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.

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.