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 create a cohesive 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 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.