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…


The Harlequin

I’m in The Harlequin behind the Sadlers Wells and on the New River Path. Folk musicians strum in the corner, authentic old guys with a fiddler. The best pint of Timothy Taylor’s I’ve had yet, I tell the landlady and she chuffed, says it’s taken her five years to get it right. There’s a real diverse mix in here, difficult to pin down. I’ve passed it several times on the way to work, the frosted Guiness windows made me think: dodgy Irish boozer, but then the freshly painted red exterior and hanging baskets in abundant bloom made me think twice. The door was open and a friendly vibe oozed out onto the pavement. Glad I went in – a new after work drop-in. This is a proper boozer. The old boys are even playing English folk and not the Irish jiggy stuff. A sign behing the bar advertises Hot Salt Beef Sandwiches for £3.50 with pickles an extra 20p. There’s a leaflet lying around on the tables appealing for cash to enable a regular to fullfill his dying wish of a trip to Lourdes in a last attempt to stave off cancer.


Down the Cally

Down Caledonian Road, Pleasure Garden 24hr Sauna and Spa, London Taxi Social Club, Istanbul Social Club, Tattooing parlour. Rundown paint-peeling Caledonian Arms on the corner of Blundell St. The pub has stopped trading but Pentonville prison opposite is doing a roaring trade with double the number of inmates it was built to house in 1842 as a new-model prison specialising in solitary confinement. One of the first LCC estates to be built borders the prison, on the site of the old Caledonian Asylum which gave this traffic choked road its name (they used to call it Chalk Road). This street was once packed with breweries, the air pungent with the smell of hops and malt replaced by bareknuckle Irish boozers with Gaelish signage and brawling on the pavement outside.

Turning into Market Road there’s the Hayward Adventure Playground, Indoor Tennis Centre and Astroturf football pitch on the site of the old animal lairs for the Metropolitan Cattle Market moved up here from Smithfield in 1855. They could keep 6000 beasts here in commodious accommodation. The only remnants I can find are the rusting metal posts of the cattle shed and 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.

In Market Road Gardens there’s a rusting sundial topped with small metal cows. I hear a voice behind me. “Are you OK?” It’s a working girl from Market Road. I’d been warned in the bulletin put out by the Friends of Caledonian Park: “Sex Workers use the park and accost people on Market Road.” The whores have been pushed north by the development of Kings Cross. This is a red light district now. Pimps, prostitutes, kerb crawlers, undercover police surveillance twitching in the bushes, men reading their papers get approached for business. It’s a different kind of meat market now. The girls have the faces of ghosts, the spirit has departed the body for protection. The Gazette carries the gruesome story of a prostitute picked up in Market Road then pushed out of the seven and a half tonne lorry after rowing about the cost of oral sex and crushed to death under the back wheels.


Tuesday night Dérive

In Gough Square EC4 there’s a homemade sign which reads “BEWARE DIVE-BOMBING SEAGULL IN SQUARE”, with a photo of the bird. There’s the noisy chatter of afterwork drinks in the legal chambers of Gunpowder Square. In Shoe Lane I look through the windows at suits in corporate drinking dens built into the ground-floor levels of glass and steel office blocks – cathedrals of capital with alcohol on-site. It’s 9.25pm and still light.
Turn right, still Shoe Lane, and now it’s dirty gothic and the back of a Wren-like church where I can see a bricked-in door that at this subterranean level must have been an entrance to the crypt. Cab driver sleeps in the back of his Taxi with the engine running under the viaduct.
I take the steps down into Saffron Hill from Charterhouse Street. The rule for my dérive is simple, go where it looks interesting, head for uncharted territory.
Greville Street runs east to west and looks ripe with pubs and eats. I drift on north up Saffron Hill. “THAI CAFÉ AT THE ONE TUN”, Bombardier bunting and Budweiser neon in the windows. It’s too early to hit the beer, I haven’t found familiar territory yet, the dérive is still on and this place doesn’t look so appealing. There’s a painted sign on the wall telling its history: The One Tun was patronised by Charles Dickens and is mentioned in Oliver Twist as “The Three Cripples”, a One Tun is 252 gallons or 4 hogsheads and Saffron Hill takes its name from the Saffron crops that grew here in the eighteenth century. A large white Cadillac is parked opposite advertising the Venus Table Dancing Club. There’s a stone plaque above a metal door with two crossing shields one bearing a swan with L&Co. underneath and the other a ship and the date 1726. It looks like an old warehouse (for saffron?) – there’s a sign advertising flats for rent. As I get near Clerkenwell Road loft apartments take over, familiar territory is in sight.
I hit Hatton Wall and the dérive is effectively over. I could go in the Deux Beers Café Bar but I’m no fan of the Belgian beer crowd so I duck down Eyre Street Hill to The Gunmakers where Maxim conceived the machine gun over a pint. I’ve cruised this place two or three times and been put off by its apparent clubiness but tonight it’s quiet enough to draw me in. I sit under framed photos of a young Albert Finney circa Saturday Night Sunday Morning and above is Samuel Beckett naturally enough. The sixties music is not loud enough to blot out the design-speak from a nearby table. One fella uses the word “über” a lot as in “she has this über über über cool job,” and someone says that “it’s vital we have ownership of the paradigm.” This is Clerkenwell. You could throw a crisp at the Ben Sherman offices from my comfy seat in this roughed-up Social chic pub which works in a kind of way that would make old Albert feel at home. I finish my pint of IPA.
On Amwell Street at 11pm I pass Boris Johnson Tory MP and editor of The Spectator pushing his bike yelling into his mobile phone “So much for the intellectual powerhouse of the Labour backbenches.” The sweaty crowd spilling out of Filthy McNasty’s (yes it is filthy and it is nasty)give him worried looks like he’s some kind of nutter. On Penton Street a northern TV Comedienne is debating with the guys from the Chinese take-away about who’s responsible for the bag of rubbish split open on the path. There’s more than a touch of midsummer madness around.
I pop into Borat’s for a chat and come away with can of Holstein Pils. Get home and email The Guardian Diary page with my Boris story.


Culture Clash down the Chapel

The farmers market has come to Chapel Market on Wednesdays. We headed down there for the first one keen to be able to buy our organic veg somewhere other than at the supermarket which somehow undermines the whole ethos. They’ve stuck the farmers down our end of the market, the grotty end. Even the guys selling dodgy plastic shoes don’t venture up this far.
Sure enough it’s deserted. The farmers look a bit disconsolate. They’re used to the well-heeled Sunday crowd who flock to their Sunday job on Islington Green – barristers and style-conscious twenty-somethings purchasing produce for Jamie Oliver recipes to impress friends with. The Chapel, or just plain ‘Chapel’ as some on our estate call it, is one of the last great bastions of working-class Islington. Duracell batteries lifted from Woolworths and Sainsburys and flogged for a quid. Designer T-shirts for a fiver. Pot-boiler romances third-hand by the box. Pot smoking paraphernalia (I regret not buying the Bin-Laden spliff-holder). The Arsenal merch stall currently bedecked with England flags and kits. And of course fruit and veg and fresh fish.
The fruit and veg sellers are the back-bone of any street market. The one outside the Alma is my favourite, they just have a few things of quality and the old fat guy (the granddad?) sat on a chair behind picking out all the grotty stuff and chucking it in a box and he usually has a pint under his chair. The fella opposite works his son like a dog so I was pleased to see him looking at the gleaming stalls of the farmers market scratching his worried brow. “Well, well…” And there it was perfectly illustrated. The rosey-cheeked country folk with their wholesome organic produce cultivated by their own hand and the traditional fruit and veg seller, son on the stall instead of at school, knackered from the dawn run to New Covent Garden to get the last cheap scraps to flog at the Chapel.
The guy selling trout also supplies The Savoy. The non-organic fella down the traditional end with his grubby fingers barely supplies the roughest estates. Y’know though at the end of the day the queues of old dears with their granny-wagons and estate Mums with prams were at the stalls they’d always gone to. You need barrister’s wives to pay £1.50 a kilo for organic broad beans (50p down the other end) and they don’t venture further up the Chapel than Marks and Spencer’s down the end.


A life goes in the skip

They were emptying a flat up on one of the top floors. I was sat on the step on a hot morning watching the men bring out black bin-liners full of personal possessions. A bag full of magazines spilled out onto the ground and had to be scraped up into the skip by hand. A wood framed mirror went in. Some cushions. A mottled red rug. Someone’s life chucked into black bags and tossed into a skip in the middle of the estate. The guys doing the job make genial conversation as they go. The stillness of the forecourt is fractured by bursts of walkie-talkie chatter, “Can you get the lift guy over here, he fixed it but it’s not working again.” The skip is sat outside Bob’s front door. He was sat there with his son and someone else as he does everyday, he’s got something to watch today aside from the pigeons.
I tried to work out what was going on. An eviction? In which case it’s brutal – maybe the tenants did a runner leaving everything behind. Or a death? Lonely old person passed away and nobody to come round and sift their stuff and disperse keepsakes among the relatives.
A half-decent chair goes in the skip and some sacks the smash like crockery. I tried to remember who lived in the flat. Was it the Irish women who is always trying, and failing, to control her grandchildren? Her daughter stood out in the car park one night shouting, crying pleading to be allowed back in.
The guys smash up a chest of draws before adding to the pile in the skip.
I have a chat with Bob who tells me it’s the old fella on the top floor. Died just after Christmas and nobody found his body for 3 weeks. “Imagine the bluebottles,” Bob says. It’s taken six months for the place to be emptied. Have they been looking for relatives? Or is that how long it takes the bureaucracy to deal with things like this.


Another Murder

There was another murder last Thursday in Islington. I say another because it’s the second in about two months that I can think of and there are several others that are coming to trial. I suppose this is an area with a history of notorious murders, what with Kenneth Halliwell doing Joe Orton (in both senses of the word)in Noel Road, Dr Crippin his wife up in Hilldrop Crescent and Charles Lamb’s wife her mother in Colebrooke Row (I think). So the dismembered body that some lads pulled out of the canal in April or was it March will be in good company. The kids in the corner shop were full of; “there was a leg with ‘alf a bum.”
First I knew something was up last week was when my wife came back from the cinema because Upper Street had been cordonned off by police. Then the yellow scene of crime signboards appeared calling for witnesses. The Islington Gazzette on 3rd June had its front page in black. There’s a big floral tribute on the corner of Theberton Street where Sunny Cracknell (23) finally bled to death. I often walk past there with my son in his pram and although I still love living here I don’t think we’ll hang around till he’s old enough to go fishing in the canal or walking down Upper Street at night.