clocktower from market estate
Originally uploaded by soapbox.

The clocktower is framed by the notorious Market Estate, “hell” to its residents. Collapsed ceilings, exposed wires, boarded-up windows, doors off their hinges. One such heavily reinforced door fell on a 12 year-old boy and killed him. Hands have been washed of the affair at the Town Hall. The housing association has handed it back to the council and now they’re knocking the lot down.

The arches of the Clock Tower cast shadows that create a scene like a De Chirico painting. It’s deathly quiet and I have the odd sensation of being in an Italian piazza del duomo at lunchtime. The burnt out post box, CCTV and sudden burst of violent language pull me back to the reality of a condemned GLC Housing Scheme. Groups of teens in sportswear with a gangsta rap blaring ghetto blaster stand on a white petal-strewn path. It brings out the romantic in me, the one that ignores the smashed in windows of the Islington Scouts blue minibus.

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The park has been marked for regeneration. There’s talk of restoring “the historic symmetry of the site”, reopening the north-south axis. This was once one of London’s most famous pleasure gardens. Opened in the 1620’s, city folk escaped out here to the inn of Copenhagen House to take tea in the gardens, play skittles and fives, watch the boxing, shoot a few pigeons. The descriptions of it paint a Constable-like rustic idyll.

It was also a nest of radicalism almost as significant as Clerkenwell Green. The Gordon Rioters passed through on their way to burn the mansion at Ken Wood. One landlord of the inn was a member of The London Corresponding Society and held huge meetings here to put forward their Chartist aims and extol the virtues of The French Revolution. And in 1834 100,000 trade unionists gathered in support of The Tollpuddle Martyrs.

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Market Estate Mural

mural, Market Estate Islington

The Metropolitan Cattle Market was moved here from Smithfield in 1855. There were also twelve banking houses that serviced the livestock deals carried out in cash. An Indoor Tennis Centre and Astroturf football pitch are on the site of the old animal lairs. The only remnants I can find are a sundial topped with small metal cows and the rusting metal posts of the cattle shed against a crumbling brick wall in an overgrown ditch that runs up the back of the tennis courts and the football pitch. The only thing agricultural round here now are some of the tackles in the Islington Midweek League.

The historic symmetry of this spot projects throughout the area. Barnsbury Estate has a Copenhagen House which sits on Copenhagen Street not far from the King of Denmark pub. All in honour of the Danish ambassador who took up his plague-time residence on Copenhagen Fields or it may have been some other noble Dane, nobody’s quite sure. There’s the Pleasure Garden 24 Hour Sauna and Spa on Caledonian Road maintaining the reputation for “questionable houses of entertainment”. In Edward Square just off ‘the Cally’ a poem by the poet laureate Andrew Motion which is carved in concrete talks of Romans facing Boadicea (allegedly at Battle Bridge/Kings Cross), Chartists and freedom. A huge mural adorns the wall next to the Mitre Pub in Copenhagen Street showing the Tollpuddle Martyrs demonstration (painted by Dave) and Islington Police Station sits ironically on Tollpuddle Street. Tony Blair would have had a view of the clock tower from his pre-No.10 home in Richmond Crescent.

White Conduit House

penny farthing/ white conduit house

White Conduit House, C18th Century Pleasure Garden and once home to the cricket club that became the famous MCC. It’s now closed apparently to become a Greek restaurant. The last days as a pub were troubled by brawling. One Monday night I was the solitary punter as the landlady yelled at the Polish barmaid “turn up the music and let’s have some fun”.
Oliver Goldsmith came here for the hot buttered buns and wrote about it in ‘The Citizen of the World’. Peter Ackroyd says there was a maze in the garden and possibly marks the spot of Druidic rituals.

Looking for the Lost Pleasure Gardens of Islington

Bit by bit I think that I’m locating the lost pleasure gardens of Islington. A trip to the local history centre would probably solve the riddle in a second but that wouldn’t be fun. Instead I’m using a mixture of old maps, etymology and guesswork.
White Conduit House was easier than it first appeared. The Penny Farthing pub not far from my flat still bears the name across the top just under the eves. Inside there are framed blazers from the cricket club and an old stained glass window that used to look out onto the pitch. Oliver Goldsmith was a regular in its heyday. It’s just changed hands but it’s still a bit rough round the edges, there was a big fight in there the other night, I heard the glass smashing as I went round the corner for a can of beer. But it’s still there just, a row of houses and a playground are where I imagine the cricket pitch was and Sainsbury’s car park probably occupies the rest. I saw a couple playing badminton in the street behind where once it would have been played in the pleasure garden.
Dobney’s Tea Gardens only really became clear as The Finca was becoming Moloko which has now become Clockwork, and long before it was a half-arsed nightclub it was the Belvedere Tavern and site of Dobney’s Tea Gardens. It should have been easy – there aren’t too many buildings on the corner of Pentonville Road with a view of the New River upper reservoir.
I don’t think I’ll find any traces of Busby’s Folly as I think it’s under the Elizabeth Garret Anderson School, or that’s my hunch anyway.
Islington Spa was easy enough, the Spa Green Estate was a bit of a give-away and Tunbridge Wells House drives the point home (it was also known as New Tunbridge Wells). And there’s still an Eagle Tavern on City Road with the famous lines; “Up and down the City Road, In and out the Eagle….” on a sign outside.
Bagnigge Wells apparently has a plaque at 63 Kings Cross Road although I’ve yet to actually see it and Copenhagen House is marked by a resplendent clocktower that once served the great cattle market that replaced the pleasure garden. In its day it saw great events: a meeting of 40,000 Chartists, a rally in support of the Tollpuddle Martyrs, and the Gordon Riots. Caledonian Park occupies the space and still hosts impromptu dog fights and prostitution in the spirit of its past.
Further across the borough is Highbury Barn which too was once a pleasure garden before seediness completely took over and was closed. Now the pub is a favourite with Arsenal fans on matchdays. And not far away The Canonbury Tavern has retained its C18th Tea Garden complete with conker trees (which I saw a group of 3 year olds removing branches from), providing a nice spot to refuel when walking the New River Path.
Where today there are dodgy boozers and council estates it’s difficult to imagine what was there until about a hundred and fifty years ago. This whole area would have been like one great resort with balloon rides, archery, races, bandstands, cricket and concerts. All we’re left with are the beer and prostitutes.

this is a work-in-progress and I hope to uncover more soon…

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