Ingelbert Street, which is where some scenes from The End of the Affair were recently filmed, with St Mark's Clerkenwell at its end.
MORE ABOUT THE NEIGHBOURHOOD
Described as Amwell in nineteenth-century parish maps of Clerkenwell -- an appellation resurrected by our local historical society --t he area immediately surrounding our house has been designated a preservation area: it has been described as "an enclave" and as "a village in London." Amwell commemorates the importance of our area in 1613 when Sir Hugh Myddelton and James I dug the New River from Amwell, Hertfordshire, so that fresh water from our hilly location could be piped down into the City. On behalf of our tenants, we have taken out memberships in the Amwell Society. The Society sponsors trips, lectures, meetings, and other events, all of which should be of particular interest both in terms of interest and of meeting some of their neighbours; its newsletters are directed to "tenants" of the house. For better or (more probably) worse, Amwell has entered realtor-speak and estate agents now advertise properties as being within "Amwell Village". Local shops have even started to include "Amwell Village" in their addresses, although residents are still more likely to say that they're from (the larger areas of ) Clerkenwell or The Angel. There is no longer a "Discover Islington" web-site or series of shops (introduced by the spendthrift Socialists of the borough and discontinued by the parsimonious Liberal Democrats) -- but local memorabilia (from coffee-mugs to guide-books) can be bought at Three Things, an engaging coffee-shop facing The Three Kings pub between St. James's Clerkenwell and Clerkenwell Green.
Our immediate neighbourhood was famously depicted, in its architectural nascence, by the nineteenth century cartoonist George Cruikshank in his 1829 engraving "London Going Out of Town -- or -- The March of Bricks and Mortar."
Cruikshank lived around the corner from our house and is commemorated in the name of a nearby street, Cruikshank Street. In his teetotal period, he satirized our local pub The Fountain. The pub was written up by Bill Barich in The New Yorker, October 17, 1983: "A Reporter at Large: At the Fountain" (a lively read, albeit of ineluctably historical interest, soon reprinted in his Traveling Light [Viking, 1984], 97-132). In the early 1990s The Fountain metamorphosed into Filthy MacNasty's Whiskey Cafe, an Irish bar that became a major literary hang-out (for Allen Ginsberg, Nick Hornby, and the Oxford Professor of poetry James Fenton, among many others) and to which Shane MacGowan, a regular and the famed Irish punk rocker (with The Pogues, then The Popes), dedicated a Popes album. Since then, the literati and the drunken punks have (alas, we think) moved on; Filthy's (in local parlance) now sells Thai food as well as Guinness to a hip crowd apparently untouched by celebrity.
For Cruikshank, the speculative frenzy in the construction that was taking place around him in the late 1820s sounded the death knell for London architecture and marked the development of some kind of vile jerry-built Levittown (avant la lettre). Cruikshank's architectural jeremiad notwithstanding, these self-same houses are now celebrated as architectural gems (even by loopy Prince Charles) and sell for what constantly seem exorbitant prices ("cheaper" houses are closing in on $2,000,000: see link below). In Cruikshank's engraving, we have identified the evolving building on the left -- from the bowels of which surrealistic figures emerge -- as the garden floor of our own house!
So where, exactly, in London will you be living? Our area is onomastically and cartographically "challenged" -- and (hurrah!) challenging. Indeed, it goes under sundry different names: Islington, Finsbury (on some maps but nowhere near Finsbury Park), the Angel, Clerkenwell, Amwell, Sadler's Wells, Pentonville (nowhere near the gaol), the New River Estate, even Mid-town (in the July 2005 patois of estate agents, trying for a New York City chic). In terms of postal codes, the house (in WC1) abuts directly on the N1 and EC1 postal codes which register its proximity both to the Saxon village of Islington (originally "Gisladune"), to the medieval hamlet of Clerkenwell, and to the City itself. (You can see St. Paul's Cathedral, twenty minutes walk away, from the back bedroom of the upper flat.)
Between 1900 and 1965 our house was in the London County Council's Borough of Finsbury (itself named after the medieval manor of the Fiennes family, to which the actors are related). Now we are in the Greater London Council's London Borough of Islington (an amalgamation of the LCC boroughs of Finsbury and Islington). We're in the parliamentary district of "Islington South and Finsbury." The Borough of Islington now stretches all the way from the City to Highgate Cemetery (almost to Hampstead Heath), so saying that you live in Islington is a bit like saying that you live in Manhattan. "The modern borough of Islington has had 35 years to evolve an identity as a whole," writes Alec Forshaw, the borough's chief Conservation Officer in Twentieth Century Buildings in Islington (2001), "but local areas such as Clerkenwell, King's Cross, Highbury, Holloway, or the Archway arguably mean more to local residents than generic Islington."
Gentrification has gained inexorable momentum in Islington and in Clerkenwell since the 1960s. Arguably, we are in a phase of re-re-re-gentrification (let me count the ways). Pubs, banks, offices, factories, water board offices are currently being converted into flats at an increasing tempo (although we seem almost at the point of there being nothing left too convert and no slivers of land left unconstructed). Purpose-built flats have sprung up like mushrooms on every scrap of vacant (or demolished) space. Quite humdrum facades are being lovingly maintained while new flats are built behind them--in contrast to the wanton demolitions of the mid-twentieth century. (London University has proved a worse vandal than Hitler.) Prices on everything have soared, by now a global phenomenon. (At what juncture may we have to revise these observations?) The house next door to ours (the house with the dark blue door, above left, next to our house with the dark green door and with ivy on its railings), enjoys the same, oddly trapezoidal, house plan. It came on the market for GBP 925,000 in June 2005 (For the link, which helps explain our own elevation and floor plan, see below.). We have ceased to display amazement. In August 2002 a larger house further down the street commanded GBP 1.25 million. Furnished garden flats on Ingelbert Street (around the corner from us) recently commanded GBP 475 per week (ca. USD $900), and another larger house on our street, but an absolute wreck, sold for GBP 800,000 in 2004. The pub just down the street sold for a mere GBP 500,000 in 2005 (for domestic conversion), but it will cost another 750,000 + to rehab it.
Not that we should be surprised by such prices. In the most recent survey (June 2005) London emerges a great (and greatly expensive) city -- the third most expensive in the world after Tokyo and Osaka; the highest scoring US city, New York, ranks thirteenth -- and the only proper comparison (also as regarding square footage) in the States remains to New York City. (But the Brits live in houses or flats with gardens, which New Yorkers, Parisians, and most Europeans do not).
Prime Minister Tony Blair (now Tony B. Liar to some) formerly lived on the other side of Pentonville Road. Urban legend has it that the sale of his house, after he had won the general election of 1997, stimulated the price-boom in London housing (and hence in English housing: cool Britannia!). Blair and Gordon Brown, future Chancellor of the Exchequer, met for their famous "Last Supper" of 31 July, 1994 at the Granita restaurant on close-by Upper Street where the future of New Labour's leadership (and, hence, of who would be Prime Minister) was threshed out. Granita is famous for its "brutally minimalist" decor and its unstated policy of "no tablecloths, small portions, big bills." Shadow Chancellor Brown "fell on his fork" and ceded the leadership of the Labour Party to Blur: "'Blair', 'Granita', and 'Islington' were blended into a whole -- pomme nouveau labour" (Observer. 11.viii, 1996). "Brown didn't eat much, and was seen later that evening in Rodin's Restaurant in Westminster, tucking into a large steak" (Independent, 13.vii,1996). The political marriage of Blair and Brownie has entered political folklore and continues to run as a compelling Westminster soap opera. Whatever the case about their Last Supper, Time Out several years ago declared Upper Street, Islington, "London's Dining Capital." But Clerkenwell is now nipping at its heels!
Charles Dickens described the Upper Street around the Angel of the 1870s as "amongst the noisiest and most disagreeable thoroughfares in London." It was notorious as the "Devil's Mile," boasting a thousand pubs, beer shops, and low dives. Church-going vigilantes attempted to control the rowdyism of Upper Street. But now it's London's Dining Capital. That said, we still find the traffic a bit much! (Why do chic restaurant-goers want to sit at tables on the sidewalks and watch the buses go by?) On Upper Street stands (or stood; we can't be bothered to find out) Reckless Records which was the inspiration for Pressed Vinyl in Nick Hornby's magnum opus High Fidelity -- indeed for the whole opus itself. The area around Upper Street is called The Angel, after its tube stop.
Running parallel to Upper Street (and closer to our house) is Camden Passage, a charming late eighteenth-century pedestrian thoroughfare which is home to the greatest concentration of antique shops in London. Essex Road in which Camden Passage terminates has ceased to be down-market and its restaurants have begun to rival those of Upper Street. New blocks of flats are popping up (some of them very fine) with tapas bars and bistros underneath. The newly refurbished "S and M Cafe" (that's "sausage and mash") is symptomatic. See the threnody by Edwin Heathcote, architecture critic of The Financial Times, for its banausic predecessor -- "this gem of an Art Deco cafe . . . a demonstration of how easy it is to rip the heart of a caff without altering the physical fabric in any way" -- in London Caffs (Wiley, 2004; GBP 9.99).
Peter Mandelson MP (Tony's notorious spin doctor) lived around the corner from our house in a flat on Wilmington Square (at least until a fat-cat gave him the money for a mortgage on a big house in west London). Since no one ever saw Mandelson, neighbours quipped that his sobriquet of "Prince of Darkness" was well-earned. Neighbours also credit the noise-phobic Mandelson with the institution of traffic-calming schemes in the area -- but this may also be an urban legend. Mandelson was appointed European Commissioner for Trade in August 2004; one of "Tony's Cronies," he has survived a second resignation from the Cabinet after yet another financial scandal. Also in the vicinity lives Chris Smith (MA Cantab., Ph.D. in Romantic Poetry from Harvard), our Christian Socialist MP who stepped down in 2005. He served as Minister for Culture (until July 2001) and was the first MP brave enough to "come out" as gay. Labour just held the seat in 2005 despite a vigorous challenge from the Liberal Democrats. Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North, is resolutely Old Labour. In the north of the borough live many socialistically inclined, council tenants; in our vicinity, New Labour is barely nouvelle any more.
In the hyperventilated accounts of journalists, "Islington Person" (a bien pensant, extra-virgin olive oil aficionado who cares) came, during the 1990s, to supplant the Thatcherite "Essex Man" (glottal-stopped, under-educated, "loadsamoney") as the political phenomenon du jour. This Labour-Lite ambiance contrasts with the glory days of the "loony left" in "The Red Republic of Islington" when, if the Tory gutter press were to be believed, Islington Council bank-rolled a lesbian collective for the gym-mats its karate class needed for sessions on man-handling. By August 2001, the Socialist rascals had been thrown out -- to be replaced by Liberal Democrat rascals who are putting up for sale both Finsbury Town Hall and the underground public toilets on Clerkenwell Green (the latter a perfect site for a chi-chi coffee bar). The Green (famous space for radical rallies) has had no grass for three centuries, but perhaps a square foot might finally have been planted above the toilets. Whatever. The Liberal Democrats are now denounced as "Green Fascists" because of their finicky regulations for garbage pick-up. From Loony Leftism to Green Fascism. At any rate, Clerkenwell is now the hippest part of Islington. Our house offers the best of both worlds in a quiet enclave.
We gather that the Borough of Islington still hosts "Free Cuba" rallies -- as it did in July 1996 under the musical direction of Nigel from the BBC's "East Enders." Rest assured that some of us are still supporting Castro. An erstwhile star of the show, Deepak Verma (Sanjay on East Enders) recently had his first play presented at the Old Red Lion, a celebrated pub theatre close to Sadler's Wells. More famous, on Upper Street, is the King's Head pub theatre whose charismatic, Anglophile impresario Dan Crawford, who hailed from Hackensack, New Jersey, died in July 2005. Among the actors who crossed the boards of the King's Head have been Joanna Lumley, Corin Redgrave, Steven Jerkoff (sorry Berkoff), Hugh Grant, Gary Oldman, Ruby Wax, and Anthony Sher; it has hosted new plays and revivals by Tom Stoppard, Brian Friel, Daphne du Maurier, Noel Coward, and John Fowles; the current sell-out hit is a farce about David Blunkett (who was forced to resign, as Home Secretary, from Tony Blair's cabinet over a sex-and-passport scandal), Who's The Father? Many of its productions have transferred to the West End, Equally famous is the Almeida from where productions (starring Kevin Spacey, Diana Rigg, and Ralph Fiennes have all transferred to the West End). Nor is it all words, words, words. The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art recently opened in Barnsbury Square.
Whatever its incarnation, Islington contrives to stay in the news, not least because so many of the "chattering classes" who live there enjoy puffing their friends and neighbours. Until its inexplicable demise in June 2005, our excellent local newspaper, the Highbury and Islington Express, ran a weekly column featuring endless references to Islington in the national press. Private Eye has a satiric strip cartoon "N1: Trouble Up North" -- joke references to Islington's postal code and to erstwhile hard left trades unionism "oop north" in industrial England. On 13 June 2001 the New York Times profiled Islington's Upper Street.
To Clerkenwell (which, in its south, has far less domestic architecture than in Islington's famous series of Georgian squares) re-re-gentrification has come slightly later. "Islington is expanding southwards," remarked Louise Levene in her fin-de-siecle review (in The Observer in July 1999) of the "spectacular" new Sadler's Wells theatre:
On 17 August 1998 Sadler's Wells was the first London theatre to outlaw smoking in public areas. Sainsbury's supermarket has just started rickshaw service for its customers [now, fortunately, ancient history], prompting the Guardian to remark that a crash would leave the pigeons doused in extra virgin olive oil that would take weeks to hose off!
Exmouth Market has, as we mentioned above, undergone a remarkable renaissance. Once home to the famous clown Joey Grimaldi -- the first to dress as a "modern" clown on the boards of Sadler's Wells Theatre -- Exmouth Market currently hosts some unutterably stylish (and still proliferating) postmodern stores merchanting indecipherable bric-a-brac. There's a first-rate independent bookstore, Metropolitan Books, patronized by a former president of the Modern Language Association, Moro's (the aforementioned Spanish-fusion restaurant that won the Time Out award for the best new eatery of 1998), goes from strength to strength. In addition to long-established Greek, Indian and Chinese restaurants and to fish-and-chip shops, there are new Italian, "American," Thai, Turkish, and "gourmet English" restaurants. Check out The Quality Chop House, a working class institution rejiggered for gourmets. The antique shop that sold nothing but eighteenth-century French mirrors (prices reached £14,000) has been replaced by a futuristic florists, Pod. Starbucks and Caffe Nero have invaded. But there's still a jellied eel caff and, on occasion, an old-fashioned winkle stall. There's a French maritime man who sells delicious galettes. European paisans also show up periodically to sell Corsican cheese, boar sausages, exotic sweetmeats, and other Euro-tasties. An upscale fruit-and-veg stall has replaced Cockney and Bangladeshi fruiterers. Then there's that plethora of life-style boutiques vending it's hard to say what. And an aromatherapist. Despite an extraordinary influx of cash, the neighbourhood has managed to preserve a multi-culti Cockney ambiance.
Indeed the history of London's water-supply is integral to our neighborhood ever since James I authorized the "New River," completed by Sir John Myddelton, in 1613, to bring fresh water from Amwell in Hertfordshire. (Charles and Mary Lamb lived alongside the New River; other local literary inhabitants have included Isaac Walton, George du Maurier, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, and poor Joe Orton). The area still remains important to London's water supply with the Thames Water's routing station on the bottom of Amwell Street, A reservoir survives under nearby Claremont Square (where Thomas and Jane Carlyle lived before moving to Cheyne Walk) and at the bottom of Amwell Street will be found the seventeenth-century pump-house as well as blocks of luxury flats (in wonderful conversions) that sprang from a large site of reservoirs, laboratories, and offices. The latter formed the headquarters of the Thames Water Board (to which the responsibilities, for the utility, of the New River Company devolved). Both the Amwell Society (our local historical association) and realtors have championed our neighbourhood as Amwell Village, but that name, albeit the most accurate and already current in the nineteenth century, seems not to have stuck firmly. Pentonville was the name of a "new town" developed by Thomas Penton along Pentonville Road in the late eighteenth century (only fragments of which survive), but not many of our neighbours would still say that we lived in Pentonville. Both The Angel and Pentonville Road were, however, enshrined in London's Monopoly Board -- as the second cheapest properties; how times change! -- but that board has just received, in 2005, a dopey twenty-first century makeover.
Islington and Clerkenwell were, until the early nineteenth century, separate villages until they were encompassed by "the great Wen" (as William Cobbett dubbed the Big Smoke). Until then, there were open fields grazed by many cows and a great variety of taverns, bowling greens, archery fields, dairy shops, pleasure gardens, and other watering holes patronized by Samuel Pepys (April 1, 1662, and passim), Oliver Goldsmith, William Hogarth (see "Evening" in "The Four Times of Day"), and many, many others.
The Borough of Finsbury (which was in operation from 1900, after the inauguration of London County Council in 1888, until the creation of the Greater London Council in 1965) derives its name from the Fiennes family (actors of which name have trodden the local boards and can still be seen on the silver screen). An Edwardian Flemish-Baroque (and much loved) confection, Finsbury Town Hall stands at the bottom of Amwell Street, awaiting its architectural fate, probably at the hands of the private developers to whom the Liberal Democrats of the Borough of Islington are poised to sell it; but perhaps we can stop their most fiendish plans). "Finsbury" still enjoys much name recognition from and generates much affection within older Londoners. But the coolest description of the neighborhood is the newest to achieve fashionable currency: Clerkenwell.
That name is derived from the "Clerks' Well" (still visible on Clerkenwell Green) to which location medieval clerics would resort in order to perform mystery plays. On the Green (which has had no grass for three hundred years) you will find a splendid 1782 courthouse (sensitively extended, for once, by the Victorians, with original sculptures by Nollekens) and the Marx Memorial Library (in the building of a 1737 Welsh charity school) overlooked by the handsome 1796 steeple of St. James, Clerkenwell (a church now resounding to the enthusiasm of its "happy-clappy" Anglican congregation: holy communions is something to behold with loaves of bread, video screens, playlets, and some "old" hymns dating from the 1970s). Lenin edited Iskra from the library (then home to the Twentieth Century Press, Social Democratic Publishers, backed by William Morris) and he also lived in Percy Circus. Around St. James's the street-plan of Clerkenwell still traces the outlines of medieval monasteries and nunneries, perhaps even of Celtics and Anglo-Saxon pathways. In St. John's Gateway (1504), Hogarth's father ran his unsuccessful Latin coffee-shop and Samuel Johnson wrote for The Gentlemen's Magazine (which was edited there). Now the Gateway (and the surrounding area) houses the headquarters of the St. John's Ambulance Brigade, successors to the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem (not in The Da Vinci Code).
Perhaps the most notable recent inhabitant of Clerkenwell is Peter Ackroyd who features the area in London: The Biography and such novels as The House of Doctor Dee (this Elizabethan mage actually lived in Mortlake) and The Clerkenwell Tales. Aficionados of psycho-geography (that is, the magico-mystical continuity of geographical features such as hills, rivers, and holy places) will enjoy the weird light Ackroyd sheds upon his (and our) neighborhood. But Ackroyd recently fled to Kensington, possibly because the area has shed its Victorian artisanal character and now buzzes with hip. We gather that the internationally known architect, Zaha Hadid, still maintains her practice on 9 Bowling Green Lane.
Clerkenwell increasingly achieves international attention as London's coolest new neighborhood, receiving profiles in The Economist among other journals. In the New York Times, Mark Bittman writes in 2005:
Clerkenwell is on the verge of becoming New York's East Village, but with better architecture and 10 times as much history: Lenin and Benjamin Franklin spent time here, and Dickens and George Gissing used it as setting for their novels. ("A Day Out in London: Clerkenwell's Revival is Bliss for Foodies," May 8, 2005. For the link see below.)
An historical correction is called for. During his teenage jaunt to London in 1724-6. Franklin actually first lived on Little Britain and worked in a printer's located in St. Bartholomew's Church, namely in that part of the City which edges Clerkenwell. The "Benjamin Franklin" who was a churchwarden in St. James, Clerkenwell was not our Ben.
There's a great deal to say about Smithfield (now buzzing with hip restaurants), once home to the noisome live meat-market (ended in 1855) and now the only surviving wholesale (refrigerated, we hasten to add) market in central London. There's also a Carthusian Monastery (London's oldest surviving "domestic" architecture and now a gentleman's almshouse), St. Bartholomew's Hospital (outside of which William Wallace was executed), James Gibbs's eighteenth century hospital buildings, and St. Bartholomew's Church (London's oldest and featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral and Shakespeare in Love; among the movies shot in Clerkenwell are A Fish Called Wanda and Dance with a Stranger; around the corner from our house was filmed The End of the Affair [Fiennes returns to Finsbury] and the famous "gorilla" sequence in Doctor in the House. Down the block from us, Cumberland Gardens is a favourite location for early nineteenth century scenes in BBC TV dramas. The Diana Dors Story was partly filmed on our street.) But we're beginning to wander away from Clerkenwell into movie trivia. Sorry.
Reviewing the new Time Out: London Walks Volume I (2005) on 1 July 2005 London's longest-lived Sunday paper The Observer quotes from Janet Street-Porter, a journalist and inhabitant who perambulates the neighborhood for our benefit:
From a warren of engravers, clock repairers and furniture in the 17th century, Clerkenwell has transformed [itself] into London's answer to New York's SoHo, with loft living aplenty and some of the most expensive real estate in the capital. (Consult that perambulation for a flavour of Clerkenwell.)
Early modern Clerkenwell was formerly the site of low-market Jacobean theatres like the Red Bull, of bear baiting pits like Hockley i' the Hole, of brothels (it was a combat zone rivalling that of Southwark) as well, later, of rookeries like Fagin's. Radicals from medieval peasants to Chartists and their CND successors have assembled on Clerkenwell Green. Artists' studios, gourmet restaurants, POMO blocks of flats, office developments and boutique hotels have recently burgeoned amidst the winding streets and alleys.
Having said all this about trendy Clerkenwell, we should differentiate the enclave of Amwell -- which Alec Forshaw, Islington's chief Conservation Officer, denominates North Clerkenwell -- from what Forshaw dubs South Clerkenwell, namely the area stretches from Rosebery Avenue to Smithfield and the City. But South Clerkenwell properly begins in Exmouth Market -- "an awful dump 15 years ago that is now becoming a groovy little shopping street" writes Mark Bittman in The New York Times -- which is home to Moro, one of London's most popular restaurants which received Time Out's top prize in 1998 and still garners rave reviews, as well as to its hip Spanish delicatessen Brindisa. At the end of Exmouth Market in Farringdon Road is Gazzano's, a wonderful Italian delicatessen that preserves the ambience of Little Italy which abuts on Clerkenwell.
The point we
wish to make is that
Amwell/North Clerkenwell -- which was originally part of the parish of St. James
Clerkenwell -- is quiet and residential by comparison with some of the hotter
spots (mixed in with many quiet streets) of South Clerkenwell. So we, and
potentially you, enjoy the best of both worlds. We are in trendy Clerkenwell, but
not quite of it. North, but not South. Our current parish is that of
Clerkenwell and , Holy Redeemer, Clerkenwell, in Exmouth Market (a congery of Renaissance
basilica and Venetian Gothic; built 1895 and
rehabbed with a National Lottery grant; Anglo-Catholic high church
"smells-and-bells"; check out the thurifers, lace, and mariolatry).
St. Peter and St Paul's, a Catholic Church dating from 1835, stands on Amwell
Street; a neoclassical Baptist "Word Centre," its building slightly
older, may be found just off Myddelton Square.
Fortunately, we live in a Georgian terrace at some remove from the charms both of Upper Street and of Exmouth Market. As unrepentant boosters of this exhilarating borough and our own place in it, we continue to accumulate guide books, pamphlets, and histories; newspaper and magazine articles; recommendations for restaurants and pubs. . . . Our extensive collection is available on site for tenants. We can, however, communicate some items to prospective tenants. Further particulars of Amwell Village appear directly in More about the Neighbourhood. Tips for Tenants is provided to tenants. This is a handbook on running the flats and on our London team which can deal with any and all problems. It also encloses much information on local shopping, drinking, dining, and amusements. We shall be happy to make it available to those who are seriously contemplating a lease.
We should, perhaps, mention that Islington has achieved 16th place in The Idler Book of Crap Towns: The Fifty Worse Places to Live in the UK (Boxtree/Pan Macmillan 2003; ten pounds), coming in behind Winchester (number 4!) and just nudging out London itself at 17. The voting protocols seem a bit murky but this is what Andrew Baillie records for Islington (our sole source of "crappy" information for our neighborhood):
Islington is most notable for its high street [Upper Street] with bars populated by men with facial hair and women with wrinkled faces. Everyone smells of beans and marijuana [that latter whiff is indeed becoming more noticeable on Upper Street, but we're not yet Amsterdam]. Nowhere else in the world can you come across so many people in their thirties dressed as teenagers.
Endless streets of Victorian terraces, lived in by Jacks and Chloes who go to Arsenal [our football team profiled by local lad Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch], eat pie 'n' chips, and speak in half-words. But this is merely a stepping stone to the next staging post in the middle-class diaspora (Hampstead) where they return to their natural foods, accents, and dress-codes. Bastards. (p. 86)
Amwell displays a splendid (and largely intact) ensemble of early nineteenth-century domestic architecture with its characteristic but varied squares (Myddelton, Claremont, Lloyd, Wilmington, Granville, Percy Circus). Unfortunately, a section of our street itself received several direct hits during the Second World War: it lost some thirty houses which were rebuilt as low-rise flats in the late 1940s. Nearly all of the historic properties have by now been lovingly restored and, like so much of Islington, Amwell is popular with liberal-left journalists, academics, professionals, radio-TV types, musicians, barristers, novelists. Clerkenwell itself represents Peter Ackroyd's favourite section of London. A former president of the MLA lives down at the bottom of Amwell Street in a block which an architectural critic has, alas, described as "illiterate neo-Georgian."
Amwell contains some well-maintained public housing ("council estates") -- e.g., Myddelton Passage, Claremont Close (you wouldn't believe these are public housing) -- that was often built on bombed sites. Local blocks of council flats (mostly outside Amwell) were often designed by the leading English modernist architect Berthold Lubetkin (he also designed the deco Penguin Pond at the Zoo) and, just across Rosebery Avenue, for the acclaimed Finsbury Health Center). Some of the terraced houses that Islington Council still owns in Amwell could use a lick of paint, while others have just been thoroughly redecorated. In short, the area remains authentic in its atmosphere. (To the north of Pentonville Road, Tony Blair lived just two blocks away from the great swathe of council estates that runs down to King's Cross and the Caledonian Road.) Local shops cater for a varied clientele and Chapel Market offers a colourful and vigorous cross section of what has been lovingly dubbed "the real London." In our house, then, you will be inside the culture as you would not be in many of the purpose-built flats rented by American academics. In fact, there are very few tourists in our neighborhood and one lives as the English do.
To the North lies Upper Street, starting at the Angel. Upper Street is the "dining capital of London" chirrups Time Out. Camden Passage contains both antiques and restaurants, and has been mightily gentrified (and re-gentrified) in the last decade. The New York Times declares that the Upper Street area of Islington (nearest to the flats) has "died and come back to life" again. Here also are the varied eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century squares of Islington, Barnsbury, Canonbury, and Highbury. To the South and East lie Clerkenwell Green, the Barbican, and the City. To the West is Bloomsbury. All are within easy and agreeable walking distance.
Amwell and its environs are late Georgian or Regency in character but you will find much Victoriana and some fine post-modern ["pomo"] buildings to be relished. Despite the regularity of the London terrace, there is actually a remarkable variety of architectural styles and, since our house stands towards the top of a gentle hill, there are many fine vistas. Yet in ambiance, the whole area reverberates with echoes of its earlier history: the villages of Islington and Hoxton, Canonbury Tower, the New River, Sadler's Wells, Clerkenwell Green, the Red Bull Theatre, bear-gardens and cockpits, brothels (the City Fathers had banished prostitutes to the "suburb" just outside the city walls), Huguenot workshops, the Charterhouse, Smithfield, Bartholomew Fair, Little Italy, Gray's Inn, Hatton Garden, Saffron Hill, Fagin's rookery, Farringdon etc., etc. Keep your eyes peeled and you will find that Amwell itself comprises a wonderful gallimaufry of architecture dating from the 1600s to the present. Further information on shopping, transport, and much else besides will be found in Tips for Tenants.
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