Category Archives: Markets

Canal Penetration

I do not appear to understand the concept of a short walk. This fact was brought home to me on Sunday. Having attended a wedding on Wednesday, I was feeling somewhat guilty at the Elvis-level calorie intake I had managed that day, and therefore had resolved to behave myself with a little more restraint. Sunday, I thought, would be an ideal day to get a little exercise. I thought it might be nice to do some more of the Regent’s Canal.

The Regent’s Canal, if you’re not familiar with it (though you may have some passing acquaintance with it if you’re a regular reader of this blog), is a waterway running from the Thames at Limehouse to the Grand Junction Canal at Paddington. The canal was opened in two sections – from Paddington to Camden in 1816 and Camden to Limehouse in 1820. In those days, before decent roads and railways, canals were the arteries of industry. The Grand Junction Canal was the quickest means of transporting goods in quantity from the industrial Midlands to London. The Regent’s Canal therefore served an important economic purpose, as it formed the final link between the Midlands and the Port of London and therefore the rest of the world. It survived the coming of the railways and the roads, but by the 1930s was largely obsolete.

Today, although there is a small amount of cargo, it’s primarily used for pleasure craft. The warehouses and factories that once lined its route have either been demolished or repurposed (most notably, one major interchange between rail and canal is now Camden Lock Market and the Stables). The towpath is a popular route with cyclists, walkers and idiots (yo).

My original intention was to only walk a short section of the canal, say Camden to King’s Cross or Islington. But I have this tendency, once I start walking, to keep on going far longer than is perhaps wise. As a result, I ended up walking all the way to Limehouse Basin. As I had previously walked from Camden to Paddington (hence the photos you have been seeing so far), I can now say that I have walked the full length of the canal.

From a psychogeographical point of view, what’s interesting about this walk is that it let me see familiar places from a different point of view. Of course, I’d seen the canal at Paddington, Regent’s Park, Camden, King’s Cross, St Pancras, Caledonian Road, Islington, Hackney and Limehouse before. Indeed, I’ve written about it in at least two of those locations in this very blog. But it had just been a landmark then, with no sort of context. I had some vague awareness that this stretch of canal was the same as that stretch of canal, but only as a theoretical thing. To experience the whole thing from a boat’s eye view, as it were, was rather novel. I think I’ve been enlightened in some way.

Anyway, I’ve waffled on for far too long already, given that this was supposed to be a photo-ey entry. I shall keep the prattle to a minimum from here on in, and instead continue to present my (usual crappy) photographs in geographical order from Paddington to Limehouse. Camden Lock is a notable omission here,  due to the fact that on neither of the walks presented here did I actually intend to document the entire canal.

One last point I would like to make is the range of contrast as you go along the river, from affluent Regent’s Park and Little Venice to the post-industrial landscape of the Docklands. I’ll shut up now. For now.

Sorry, me again. At this point on the walk, the canal cut through the hill at Islington, and I had to leave the towpath. Some explanation may be needed for the following photos.

I snapped this because I had walked along this road once before, a couple of years ago, desperately hungover. I was leaving the Barnsbury flat of a friend we shall simply call The Monster early one Sunday morning. I attracted disapproving looks from pious souls. Anyway, to end up here again was rather surprising.

I eventually reached Angel – you may recall that my first paid acting gig was near here. Despite my familiarity with the area, I wasn’t entirely sure how to get to the canal. Fortunately, this sign guided me. It may also explain some of the stranger sights coming up.

Isn’t this just the dearest little owl?

Spitalfields already? God be damned.

And Shoreditch! How we are honoured!

This is a nice thing to do with a block of council flats. Photographic portraits of local folk. It’s like Eastenders, only without the death and unimaginable horror.

Hackney. If you feel a chill down your spine, that is because we are but a stone’s throw from the Last Tuesday Society’s sinister museum.

A dilapidated narrowboat advocating the cleaning up of canals. This would be that famous bargees’ humour I’ve heard so much about.

Some sort of junction. Further investigation is required, I feel – especially as there’s something familiar about this canal here.

Lo the Isle of Dogs!

Herons are basically the easiest birds in the world to photograph. How I managed to make this one blurry enough to shame the most avid Bigfoot enthusiast is therefore beyond me.

I feel this toy boat has a story to tell.

We are so close, me hearties, I can practically taste that lime!

Is that not the viaduct of the London and Blackwall Railway?

It is! Limehouse! We made it! Long live, long live!

I say “we” made it, but mostly you just looked at photos. I didn’t want to make a big thing of this.

The Thames as the sun begins to set.

The Docklands Light Railway at Westferry. Everyone wants to get on the seats at the front of the train, but for a novel experience I recommend the seats at the back as you enter the tunnel for Bank. It’s like disappearing down a giant oesophagus.


Further Reading: – An earlier entry focusing on a particular part of the Regent’s Canal.



Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Arts, Buildings and architecture, Camden, Canals and Waterways, Current events, East End and Docklands, Flora and Fauna, Geography, Hackney, History, Islington, Kings Cross, London, Markets, Museums, Photos, Port of London, Psychogeography, Rambling on and on, Randomness, Regency, Rivers, Shoreditch, Sports and Recreation, Suburbia, Thames, Transport

Through the ruins

I’d like to take you on a voyage through time and space to this time a week ago when boredom and the vague desire to do a particular thing intersected, resulting in my finally getting around to visiting the revamped Museum of London.

Really, given the amount of time and effort I spend researching (if you can call it research) the history of London, this ought to be my favourite museum. Unfortunately, I have in recent years found it a little frustrating – there’s no denying that it has some very fine exhibits, but so many times I’ve dropped in on a whim only to discover that half the place is closed off.

Unlike the museums of South Kensington or the British Museum, the Museum of London is located on the edge of the old City. The City is, frankly, not the liveliest of places at weekends. On the left you see the Bank of England, practically deserted.

Rather than change trains for the sake of going one stop to St Paul’s, the closest stop to the Museum, I tend to get off at Bank. Bank is perhaps my least favourite Tube station, consisting as it does of seemingly miles of crowded pedestrian tunnels where the going is always slow and the temperature is always too hot for comfort. Like many similar stations, Bank was not originally intended as an interchange – rather, it happens to be a desirable place for a railway company to serve. The idea that passengers might want to change between Central, District, Circle, Northern and Waterloo and City Lines without ascending to street level was a bit of an afterthought, and the Docklands Light Railway even more so. I’m told that Bank Station is haunted – commuters and late-night staff have reported a strange and unearthly presence, a feeling of unease as if they are being watched. I suspect further investigation would reveal a piece of electrical equipment vibrating at a frequency of 17Hz to 19Hz, but then I’m no expert.

The area was more-or-less empty apart from a few bewildered-looking tourists. My trusty street atlas let me down, as several of the roads that in theory were quick routes to the Museum were in practice gated off. Roads like the one on the right. This is exactly the sort of thing that Woody Guthrie was complaining about. At this point, someone normally tells me to get an iPhone and I normally say “No thank you, I would far rather spend the money on opium and whores.”

Eventually, and somewhat unexpectedly, I came to Moorgate station. Had I known how close this was to the museum, I would most certainly have alighted here rather than Bank.

Instead, I climbed up to the highwalks of the Barbican. I don’t know why, given my hatred of Brutalist architecture, but there’s something I find strangely compelling about the Barbican Estate. It’s got a weird, retro-futuristic desolation about it. I think I’d like to make a film just so I could film something there. I’m not the only person who thinks it’s alright, as the whole place has been Grade II listed.

And yet, despite the absolutely 1960s/70s look of the place, you get odd little pockets of the ancient city peeping through. For instance, this section of the medieval City Walls that survives. There are a number of other medieval fortifications around here, not least of which is the section of wall outside the Museum of London itself. These were built, as you might imagine, on the old Roman walls.

I must admit that I’m a little loath to go into massive detail about the Museum itself, as I fear I would snap up about eight entries’ worth of information. However, the World City galleries were what I was here for, so I suppose I probably ought to talk a bit about those.

"People called Romans, they go, to the house?"

These galleries cover the city from the rebuilding in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London to the present day. This was when the city really took shape – indeed, I would go further and say that it’s really in the last 200 years that the city took on its modern form. This was when the Docklands appeared, when the city expanded to absorb Westminster, Kensington, Islington, Southwark and the suburbs, when industry brought people flooding in from the countryside and, in the second half of the twentieth century, when the city developed its modern ethnic makeup.

The new galleries are certainly impressive – large amounts of exhibition space are devoted to subjects such as pleasure gardens, fashion, ethnic and civil tensions and entertainment. The old star exhibits – the Victorian street scene and the frankly tasteless Lord Mayor’s carriage – are still there, and there’s even a gallery of London art from the 19th century to the present day. I was quite excited by the puppets of Andy Pandy and Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, who I recall watching as a small child (lest you think this to be an anachronism, I should point out that I saw them on video). I also noted the same edition of The Alternative Guide to London as I own on display in the 1960s cabinets, which was cool.

After finishing up, I had a stroll in the direction of Spitalfields for no particular reason. I’ve not really explored this area – passed through several times, but never had a proper footle around.

Spitalfields Market looked interesting, so I headed in that direction. It’s a fine place for fashionable folk, I have no doubt, but I found it a little too glossy if you know what I mean. I like those markets that are a bit illogical. Still, worth bearing in mind if you’re looking for presents. I must confess to indulging my sweet tooth at a fudge stall, where I purchased some rather decadent chocolate chilli fudge. I was also rather tempted by the fudge containing marshmallows, but let’s not be silly here.

Late on a Sunday afternoon is perhaps not the best time to come upon Brick Lane Market, so perhaps it can be forgiven for not quite matching up to my expectations. But I couldn’t help noticing that much of what was on sale was identical to what I’d seen in Spitalfields Market less than half an hour previously. Come to think of it, quite a lot of it was identical to the stuff I’d seen in Camden the day before. This and the sheer volume of East End hipsters led me to head off in the direction of Shoreditch High Street. From there to Old Street and a Tube home.

I think I’ll finish where I started – in the deserted City. In the Museum of London, there’s a display made up of status updates, tweets etc. from Londoners’ social networking sites, and this one particularly struck home:

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Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Honestly, you’d think the landowners of London don’t even read this blog. Check this out:

Yes, like Portobello Road, Borough Market is being threatened by its owners’ desire for all that glitters. It’s bad enough that part of this gorgeously Dickensian corner of the city has been demolished to make way for the expansion of the viaduct into Cannon Street (it’s a lost cause – Cannon Street is a shadow of what it once was thank you British Rail) without its owners getting all snobby.

Borough Market is one of those open secrets of the city – not a tourist trap like Portobello or Camden, but well-known to those familiar with London for its excellent wholesale food and drink. Architecturally it has a real Victorian charm about it – it was used as a location in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban. I had a wander around there just the other day, having arrived half an hour early at London Bridge.

The genericisation of London’s markets is a worrying trend. Is genericisation a word? I don’t know. I’m tired.


Filed under 19th century, Buildings and architecture, Current events, Fashion and trends, Film and TV, Food, London, london bridge, London's Termini, Markets, Politics, Shopping, Waterloo and Southwark

Saints or Sinners?

I’ve bitched about the recent developments in Portobello Road before, and today I took a bit of a stroll around the area – I had the day off, as I was returning from a wedding in Sussex, and so I decided to make the most of it. Above you can see the most notorious recent development in Portobello Road, namely the All Saints store.

You know what really bugs me about this store, apart from its location, its size, the fact that it’s a chain store and the fact that its construction has been allowed? It’s the fact that not only have they had the gall to replace the old market stalls, but they’ve tried to make it whimsical and olde-worlde. The three shop fronts you see in that picture – the black one, the maroon one and the green one – are all the same store. And they’ve filled the windows with antique sewing machines (BECAUSE IT IS A CLOTHES SHOP YOU SEE).

I hate these chains that try to look like the independent shops they drive out of business. Starbucks with its cafe society decor, Burger King with its American diner theme. It sort of feels like rich folks slumming it for fun.

Having said that, if All Saints had built a garish and out-of-place regular shopfront, I’d be complaining about how they haven’t even tried to be in keeping with the area.

Screw All Saints, is what I’m trying to say here.

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Filed under Buildings and architecture, Crime, Current events, Disasters, Fashion and trends, Kensington, London, Markets, Notting Hill, Photos, Politics, Psychogeography, Shopping, tourism, Weird shops

Gone for a Merton

I’ve lamented the decline of some of London’s best-known markets in these pages before, so I’d like to use today’s entry to talk about an utterly enchanting example of one of the lesser known markets.

In fact, this one is very near to me – about 15 minutes walk via the scenic route – so it’s a mystery why I haven’t talked about it before now. Merton Abbey Mills describes itself as London’s Alternative Market. It’s located out in the suburbs, more-or-less equidistant between Colliers Wood and South Wimbledon Stations on the Northern Line, near Phipps Bridge on the Tramlink and a short bus ride from Wimbledon Main Line and District Line stations. And if you’re particularly energetic, you can peg it from Haydons Road. To get there from the main road (and Colliers Wood bus garage), I would recommend taking a walk along the river from in front of the massive Sainsbury’s superstore. This is perhaps the most unexpected aspect of it – much of the area is covered by superstores, car parks, hotels and similarly overwhelming structures. So this little 19th century survivor is somewhat incongruous.

The market is near to the site of  the medieval Merton Abbey – indeed, the Colourhouse Theatre, on site, may have been an ancillary building to the old Priory. If so, it would be one of the few remnants of the Abbey surviving to the present day (although there are some fragments walls, and the ruins of the Chapter House are preserved in a secret little chamber under the road).

This part of what-would-eventually-become South London lapsed into boringness following the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. However, from the 17th century onwards, the river came into demand for the purposes of industry. See, the thing about the Wandle is that it’s rubbish for navigation. It’s shallow and fast-flowing, so can’t be used for carrying goods. However, it’s perfect for driving waterwheels. The chalky water also makes it ideal for the purpose of textile manufacture. Merton Abbey Mills was founded in the 18th century as a silk works, one of dozens of mills along the river and the only working survivor.

1890 painting of the Mills by L L Pocock. Thanks, Wikipedia!

The charming complex was taken over by William Morris, he of Arts and Crafts fame, in 1881. In accordance with his rather sentimental philosophy (I like Arts and Crafts just fine, but you have to admit it has a somewhat 19th-century middle-class sentimentality about it), he retained the old buildings, adapting and adding to them. Carpets, stained glass, tapestries and fabrics were all produced here. The site was taken over by Liberty’s in 1940 and abandoned in 1972, following which it fell into a state of shocking dereliction.

In 1989, fortunately, it was figured that something ought to be done about this horrible eyesore, and so following the example of Camden Lock (to the extent of using the same consultants, I believe) it was decided to turn the place into a craft market.

Today the market boasts of half a million visitors per year. As well as the market, there’s the aforementioned Colourhouse Theatre and the William Morris pub on site. The wheelhouse, as you can see in the photo at the top of this entry, has been restored and the wheel now provides power to a pottery. There is a small display on the history of the area inside.

The shops and stalls are a fairly eclectic mix. The market deliberately encourages independent artistic types, offering free stalls (I know, right?) and being, I understand, fairly strict about what is considered unsuitable for sale. There’s a second-hand bookshop and a small but varied vintage clothing shop next door to each other, so that keeps me happy for a while, and they’re across the way from some marvellous small restaurants. Izzi and I have sampled the waffles and the Caribbean cuisine, and found them good. The waffles in particular induced a sense of guilt within me, but this was overruled by my tastebuds. God, I miss those pre-diet days.

Other stalls and shops sell paintings, dolls’ house furniture, farm goods, ceramics, clothing, rocks and gems, fancy dress and some really top-notch coffee beans. The market as a whole has an artsy-but-independent feel about it that is, as far as I’m aware, unique in London.  It’s not as trendy as Camden and not as touristy as Portobello, but neither of these are a bad thing. There’s a much more relaxed feel about it than you get at any of the bigger markets, and is one of the finest ways I know to spend a summer afternoon.

The whole thing can be done in about an hour. If you wish to make more of your visit to the area, a pleasant walk along the riverside will bring you to Deen City Farm and Morden Hall Park.

All in all, Merton Abbey Mills is highly  recommended for those with a love of arts and crafts, those who seek a rural escape in the heart of suburbia and those who keep a London blog and can’t think of a subject for their Sunday entry.


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