diamond geezer

 Saturday, November 18, 2023

Thanks for your suggestions for another Islington-based post. Allow me to sort-of tackle what some of you asked.

How about a walk around the gardens and squares of Islington?

Well why not?

Please can you explore Thornhill Square? I've walked around it a few times, and wondered what it would be like to live there. It's out of my price range.

Some of London's most desirable streets lurk just out of general sight, set back from main roads and unglimpsed from any bus, which is just how their residents like it. Thornhill Square is one of these, a prime residential focus just off the Caledonian Road in Barnsbury (nearest station, obviously, Caledonian Road and Barnsbury). Crucially it's not square, it's sensuously curved which only goes to augment its attraction. Along with Thornhill Crescent it forms an elongated loop, technically an ovoid ellipse, surrounding a significant public garden. Perversely my photo is labelled Thornhill Square but actually shows Thornhill Crescent.

The houses around the perimeter are all three-storey early Victorian townhouses, of the type that have sash windows, half-visible basements and a hefty price tag. There are no breaks in the facade - if you hire a gardener they'll need to hoick all their gear through your hallway. Stick a shrub on your doorstep, keep your stucco clean, polish your knocker and you'll fit right in. The road outside is broad with fiercely coveted parking spaces, and more than one resident finds it convenient to store their boats and/or canoes here. The architecture's not quite Mary Poppins standard, but still has that expialidocious vibe.

I could recount a full history but there's a Wikipedia page for that and it'd be pointless to regurgitate those 1000 words here. In brief... dairy farmer sells up for housing, work starts 1849, well-to-do move in, church and library added, area gradually goes downhill, gentrification takes a while, now £2½m apiece.

The church is St Andrew's, a squished Gothic building within the 'crescent' part of the square. It's a busy part of the community, in that while I was exploring the garden a Montessori school spilled out and started playing toddler tennis. What's unusual is that the spire is entirely covered in netting, this because it's in a very poor state of repair and chunks might fall off. The vestry and chancel aren't in great condition either, hence English Heritage have the church on their At Risk list in the highest possible category ("Immediate risk of further rapid deterioration or loss of fabric; no solution agreed"). Also the pigeons are territorial and fierce, and this is detail you only get from an in-person visit.

As for West Islington library, they used Carnegie money for that and knocked down two houses to fit it in. It's jarringly Edwardian with a dinky octagonal lantern on top, decorated with motifs around the outside a child could learn their alphabet from. Inside I found it loved but musty, and also with far fewer books than there would have been when the Reading Room upstairs had shelves too. A marvellous wooden sign inside the door, from an era when opening times were painted not printed, reminds us that six-day eleven-hour lending was once the norm. At least, judging by the sound of nursery rhymes escaping into the entrance hall, the Children's Room is still used for its original purpose.

When I was doing walks borough by borough, I noticed how lacking Islington was in terms of large open spaces. Is there something to say about this?

Thornhill Square Gardens are huge, at least by Islington standards, and were once one of the largest open spaces in the borough. That didn't always mean people could gain access - it was keyholders only until 1947. A ring of railings kept everyone else out, what's rare being that most poles are still the 1852 originals having not been ripped out to support WW2 metallurgical targets. What's also rare is the level of local interest in the colour of those railings, as depicted on a special noticeboard tied opposite the church. Included are annotated close-up photos from paint analysis carried out in 2009, which resemble geological strata except they're actually "15 stone-coloured and light brown schemes", followed by "last lead-based paint", followed by 20th century greens and blacks.

The gardens themselves have evolved somewhat from genteel solitude and now have a woody mound at the north end, a rose garden at the south end and a busy playground in the middle. Football is not generally an option. I was pleased to see a little parkkeeper's office with its door open, and a council operative shuffling off towards the street with several bags of leaves. Elsewhere an elderly resident arrived with two terriers and started on an enforced circuit because, like I said, Islington isn't overblessed with public open space. Across the entire country only the City of London has worse provision.

How about Barnsbury Wood? Think it's the smallest local nature reserve in London.

Indeed it is, at just five-sixths of an acre. It's surrounded by a triangle of terraced houses, one side of which is Thornhill Crescent, and was kept as a garden by the original landlord George Thornhill. It became neglected after the family line died out and passed into the hands of Islington council in 1996, who promptly knocked down three postwar houses to provide easier access.

Unfortunately access is extremely limited because the wood is only open two hours a week, on a Tuesday afternoon, plus another two hours on Saturdays in the summer. It wasn't Tuesday yesterday so I was met by a padlocked gate leading to a path leading to another padlocked gate, so that was my woodland adventure thwarted. I very much doubt it's like "stepping through a portal into the untamed countryside", as a muppet from MyLondon once claimed, but Ian Visits has several photos (and a lot of backstory) if you want to peek inside.

Caledonian Road in this area is a fascinating slice of North London with a lot of history.

Caledonian Road is also very much a social dividing line, at least hereabouts in the vicinity of the Co-Op. Bear off between the falafel shop and the e-sports bar and you hit upmarket Thornhill Square, as previously discussed. But head off in the opposite direction between the Irish pub and the old school caff and you enter the Bemerton estate, a substantial council labyrinth from the late 1960s with a dubious reputation. Instead of terraces there are blocks of flats, instead of broad streets there are service roads and weaving paths, and instead of central gardens there are scattered municipal lawns. At least the trees are now mature enough to make an autumn show of it.

All the blocks are named after Scottish towns and cities and, by modern standards, over-provisioned with rows of garages. You wouldn't walk your terrier here, neither are you particularly welcome given the existence of signs warning 'It is an offence to loiter on any part of this estate'. Public art is limited to a wooden chicken on a post. The council once had plans to knock the whole lot down and start again but that proved too expensive and their latest scheme is merely two extra floors on top, plus lifts, and a few infilled gaps. The contrast with Thornhill Square is sharp, and it all comes down to which way you percolate off the Cally.

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