Return to Caledonian Park, Islington

Caledonian Park

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).

Market Estate

Market Estate 2004

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.

New Clocktower Place Islington

New Clocktower Place 2015

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?

Market Estate Mural

Market Estate Mural 2004

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.

The Lamb New North Road
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.

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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.

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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.

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This article was originally published in Stepz psychogeography zine which can be downloaded here

The Historic Symmetry of Caledonian Park

clocktower, Caledonian Park

In the days of the Friday pedlars market, the Clock Tower bell tolled at 10am and let the traders in. In its day the Caledonian Market was one of the wonders of London right up till 1939. Stories abounded of punters picking up priceless treasure for a few shillings amongst the old eggcups, odd shoes, false teeth and pieces of rusty iron. A famous racing tipster called Ras Prince Monolulu dished out winners for a price. HV Morton describes the scene in ‘The Heart of London’ and tells of a friend who picks up an Egyptian Mummy for 10 shillings.

The painter Walter Sickert, who lived nearby, haunted the market and proclaimed that it was his idea of heaven.

Metropolitan Cattle Market

Metropolitan Cattle Market

Sex Workers use the park and accost people on Market Road”, warns the bulletin put out by The Friends of Caledonian Park. The working girls have been pushed north by the development of Kings Cross. It’s a different kind of meat market now. Pimps, prostitutes, kerb crawlers, undercover police surveillance twitching in the bushes, men reading their papers on the park benches get approached for business. The girls have the faces of ghosts, the spirit having 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 its back wheels.

When HV Morton visited the market in 1926 he was offered a skeleton for sale. Down the road a woman’s mutilated body was fished out of the Regent’s Canal by a group of kids. “Ripper Killing Horror” screams the Islington Gazette. She was a prostitute, probably from the Market Road meat-rack, chopped up in a crack den round the corner on Conistone Way, an area that once housed abattoirs and horse slaughterers. Some believe that Walter Sickert was the real Jack The Ripper, his paintings depicting his victims’ anguished faces. The girls I see working the park gates have something of the Victorian about them. Dr Crippin murdered his wife not far away in Hilldrop Crescent and was hung in Pentonville Prison down the road. Is this another case of historic symmetry.


clocktower from market estate
Originally uploaded by soapbox.

The clocktower is framed by the notorious Market Estate, “hell” to its residents. Collapsed ceilings, exposed wires, boarded-up windows, doors off their hinges. One such heavily reinforced door fell on a 12 year-old boy and killed him. Hands have been washed of the affair at the Town Hall. The housing association has handed it back to the council and now they’re knocking the lot down.

The arches of the Clock Tower cast shadows that create a scene like a De Chirico painting. It’s deathly quiet and I have the odd sensation of being in an Italian piazza del duomo at lunchtime. The burnt out post box, CCTV and sudden burst of violent language pull me back to the reality of a condemned GLC Housing Scheme. Groups of teens in sportswear with a gangsta rap blaring ghetto blaster stand on a white petal-strewn path. It brings out the romantic in me, the one that ignores the smashed in windows of the Islington Scouts blue minibus.

london

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.

london

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.