Living Walls of Camden Of all the things you could do at the weekend, how about a walking tour of Camden's social housing? The Camden Tour Guides Association ran a two hour tour on Saturday to celebrate the borough's 50th birthday, part of a lengthy celebration that this borough is taking more seriously than most. And Camden has a housing record to be proud of, building tens of thousands of homes over the years, and embracing an astonishing diversity of architecture. Over 85% of Camden's population live in flats, we were told, which is the highest proportion in the country, so it's just as well they tend not to build nasty shoeboxes. You could tell it was going to be a good tour when one of the London Assembly members had booked in to attend, and I for one was wondering where precisely our route was going to go. There are socialhousinggems all over the borough, as this map indicates, but kicking off outside the Old Town Hall on the Euston Road meant we surely couldn't tick off very many.
The first stop was Flaxman Terrace, a very early example of social housing, indeed only the second block to have been erected by St Pancras Borough Council. That was back in 1908, in an era when a caretaker's house would automatically be included in any development. Spacewise things were rather smaller than we expect today, and the 84 flats have since been remodelled into about half that. We'd be spending most of our time across the road in Somers Town, an underrated community sandwiched between Euston and King's Cross (and under threat of partial demolition from the arrival of HS2). Take Levita House, for example. This Grade II listed building is tucked away beyond the British Library, and was constructed by the London County Council around 1930. Its architect George Topham Forrest wanted to bring something of the continent to inner London, and based this dense seven-storey block on modernist Viennese public housing. We peered in through the gated arch and tried not to disturb the locals.
The LCC was Britain's most successful deliverer of affordable homes, knocking up over 200,000 mostly-flats over its 75-year lifetime. At their peak they employed 350 architects on London-wide projects, with a completion rate that puts today's privately-focused market to shame. One of their last was on Churchway, after which (in 1965) they handed over the reins to Camden who got on with their new more modern design. And blimey, Oakshott Court. This fills one whole block at the heart of Somers Town, and looks more like a stepped Mediterranean terrace than a council house development. Two perpendicular banks of flats meet in the top corner, with apartments stacked so that every tenant has a southerly aspect, and there's even room for brightly planted gardens to be squeezed inbetween. Compared to any 21st century shiny box in the sky it looks like heaven. The site has form as social housing too, dating back to 1784 when a 15-sided block called ThePolygon was right built here. In its early years this slum was the birthplace of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, although it's her campaigning mother Mary Wollstonecraft who's commemorated by a brown plaque, as we were shown on the tour.
Further quality council blocks were pointed out ("see that urn up there?"), although Camden's other most startling projects are much further north and we missed those. Instead the walk drifted more into "we know some interesting facts about this area and can twist them into the general theme of housing" territory, which was fine, this being a fascinating part of town, but not quite what I'd been expecting. Then to finish we wandered up Camley Street to a brand new staircase down to the canal, and followed the towpath (in parts floating to avoid building works) past the most recent model for Camden's housing. Tightly packed apartment towers are being erected on the site of a former gasworks, and the moneyed will eventually be able to live in flats inside three restored gasholder frames. The development's not going to make a dent on Camden's thirty thousand strong housing list, that's for sure.
It had been an illuminating tour, both geographically and historically, not least regarding changing attitudes towards rented accommodation. Where the state once propped up those unable to afford market rates, and built homes to be proud of, now the gap between provision and need is becoming unbridgeable. And above all it re-opened my eyes to Somers Town, which I thought I'd explored but in reality anything but. So next time you're half an hour early for a train from St Pancras or Euston, why not forego that coffee and a pastry in favour of a brief wander round the neighbouring backstreets?
And while I'm in the area, have you spotted the Ladybird book exhibition that's currently taking place at The House of Illustration? I visited (and enjoyed) when it was in Bexhill earlier in the year, and now this marvellously retro display has come to London. It'll cost you £7 to get in, whereas on the south coast it was free, but this time no expensive train ticket is required. Peter and Jane await your presence.