The Lost World of North London

I don’t go north very often – north of the river, that is. My personal fiefdom these days doesn’t stretch far beyond the British Museum – but a couple of recent happenings have reminded me of my North London days, and I thought it was worth trying to capture those moments before they slip away altogether.

View from Parliament Hill Fields

My first proper job was in Camden. It was an odd place to work, as opposed to hang out, or shop, or drink. There was a whole other non-tourist Camden under the surface: the pub where we used to drink was a stones throw from the Worlds End, but it was down an alleyway a few steps away, and if you hadn’t been intending to go there, you’d have no reason to find it. This meant we mostly had the pub entirely to ourselves, and as the office had a lack of meeting rooms, we met in the pub.

I remember particularly the Friday after my first proper week at work (I’d been an intern for six weeks before that). We had, naturally, gone to the pub. I happened to glance out of the window, surrounded by my new colleagues, newly solvent and newly thrilled with myself, and saw an old-ish man walking past. He gave me a weary, dismissive glance – and it was, who else, Alan Bennett.

I wanted to run out after him and explain. I’m not really one of them, Mr Bennett. I went to Leeds. I know how the trams used to run past the Packhorse. I’ve been to Kirkstall Abbey. My mum and dad went to Beyond the Fringe. Don’t lump me in with them!

Anyway, this all came to mind when I read that Bennett’s former home on Gloucester Crescent is for sale. I never saw him again in Camden, and I never realised till years later that many other literary types lived on the same street (not that I would have recognised Michael Frayn or Claire Tomalin if I’d seen them).

I did wander the back streets when I got a chance, though – particularly in the second year when we moved to a bigger office in Primrose Hill, and some of those grand streets along by the canal became short cuts through to the new office.

Canal, east from Camden Lock

The book which taught me all about Camden’s literary hinterland, and brought back all its messy glory was of course Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe. By genuine coincidence, the week I read about Alan Bennett’s house being on sale, I also went to see Stibbe reading from her new book, An Almost Perfect Christmas, and this brought on the sentimental urge to revisit my Camden days.

To be strictly honest, being a media executive in Camden in the Noughties is probably not very much like being a nanny there in the Eighties, but there were some things which rang true.

It felt a lot like the Camden I knew – Parkway with its shabby non-tourist shops including a pet shop that actually still sold pets, and always had a sad parrot in the window, and my first proper hairdresser where Darron cut my hair, Delancey Street with its posh bistro where I had to endure a terrifying lunch with my new boss and drank far too much, and the cafes on the High Street, (pre-Costa, pre-Starbucks and nicer than any of them) – Ruby in the Dust and Bean and Cup, you are still the benchmarks of my favourite cafes, all these years later.

Then there was yoga, which featured in Love, Nina, and for me, too. It was the year 2000, I was 23, and I was all about the yoga. I had been going to a class in South London, but the commute home wasn’t getting me there on time, so I looked for a class near to work. ‘Near’ turned out to be in a community hall on the stunning Maiden Lane Estate, which was a brisk walk from the office, and practically half way to Kings Cross – so I used to walk back along York Way to get to the tube, marvelling at how desolate and magnificent it all was.

I can barely remember if the yoga class itself was any good, it was the splendour of Maiden Lane’s terraces and alleyways, and those long walks through the wasteland of pre-gentrified Kings Cross that stay with me.

St Pancras, mid-regeneration (2008)

When we moved to the new office in Primrose Hill, I discovered we were close to the chi chi Triyoga, beloved of various Spice Girls – so I switched allegiance from poor old Maiden Lane and for a few months was able to claim I shared a yoga teacher with Sporty Spice, Simon Low. That was the peak of my Camden cool, as it came to a halt in autumn 2001 when I was made redundant, with a good chunk of my colleagues following at the same time or a month or so later.

There was a rather bleak period of unemployment – it was a cold winter, not a pleasant time to be in a flat with no central heating, or out pounding the pavements looking for temp work, but just like something out of a chick-lit novel, I got a week’s work just before Christmas, which meant I could afford to buy Christmas presents.

After an unsatisfactory 9 months commuting to Chiswick, (not recommended) and it was (too good to be true, another chick-lit plot point, but genuinely true) almost exactly 12 months to the day I was made redundant, that I started a new job back in the borough of Camden.

This time, though, it was Fitzrovia, and though the work was less fun and I missed the golden days of schlepping round Camden and afternoons lounging on Primrose Hill when we should have been working (no wonder we were all made redundant, really), it felt like the start of proper grown-up life.

And it opened up a whole new bit of London, which became far more special even than Camden had been, and led eventually to the year I spent in my tiny but very much loved Bloomsbury flat.

My fireplace in Bloomsbury

Finally, when browsing through my old photos from days wandering round north London, I found a favourite which captures the essence of Camden for me – the plaque commemorating the house where Rimbaud and Verlaine stayed (it’s probably nearer to Kings Cross than it is to Camden, but the same neck of the woods).

When I took this photo, the terrace was in a state so shabby, it seemed very appropriate, given their reputation for being dishevelled and generally disreputable, but it looked like it was heading towards being done up. And I am still amused that someone put a plaque up to commemorate that they stayed there for just 3 months – so fleeting, so pointless, but somebody out there bothered to record it.

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What’s behind a door?

The usual answer to that question might be ‘a room’ or ‘a corridor’, or perhaps ‘a cupboard’, but since writing about Christmas wreaths, I’ve been noticing the doors behind the wreaths, and started to wonder what we might do to improve the state of ours.

Our new house was built between the wars, a design era I’ve always been fond of, as it brings to mind my granny’s house in the Wirral, which was a rather grand example of the style. It had garden on all sides, parquet floors, and Granny’s handsome Arts and Crafts furniture (to which small hands were well suited for polishing, in return for pocket money). It felt like a good, solid house, what a child would draw if you asked them what a house looked like – door in the middle, chimney on the roof, like the Playschool house.

In our part of London, you can track the expansion of the city by monitoring the housing stock as you go further up and away from genteel Dulwich, which must have been a village before being swallowed by the sprawl of urban growth.

Plaster moulding above bay window

Plaster moulding above bay window

At the bottom of the hill, there are large, grand Victorian houses, most double-fronted with sweeping drives. A little further up the hill, the streets become terraced but even the most ordinary Victorian house is embellished with plaster mouldings and decorative tiles (see examples above and below).

I love the fact that somebody¬†bothered to make these houses attractive, when it probably wasn’t at all necessary – yet someone took the time to add the mouldings and balconies and glazed tiles. Just a pity that so many of these houses are now in a shabby state, some ruined by pebble-dash – but you can see there’s a beautiful house crying to get out underneath it all.

Victorian tiles

Beautiful Victorian tiles alongside the less lovely pebble-dash.

However, the house we’ve just moved from, in a terrace dating from around 1905, had no attractive decoration inside or out – clearly by then, houses were being built quickly, to meet the demand as London spread outwards, with no pretence towards gentility.

Even moving up the street, you have a sense of builders running out of money and time, as houses further down are of lovely London stock brick, a soft golden yellow, but my old house was red brick, with a narrower frontage and looked decidedly shabbier.

Old house

Our unpretty old house

Nobody took much trouble to make that house attractive – which made it an ideal blank canvas for renovation, as there were no original features to start with, I had no need to agonise over whether or not to take them out.

Now we are on top of the hill, surrounded by post-WWI housing, which perhaps lacks the grandeur of the Victorian mansions, but also lacks pretension – and compared to the poky two-up two-down, we have gained rooms with elegant proportions, even if they are missing the fancy decoration.

Our house had the heart ripped out of it some time in the 60s or 70s. It has no fireplaces, no parquet floor, no picture rails, no ceiling roses. Instead, it has woodchip on the walls, avocado tiles in the bathroom and PVC windows – and as I noticed as I walked along the road, ours seems to be the only house where the original door has been removed.

Art Deco style door

Art Deco style door

Most of the houses on our street have doors with stained glass roundels and matching side windows in a beautiful Art Deco style (see above). On the neighbouring street the doors are more rustic with arched windows and leaded panels, influenced perhaps by the Arts and Crafts aesthetic (see below).

Arts and Crafts style door

Arts and Crafts style door

Our door is a 1960s glass panelled job, and to add insult to injury, a PVC porch was added more recently. This leaves us with a dilemma – the porch is showing signs of wear and will need replacing eventually, a chance to get rid of a nasty 80s addition, but as a buffer to keep cold air out, and for security, it IS practical.

So what would be the point of replacing a 60s door with a 1920s repro, or an original even, if we can find one in a salvage yard, if we are going to stick another glass porch on the front to obscure it?

The 60s door may not be as nice as our neighbours’ doors, but it has a retro charm of its own – I especially like the textured glass panels which resemble tree bark.

Textured glass door

Textured glass, 1960s classic, or horror, based on your preference.

I think I am resigned, then, to letting our house keep its 60s and 80s additions, and enjoy what we have gained – high ceilings, wide corridors, bay windows, and a dogleg staircase which lets light flood down into the hall from a picture window. In any case, I am convinced there is plenty of scope to make this house attractive, without having to buy a facsimile of an Edwardian front door or fireplace.

Footnote: I was mid-way through my first draft of this blog when I spotted that BBC4 were showing John Betjeman’s film ‘Metro-land’, in honour of the 150th anniversary of the Tube. I sat down to watch it, and realised Betj had pretty much already said all the things I wanted to say, only better. It’s still on the BBC iPlayer for a few days, although you can also watch the entire film on YouTube, apparently.