Through the Angel Tunnel on the Floating Cinema

The other week I did a talk and screening aboard The Floating Cinema on the Regent’s Canal. I spoke about some of the myths, legends and hidden histories of the Canal hinterland around Kings Cross, Islington and Pentonville – where we passed on the boat and allowed the talk to stray up into the Northern Heights and even down to Balham. Some swans drifting past the barge led to a discussion of Iain Sinclair and Andrew Kotting’s film Swandown and we played clips from the film I’ve just made with them – London Overground.

Finally passing through the Angel Tunnel (or Islington Tunnel) was a great experience – I lived for 4 years on an estate up above (see the early archives of this blog) and always planned to take the subterranean boat trip but never did. The lack of a towpath means you have to walk above ground through Barnsbury Estate, down Chapel Market, across Upper Street and Duncan Terrace before rejoining the towpath in Canonbury. The boat journey can take up to 20 mins sliding through deep underground, depending on traffic.

I’d read the story of the opening of this section of the Regent’s Canal on 1st August 1820 when an orchestra spread across several barges played as they passed through the tunnel. Huge crowds gathered around each end to listen to what must have been a glorious racket. I played some music by British composer Henry Bishop that may possibly have been played on that momentous occasion as Bishop was one of the most popular composers of the time.

 

What Is A City For? KERB crates talk Kings Cross

This is an extract from a 20-minute talk I gave the other day stood on a soapbox in the KERB food market on Kings Boulevard, Kings Cross. Stood there amongst the rising towers of mammon you see parallels with the same landscape where Blake saw the golden pillars of Jerusalem rising in the field beneath Islington.

THE FIELDS from Islington to Marybone,
To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,
Were builded over with pillars of gold;
And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

I naturally talked about the Pen Ton Mound and Merlin’s Cave, the legend attached to St Chad’s Well just over the road from the station and also about Tooting Crater on Mars named after an area of South London. All from my book This Other London.

Myths and Legends of London

There was something in Iain Sinclair’s White Chapel Scarlet Tracings that made me push through morning fatigue and head out for a wander. All I knew was that I needed to head east from Holborn. I resist the temptation to visit the Celts exhibition at the British Museum, the pull of the walk was too great, there was something out there for me.

Down through Lincoln’s Inn Fields and onto Fleet Street. At St Dunstan-in-the-West I go and stand by the statues of King Lud and his sons Androgeus (who is possibly Mandubracius king of the Trinovantes in modern day Essex and East London) and Tenvantius (who was king of the Catuvellauni in today’s Herts/Cambs/Beds).

According to a legend set down in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Lud is credited with building, or at least expanding, a grand citadel on the hill where St. Paul’s Cathedral now stands, a hill that bears his name – Ludgate Hill in the period just preceding Ceasar’s first expeditions to Britain in 54BC. He was buried at the foot of the hill where the Lud Gate stood and the 14th Century statues at St. Dunstan’s used to adorn the gate until it was demolished in 1780. Some legends say that London is named after Lud, one of the many competing foundation myths.

Another can be found high up on the face of the church where the statues of Gog and Magog toll out the half-hour and hour standing camply one hand on the hip the other on their vicious looking clubs. According to myth they were the ancient British giants defeated by Brutus the Trojan who then established the first city of London in 1180BC.

‘In the year 1108 B.C., Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas, who was the son of Venus, came to England with his companions, after the taking of Troy, and founded the City of Troynovant, which is now called London. After a thousand years, during which the city grew and flourished exceedingly, one Lud became its king. He built walls and towers, and, among other things, the famous gate whose name still survives in the street called Ludgate’. This is how Walter Besant recounts Geoffrey’s myth in his History of London published in 1893 before stating that it is if not an invention it’s a mangling together and miss-copying of prior sources to construct a grander yarn.

All-said-and-done it’s a good story and one that should be known by every school child in London even if it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. We need our communal myths.
I wonder what it is about this church that makes it such a magnet for mythology.

I wind around the lanes running off Fleet Street into the Thames and come up beneath St. Brides Church. I often find myself seeking sanctuary here. In the crypt I look at the fragments of Roman pottery excavated onsite and a section of stone walling from the original Saxon Church.

Look Mum No Hands Old Street
Up Farringdon Street and into Smithfield passing CrossRail carnage, then St. John Street takes me onto Old Street via Clerkenwell Road.

Second breakfast is taken at a curious trendy coffee shop, Look Mum No Hands, where they repair bikes at one end of the counter. I drink my over-priced flat white watching a man replace the spokes in a wheel. There is something very seductive about cycling culture, even the socks in here look great, the caps, the colours of the racing jerseys that should never been stretched over a beer-gut. It makes me want to buy a bike. But one look at the traffic thundering past outside renders that idea insane. I shall stick to being a pedestrian. Urban walking seems to be utterly resistant to this form of image makeover.

Duck down Helmet Row behind St Luke’s, a scene I’d read in White Chapel this morning took place in this narrow street. That was before gentrification – dodgy book collectors wouldn’t get a look in now. The receptionist at Modern Art jumps out of her skin as a lope past, heaven forbid that someone should want to look at paintings.

Memory draws me up City Road before I detour round a sequence of Victorian streets – Haverstock – Remmington – Quick – and The Charles Lamb pub not far from his house. Over the canal and one final stop on the Sinclair trail to visit Camden Passage where the second-hand book dealers just about still ply their trades. I wander into an antique print shop where there are numerous 19th Century engravings of The White Conduit House on Penton Street where we used to live, and for a while I was obsessed with White Conduit House. There’s a good bit about it in my book.

Whilst the lovely fella behind the counter looks for old pictures of Leytonstone my eyes travel to the tiny stack of Bucks prints. I pick them up and the first image I see is of Wooburn Church, the village where I was raised and where generations of my family were christened, married, and buried. Perhaps that was what was calling me all along.

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.

IMG_5770
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.

IMG_5711
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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

The sound of Manze’s Pie and Mash shop Chapel Market

I recorded this audio clip whilst stopping for some much needed Pie and Mash on one of the walks for This Other London. It’s got great acoustics – something to do with all those tiles and marble worktops.

Here’s a bit from the book:

I move on quickly into Chapel Market where I can sate the desire for Manze’s pie and mash that had been stirred in Walthamstow. I order a small pie and with a dollop of mash smeared around one side of the plate and swimming in parsley liquor, it is placed on the marble counter top. The tea comes in a glass mug with the spoon standing upright. I settle on a wooden bench in one of the booths under the glow of a line of petal-shaped lights reflecting in the mirrors. It is a gleaming working-class food palace. The white-tiled walls are broken up with brown borders containing a band of decorated green tiles embossed with a chain of ribboned flowers.This Other London p.233

This Chapel Market Manze’s (there are a few dotted around London that grew out of the original empire established by Michaele Manzo, an Italian immigrant from Ravello) features in the film version of The London Nobody Knows. It makes a going for pie and mash look like a trip to the Twilight Zone.

 

Live Streetview Storywalk

Earlier today I did the first live This Other London Storywalk using Google’s Hangout on Air app on Google Plus (above is the archived video of the event). It’s a great way of taking people out for a wander round London from wherever they happen to be. Hopefully be doing more of these and looking at ways of extending the possibilities.

Holloway Old Fire Station

This was the venue for last night’s screening of Make Your Own Damn Art – the Old Fire Station in Mayton Street, Holloway, now the home of the brilliant Rowan Arts.

As I was sat at the front of the room during the Q&A I noticed a hatch at the top of the wall near the ceiling then cast my eyes across to a ladder running down the wall and realised that where we sat chatting about Bob’s art and my film was where firemen would have slid down a pole and raced off to battle blazes across Islington.

london