I recently spoke to a friend-of-a-friend who had learnt, via our mutual friend, that I’m a collector of useless information on Our Fair City. She asked me if I knew anything interesting about Chalk Farm, and I had to confess, to my own annoyance, that I didn’t. I mean, it’s not that it’s an uninteresting place – it’s an old-ish part of the city, it’s among interesting places – it had just never occurred to me to research the place.
I use the station plenty. It’s way less crowded than Camden Town (and about the same distance from the Stables Market). I enjoy strolling around Primrose Hill, which is where upper-middle class people who have been good go when they die. I like the station itself, which is clean, well-maintained and empty enough that you can actually appreciate the décor – something not often possible on the crowded London Underground.
So, out of curiosity, I delved deep into my library to see what I could find out. First of all, the name. I’d assumed it either referred to a farm with chalky soil (unlikely, London is on clay) or a farm owned by someone called Chalk. Turns out not. Turns out that “Chalk” in this context is derived from “Chaldecot,” the original name of the settlement here, which means “cold cottage” or “cold shelter,” which I suppose makes this place the original Cold Comfort Farm (although there’s no evidence of a farm, which just raises further questions). The suggestion is that it was once a resting point for people coming into the city. Lazy bums, it’s not like it’s that far to walk. Hell, you could probably do it in half an hour if you know the shortcuts.
The area is more-or-less defined by the station. Chalk Farm Road itself, after which the station is directly named, mostly runs through what you and I would think of as Camden. It goes from the bridge over the canal, where may be found the Camden Lock Village market (the one that looks like a souvenir shop exploded and everyone was too lazy to clean it up) and the far superior Camden Lock market, past the Stables market (Yr. Humble Chronicler’s particular favourite), past the Roundhouse and finally ends at the junction at which Chalk Farm station is located.
The station is a fine example of Leslie Green architecture. Leslie Green is the chap who designed all those lovely oxblood-tiled Tube stations – if it’s red, it’s Green (har har). Due to the unusual shape of the junction, Chalk Farm technically has the longest unbroken frontage of any Tube station. From ticket hall to platform level, it is the shallowest of the “deep” stations (i.e. those whose lines were constructed fully underground). Coincidentally, the deepest station on the network, Hampstead, is just two stops up the line.
The station would originally have been called Adelaide Road, but for some reason the name was changed before opening. If I were to hazard a guess, the aim was to encourage people to move there with the promise of a rural idyll, as was common with Tube extensions. Why they didn’t simply go for Primrose Hill, which was a fashionable upmarket area even then, is beyond me. Having said that, Hampstead was nearly named Heath Street and the station smack-bang in the middle of Islington was named Angel, so maybe the planners were just stupendously ill-informed about which suburbs were cool. Or perhaps the builders were worried that it might be confused with the practically-next-door Primrose Hill Station – the idea of an integrated transport network with interchanges clearly indicated was virtually unknown back then. In any event, Primrose Hill Station was closed in 1992. The building is now a shop and may be seen on the left as you cross the railway from Chalk Farm Tube. There is a scheme to reopen this as part of the Overground.
Of course, I’ve managed to get quite a long way in without talking about what this area is really famous for. Namely, music. Starting at the station, Madness were photographed here for the cover of their album Absolutely. It’s also been used in the films The Boy Who Turned Yellow and Bad Behaviour, but I couldn’t tell you anything about those.
Then a short, short walk will bring you to the unmistakeable Roundhouse, London’s legendary music venue. The roundness of the house comes from the fact that it originally housed a locomotive shed with a turntable. Engines would be uncoupled from their trains here, turned on the table and then coupled to an outgoing train. The trains themselves were hauled by cable the rest of the way, as it was not considered possible for locomotives of the day to deal with the gradient, and there was also the suspicion that they would frighten the horses (wusses). It was completed in 1846 and closed a mere twenty-one years later, by which time locomotives were too big for the Roundhouse and in any case could totally climb that gradient anyway.
Therefore, the place spent the following ninety-nine years being put to worthy use as a gin warehouse by Messrs. W & A Gilbey. In 1966, the GLC took over and decided, rightly as it turns out, that the Roundhouse would make a fine arts venue. The first memorable gig held there took place in 1966 in honour of the International Times, now defunct. There was also some band playing their first major gig there called Pink Floyd, and I assume they too were forgotten in time. 1968 saw a legendary performance by the Doors which has been filmed for posterity. In 1970, The Who gave their first performance of Tommy. They dedicated the gig to their support act, a flamboyant young pianist named Elton something. Other notables included the Stranglers, the Rolling Stones, Motorhead, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. Sadly, the glory days came to an end in 1983, when the site was given to the Borough of Camden and closed as a venue.
The Roundhouse was also noted for other artistic achievements. Yr. Humble Chronicler recalls seeing an exhibition of abstract sculpture there in, ooh, must have been 2001. The grimy brick corridors beneath the main venue have been used for lots of filming, being a conveniently grim and industrial-looking setting.
However, aside from music, the venue is probably best known for theatre. It has housed the notorious Oh! Calcutta and the legendary Oh! What A Lovely War, as well as shows that don’t have “Oh!” in the title. A non-“Oh!”-featuring show of note was a production of Hamlet in 1968, starring Nicol Williamson as the title character, Anthony Hopkins as Claudius and Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia. Unfortunately, for all her undoubted talents, Ms Faithfull was flaky as all hell. When having a “difficult night,” her role was played by her understudy, an unknown actress named Anjelica Huston.
The venue was refurbished in the early years of this century, and is quite nice I’m told.
To finish this little tour of Chalk Farm, here’s a little ditty collected by Eleanor Farjean in her 1916 book Nursery Rhymes of London Town.
Some farmers farm in fruit, some farm in grain,
Others farm in dairy stuff, and many farm in vain,
But I know a place for a Sunday morning’s walk
Where the Farmer and his Family only farm in chalk.
The Farmer and his Family before you walk back
Will bid you in to sit awhile and share their mid-day snack –
O they that live in Chalk Farm they live at their ease,
For the Farmer and his Family can’t tell chalk from cheese.
If you can’t tell chalk from cheese, I recommend you head to Swiss Cottage, named after not one but two types of cheese. Har har just my little joke, although you probably can buy cheese there.
An open letter to my readers
As you can see, I was able to find a surprising amount about Chalk Farm, which leads me to wonder what I might find out about other places. Is there a part of London you’re curious about? Drop me a line and let me know and I’ll see what I can dig up.