Short read: Ah, Islington! Special buzz here.
Long read: And it’s not just that this is one of the trendiest parts of London. It’s also the rustle of the past. And little wonder, because Islington has seen it all. London lineages don’t come much older. Or prouder. How far back do you want to go? How’s an Anglo-Saxon village grab you? St. Mary’s is 7th century. And the wonders the whirligig of time works – because it was at St. Mary’s that John Wesley was kicked out for daring to suggest that the souls of the rich were no better than the souls of the poor! God knows what historical zeitgeist Wesley may have tapped into just then – thoughts of “good shepherding” and Gadarene Swine might well have come naturally to him in Islington because the place grew up around the oldest droving route in the world. What must it have been like? Thousands of bellowing cattle and clacking geese and squealing porkers. And drovers bearing news and gossip. And constant fresh milk and cream for London markets. And buzz past and buzz present because when they reached the old Angel Inn – near where we start – they knew they were on the threshold of London – almost there! Their final destination was of course Smithfield. Think of Dickens’s Oliver Twist – those fateful words: “where London begins”. And right away – a quintessential London Walks detail: the pavements of Upper Street – the main street – were raised to protect passers-by from the churning mud. And – quick intake of breath here, because history has just laid its gloved hand on your shoulder – look, look there… look at those raised pavements, raised way up they are. And just like that you’re into a “double vision” moment: you’re looking at trendy, cutting-edge, 21st century Upper Street but you’re simultaneously also seeing, as if, in a magic lantern, 16th and 17th and 18th and 19th century Upper Street and wave upon wave of drovers and their beasts. How did Shakespeare put it? “Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore, so do our minutes hasten to their end, each changing place with that which goes before… all forward do contend.” So, yes, our turn now to “do” Merrie Islington.
And doobie doobie doo, why not look this way. What’s this? Rather more agreeable, isn’t it? It’s a village whose history is “writ in water”. Canals and the 17th century New River carrying fresh water to London. And a village whose springs and wells gave rise to fashionable tea gardens and theatres.
Which is by way of saying, Islington perhaps more than any other London village has danced the dance of seven veils. And one of its most brilliant veils was the “back garden playground of London.” Or you can think of – indeed behold – the village green, with the famous Collins Music Hall, where Charlies Chaplin, Tommy Trinder and Marie Lloyd performed. A venue that reverberated across the theatrical ages because Olivier drew on it for his performance in The Entertainer.
The show goes on. Because here’s the King’s Head theatre pub, arguably the most important fringe theatre in London. It was the King’s Head that revived the idea of a pub and dining theatre. Funky doesn’t come any more star-dusted than the King’s Head: Hugh Grant, Tom Stoppard, Victoria Wood, John Hurt, Sheila Hancock, London Walks’ Mary – they all worked their magic here. And what’s not to love about a pub where the takings are still rung up in pounds, shillings and pence?
What else? Well let’s fan through the deck: there’s the Regent’s Canal, lined with narrowboats; there’s the antiques market; there’s the toniest restaurants in town, let alone Tony’s and Gordo’s little tete-a-teterie; there’s – more whirligig this! – a milieu that can embrace, across just a decade or so, the red flag flying from the Town Hall to million-pound properties; there’s the favoured home and haunts of writers and celebs such as Stephen Fry and Boris Johnson and Salmon Rushdie. No surprise that, since the likes of Joe Orton, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and Charles and Mary Lamb also put down here.
Well, you get the idea – this is one special London village.
MERRIE ISLINGTON – THE PRACTICALS
Merrie Islington takes place at 2:30pm on Sunday April 16th
To go on the Merrie Islington walk meet Sue just outside the exit of Angel Tube.
LONDON WALKS REVIEWS
“The best walking tours in London” The London Guide
“the unfailingly fascinating London Walks… If you can’t find one [of their tours] that captures your fancy, maybe you really are tired of life” San Francisco Chronicle
LONDON WALKS PRIVATE WALKS
If you can’t make one of the regularly scheduled, just-turn-up, public Merrie Islington walks do think about booking one as a private tour. If you go private you can have the Merrie Islington Walk – or any other London Walk – on a day and at a time that suits your convenience. We’ll tailor it to your requirements. Ring Fiona or Noel or Mary on 020 7624 3978 or email us at [email protected] and we’ll set it up and make it happen for you. A private London Walk – they’re good value for an individual or couple and sensational value for a group – makes an ideal group or educational or birthday party or office (team-building) or club outing. Or indeed a fab present – be it a birthday or anniversary or get-to-know-your-new neighbourhood gift or Christmas present or whatever. Merchandise schmerchandise (gift wrapped or not) – but giving someone an experience, now that’s special. Memories make us rich.
LONDON WALKS – STREETS AHEAD!
THE FAMOUS WHITE LONDON WALKS LEAFLET
“Nah, don’t need it, got it all here,” you say. Er, roaming charges? Er, dead battery? Er, reading your phone in the bathtub and you drop it? [Smelling salts interval: sick as a parrot. ashen-faced.] Er, read the famous white leaflet in the bathtub and you drop it what do you do? Er, you dry it out. Anyway, maybe worth making a mental note that you can always pick up the famous white London Walks leaflet at the Cafe in the Crypt at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the old church in Trafalgar Square. They’re on the Information Table there, right by the box office. And indeed they also display them on the shop counter