Somers Town – around Chalton Street

Churchway Somers Town NW1

After mid-morning coffee with a friend in Fitzrovia and a mooch in Park Cameras my feet led me to Somers Town, that uncanny zone between Euston and St. Pancras at the heart of the old Ossulstone Hundred.

“I will not declare that those who have not visited Somers Town have missed much. … At every street door women stand gossiping with each other, and others talk out of the windows; while others yet wheel perambulators along the pavements. There is much waste paper and other refuse in the roadway”

A Londoner’s Own London, Charles G. Harper

Written in 1927 Charles G. Harper was clearly not impressed with Somers Town, and neither was James Bone who described the area in his 1925 book The London Perambulator as a “debatable land”.

Churchway Somers Town NW1There were no ‘gossiping street door women’ on Friday lunchtime and I was drawn further into Somers Town by this beguiling remnant of former times, Churchway, that led to the front door of one of the area’s more well-known establishments, The Coffee House on Chalton St.

Somers Town Coffee House

In the 18th Century The Coffee House had been a popular meeting place for French refugees fleeing religious persecution:

“At this time the coffee-house was a popular place of resort, much frequented by the foreigners of the neighbourhood as well as by the pleasure-seeking cockney from the distant city. There were near at hand other public-houses and places of entertainment, but the speciality of this establishment was its coffee. As the traffic increased, it became a posting-house, uniting the business of an inn with the profits of a tea-garden. Gradually the demand for coffee fell off, and that for malt and spirituous liquors increased. At present the gardens are all built over, and the old gateway forms part of the modern bar; but there are in the neighbourhood aged persons who remember Sunday-school excursions to this place, and pic-nic parties from the crowded city, making merry here in the grounds.”Old and New London: Volume 5. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878

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Chalton Street Market is in a post-Christmas slumber. The fabric trader I talk to says January is very quiet. Even so he has his full range of embroidered and sequined shawls and throws on display. I buy one that has been reduced to £2.

Charlton Street Market

Children’s clothes hanging from a metal rail flutter in the wind, a table is laid out with a mound of assorted clothes priced at 50p, loud reggae blares from the Crepe stall. In the 18th and 19th Centuries it had become a centre of small trades:

“At the end of the last century this district, rents being cheap, was largely colonised by foreign artisans, mostly from France, who were driven on our shores by the events of the Reign of Terror and the first French Revolution. Indeed, it became nearly as great a home of industry as Clerkenwell and Soho. It may be added that, as the neighbourhood of Manchester and Portman Squares formed the head-quarters of the emigrés of the wealthier class who were thrown on our shores by the waves of the first French Revolution, so the exiles of the poorer class found their way to St. Pancras, and settled down around Somers Town, where they opened a Catholic chapel, at first in Charlton Street, Clarendon Square, and subsequently in the square itself. Of this church, which is dedicated to St. Aloysius, we shall have more to say presently.”Old and New London: Volume 5. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

Breathless Latex Euston

I turn off Chalton Street into Phoenix Road past Breathless Latex Couture and on into Brill Place. The great antiquarian William Stukeley, famous for his surveys of Avebury and Stonehenge, believed that the name Brill was derived from the Saxon name Burgh meaning high ground or hill, an idea slightly undermined by the fact that the area is relatively flat compared to the nearby high ground of Islington. Stukeley also placed Caesar’s Camp in the area.

Brill Place is all that remains of an area that had been known simply as ‘The Brill’ and had a thriving Sunday market that is said to have drawn thousands of people from the surrounding area. Curiously, there is a reference in Old and New London (1878) to ‘barrows’ on the Brill that  ‘were swept away during the formation of the Midland Railway Terminus.’ If this is a reference to ‘barrow’ as in ‘burial mound’, does that mean there are perhaps Saxon and/or prehistoric burial sites under St. Pancras International? The thought is tantilising, after all what drew Stukeley to the site in the 18th Century aside from St Pancras Old Church and the River Fleet.

According to Wikipedia, author Gillian Tindall “has suggested that the lumps and bumps in the fields to the west of the church that Stukeley interpreted as a Roman camp were actually traces of the original medieval village of St. Pancras, before the centre of the settlement moved north to the area now known as Kentish Town.” All we can do now is speculate on this intriguing aspect of the history of Somers Town.

Paradigm - sculpture by Conrad Shawcross at the Francis Crick Institute

Paradigm – sculpture by Conrad Shawcross at the Francis Crick Institute

But whether you are seeking out romantic legends, the former stomping grounds of French emigres, a latex suit, or just some pretty fabrics, it is well worth your time sliding along the side of Euston Station for a wander around Somers Town. After all, this is where William Blake saw Jerusalem’s pillars of gold stretching all the way to Marleybone.


 

Have a listen to this episode of Ventures and Adventures in Topography recorded in November 2009, where we explore the area ‘North O’ Euston’ inspired by James Bone’s book The London Perambulator.

North O’ Euston

James Bone’s The London Perambulator published in 1925 gave me the title for the documentary that I made about my co-host Nick Papadimitrou (before we did this radio show together). I hadn’t thought about it that deeply at the time beyond the appropriateness of stealing a title from one of the topographical books we share a love of.
This opportunity to review the qualities of the book, that Nick confessed hadn’t read prior to the series, confirmed it was an apt association. Bone’s view of the city was idiosyncratic and hard to pin down, he was drawn to the overlooked and maligned corners of the metropolis. He dreamed of having the keys to the spirit of London and preached the virtues of night-time perambulations in all weathers.

For our urban ‘field trip’ we chose the chapter on North O’Euston, the only real geographically defined part of the book. Nick is lost outside the edgelands. Whenever I draw him to the more traditionally imagined London he looks slightly at odds with it and I start to wonder whether it is solely his psychic projections that hold places like Edgwarebury together and with him in NW1 they will slip through some kind of vortex into oblivion.

download the podcast of this episode here

On the other hand this is turf with which I am more familiar. I lived in a tiny flat atop Penton Mound for a number of years, lack of funds and the nature of life with young’uns meant that perambulating these streets (oft pushing a pram, and late night anxious-parent dashes to the out-of-hours GP at St.Pancras Hospital) was an essential part of my life.

Bone’s North O’Euston might now be called Somers Town. As self-proclaimed topographers we should know whether that name was in use in the early twenties when Bone was writing – but we don’t. It joins Notting Hill and Piccadilly in producing eponymous films when Shane Meadows set his Eurostar-funded film here.

The rendezvous for the walk was set by Nick as being by Paolozzi’s sculpture outside Euston Station. But such was the resident gloom that he and Pete merged into its gloopy form to such an extent that it took a phone call to locate each other yards apart. We gave in to the somewhat banal temptation to locate the position of the much-mourned doric arch of Euston Station and spooked a loitering commuter heading home to Nuneaton in the process. We then headed out into the streets around that still retained the “furtive, sinister spirit” described in The London Perambulator.


Bone saw this area, and that around the Euston Road’s sister stations of Kings Cross and St.Pancras, as being a “kind of debatable land”. This was a sentiment that we could only agree with as we ambled up Eversholt Street finding massage parlours, betting shops, a lap-dancing club and a shop supplying the needs of transvestites where Bone logged “pawnbrokers, bawdy houses, shabby hotels, and second-hand dealers”.
We were partially aided (or arguably handicapped) by a map in William Kent’s London For Everyman published at the same time as the Perambulator. I love this book and it was also auditioning for an episode in the second series of Ventures & Adventures should we be blessed with one. Using this beautiful colour plan we identified the “dingy crescent” where a notorious murder had taken place as Drummond Crescent, although Nick’s reveries here were abruptly interrupted by two young Spanish women trying to find the Place Theatre who wrongly assumed we might know where it was. We hadn’t the faintest idea and sent them off in the opposite direction, later to run into them, fuming and unappeased by my thoughts on how getting lost was the only way to truly experience a new city, “the production starts in five minutes” they countered.

Bone talked about how the population of this region moved about at night. Well that’s certainly changed, we barely saw a soul between Euston and Kings Cross as we drifted the backstreets often bickering about route, process and how I should indicate whether I was recording on the minidisc or not. I’d missed one of Nick’s quite wonderful riffs on how he first “moved to London from Finchley” as a callow youth – and he was none too pleased about it. I was just enjoying listening to him and momentarily forgot we were supposed to be recording for a radio show. I recorded virtually every foot-step and burp from then on.

field recording: st.pancras old church

We stopped in on St.Pancras Old Church surprised that it hadn’t got round to banning psychogeographers for their/ our appropriation of one of Christianity’s oldest sites as one of their/our most revered ‘nodules of energy’.
In Goods Way we saw how the scorched earth Kings Cross redevelopment had claimed the location of the flat in Mike Leigh’s brilliant film High Hopes, but has had the side effect of opening up one of the finest vistas of central London’s neon confetti.
It was around here that we lost Peter Knapp – consumed by the darkness around Kings Cross that has gobbled up so many wide-eyed adventurers. We now know that he emerged from this moloch unscathed, as his wonderful photos testify.

Through the new underpasses of ‘the Cross’, as the terminus in Sydney of the same name is known – also a place of prostitutes and bad drugs. We emerge in a shopping mall – no, it’s St Pancras Station, which seems to have borrowed its new ambience from Wood Green Shopping City as an ‘eff-off’ to Brunel’s Cathedral of the steam age.

field recording: kings cross – st.pancras

The walk would not have been complete without Nick correctly identifying a sewage system buried beneath an old covered alleyway leading off Phoenix Street. Our first obviously London and a night-walk chalked off in one.

Next, we’re off out to the fringes again in search of an ancient area seemingly populated by rooks. I’m taking extra minidiscs for this one, don’t want to end up tossed into the Roxbourne by a disgruntled deep topographer.

photos by Peter Knapp

Ventures and Adventures in Topography on Resonance 104.4fm Wednesday 5-5.30pm and repeated Monday 10-10.30pm