I first spotted the top of the clock tower in Caledonian Park from the street that ran in front of the estate where I lived on Barnsbury Road. A tantilising white spike rising above tree canopies spied on the way to take my toddler to the swings in Barnard Park. All roads led to that spot from the high ridge running north from Pentonville Road. Copenhagen Street ran down one side of the estate, on which stood the King of Denmark Pub, one of the estate blocks was even called Copenhagen House – all in honour of the illustrious history of the area in the shadow of the clock tower that had previously gained notoriety as Copenhagen Fields, named after a forgotten Danish noble.
The tower stands on a hillock rising from a sacred plain that stretches across the floor of the Fleet Valley reaching out at the foot of London’s Northern Heights. This is where William Blake saw the golden pillars of Jerusalem in his ‘drama of the psyche’,
The fields from Islington to Marylebone,
To Primrose Hill and St John’s Wood,
Were builded over with pillars of gold,
And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.
Blake the Druid having visions of Jesus wandering in the lush pastures now built over, and being rebuilt once again transitioning from puking out the stink of noxious trades and railway smog to new blocks built of solid Capital rising amongst the fields of Victorian houses and council estates. You need to look carefully for the gold pillars of Jerusalem. The poet’s feet in not so ancient time must have walked those same Barnsbury Streets laden with myths emanating from the springs gurgling to the surface of the pleasure gardens which in turn had taken the place of oak groves and it is believed, Merlin’s Cave (also the name of a 70’s prog rock venue near where the cave is said to have been).
I’d carried out a survey of sorts 10 years ago, baby strapped to my chest, old Olympus 35mm camera to make the visual record of the trip. The local newspapers had been full of horror stories about the area. The decaying Market Estate that wrapped itself around the three sides of Caledonian Park had been declared ‘Hell’ by its residents, a young boy, Christopher Pullen, had been killed by a falling door. There were reports of collapsed ceilings, exposed wires, boarded-up windows. Sex workers pushed north by the Kings Cross redevelopment patrolled Market Road and operated amongst the park undergrowth. Two prostitutes from this beat had been brutally murdered. A £41million regeneration scheme had been drawn up to demolish the estate, improve the park and restore “the historic symmetry of the site”, reopening the north-south axis.
I set out again on a sultry May Day weekend, following the footsteps in reverse of the huge demonstration in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs that had mustered on Copenhagen Fields in 1834 before the 40,000 protestors headed for Whitehall. The martyrs are commemorated with a large mural on Copenhagen Street and the local police station sits ironically in Tolpuddle Street. In 1795 an enormous gathering of Chartists, 100,000 strong, met at the Copenhagen House pleasure garden. A radical spirit permeates through the damp soil here working its way down the valley to Holford Square where Lenin plotted the Russian Revolution.
Today the atmosphere is muted. There is the bleak humour of the Breakout Café opposite the gates of Pentonville Prison. Market Road appears free of streetwalkers replaced by students ambling along the pavement to the ‘Prodigy urban student living’. The park where the sex workers plied their trade is now the scene of picnicking families and gentle kickabouts. Hawthorn blossom drapes over the Victorian railings that had contained the vast Metropolitan Cattle Market that moved here from Smithfield in 1855 – the ‘smooth-field’ itself a place of medieval vision and congregation. Is there a subconscious need to slaughter cattle on sacred ground?
The clock tower had been built for the cattle market both of which had been overshadowed in their day by the famous Pedlers Market. It was considered one of the great wonders of London. The topographer HV Morton described the scene in his 1925 book The Heart of London – a friend picks up an Egyptian Mummy, Morton is offered a human skeleton for 10 shillings. The painter Walter Sickert proclaimed it his idea of heaven. A fella by the name of Jack Cohen had a stall that by the terrible magick of this zone became Tesco supermarket.
After the Second World War there were no signs of the 2000+ market stalls and the loud banter of the traders. Robert Colville describes a state of “weed-covered dereliction” in 1951 with the four grand market Gin Palaces looking “gaunt”. None of the three that remain still trade as boozers. The White Horse and The Lion have been converted to residential while The Lamb has progressed from “gaunt” to abandoned, aluminium grills filling in the gaps between the wrought iron filigree that adorns the entrances. It’s difficult to summon up the clamour of the masses that flocked here for political gatherings and market trading. The only people by the still standing market gates are a couple with a toddler scuttling over the gravel path on a scooter.
The builders of the new housing that has replaced the Market Estate – Parkview, have conceded defeat to the resonance of the Clock Tower and opened up that north-south axis, the low-rise blocks folding back discreetly trying to stay out of view. The failed modernist development of the previous scheme had attempted to contain and frame the tower at one end of a wide-open cracked paving-slabbed piazza. The beautiful mural depicting the heyday of the Caledonian Market didn’t even want to be there anymore when I last visited and was peeling off the wall in a bid for escape. The power of the clock tower, and the final acknowledgement from the planners that the estate was an architectural mistake, smashed those Le Corbusier inspired concrete pillars to the ground. A street name commemorates the short life of Christopher Pullen.
York Way flops over the apex of the rising ground at one end of the park and estate where the surviving Corporation of London blocks sail the skyline. This ancient thoroughfare previously known as Maiden Lane that EO Gordon, a century after Blake, dreamt linked the Pen Ton Mound near Copenhagen Street with its sister Holy site on Parliament Hill, and saw druid ceremonials process northwards to celebrate the solstices. In this vision York Way was one of the principle roads not of a New Jerusalem but a New Troy built by the war refugee Brutus. It now leads to a New Kings Cross.