I had the great pleasure a few days ago - courtesy of the St Pancras Cruising Club - of travelling by narrowboat through the two-centuries-old Islington Tunnel. What a thrill!
A cavalcade of three narrowboats set off from close to St Pancras Basin, now the home of the wonderful transplanted Victorian Waterpoint which serves as the clubhouse, and headed east along the Regent's Canal.
The Islington Tunnel opened in 1818 and runs for 960 yards. There's no towpath, so initially boats had to be 'legged' through the tunnel - the boatmen would lie on their backs and use their legs to push against the tunnel walls to propel the barge along. From 1826, a steam tug attached to a chain on the canal bed would heave the barges through.
Nowadays, although there's room in the tunnel for narrow boats to pass, the convention is that it's one direction at a time - the tunnel is absolutely straight so it's easy to see if another boat is heading towards you.
Sometimes kayakers and canoeists use the tunnel too, but that must be really scary. There is no lighting - narrowboats have their own lights, but kayakers head through in complete darkness with just a pinprick of light at the end to offer any orientation.
The tunnel interrupts the towpath walk along the Regent's Canal but there are waymarkers to guide you from one tunnel mouth to the other. So if you are heading east to west you would go along Duncan Street, on to and across Islington High Street, up Liverpool Road, on to Chapel Market, right into Penton Street, left into Maygood Street and along Muriel Street and, hey presto, there's the canal again!
You do wonder whether a ferry service through the tunnel might be a worthwhile venture. Any takers?
A big thank you to Liz, the SPCC's vice-president, whose special invitee I was on this wonderful excursion, and to the skipper of the narrowboat I travelled on, Sally, not forgetting her faithful assistant, Flapjack ...
Another call to the past
I should have spotted this before ... another of those rare examples of old London 'letter' exchanges visible on signs. This is the Arosfa Hotel in Bloomsbury - MUSeum 2115. I think this is simply the nicest of these survivals I have come across.Don't you reckon?
What makes this particularly wonderful is that the Arosfa Hotel is still in business - this isn't some ghostly relic, but the sign (OK, the number has changed, but let that be) of a working, functioning, thriving business.
And in case you are wondering - and I certainly was - the hotel's website says the name means 'resting place' in Welsh ... a language widely spoken in Bloomsbury!
Not all that far away, on Whidborne Street south of St Pancras and King's Cross stations, there's another survivor - this is quite the most entrancing street corner in central London. And there still you can see the phone number, hand painted and now rather faint (wouldn't you be after all those decades?) TERminus 4577.
And I hope the photo below will explain why you need to hightail (meaning hurry, rush - an American origin word originating from the raised tails of running animals such as deer and rabbits) it down to Whidborne Street before it is irrevocably altered in some way.
Red Flag over St Pancras
I was very pleased to pick up this wonderful pamphlet for the princely sum of £1 over the weekend. It dates from 1958 and records a particularly unpleasant spat within the Labour party in St Pancras . There was a strong left-wing, some would say quasi-communist, group among the local party leadership - and St Pancras was at one stage a byword for municipal radicalism, with stunts such - as you can see - flying the red flag on May Day from the local town hall.
In part because of this row, and the discredit it brought on the local Labour party, the Conservatives took control of the borough in the 1959 elections - triggering a particularly bitter and contested rent strike (the story is told in Curious Kentish Town)..
The Metropolitan Borough of St Pancras was in existence from 1900 to 1965, when - along with the boroughs of Holborn and Hampstead - it became part of the new London Borough of Camden. In political terms, the name is still extant - the constituency of Holborn and St Pancras, which stretches all the way north to Kentish Town, is a safe Labour seat and currently represented by Sir Keir Starmer.
The town hall where the red flag flew is on Euston Road, opposite St Pancras station. It was purpose-built in the 1930s as St Pancras's town hall, and then became Camden town hall. Camden is, I believe, moving its municipal headquarters into the newly developed King's Cross goods yards site in coming years.
Members of St Pancras borough council down the years included Barbara Castle, George Bernard Shaw and V.K. Krishna Menon.
A wonderful sunny autumn weekend - ideal for wandering around London. The photo above was taken close to Granary Square, the development on the site of the King's Cross goods yard. There's oodles of artificial grass on the Granary Square canal bank - but that isn't artificial grass in the photo, it's the Regent's canal. Completely choked with vivid green algae. I am sure some toddler is going to jump on to it thinking it's a football pitch.
Nearby the St Pancras Cruising Club (yes, you've got that right!) was having an open day - they keep their narrow boats in the St Pancras basin nearby. And they have as their club rooms the entirely wonderful St Pancras Water Point, originally providing water for steam trains and relocated (what a huge task!) to save it from demolition as part of the area's regeneration.
It's been Open House weekend - and I've popped into a couple of awesome architect designed houses in NW5, the Burton House at the bottom of Lady Margaret Road and artists' studios hidden away on Rochester Place.
And walking at the back of St Giles-in-the-Fields I saw that the Elms Lesters Painting Rooms - built as painting studio in 1904 - were open, so I popped in. I've always been curious about the place, But it wasn't part of Open House - it was hosting 'a curation of the rising stars of the London fashion scene'. And my point and click was the most basic camera in sight, by at least £2k:
And then a quick visit to the 'Clouds' installation, thousands of differently sized whte balloons at the Covent Garden piazza. A really successful example of public art.
On my walkabout I noticed that St Martin's Gospel Oak, with its recently restored pinnacle and tower, was looking particularly splendid in the autumn sun. Don't you agree?
This bridge has good claim to be quite the most remarkable, and the most pointless, in London. It's the Gloucester Gate Bridge at the west end of Parkway, between Camden Town and Regent's Park. The area is awash with bridges - over canals, railways lines. And this one is over ... well, a slight dip in the ground.
But of course there's a back story - and while the design of the bridge may not be to everybody's taste, it has a certain majesty.
The bridge was built in the 1870s over what was then the Cumberland Basin of the Regent's Canal. The basin was filled in in the 1940s, leading to the curiosity of a landmark we have today.
Architecturally, it is ornate beyond the ordinary bounds of the London bridge. There are several bronze lamp standards in the fashion of candelabra.
There were also apparently stone figures on the bridge - not quite sure what of - but these were apparently damaged or destroyed in bombing during the Second World War.
The map below shows the spur of the canal, and the basin tucked to the south-east of the Regent's barracks. And you can also see below the floral motif in the bridge's carved sandstone, which is now weathered but still attractively graceful.
The bridge was the handiwork of the St Pancras vestry (vestries were the main institution of London local government until municipal reforms in the closing years of the nineteenth century) which must have been kept busy building over all the canals and main line railways on its patch. And it left lots of plaques and inscriptions to make sure it got the credit.
Even more remarkable are the bronze reliefs - there are two of them, one on each side of the bridge, but appear to be modern copies of the originals - showing the martyrdom of St Pancras.
The Wikipedia entry on this somewhat obscure early Christian martyr reads: 'Saint Pancras was a Roman citizen who converted to Christianity, and was beheaded for his faith at the age of just 14 around the year 304.' It adds: 'By the mid-nineteenth century, pious embroidery set Pancras's martyrdom in the arena among wild beasts, where the panther refrains from attacking and killing him until the martyr gives the beast permission.'
Well, the beast below doesn't look to me much like a panther, and it certainly isn't in "refrain" mode - but why spoil a good story, or a dashing design!
The Gloucester Gate Bridge curiosity continues just a few feet from its north-west corner, with a very strange fountain and - difficult to find any other word - cave.
This was the handiwork of the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association. It dates from much the same time as the bridge - the website that records the rudiments of its story describes it as 'an odd arrangement of rockery-type rocks, a charming country-girl statue and, in modern times, no water.'
There is indeed a charm to the fountain, which the tens of thousands who drive past it every day will most likely never have noticed.
Quite why the figure was placed on top of a recess big enough for a family of troglodytes to live in, well, I guess that's lost to time.
I may be coming late to the party, but I have only just found out that the great Peggy Seeger once wrote a song about a big rent strike and bust-up here in Kentish Town in north London.
I owe this 32-carat nugget to the broadcaster and oral historian Alan Dein, who has spoken to veterans of the rent strike. And of course, there's a good story behind the song.
Back in the summer of 1960, a long standing grievance among tenants of the borough of St Pancras brewed up into an almighty row. It reached a climax in September when two tenants - yes, 'Cook and Rowe', Don Cook and Arthur Rowe - sought to challenge eviction orders by barricading themselves in their flats. They used bedsteads, barbed wire and a remarkable number of old pianos to keep police and bailiffs at bay.
The key battle ground was at Kennistoun House on Leighton Road, where there is to this day a plaque 'in memory of Don Cook and the rent battles of 1959-1964'.
One evening in late September, hundreds of police descended on Kennistoun House. Yes, literally - breaking into one of the flats through the roof. A large crowd quickly assembled in support of the rent strikers.
The photo below - which Alan Dein sent me - shows Peter Richards (like Cook, a former soldier and a CP'er) addressing a meeting in support of the rent strike.
You can get a marvellous sense of the drama, and the level of political engagement, in a wonderful Pathe news reel of the rent strike available to view on line, Eviction Battle On! It features both Don Cook and Arthur Rowe.
The forced evictions and protests they triggered were big news - and clearly attracted the attention of Peggy Seeger, who wrote 'Hey Ho, Cook and Rowe' and recorded it with Ewan MacColl. If you click below, you can here the full recording - posted here with Peggy Seeger's blessing - distinctly dated, but wonderfully so. And below there's a taste of the lyrics - you can find them in full, with much other background, here:
HEY HO! COOK AND ROWE!
(or: The Landlord's Nine Questions)
Words and Music by Peggy Seeger
As true a story I'll relate
(With a) HEY HO! COOK AND ROWE!
How the landlord told Don Cook one night,
(With a) HEY HO! COOK AND ROWE!
You must answer questions nine
(With a) HEY HO! COOK AND ROWE!
To see if your flat is yours or mine
(With a) HEY HO! COOK AND ROWE!
Hey, ho, tell them no
With a barb-wire fence and a piano,
Took a thousand cops to make them go,
Three cheers for Cook and Rowe!
What is higher than a tree? (With a, etc.)
And what is lower than a flea?
My rent is higher than a tree,
And the landlord's lower than a flea.
There's another photo of the rent strike, and some links to sites with more information, at the bottom of this web page.
A London view
I came across this one by chance - fantastic views over London (particularly looking north and east) from the top (16th) floor of the Novotel St Pancras on Euston Road. I could make out Hampstead Heath, Highgate cemetery, the Holly Lodge estate and Alexandra Palace, and could see the ring of green beyond suburbia.
There's not a single shot of the view on the Novotel site, and while there's a small viewing space on the 16th floor, it's not developed as a feature. And I didn't have a camera with me - so you'll have to take my word. But it's absolutely worth a dekko.
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