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Highbury & Islington tube station, London
Guided by Jane
Streets Ahead! More trail blazing by the best urban walking tour guides on the planet. In Focus walks are an extremely detailed look – "what I love about London Walks is the degree of granularity you get" (as that American visitor memorably put it) – at the most famous streets and squares of London. And their tributaries. Today's In Focus walk explores Upper Street Islington, past and present. Deep breath first. Upper Street Islington goes back to 628. A bit later – oh, 600 years or so – it was part of the cattle-droving route to Smithfield. The King's Head – where the boss (Mary) was in a hugely successful show – goes back to (about) 1543. There were gentlemen's houses and tradesmen's copttages. Word has it that Sir Walter Raleigh lived here. It was a favourite place for Londoners to spend a day out. Lots of public houses. A botanical garden. Religious strife. Polison political pacts – that poisonous deal in Granita restaurant. Britain's first feminist bookshop. London's best fringe theatre (the aforementioned King's Head). London's leading pub venue for the burgeoning punk rock scene. All kinds of specialist shops – notably of course the antiques traders of Camden Passage. Charles Wesley's penning Hark the Herald Angels Sing. The list just goes on and on. Fascinating, stimulating, exciting place, Upper Street. The walk's been created and is curated (guided) by another one of London Walks' star Blue Badge guides, Jane.
That was me, David. Here's what guide Jane says about it.
Nowadays new developments in London like to bill themselves as the new Covent Garden. In Upper Street we can do better than that. Areas alongside Upper Street were saved from the wreckers’ ball a decade before Covent Garden was revamped, so on our walk today we can enjoy an even earlier renaissance of an historic area of London. Peeking behind the veil of the present-day eateries and trendy retail outlets we are transported into a thoroughfare where commoners, kings and highway men vied for road space with meat-for-market so fresh it was still kicking and snorting. Upper Street’s back stories, however, do not just cover wayward cattle, but an escaping crocodile, a ten ton whale, performing fleas and a snappy tiger.
Other dramas in Upper Street were enacted on theatrical stages no bigger than bed-sheets in tiny theatres with mighty big reputations where A-list celebs kept up the age-old tradition of performing in taverns in London’s most famous Theatre Pub. We also visit London’s most legendary but even more oppressively intimate ‘rock pub’ and the cinema where the Clash, the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks played their first punk rock gig in London.
Moving pictures were first shown in Upper Street’s Music Halls as far back as 1896. These movies eventually eclipsed live entertainment and we find delightful relics of early cinemas ranging from the alarmingly fire-prone Penny Gaffs to the ostentatiously palatial temples of the silver screen. Not to be outdone by all this theatricality, politics in Upper Street have been equally dramatic. We hear how, over dinner, politicians carved up the leadership of the Labour Party, we visit the town hall on which a red flag was once hoisted and where a bust of Lenin was proudly displayed and we meet one of the Founding Fathers of America, Thomas Paine.
The walk finishes at the Angel Underground Station, and in case you’re wondering, yes, we will find out why the station is so called.