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.
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.
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.
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.
Since I started this blog over 6 years ago there has been a preoccupation with the sites of the pleasure gardens, wells and springs of Islington – spread out along the slopes of what E.O. Gordon calls, The Penton Mound.
So it gave me great pleasure to return to this, admittedly half-researched, area for an episode of Ventures and Adventures in Topography.
Here is the resulting radio show and also link to previous posts on the blog about the pleasure gardens of Islington.
I stumbled across an article on the web the other day. Think I was looking for something on Old Merlin’s Cave Tavern and found this piece on the Architectural Association site that makes reference to a chain of Civil War defences that cut across the old borough of Finsbury:
“Waterfield Fort was at the top of St John’s Street, exactly where Spa Green Estate stands today, linked eastwards by trenches running along Sebastian Street to a huge fort at Mount Mills off the Goswell Road. Westwards, the lines cut to New River Head’s circular reservoir and on to Mount Pleasant, east of Black Mary’s Hole and another city dump. In between, a covered walkway was cut up the hill that is now Amwell Street, to Islington Pond, which would soon became the extant reservoir in Claremont Square.”
The author, Guy Mannes Abbott, makes the link between this system of fortifications that stretched eastwards through Shoreditch and Whitechapel to Wapping built to protect the fledgling English Revolution and the Utopian aspirations of the municipal architecture of Berthold Lubetkin built in the old London borough of Finsbury:
“The forts mark an area known for its spas and radical reformers and which, in the seventeenth century, Wenceslaus Hollar represented in a series of etchings showing extensive earthworks. They protected an area that would become the site of the largest and most ambitious plan ever for the social regeneration of London and which remains a paragon of what could be achieved with social housing. Spa Green, Bevin Court and Priory Green just north of Finsbury are all positive manifestations of a politically committed and revolutionarily ambitious approach to collective works, but – conscious of what there was to fight for – Tecton also produced a plan for an elaborate system of defences and network of communications with uncanny echoes of the Civil War forts.”
So after work in the fading light I headed off to see what traces remained. I approached the forts from the south, across the wobbly bridge and round St Pauls. The towers of the Barbican Estate stand like sentinels challenging the medieval monastic complex of the Charterhouse across Goswell Road. If we’re looking for the spirit of rebellion and utopianism it’s written here on the names of the blocks that make up the Barbican: Thomas More House, Milton Court, Defoe House, Cromwell Tower, Bunyan Court, Mountjoy House after a Huguenot refugee, Willoughby House after Catherine an upholder of the new Protestantism.
Progressing northwards through the concrete I feel a tangible sense of anticipation. Leading off either side Gee Street, Bastwick Street, Pear Tree Court, straight rows of unforgiving slab-like structures. This landscape gives little away. Draws you in then repels you.
The Old Ivy House marks the corner of Seward Street, the sort of pub you’d only go into if you were desperate for a pint. The estate over the road is a red-brick construction of towers and walkways. The gloomy entrance to Seward Street stinks of stale piss and grime. A street sign on the back of the pub heralds the site of Mount Mills, a significant point on the “Utopian enclosure”. The view is far from utopian, grubby backs of houses, iron fire escapes, air-con vents, a hexagonal building juts out unnaturally and the road curves around it. Opposite a new gleaming block of flats with glass-brick lift-shaft/ stairwell. Mount Mills is now a new-laid tarmac carpark. I look back to the pub and the trendy coffee bar (coffee@goswell road) from higher ground. The mound. What was also a plague pit, windmill, public laystall has given way to Mini Cooper, Audi, tall TV aerials, private parking.
Looking east along Lever Street there is a noticeable rise in the road roughly adjacent with Mount Mills, it drops the other side towards Central Street. On the other side of Goswell Lever Street becomes Percival Street which leads into Skinner Street where the old Merlin’s Cave Tavern stood. Mannes Abbott sees the story of the construction of these defences being fundamental to the English identity and the narrative of the island. What more potent national mythology than the Arthurian legends, commemorated in the same streets.
Sebastian Street is immediately darker, tree-lined. Modernist buildings of the City University becoming a row of Georgian townhouses. A contemporary source described a trench dyke running along here to St. John’s Fort. I pass through Northampton Square with its bandstand. Crows squawk, they would have feasted on the carrion tossed into the ditch.
I exit on Wyclif Street. Another reference to radicalism.
Kids in hoodies riding BMXs whiz across St John St. Spa Green Estate that occupied the site of Waterfield Fort commands the high ground that marks the final approach to the Angel tollgate. This was bandit country in those days, the Angel Tavern did a brisk trade with travellers wanting to avoid progressing through the open fields in the dark.
I can smell a wet muddy fragrance. Kids play noisily on the football/ basketball court. The block facing St John Street is Tunbridge House, probably a reference to New Tunbridge Wells which was another name for the Islington Spa pleasure grounds that were here in the C18th. Do the kids see this as the Utopia Lubetkin designed, or a ghetto? One 18 year old threw himself to his death from a ninth floor window of a council block down here last week.
It’s dark and I’m put off walking through the estate. Its defences still in operation. From Rosebery Avenue you can see how Spa Green rests in a hollow. The wave of the outside wall recalling a fortified line. The Thames Water HQ opposite seems to continue the wave motif on the other side of the road, two grand municipal buildings complementing each other except that one has been converted to house the well-healed rather than the socially excluded.
Punters from the Sadlers Wells spill out onto the pavement. Up Amwell Street and I try to imagine it as a covered walkway as described in the article. It’s echoes Elizabeth Gordon’s speculation that a tunnel ran from the base of Amwell Street into the heart of Penton Mound where Merlin lived in a cave.
I pass on a pint in Filthy McNasty’s as it’s too packed and noisy. Three rosy cheeked pleasure seekers announce “Here it is”, and for a second I think that they too are looking for St. John’s Fort. “Filthy McNasty’s, s’posed to be really good.” I get a bottle of Polish Lager from the cornershop instead.
You can read “rebel city” here: http://www.g-m-a.net/docs/c_forting.html