The Lost Pleasure Gardens of Finsbury and Pentonville « Ventures & Adventures in Topography

There are various ways you gain an impression of a place and develop a curiosity about it, which eventually inspires research and expeditions. It might be a view from a train as it passes above rooftops and gives a rare glimpse of an intriguing, unknown landscape stranded between stations. Apparently this is what led Patrick Keiller to shoot his film Stonebridge Park at that location in north-west London. It may be a chapter found in an old book that captures the imagination, as happened when I read HV Morton’s 1925 account of Leather Lane street market.
But for me the deepest and most lasting impact is made from repeatedly tramping over the same ground again and again, coming at it from unfamiliar angles, at different times of the day and night, in varying moods and stages of your own life, chipping away finding unconnected fragments that slowly form some kind of collective picture. This is my relationship with the area covered in the episode on Finsbury and Pentonville.

looking down across Pentonville

For a few years I lived just off Penton Street and walked every day to and from the South Bank. In fact for about four years I walked everywhere from that high ground that rises up from the valley of the Fleet. One of the threads that emerged from these daily perambulations was the relationship between this area and its natural springs, the pleasure gardens that grew around them and traces left behind. I recorded some of these observations as they came to me on my blog, Islingtongue, but this walk with Nick was really the first attempt to record a collective impression in some form.
Nick knows about water, he jokes that he is ‘the river man’, but he could seriously claim to be the ‘urban stream man’. I was intrigued by what he would make of this incoherent slalom between pubs and council estates over a course of only a couple of miles that mark the sites of the springs and pleasure gardens of Finsbury and Pentonville.

We met at Chancery Lane Station. There is no water reference here as such but from Holborn Viaduct there is a fine reveal of the form of the land as it drops into the course of the River Fleet running beneath Farringdon Road. I also want to shoehorn in a log of Saffron Hill where in the evenings you often find the street totally deserted. Saffron Hill was where Dickens set Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist, The One Tun pub features in the book. It was a notoriously lawless slum. Further up the street it was the heart of London’s C19th Italian community where it was noted that not a word of English was spoken. Today it has an austere, indifferent look about it.

There is a realisation that this could be a heritage trail and The Clerk’s Well in Farringdon Lane, Clerkenwell is indeed on a sanctioned route – but what intrigues me is that the other wells and spas  are oddly neglected. Everybody knows Islington – Tony Blair made sure of that. But far fewer know of the 18th and 19th century spa resorts that stretched out along the slopes of Penton Mound. And then there is the whole mythos of Merlin’s cave and observatory here. Islington should be as well known for its pagan rites as its frothy coffee drinking meeja-types (the other untold story of this area is its unusually high percentage of council tenants).

We clock-in at Cold Bath Square where from 1697 patients were lowered into its chalybeate waters seeking the cure for “scorbutic complaints, rheumatism, chronic disorders etc”. We are guided in part this evening by S.P. Sunderland’s excellent Old London’s Spas, Baths and Wells (1915) and Nick has a copy of an 1880s Century book on the River Fleet.
The Clerk’s Well is visited as is the now lesser known Skinner’s Well but Sunderland records that in the middle ages it too played host to the performance of mystery plays.

from Old London’s Baths, Spas and Wells

Along Bowling Green Lane we bowl to look through the locked park gates at the site of the Spa Fields where once large congregations of radicals would gather. Some of these firebrands found themselves incarcerated back at Cold Bath Square when a prison replaced the Bath House there.
Through the gates we spy Spa Green Estate designed by visionary socialist architect Berthold Lubetkin. This was the Islington Spa and the estate carries the name in Tunbridge Wells House (the pleasure ground had also been called New Tunbridge Wells).
Across Rosebery Avenue we skirt around Wilmington Square where the New London Spaw occupied Ducking Pond Fields and soon we are dropping down into Black Mary’s Hole behind Mount Pleasant Sorting Office. This evocative name has various explanations but I always believe than when such ambiguities exist go with the most colourful story, which is the one put forward by Chesca Potter that this was a sacrificial pit to a goddess.

We slosh through the shallows of the Fleet and emerge out on Grays Inn Road. Up ahead is St Chad’s Well. St Chad is the patron saint of wells and here again we find mythology at work with the legend of the spring rising from a wound in the foot of Edmund Ironside inflicted by King Cnut. The illustrious Bagnigge Wells, home of Nell Gwynn is skulking behind a bus stop on Kings Cross Road, abandoned and unloved like a discarded royal mistress with just a fading engraved tablet as recognition. Is this a punishment for the way that Bagnigge degenerated into a place of debauchery before closing its doors in the time of Victorian prudery?

Up the Riceyman Steps we don’t so much jaunt as hobble and we stand and argue about Merlin on Claremont Square which EO Gordon would have us believe is the summit of Penton Mound, location of the Arthurian wizard’s observatory and cave. I have wholeheartedly signed up to Gordon’s thesis despite the knowledge that this area happened to be developed by a fella by the name of Henry Penton. He egotistically named the area Pentonville in the late 18th Century, rather than it gaining its moniker back in the misty, murky Arthurian past after the Romans left and created some blank pages in the history books which we could fill with whatever took our fancy.
I don’t think London celebrates its mythology as much as it should so maybe we should hush up the Henry Penton link and claim that he changed his surname in line with something he read in the same Welsh bardic odes that Gordon used as the basis for Prehistoric London, its Mounds and Circles.

Islington Spa

Not long ago this was literally my home stretch as we pass the site of the Belvedere Tavern (Bel  vedere = good view in Italian) and a good view it would indeed have had over the fields of saxifrage that swept below into the City. The Lexington Bar occupies its building now and keeps the spirit of dancing and entertainment alive although they may have ditched the games of rackets that were played here.
Just off Penton Street, Dobney’s Tea Garden is curiously marked by Risinghill Street. Peter Ackroyd notes that one could read the etymology of Penton as ‘rising hill or spring’. Nick tries to indulge me but I can tell he’s had enough hocus pocus for one night. So it was with some scepticism that he greets my declaration that our final spring, The White Conduit on Barnsbury Road is the home of cricket. The pub still bears the name under its eves, although it is now Sardinian restaurant. But it was here that the first cricket club was formed which later had to move on to grounds in St John’s Wood where it took the name of the Marylebone Cricket Club or MCC as it is more famously known. When this was a pub I saw the mouldering half-hearted cricket shrine placed above the front door for the benefit of the odd Australian tourist. Peter Ackroyd says there was a maze in the garden and possibly marks the spot of Druidic rituals.

We could have carried on – Islington was dotted with springs and gardens. We could have followed Copenhagen Street to the pleasure garden in Caledonian Park where the cattle market clock tower still stands. We might have sat in the tea garden that still exists behind the Canonbury Tavern and then pushed along to take a imaginary balloon ride from the car park of the Highbury Barn Tavern where the songs of Arsenal supporters have replaced the operettas for which it was noted. But instead we sat on a bench, near midnight in the playground – probably actually in the middle of the batting track of the world’s first cricket club, and wondered how we’d turn all this into a 30 minute radio show.

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Recovery walk

I needed a walk to help recover from a violent stomach bug – the kind that has you laid out for 3 days and still has me on a diet of cous-cous and boiled veg. Walking therapy works for me like no other remedy.
The plan was to revisit my old haunts from when I daily schlepped between the Angel and the South Bank, the warren of runs and ways I etched into my consciousness through repeated walking stretching from Bloomsbury across Clerkenwell, Finsbury, Islington and The City.

I start at Lincoln’s Inn Fields then move onto Fleet Street. I perch in St. Dunstan’s-in-the-West and listen to the choir practice. Up Fetter Lane then breach the border of High Holborn entering the mental realm of lower-Islington. Leather Lane is full of lunchtime bustle. Drop down Herbal Hill behind the Guardian offices then along to Back Hill where St. Martin’s students spread out along the curb munching and sunning themselves. I look through into Black Mary’s Hole, the majesty of Mount Pleasant Sorting Office looms above. I skirt the bomb-site (the last in London?) and then I’m tugged westwards along Calthorpe Street. I sit and reflect in St. Andrew’s Gardens. Push on along Grays Inn Road with a nod to the Calthorpe Project. Stop for a bagel and a coffee (always feels wrong to eat a ham bagel). Harrison Street heading west opens up another front of nostalgia, then along Sidmouth Street and into Tavistock Place. The magnetic force of Judd Street Books is too powerful to resist and I lose myself in there for some time.

I cut behind Camden Town Hall where I once argued with the registrars. Descend into Britannia Street the screech of tubes pulling into Kings Cross below, photo the flats I’m sure are in Mike Leigh’s High Hopes. Lorenzo Street (missed Penton Rise) across Pentonville Road and down along Calshot Street. I’ve neglected to account for post viral fatigue, I’m dizzy, my legs go, I have to regain myself on the steps of the new Peabody Building for the final push. Suck on a Murray Mint. On up the mound. Duck into the old estate – no sign of Sam sitting out in front of his flat. Over to Chapel Market, the Salmon & Compasses having yet another refurb. The record shop I loved has gone – I’d planned to buy the Saint Etienne CD that has been playing in my head all day. Cash Converters has replaced the video shop and Woolies has become Waitrose in a bold statement of intent that the Angel is moving up in the world. Wind up in Borders browsing the stacks of 3 for 2s. End – No.56 bus home. I feel infinitely better.

Pyramids, the Spa Fields and Psychogeography

This article came in on the National Psychogeographic newsfeed – looks at a new development in Spa Fields Islington and how the structure relates to the psychogepgraphy of London. Spa Fields is somewhere I keep being drawn back to – the collision of radical history, mythology connected to springs and wells, pleasure gardens and transgression and how this seems indellably imprinted on the landscape.
Studio Idealyc’s pyramid scheme – Building Design

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An evening perambulation of the wells and springs of Clerkenwell

We gathered at the NFT bar for the sake of expediency. Pete, Cathy, Dave and Nick. The ground between the South Bank and the beginning of the trail of wells and springs was also full of interesting diversions and a few more water references.

We first detoured through the courtyard of Somerset House with the fountain playing in the sunset. Then we headed along to the Old Roman Spring Bath in Strand Lane that I’d found by accident on a lunchtime wander. Through a half-open gate and down the Surrey Steps into Strand Lane, an anachronism, blocked off at either end. We peer through the basement window into the Roman bathing chamber fed by springs on Hampstead Heath according to S.P. Sutherland.

We moved along the Strand and I pointed out that St Clement Danes had a holy well in its grounds (now beneath the law courts) where pilgrims bound for Canterbury used to stop for a drink.
“Where were they coming from?” someone asks.
“Over there”, I gesture towards Trafalgar Square.
“And then they’d head on to Dartford Services”, adds Nick.

We duck through a door on Fleet Street into the otherworld of the Temple. Oddly, beside me, none of the group has ever been here. It’s one of those London sites so obvious that many people give it a miss when they can’t find the entrance. We wander the lanes and make for the Templar Church sadly too late for the talk by Robin Griffiths-Jones the Master of the Temple on “The Da Vinci Code – Facts and Fictions”. This church was one of many common features in both Dan Brown’s potboiler and ‘The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail’, the similarities of the two books sparking a legal row that played out over the road in the Royal Courts of Justice.
We linger for a while enjoying the peace of this city within a city. The group want to explore further, but we’re constantly frustrated by looked gates and closed doors.

We exit and head along the lanes behind Fleet Street towards Bride Lane. Up through a vast 80’s development boasting a gigantic lump of rusting sculpture and we find the back of St. Brides. My book, ‘Old London’s Spas, Baths and Wells’ by S P Sutherland (1915), refers to a pump that dispensed water from the holy well, located in the eastern wall of the churchyard. Nick gives me a bunk-up to peer through an iron grate, which scratches the palms of my hands. Then he spies water marks on the wall below a small metal plate. It’s inconclusive.

We move on past the Friday-night-full pubs that spill out onto the pavement. Nick has been told about some engraved friezes in the modernist beast of the Daily Express building. We tailgate a departing employee and last barely 30 seconds before being nabbed by security. We ask about the friezes. “I have no idea what you’re talking about he says.”

Into Shoe Lane, this is just a functional route into Clerkenwell. We cross Holborn viaduct and into Ely Place, with St Etheldreda’s hosting a plush party in the crypt. Through a small wooden door in the wall at the end and we stand in the twilight of Bleeding Heart Yard. Outside the entrance to the posh-nosh The Bleeding Heart restaurant I recount the story of Lady Hatton who danced with the devil here one night, next morning she was gone except for her still warm heart pumping out blood over the cobbles.

On to Saffron Hill, one of my favourite lanes that head up to Clerkenwell Road. I’ve frequently walked at night up Shoe Lane, Saffron Hill, Herbal Hill to Rosebery Avenue without seeing a soul. Tonight is no different. There are a few drinkers in The One Tun and I capture a group photo of the walkers outside. The One Tun has a long board proclaiming its great antiquity and links to Charles Dickens. (I wonder how many pubs in London claim to have been frequented by Dickens? Nearly as many as those that claim Dr Johnson as a former patron and fringe towns where Dick Turpin was alleged to have holed up). He probably sank a few in here whilst he was writing Oliver Twist as he placed Fagin’s den here on Saffron Hill. It was a dodgy old place back then. Now it’s all design studios and loft apartments. We find a piece of 1950’s municipal architecture at the end which we argue about. Nick loves it, Pete has an affection, Dave can see its merits, I think it was built to just about last 40 years and should be pulled down to make way for a Saffron plot, Cathy thinks we’re hilarious (on one of her blogs she lists ‘geeks’ as an interest).

We cross the road and duck down into Farringdon Lane. It’s always just that bit darker down here. The Clerk’s Well is marked with a blue plaque on the front of no. 14-16. You don’t have to be an etymologist to decipher this one. No room for Clerics to perform their Mystery Plays on the pavement now, although Radicals will gather round the corner on the Green for Mayday.
We don’t linger long and head up the banks of the Fleet. There are a few calls for a food stop which I’d scheduled a bit further along the route. A detour is mooted but nobody wants to miss out on Spa Green and the view back from the corner of Rosebery Avenue.

We slide along Bowling Green Lane, where boozers have been gastropubbed and come to the Spa Fields, now a grubby playground but once the site of dramatic political gatherings; most notably a large mustering in 1816 of the followers of Thomas Spence which resulted in the leaders of the meeting being charged with High Treason. The old Borough of Finsbury is again a political battleground as the Islington branch of the Independent Working Class Association lead the fighback against the sell-off of community assets to Council backed property speculators.

We make a nod towards the site of the London Spaw, another of the popular resorts of the area that survived as a pub and is now somesort of restaurant. It attracted poorer customers than its more celebrated neighbours, who could drink the water for free but had to pay for the home-brewed Spaw Ale. “Poor Robin’s Almanack” reported in 1733:
“Now sweethearts with their their sweethearts go
To Islington, or London Spaw;
Some go but just to drink the water,
Some for the ale which they like the better”

The tower blocks of St John’s, Goswell and City Road line up in the sky in front of us. Markers in the night. No.6 Lloyds Row where the actual spring for the Islington Spa was found has been wiped out, the whole street seems to consist of a car park and the entrance to the Spa Green Estate with its Tunbridge Wells House in reference to the moniker of ‘New Tunbridge Wells’ that the spa earnt in theC18th. How influenced was Lubetkin by the location’s illustrious past? I’ve written on this blog before about how it was reported to have also been one of Cromwell’s Civil War forts. Fort, pleasure garden, utopian housing scheme, sink estate. Quite a history. The exterior is clad in netting and scaffold, a lick of paint, lipstick on the gorilla.

We turn into Rosebery Avenue, we find the highpoint of the mound, opposite Sadler’s Wells which is the most obvious of the other wells on our tour. The hunger is starting to bite in and we want to make sure we make it to Muratori before it closes at 10. We cut round past the front of the old HQ of the Metropolitan Water Board and the New River Head. Down Merlin Street where I hit Pete with E.O. Gordon’s theory that the Penton Mound that rises here up Amwell Street was Merlin’s observatory and he dwelt in a cave at its base. There was a Merlin’s Cave Tavern hereabouts till the early 80’s.

I have to make a dash into St Helena Street and run off expecting the others to carry onto the caff, but they scamper up the street behind me. There was allegedly a spring in the garden of No.3 St. Helena Street that belonged to Bagnigge Wells. St Helena Street has been reduced to alleyway, no number 3 that we can see although some Georgian houses do back on.
In Lloyd Baker Street we lose Nick but carry on to look at the block of LCC flats named after Nell Gwynne who was associated with Bagnigge Wells on nearby Kings Cross Road. Nick catches up with us. He’d gone round to No.3 to have a look over the wall for signs of a spring or a well but without luck.

Muratori is open and half-full. We get a long formica table by the window and peruse the ‘chips with everything’ menu. This place doesn’t disappoint. I’ve been wanting to come in for ages. It’s full of fruity banter between tables, friendly staff, TV showing CCTV images of Farringdon Road.

We emerge at 10.15 to complete the tour of the wells and springs. Over the road, down Calthorpe Street then into Phoenix Place where we stand locked in a stare with a young fox that clambers atop a wall a few yards away. We try to go into the Mount Pleasant Sorting Office carpark but a friendly chap stops us. So we hit him for a bit of local history. This roughly cleared site with a deep hole in the middle was once part of the post office but was bombed during the war. I looked this up and find that the parcel section was completely destroyed by a single bomb on 18th June 1943. This must be one of the last major bombsites in London. Not for long, he tells us, they’re going to build a new sorting office here and sell the other one off to a hotel chain or something. He runs through the owners of the brilliantly lit offices that back on from Grays Inn Road (I’ve speculated about these before on this blog). ITN, Channel 4 (news), News International, looking down on a bombsite.

We move on round the corner into the depths of Black Mary’s Hole. The origins are obscure. Either a well in the gardens of the convent of the Blessed Mary that became Black Mary after the Reformation; or more literally that a black woman called Mary used the dispense the water from the well. One writer, Chesca Potter, theorises that it could have been dedicated to the Black Madonna (still worshipped in Poland Nick tells us) who is a manifestation of the much older lunar goddess Black Isis. She also took a medium to the site who believed it to have been a sacrificial pit. This would tie-in with the likelihood that the area was used for pagan worship as Druids were known to have worshiped streams and wells – the river Fleet that runs nearby was known as the Turnmill Brook and the area is rich with springs. There is something about the darkness of this spot that adds to the plausibility of this idea. I’m sure there were more than a few believers in the heyday of Grays Inn Buildings site just above the hole.

Up along Grays Inn Road and I take the fellas over to admire the architecture of the London Welsh centre, which has a hint of Arts & Crafts about it mixed with mock-Baronial. There’s something wonderfully old-fashioned about this place. A venue for committee meetings, afternoon bingo, jumble sales, a village hall dropped in from the valleys. There is a lively function on inside, a lady wanders out and wonders what we’re looking at. We present her with our thoughts on the architecture. She’s just here for the monthly tango night and heads off home.

We’ve one last location to clock. Off we slip behind the Travelodge into St. Chad’s Place. Whiff of municipal men’s loo (visible through a broken window for voyeurs) and the pumping disco St. Chad’s Place bar, if I’d ever wondered what the word ‘bling’ meant then here it was heaving and lolling around inside. St. Chad is the patron saint of medicinal springs, the patron saint of our walk. Again this spot is marked by myth and legend, that the water sprung up through the ground on the spot that Edmund Ironside defeated King Canute. It opened as a medicinal spring and resort in 1772 had its heyday then was demolished when the Midland Railway carved up this vale.

We emerge through a dark narrow archway on Kings Cross Road, just along from the site of Bagnigge Wells at No. 63. The others head off to the station and I turn home up Pentonville Road acknowledging Penton Rise (Penton translates from Celtic as rising ground or spring; Henry Penton was the name of the developer who built the first houses here. Coincidence?) and Hermes Street as further references to water and springs as I pass them. As I stop in the corner shop near my flat to buy a bottle of beer, I realise that I’m completing the circuit. Opposite stands White Conduit House, a spring that served the Charthouse down in Smithfield and then became a pleasure garden with a maze in the garden. The spring and the maze, again signs of Druidic worship. It’s was renamed The Penny Farthing long ago, long after it gave birth to cricket and the MCC, and has been closed for the last year or so. I peer through the dusty window. The place has been gutted, a toilet stands alone in one corner surrounded by signs that this old pleasure ground and spring is about to come back to life once more, whilst I’ll be moving on from Penton Mound out east to Leytonstone.

Bibliography:
The London Compendium, Ed Glinert, 2004
The River of Wells, Chesca Potter, 1995
Inns and Taverns of Old London, Henry C. Shelley, 2004
Old London’s Spas, Baths and Wells, S.P. Sutherland, 1915

Black Mary’s Hole

I decide to go back into Black Mary’s Hole to take some photos. I enter from Grays Inn Road via Elm Street and discover that the ominous looking block sprouting military sized satellite dishes on the roof is in fact the offices of the Serious Fraud Squad (a building they appear to share with ITN). The offices are illuminated by strip lights, a swivel chair turned to face the window with a bulging folder sat half open. I wonder if this is the infamous George Galloway file.

Luckily the basement office stacked high with old IT gear belongs to the neighbouring building. Two fellas are sat there feet up. I move along a little down Gough Street, flash off, too far away to get a good picture. It’s freezing. A guy walks down the middle of the street with two dogs. This is a desolate dark lane. The office that I snap has a semi-deserted carpark beneath – a skip full of broken office furniture. It doesn’t take a wild leap of the imagination to see the murder of John Etheridge that took place here in 1766. Etheridge was driving cattle through the area and one of his bullocks strayed into a field belonging to William Floyd. Thomas Plymmer came out of the smith’s shop, struck him once on the nose, he collapsed and died.

From the top of Phoenix Place I look out over the lights of the huge carpark that house the post office vans of the Mount Pleasant sorting office. My great aunts Edie and Ethel worked here when they returned from South Africa in the 1920’s. The tower blocks on St John’s Street Goswell Road shimmer in the background, roughly on the spot of the old madhouse, the historic symmetry is instructive.

This dark pit between Calthorpe Street, Kings Cross Road, Farringdon Road, Grays Inn and down to Clerkenwell Road keeps drawing me in, night and day. It retains a medieval feel, even after William Floyd’s fields have given way to a roughly surfaced carpark and the sorting office has been dropped on Sir John Oldcastle’s orchard. C20th street lighting fails to illuminate the damp blackness that rises from the Fleet beneath the pavement. Alleys and lanes proliferate. There is an absence of people on the street after dark, you earn your passage through here and it stays with you.


The scene in Muratori on Kings Cross Road is one to catch. Faces alive. The waitress has the floor, animated, arms waving, she’s holding court, all the blokes in post office drag having their hearty dinners laughing. It’s like an Edward Hopper painting injected with mirth.

This morning, going up Mount Pleasant the covers start to come off the back of the infamous Grays Inn Buildings. It’s starting to look like just another block of luxury flats, a long way from it’s days as a notorious den of drugs and anarchists.