saw Jerusalem’s pillars of gold stretching all the way to Marleybone.
Have a listen to this episode of Ventures and Adventures in Topography recorded in November 2009, where we explore the area ‘North O’ Euston’ inspired by James Bone’s book The London Perambulator.
Kodak Mantra Diaries, Iain Sinclair’s cult record of his time with Allen Ginsberg in the London summer of The Congress on the Dialectics for the Demystification of Violence in 1967 – has just been given its first hardback edition by L.A. publisher We Heard You Like Books some 45 years after Iain first published it through his Albion Village Press. Interestingly the book also includes new texts continuing Sinclair’s fascination with the Beats. And having loved American Smoke, this alone makes it worth buying a second copy of this previously hard-to-find classic.
Here’s how We Heard You Like Books describe Kodak Mantra Diaries:
For two weeks in 1967, London’s Roundhouse hosted The Congress on the Dialectics for the Demystification of Violence, a counterculture happening showcasing R.D. Laing, Gregory Bateson, Emmett Grogan, Stokely Carmichael and Herbert Marcuse. The event’s acknowledged star was Allen Ginsberg.
As he pronounced to radical England, Ginsberg was followed by a young filmmaker with a commission from West German television to produce a documentary on the poet. That filmmaker’s name was Iain Sinclair.
Four years later, Sinclair gathered his notes and photographs of the experience and published Kodak Mantra Diaries on his own Albion Village Press. Wrestling with his brush with the poet and 1960s radical politics, Sinclair produced an astonishing prose debut, setting the template for his later works of non-fiction.
We Heard You Like Books is pleased to present the first hardcover edition of this little seen classic, accompanied by new texts which track Sinclair’s continuing fascination with the survivors of the Beat Generation, and record random encounters in the years that followed his initial engagement.We Heard You Like Books
Needed to stretch the legs for the first time post-Yuletide sloth and gluttony. A Yule Yomp if you like. Even so I didn’t emerge from the Christmas-lit tinsel-draped cave till 3pm, freezing cold and directionless. With visiting family still encamped I should resist the urge to keep walking West till the will left me, but could I?
Coronation Gardens is always a good place to wander and muse. The Lea Valley sunset starting to break through the bare trees. Looking at the lonely bandstand I remembered the first Leyton Food Market back in May that wraps itself around the bandstand on Saturdays. I could almost feel the Fille Brook (Philly Brook) gurgling beneath the footpath that runs down the northern edge.
The development imposed upon the old car lot that occupied the corner of Oliver Road and Ruckholt looks near to completion staring blankly at the row of cottages on the other side of Dunedin Road. Waltham Forest Council recently unveiled the Lea Valley Eastside Vision which identifies Leyton as “a key growth area” centred on three ‘Key Areas’ of: Leyton (Leyton Mills, Coronation Gardens, and New Spitalfields Market), Lea Bridge which includes a potentially troubling waterside development that could encroach upon Leyton Marshes, and Church Road which seems to mostly build on the work they have already done on Marsh Lane Fields. This ‘Vision’ needs proper scrutiny before a response can be given – but looking at this first phase on Ruckholt Road I do not feel overwhelmed with optimism. Let’s hope I’m wrong.
They were few people out walking as I made my way over the patchwork of football pitches on Hackney Marshes. A dog teased me with its ball – running up with the ball held aloft and veering away as I reached down to play. Eventually it got bored of the game and scarpered off after its owner.
It was dark as I made my way along the Lea Navigation Towpath past Millfields and the small orchard we wassailed a few years ago with the Hackney Tree Musketeers. I stood on the Lea Bridge swivelling East and West trying to decide which way to go before being swayed by obligation and turning East the length of Lea Bridge Road up to Whipps Cross Roundabout.
There was little illumination along Whipps Cross Road aside from the trundling boxes of white light in the form of the frequent buses and flickering bicycle lights in the undergrowth around the Hollow Ponds. The Hitchcock Hotel presented itself at the right time – I rarely go there for a drink, although it was one of the first London pubs I ever visited, back in 1989. I exit, one pint down and half-time in the football I live in hope that I will see the Hitchcock fulfil its true potential as a really good pub.
I reach home just after 6, the family have moved to the table engaged in a furious game of Monopoly that would make the Wolf of Wall Street retire to the sofa. I watch the rest of the footie and start to plan expeditions for the coming year.
It was a tweet I saw at breakfast showing the beginnings of the demolition of Upton Park, the Boleyn Ground, that set me off across Wanstead Flats to take a final look at the iconic home of West Ham United before it was gone forever. I’m not a Hammers fan but have been to West Ham a few times, first when I lived just up the road as a student and they would let you in at half-time for a couple of quid, which was more or less the time I got out of bed on a Saturday so it worked out quite nicely. I remember one game – Frank Mcavennie up front for West Ham, Tottenham legend Graham Roberts playing Centre Half for West Brom.
On the way I wanted to check the state of the great Old Spotted Dog Pub in Forest Gate where the London Stock Exchange moved during the Great Fire of London and we drank regularly in those student days 1990-91. It’s boarded up now – future in the balance, over 400 years of history in the hands of the Newham Council Planning Committee and some property developers – a desperately sad sight.
Queens Market on Green Street seems to have survived the grip of the developer and was a hub of activity – everything you can imagine is on sale beneath is murky roof – a cornucopia of wonders. A fella selling fruit and veg spotted my camera and auditioned for the role as the new “£1 Fish” star – he did a pretty decent job – have a look at the video above. His performance inspired me to buy two huge mangoes and four pomegranate.
Outwardly West Ham seemed intact with only the carpark dug up, but peering through a crack the huge security doors at the side of the ground I could see the diggers at work tearing up the turf, the seats piled up around the pitch, the Trevor Brooking Stand starting to be dismantled. Can the Hammers import all this history over to the Olympic Park at Stratford (in actual West Ham rather than East Ham where the old ground is) – or will the club’s heritage be buried beneath the blocks of luxury flats built on the once hallowed ground.
Fantastic to hear that the abandoned ground of Leyton Football Club on Lea Bridge Road, one of London’s oldest clubs, has been granted Asset of Community Value status by Waltham Forest Council.
Earlier this year I interviewed ardent Leyton F.C supporter Stephen Madge about his memories of the club.
Let’s hope that football one day returns to the Hare and Hounds Ground.
A return to Denmark Street to further survey the radical reshaping of this vital centre of Britain’s musical heritage. The pavements from Holborn through St. Giles are littered with cranes and tipper trucks clustered around new buildings wrapped in plastic.
I first came here to film in January 2015 with Save Soho Campaigner Tim Arnold. We stood outside the 12 Bar Club on the day it closed and watched the equipment carried out into removal vans. Carlo, one of the co-owners of the club, was philosophical seeing the closure of the 12 Bar as part of the ‘revamping’ of the area.
I came back later that week when the club was occupied by various musicians and bohemians in a brief last burst of musical life before the venue closed for good waiting to be transformed into a chic hotel and restaurant.
Earlier this year I surveyed the street once again with Save Tin Pan Alley’s Henry Scott-Irvine, who valiantly campaigns for the street to be given the same heritage protection as nearby Hatton Garden’s jewellery trade.
The other week it was good to see the guitar shops still trading while the cement mixers trundle past. The Save Denmark Street Campaign/Save TPA fight on and have managed to get Grade II Listed building status for 6 and 7 Denmark Street where the Sex Pistols rehearsed and their graffiti still adorns the walls.
The development closes in all around – the back of Denmark Place is now a blank slate for the developers to fill with some kind of new concept shopping mall. Crossrail is smashing its way through and has already claimed the iconic Astoria Theatre and is threatening to swallow up Curzon Soho. The core of London is being rebuilt before our eyes, go and see it while you can.