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 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.
The idea has been with me ever since I first picked up a copy of E.O. Gordon’s ‘Prehistoric London : its mounds and circles’ – to walk between the mounds on the summer solstice. In her criminally under-celebrated book Gordon describes how the mounds and circles of the British Isles are the remnants of a lost culture. No news there when looking at the solstice celebrations at Stonehenge (30,000 pagan celebrants this year), but London?
The only acknowledgement of the significance of these sites was a record of The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids forsaking Stonehenge in favour of performing ceremonies at Tower Hill in March 1963.
I confess that resonance was added by the fact that at the time I lived yards away from Penton Mound at the top of Pentonville Road. But what vision of the city would be formed by perambulating between its founding sites – the great monuments that were at the centre of a thriving city long before the Romans rocked up.
Westminster/Tothill to Bryn Gwyn/The Tower of London to Penton/ New River Upper Reservoir to The Llandin/ Parliament Hill – a day to achieve it in.
In its original formulation this would have been a grand ritual unifying the city led by the nation’s Druids. In this inaugural event it maybe fitting that it is a family affair – just me and my sister.
I meet Cathy on Broad Sanctuary at 2.15pm after a detour to the Widescreen Centre to pick up a role of TriX black & white Super 8 film to attempt a film of the ritual – a 3 minute in camera edited film. We are delayed longer than planned at Westminster – get caught up with the small good natured demonstration on Parliament Square in support of the Iraqi people. We blow the cover of the supposed Heritage Wardens who confess to being GLA employees spying on the demo (the are barely double figures present). We move on over Westminster Bridge leaving the Royal Gorsedd and cut behind County Hall haunted by the spindly Wicker Man that they call The London Eye. Then its down Roupel Street, Union Street and into the quiet. We ponder upon the fetishisation of dereliction as we marvel at some beautiful crumbling relics – one a stone doorway with the word ‘OFFICE’ carved into the lintel adrift in an empty street. I realise that with my focus being on the film it cancels out words – my notebook virtually empty – the whole 2 hour wander to Tower Hill only inspiring a single note – ‘Great Maze Pond SE1’ which I take to fit in with the pagan theme of the derive (mazes being created in oak groves and markers of places of druidic ritual).
We spend little time at Tower Hill/ Bryn Gwyn – along with Westminster/ Tothill – as I feel an overwhelming urge to deny the desecration of the sites by the invaders – the so-called Parliament at the ancient place of congregation and communal law-making and the Prison on the site of the British people’s fortress where the severed head of Bendigeid Vran, first king of this island, is said to be buried. I record them on camera but we move on enjoying the calm City streets.
Into Barbican from Moorgate through the halls and out into Whitecross Street guided by Hawksmoor’s spire on St Luke’s. On Goswell I show Cathy the Mount Mills fortification and we follow the Cromwellian defences through Northampton Square and out to face Lubetkin’s Spa Green Estate. We skirt its perimeter and I then point out the Mount Zion Chapel – redolent of a riff in Gordon that links the British Mounds to their spiritual cousins in Palestine (a few years ago I emailed Mount Zion Chapel to enquire what had guided the location of their chapel – I received no reply).
Cathy leaves me at the Penton to complete the final leg alone. It’s 7.30pm and I should stop for a cuppa somewhere but Islington at that time on a Saturday is geared up for one thing only. Also as I push on along Penton Street I’m too awash in a sea of memories of my happy years spent living here.
The Penny Farthing has been given a confused make-over and is now a restaurant serving an odd combination of pizza and sushi – I suppose they don‘t attempt to trade in on the pub‘s heritage as the true home of cricket – the pavilion for the club that would become the MCC after they moved across town to Marleybone. Change takes on odd forms – a tattoo parlour has opened next to the corner shop that supplied me with cans of beer and emergency nappies.
Down Copenhagen Street and walks (and blog postings) past come back as do trips to playgroups and the wonderful library on Thornhill Square. I get second wind.
Turning the corner into York Way I shoot some of the old station posts that seemed to have survived the coming of the Eurostar. Then the vista of the day – the cleared scorched earth west of York Way – a train slowly moving across the land below three enormous silos – I consider running off the remainder of my film here – a Tarkovskian landscape worthy of its own 50ft of TriX.
Gordon relates York Way’s original name, Maiden Lane to its purpose of leading people to their places of congregation (Maiden Lane that runs through Covent Garden lines up with Parliament Square). I note the street name of a sorry backstreet behind a warehouse – Vale Royal – the last indicator of the rich mythology linked to this area from Boadicea’s last stand to the first Christian Church (in the world!).
I’ve now decided to keep going without a stop till I ascend the top of the Llandin – a continuous yomp from the south end of Tower Bridge. Up along Brecknock Road where the dark ridge of Highgate Woods marks the horizon. Down through Dartmouth Park and I’m there on Parliament Hill Fields. I must be hallucinating because I see a white robed Druid atop the hill – yes. I grab the camera and zoom in – not a Druid but the freshly painted white monument to right of free speech that exists here. I do a kind of stop-frame dance around the stone till the film runs out and the journey is over – 50 feet of film, 10 miles and 6 hours walking.
Penton Villa, Leyspring Road. It struck me straight away. I used to live just off Penton Street, Islington, and have written before on this blog about the significance of the site. This is partly based on the etymology of the word Penton (derived from the Celtic to mean rising hill or spring) and E.O. Gordon’s idea of Penton Mound being one of the great mounds of London. Of course the other explanation of the Penton reference is that the land was originally developed by the C18th landowner Henry Penton, hence Pentonville Road.
So what is this Penton Villa doing in Leytonstone? In Leyspring Road as well – enough to arouse the interest of any crypto-topographer. Does one explain the other. Ley = “a field covered with grass or herbage and suitable for grazing by livestock” , and there is still pasture land at the end of the road and cattle were grazed there till quite recently I think. The name of the road though probably came from Leyspring House “Away from the High Road, “Leyspring House”, a fine house with a spring in the courtyard, stood in 33 acres of ground stretching from Browning Road and Bushwood to Mornington Road.” No link to Henry Penton but the spring is there and Leytonstone sits upon high ground as the fantastic views of the city from Gainsborough Road and Blake Hall Road testify (a quick check on google earth shows that the woods at the end of the street are at a similar altitude to Penton Mound 112 ft to the Penton’s 138ft). So a spring on rising ground. Another link back to the Penton Mound is the significance of a spring on high ground near an oak grove being a likely place of Druidic worship, and there are clusters of oak trees just off the end of the road on Wanstead Flats that would have spread much further before the area was heavily developed. As Peter Ackroyd writes: “It is known that in prehistoric worship a holy place was marked by a spring, a grove and a well or ritual shaft.”
What firmly places this in my autotopobiography is the fact that there is another Penton Villa, in Tormoham, 1 mile west of Torquay in North Devon (see comments) not far from where my parents live. And this in turn leads us back to Islington and this blog with the naming of streets and buildings around Rosebery Ave and Grays Inn Road after places in Devon (the link being the developer James Hartnoll from Devon).
note: I recently realised that Penton Villa is in fact in Lister Road and not Leyspring Road. The etymology is too good to resist though and I shall cling onto that chain of association on the basis that Leyspring Road is just around the corner and it is still likely that Penton Villa sits within the old Leyspring Estate. On the hand I’m giving up on indulging in any associations that may arise from the recent conviction of two men who were operating a gun-making factory in their Lister Road house.