The park has been marked for regeneration. There’s talk of restoring “the historic symmetry of the site”, reopening the north-south axis. This was once one of London’s most famous pleasure gardens. Opened in the 1620’s, city folk escaped out here to the inn of Copenhagen House to take tea in the gardens, play skittles and fives, watch the boxing, shoot a few pigeons. The descriptions of it paint a Constable-like rustic idyll.

It was also a nest of radicalism almost as significant as Clerkenwell Green. The Gordon Rioters passed through on their way to burn the mansion at Ken Wood. One landlord of the inn was a member of The London Corresponding Society and held huge meetings here to put forward their Chartist aims and extol the virtues of The French Revolution. And in 1834 100,000 trade unionists gathered in support of The Tollpuddle Martyrs.

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Market Estate Mural

mural, Market Estate Islington

The Metropolitan Cattle Market was moved here from Smithfield in 1855. There were also twelve banking houses that serviced the livestock deals carried out in cash. An Indoor Tennis Centre and Astroturf football pitch are on the site of the old animal lairs. The only remnants I can find are a sundial topped with small metal cows and the rusting metal posts of the cattle shed against a crumbling brick wall in an overgrown ditch that runs up the back of the tennis courts and the football pitch. The only thing agricultural round here now are some of the tackles in the Islington Midweek League.

The historic symmetry of this spot projects throughout the area. Barnsbury Estate has a Copenhagen House which sits on Copenhagen Street not far from the King of Denmark pub. All in honour of the Danish ambassador who took up his plague-time residence on Copenhagen Fields or it may have been some other noble Dane, nobody’s quite sure. There’s the Pleasure Garden 24 Hour Sauna and Spa on Caledonian Road maintaining the reputation for “questionable houses of entertainment”. In Edward Square just off ‘the Cally’ a poem by the poet laureate Andrew Motion which is carved in concrete talks of Romans facing Boadicea (allegedly at Battle Bridge/Kings Cross), Chartists and freedom. A huge mural adorns the wall next to the Mitre Pub in Copenhagen Street showing the Tollpuddle Martyrs demonstration (painted by Dave) and Islington Police Station sits ironically on Tollpuddle Street. Tony Blair would have had a view of the clock tower from his pre-No.10 home in Richmond Crescent.

White Conduit House

penny farthing/ white conduit house

White Conduit House, C18th Century Pleasure Garden and once home to the cricket club that became the famous MCC. It’s now closed apparently to become a Greek restaurant. The last days as a pub were troubled by brawling. One Monday night I was the solitary punter as the landlady yelled at the Polish barmaid “turn up the music and let’s have some fun”.
Oliver Goldsmith came here for the hot buttered buns and wrote about it in ‘The Citizen of the World’. Peter Ackroyd says there was a maze in the garden and possibly marks the spot of Druidic rituals.

The Island Queen & The Mitre

Island Queen, Noel Road N1. At least they’ve kept the beautifully engraved mirrors from the Victorian interior and some wonderful wooden panelling. That aside Joe Orton who lived and was bludgeoned to death up the road might have thought he was back in Tangiers. The Belgian beer and kettle chips are a give-away. I’m supping a decent pint of Spitfire slouched on a soft stripy sofa and so I notice that the ornate ceiling has survived the trendification too.

The clientele are City Road chic and Clerkenwell refugees – American No Logo casual wear as modelled by Jude Law drinking rounds (of Belgian beer) bought on credit cards. Wine lists. Cocktails. Fans. Marinated vegetables in a large glass jar. Can’t say I totally dislike it because of the original features which have been retained almost begrudgingly. What I am doing this far south of Essex Road?

The Old Mitre just off Ely Place and I’m upstairs in the Bishops Room with pissed posh lawyers and their female co-workers they hope to fuck (and take polaroids). This all belonged to the Bishops of Ely and Ely Place is outside the jurisdiction of any London authorities. The gates at the end close at 10pm after which not even the police can enter without permission. There is a dark alley down which the pub is hidden, the other end emerges out in Hatton Garden among the jewellery traders. I drink up and head through a gate in the mystical wall at the end into Bleeding Heart Yard.

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Iain Sinclair & Will Self at St Luke’s Church 14.07.04

Should have blogged this ages ago but just didn’t get round to it.
They come out onto the stage of the restored Church, two living icons of English prose, and launch straight into Sinclair’s memories of St. Luke’s when it was derelict and overgrown. They instigate a tension between themselves but it appears to be largely an act for the audience. Will Self clearly loves Iain Sinclair’s prose and Sinclair is halfway through Self’s latest book. But the conflict they play with is that between the writer who carved out a living from his pen from his mid-twenties and still turns out hack columns for whoever’ll pay and the former Parks gardener, book dealer and underground writer. It also plays as Native Londoner versus Incomer. They play it well, Sinclair dodging direct references he doesn’t like. Self coming out with streams of incomprehensible Selfisms, dictionary-speak that the editor of the OED would be hard-pressed to translate.
Will Self inevitably gets on to the vexed question of ‘psychogeography’ and asks Sinclair how he defines his variety of psychogeography adding the aside that it doesn’t seem to relate much to the Guy Debord/Situationist idea. Sinclair acknowledges this and says he picked it up via Stewart Home and the London Psychogeographical Association and it gave him a convenient brand image for his obsession with Hawksmoor and Ley Lines. He doesn’t duck it, and when Cathy asks him what parameters he sets for his walks he has none, just goes out for a wander when he has the time. It confirms my doubts that ‘London Orbital’ isn’t psychogeography in its purest form but merely a walk with lots of literary and esoteric associations. Not quite the reconnaissance mission before the city is reclaimed that Debord et al cooked up in Paris. Sinclair says as much when he talks about “nodules of energy” -and gives examples of the area around St Lukes, the place where Milton died, house where Defoe lived, Hawksmoor’s obelisks.
It’s a vibrant chat, Self is entertaining and plays to the gallery. Sinclair gets in the odd jibes: “I can see all those columns from the years stuck in your back”. “That Iain is a frankly hostile vision”, Self retorts, “Unlike you Iain, I was writing fulltime from my twenties and had to make a living”.

We walk up Old Street afterwards, Cathy telling me all the negative stuff she had thought about Self before this evening, me setting her straight, giving a potted history of his career and about to recount his reprising of Hunter S Thompson on the campaign trail for his 1992 NewStatesman election coverage, when we stop to look at a pub and Will Self virtually walked into the back of us.

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Looking for the Lost Pleasure Gardens of Islington

Bit by bit I think that I’m locating the lost pleasure gardens of Islington. A trip to the local history centre would probably solve the riddle in a second but that wouldn’t be fun. Instead I’m using a mixture of old maps, etymology and guesswork.
White Conduit House was easier than it first appeared. The Penny Farthing pub not far from my flat still bears the name across the top just under the eves. Inside there are framed blazers from the cricket club and an old stained glass window that used to look out onto the pitch. Oliver Goldsmith was a regular in its heyday. It’s just changed hands but it’s still a bit rough round the edges, there was a big fight in there the other night, I heard the glass smashing as I went round the corner for a can of beer. But it’s still there just, a row of houses and a playground are where I imagine the cricket pitch was and Sainsbury’s car park probably occupies the rest. I saw a couple playing badminton in the street behind where once it would have been played in the pleasure garden.
Dobney’s Tea Gardens only really became clear as The Finca was becoming Moloko which has now become Clockwork, and long before it was a half-arsed nightclub it was the Belvedere Tavern and site of Dobney’s Tea Gardens. It should have been easy – there aren’t too many buildings on the corner of Pentonville Road with a view of the New River upper reservoir.
I don’t think I’ll find any traces of Busby’s Folly as I think it’s under the Elizabeth Garret Anderson School, or that’s my hunch anyway.
Islington Spa was easy enough, the Spa Green Estate was a bit of a give-away and Tunbridge Wells House drives the point home (it was also known as New Tunbridge Wells). And there’s still an Eagle Tavern on City Road with the famous lines; “Up and down the City Road, In and out the Eagle….” on a sign outside.
Bagnigge Wells apparently has a plaque at 63 Kings Cross Road although I’ve yet to actually see it and Copenhagen House is marked by a resplendent clocktower that once served the great cattle market that replaced the pleasure garden. In its day it saw great events: a meeting of 40,000 Chartists, a rally in support of the Tollpuddle Martyrs, and the Gordon Riots. Caledonian Park occupies the space and still hosts impromptu dog fights and prostitution in the spirit of its past.
Further across the borough is Highbury Barn which too was once a pleasure garden before seediness completely took over and was closed. Now the pub is a favourite with Arsenal fans on matchdays. And not far away The Canonbury Tavern has retained its C18th Tea Garden complete with conker trees (which I saw a group of 3 year olds removing branches from), providing a nice spot to refuel when walking the New River Path.
Where today there are dodgy boozers and council estates it’s difficult to imagine what was there until about a hundred and fifty years ago. This whole area would have been like one great resort with balloon rides, archery, races, bandstands, cricket and concerts. All we’re left with are the beer and prostitutes.

this is a work-in-progress and I hope to uncover more soon…

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