diamond geezer

 Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Walking Britain's B Roads: the B104
Albion Road/Stoke Newington Church Street
[1.1 miles]

Yes I'm still walking the entire length of Britain's B Roads, sequentially, starting with the lowest numbered. As yet this hasn't been the toughest physical challenge, indeed the B104 is the first to nudge (just) over a mile in length. Another minimal safari lies ahead, but because it's a gentrified dogleg through the chi-chi-est corner of Stoke Newington the B104 should be the most interesting walk so far.

Let's start at the southern end of the B104 which is the grassy gyratory of Newington Green. This has a particularly rich history (having started out as a medieval hamlet, being home to London's oldest surviving brick terrace and boasting a 300 year-old Unitarian chapel where Mary Wollstonecraft once worshipped) but alas the road which encircles the Green is the A105 so we can't go into that. Instead we're following one of the roads which bears off at the northwest corner, the one which isn't iconic Green Lanes, beside a smart Victorian building which used to be a bank but since 2017 has been nine flats. It's called Albion Road, and MWLB will know it best as the route of the number 73 bus.

Albion Road was built in the 1820s by master builder Thomas Cubitt. He bought up ten plots of farmland either side of a footpath linking Newington Green to Stoke Newington and created a new residential road lined by brick and stucco terraces. His methods were the Georgian version of mass production - quick, efficient and absolutely nothing with fussy curves - which he'd later put to good use across the new suburbs of Bloomsbury and Belgravia. Today most have been split into flats, as the multiplicity of bins confirms, but an undivided townhouse on Albion Road sells for well upwards of a million. I was struck by the long flight of steps up to each front door, which if nothing else affords the basement a decent amount of daylight, but was also forcing the street's postwoman to do a serious amount of sequential legwork.

Things to see on Albion Road
• Off to the right is a short alleyway called Town Hall Approach, which seems odd given the fact the Town Hall is an Art Deco gem half a mile away (which we'll get to later), except before 1937 the Town Hall was down here in an Italianate building on Milton Grove.
80 Albion Road has been home to 296 Squadron of the Air Training Corp since 1941, and was recently reprieved from closure, if you fancy spending two nights a week in uniform.
• Anyone driving up Albion Road now passes numerous yellow signs warning that Church Street is closed (I counted at least five) although these make the closure sound much worse than it is (as we'll see later).
• A mosaic of Gog and Magog brightens the small triangular parklet at the junction with Clissold Crescent, for the somewhat spurious reason that they were 'Giants of Albion'.
• n.b. If Stoke Newington's history is your thing, Jack Whitehead's website is just outstanding.

Albion Road bends in the middle to pass from one side of Church Path to the other - a direct consequence of the plots Thomas Cubitt bought all those years ago. At the focal point are the local shops, collectively known as Albion Parade, which contains Albion Kitchens, Albion Frames and Albion Food & Wine. The fast food shop on the corner must have thought they'd chosen a better name 21 years ago when they called themselves Millennium Kebabs but today it just looks a bit dated. Vegan burritos and empanadas are only available at The Muddy Puddle, should you feel the need for a meat-inspired product containing no meat.

On the remainder of Albion Road we find Cubitt's white stucco terraces, at least where they weren't bombed and replaced by something more council. One of the later coachhouse-style houses has been numbered 178½, which might be useful information for anyone attempting to compile a quirky list of 'London's Most Fractional Addresses'. The electric charging point outside Carlyle House makes a heck of a racket, which makes me wonder about its true environmental efficiency. The local secondary school can also be heard, if not seen, especially if it's playtime. And then suddenly there's Stoke Newington Town Hall straight ahead and we're turning right into Church Street and everything changes.

Stoke Newington Church Street is again medieval and is named after St Mary's, which the B104 has just skipped by arriving midway. This half is a busy shopping street and also blessed with a lot of listed buildings, some of which date back over 300 years. In perhaps the quaintest section one townhouse still looks very much like a family home, one is a doctor's surgery and one is sadly all boarded up ever since John's Garden Centre went under. It's almost possible to imagine Daniel Defoe once living here, although number 95 (where his blue plaque is) has long gone and the site is now occupied by a minicab company.

What makes Church Street truly special to modern visitors, and overexcites the good folk at Time Out, is its range of independent shops and eateries. This means florists that double as cafes, window displays arrayed with new season knitwear and bakers with pastry queues stretching down the street. It means a local butcher who also runs courses in pig husbandry, a specialist schnitzel restaurant and even a bespoke violin maker. But most of all it means little one-off boutiques stocked with gifty trinkets and decorative fluff laid out sparsely on bright shelves, far more than any local home could need, in shops with names like Nook, What Mother Made, Know & Love and Metal Crumble. There's even a specialist gift shop for dogs with a selection of balls and squeaky toys in its window, should your hound be in need of a bandana, fleece, bow tie, snood or cooling vest. All in all I counted 53 shops poncier than anything that'd dare open where I live, which admittedly is a very subjective measure but N16 is very much not E3.

The road outside the Red Lion (founded 1697) is the site of the Church Street bus gate, a brand new traffic filter marked on the road by two painted rainbows. Only 20 metres of Church Street is restricted, so the yellow signs in Albion Road were overstating things somewhat, but five other filters in neighbouring streets have had to be added to prevent all possible cut-throughs. As a pedestrian or cyclist it's a joy, and the buses also get through quicker, but the whole scheme has a cryptic labyrinthine complexity that local car owners must hate. It's also not clear whether a road that can't be driven down between 7am and 7pm can still be classified as a B Road, or whether the advance of a Low Traffic Neighbourhood has silently killed half the B104 off.

Church Street continues past a slew more Georgian buildings, a fire station and one of London's Magnificent Seven cemeteries. Abney Park is a non-denominational 19th century burial ground amid an 18th century arboretum, these days more a nature reserve where brief constitutionals are taken and local dogs get walked. It's accessed here through a narrow gate up a set of steps, close to William Booth's headstone, the main entrance being off the A10 further ahead. The final building on Church Street is The Three Crowns, a lengthy pub with a dazzling saloon, but it too has its front door on the High Street so I can legitimately skip it here. The B104 has been a cracker (but don't expect this B Road bonanza to continue).

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