NW1: Spirits move me …

NW1 is Marylebone, Regent’s Park, Euston and of course Camden Town. There is so much here, and I cannot possibly cover it all. So I will forego the delights of the first three and concentrate on the gritty reality that is Camden Town.

We start our walk a Camden Town’s main Post Office which is at 112-114 Camden High Street.

Turn right out of the Post Office and soon across the road you will see a modern building which houses the local job centre. This is our first stop.

Stop 1: Number 93 – 95  Camden High Street (site of Bedford Music Hall)

Today there are hosts of people milling around outside the job centre but once this was the location of the Bedford Music Hall – this was a haunt of the painter Walter Sickert, more of whom anon.

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The first theatre was built on this site in 1861 but was replaced in 1898 by a grander building by a young Bertie Crewe, who went on to design many theatres in the early years of the 20th century (many of which are no longer with us) plus a few cinemas.

The Bedford spent most of its life as a variety theatre. As ever the wonderful Arthur Lloyd site has a fantastic spread on this lost world:

http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/Bedford.htm

This has a great story about Peter Sellers. Around 1929/1930 Peter Sellers lived with his mother and grandmother in rented quarters upstairs at the Bedford. His mother was performing there in a revue called ‘Ha!Ha!!Ha!!!’ along with his father. When the revue finished, Peter’s father Bill abandoned Peter, his mother, and grandmother to fend for themselves. They carried on living upstairs at the Bedford Theatre for a short time after he departed.

The theatre closed in 1959 and was eventually demolished ten years later to be replaced with this dull looking block. It seems kind of fitting that this is the job centre given how precarious making a living on the stage can be.

Keep walking along the High Street. you will see Mornington Crescent station up ahead and on the left hand side of the road, is our next stop.

Stop 2: KOKO (former Camden Theatre/Camden Hippodrome Theatre)

Now this is a historic theatre that against all the odds has survived.

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This theatre opened as the Camden Theatre on Boxing Day 1900 by the famous actress Ellen Terry who had lived in nearby Stanhope Street as a child. It was designed by the prolific W G R Sprague – a contemporary of Crewe, he was also responsible for amongst others the Coronet in Notting Hill which still stands in W11 and the Royal Duchess Theatre in Balham which we did not see in SW12 as it was bombed and finally demolished in the 1960s.

It became a variety theatre in 1909 and was renamed the Camden Hippodrome Theatre. By 1911 films were being presented as part of the programme and in January 1913 it became a cinema known as the Camden Hippodrome Picture Theatre. In 1928, it was taken over by the Gaumont British cinema circuit. Closed during WWII, it became a BBC radio studio in 1945 and this lasted until 1972, in effect allowing the building to survive.

Since then it has been a music venue with various names, most recently following a major refurbishment in 2004 it has been known as KOKO.

Before we leave here I should point out the statue in the middle of the road.

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This is of Richard Cobden, who was a supporter of free trade and in the 1840s campaigned to abolish the Corn Law which imposed a tariff on imported wheat. He also campaigned for closer trade with France which led to the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty. This statue was funded by public subscription and one of the principal contributors was the french ruler of the time Napoleon III.

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Fascinating fact: Napoleon III was both the first elected president and the last monarch of France, but he was monarch after he was president!

Whilst here, I should also mention the little matter of Mornington Crescent, the game played on the radio 4 comedy series, I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue. It is a totally mad panel game with the rules (such as they are) seemingly being made up as they go along. Funny but unintelligible, and rather fitting for something in a show called I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue.

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Amazingly this programme started in 1972 and has so far had over 400 episodes in 60 series, even surviving the death of its host Humphrey Lyttleton.

Now immediately opposite Mornington Crescent station is our next stop:

Stop 3: Greater London House (former Carreras Cigarette factory)

This wonderful Art Deco building is was constructed as the Arcadia works for the Carreras Tobacco Company in the late 1920s.

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It was built on the communal gardens in the middle of Mornington Crescent, which the borough council had sold off. The building’s distinctive Egyptian style ornamentation originally included two gigantic black cat statues and colourful painted details plus above the door was a carved Horus of Behdet, a symbol of the winged disk of the Sun.

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During World War II it was felt that this symbol resembled too closely the eagle imagery of the Third Reich and it was covered up. When the factory was converted into offices in 1961 the Egyptian detailing was removed. However the building was restored during a renovation in the late 1990s. Replicas of the cats were put outside the entrance but the sun disk was not replaced.

Walk the full length of the frontage and take the first turning on the right. This is the actual street called Mornington Crescent. which loops behind the former factory.

It must have been quite a shock to the 1920s residents of Mornington Crescent to discover that their local council had not just sold their crescent garden for development, but sold it for a huge factory. Worst of all, the delightful facade fronts on to Hampstead Road and the crescent just gets the dull backside of the factory.

Stop 4: Number 6 Mornington Crescent

Going along the Crescent, you will soon see a house with a blue plaque.

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This was one of many homes of artist Walter Sickert. He founded, with other artists, the Camden Town Group of British painters. This group had been meeting informally since 1905, but was officially established in 1911. It was influenced by Post-Impressionism and Expressionism, but concentrated on scenes of often drab suburban life. Sickert himself said he preferred the kitchen to the drawing room as a scene for paintings.

And he also painted a number of scenes at the local Bedford Music hall. there is an interesting article on the V & A site: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/w/walter-sickert-and-the-bedford-music-hall/

He married three times – his first wife from 1885 until their divorce in 1899 was Ellen Cobden, a daughter of Richard Cobden, whose statue we have just seen.

Now this part of the crescent actually backs on to the main railway line into Euston, which is in a cutting here. This is where the new high speed rail line HS2 will go through.

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Interestingly, Number 6 sports a “bin HS2” sticker in the window but this was the only one I spotted in the windows hereabouts. I wondered why given how close this is to the route. I had a quick check and it would seem most of the devastation will be on the other side of the current line, so maybe that is why there does not seem to be a mass of protest posters hereabouts.

Take the first left (Clarkson Row) and follow this round as it parallels the railway on the other side of a high wall. This then becomes Mornington Terrace. I guess this street was built after the railway as the houses are just on one side and the numbers are sequential rather than just odd or even.

Stop 5: Number 54 Delancey Street

At the junction with Delancey Street, there is a lovely pub with garden sporting the eccentrically spelt name of “the Edinboro Castle”.

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And within sight of the pub’s front door, across Delancey Street is a blue plaque to say that Dylan Thomas lived here.

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One wonders whether the spirits moved him and he supped the odd whiskey in this pub when he stayed hereabouts.

We have been a bit Dylan Thomas-ed out just recently as it is the centenary of his birth this year. He famously settled in a small Welsh village called Laugharne (which I learned from the various television programmes is pronounced something like “lawn”). I am not sure exactly when he was in Camden Town.

Now ahead is a big road junction which actually lies over the railway. You want to go straight ahead past Foxton’s estate agents and then after a little way take the first right (which is Gloucester Crescent)

Stop 6: Alan Bennett (Gloucester Crescent)

Gloucester Crescent was for many, many years the home of writer (and reluctant national treasure) Alan Bennett. Not sure exactly which one was his home. But I have seen his house described as “Bennett Towers” and we know from his play “The Lady in the Van” that he has a driveway, so it is possible to speculate on which house may have been his.

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We may yet find out when they film “The Lady in the Van”, as it is said that the BBC will use his actual house.

Now walk along Gloucester Crescent, taking the first right (Inverness Street) and then go right into Arlington Road.

Stop 7: Odeon cinema/Mecca Bingo Hall

Ahead you can see the side of what was a massive Odeon cinema. This was built as the Gaumont Palace and opened in January 1937, with its main entrance round the corner on Parkway. It was a large cinema with over 2,700 seats and full stage facilities, although these do not seem to have been used much.

It was renamed Odeon in 1964 and remodelled in 1968 when a bingo hall was created in the stalls with a separate side entrance (you can see today) and the circle became a new 1,198 seat cinema, with the entrance still on Parkway.

Closed by Odeon in 1979, it was leased out to independent operators for many years. Odeon took back the building and reopened it as a five screen cinema in 1997, which it remains today, with bingo still going on downstairs.

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Now whilst we are here, I have to point out this rather quirky shop front just a little back from the Odeon on the opposite side of Parkway past the junction. This is now an specialist tea shop, but was once a pet shop, as can be seen from the unusual signage – monkeys, talking parrots ….

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Now walk back along Parkway to the end and ahead across the road you will see Camden Town station (do not cross over)

Stop 8: Camden Town Station/Electric Ballroom

This station was first opened in 1907 by Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway (CCE & HR) and from the start was a junction where the lines to Golders Green and Archway met.

The station platforms formed a V. The line to Golders Green is under Camden High Street; the line to Archway is under Kentish Town Road. To avoid paying compensation to landowners during construction, the tunnels were kept under the road so on both lines the northbound platform is above the southbound one.

In the 1920s the CCE & HR was linked up with the City and South London Railway (both companies were by now owned by the Underground Electric Railways of London)  and extended to form what we now know as the Northern line.

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This station is woefully inadequate for the traffic that goes through and the station is exit only on Sundays to prevent overcrowding.

In 2004 following a public enquiry the then deputy prime minister John Prescott threw out a hugely controversial makeover, which would have led to the demolition of the Electric Ballroom nightclub, the United Trinity Reform Church and Buck Street market, amongst other buildings.

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But last September, TfL announced plans for a rebuild starting in 2017/18 and due to open in 2024/25 – only ten more years of weekend access restrictions then.

Now walk a little way along Camden High Street – our next stop is on the left

Stop 9:Number 211 Camden High Street (Site of Plaza cinema) 

The building was originally a bakery and was converted into a cinema – the Electric Theatre – in 1909. After a couple of renames, it was reconstructed in 1937 and reopened as the Plaza. It became part of the Odeon group in 1942 but in 1969 they leased it out to an independent operator and this cinema began its life as an art house cinema. Rent increases forced closure in 1994. the building was gutted to form an indoor market.

Now this is an Urban Outfitters shop and there is virtually nothing left of the old Plaza cinema. Just a little flooring in the entrance way to the shop. But if you go in there is this huge space where I guess the auditorium used to be, but any decorative features are long gone.

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Now up ahead on the left is Camden Lock Market, but we must forego this pleasure as they are other interesting things to see.

Just take the first right (Hawley Crescent) and you will see our next stop.

Stop 10: MTV studios, Hawley Crescent

This is an interesting looking building with coloured fins that goes from red through orange to yellow/green looking one way and then green to blue looking from the other direction.

This is now the London studios of MTV. However it has a place in UK television history as the birthplace of TV-am and breakfast television. They broadcast from here between 1 February 1983 and  31 December 1992. However much of the studio complex was redeveloped in 2012/13 and so it looks very different now from its TV-am heyday.

Although there is not much to remind us this history on the road frontage, if you go round the back and walk along the canal, you can still see the egg decorative features at the rear.

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It is probably easier to continue to walk along the canal tow path, leaving at the steps by a Costa Coffee shop.

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At the top of these steps, turn left and go along Camden Road.

As we walk along Camden Road we go under the railway bridge by Camden Road Overground station. The bridge here is painted a lovely blue with the words  Camden Town on it and having gone under it, looking back you see it is there as a mirror image as well.

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Having crossed St Pancras Way, take the first turning on the right. Our next stop is soon on the left.

Stop 11: Rochester Square Spiritualist Temple

I was strangely drawn to this building. I always love to read the foundation on these kind of buildings. It is a glimpse into a long forgotten world – one where we just have the fragment of an event in the life of a building and a group of dedicated people, whose cause today is often also forgotten.

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Well, this modest building calls itself the Rochester Square Spiritualist Temple, although it is not very grand. But it does have an interesting foundation stone, laid by none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1926.

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He was famously a great supporter of the spiritualist movement and so I guess it is kind of logical to find this here.

Mention of Conan Doyle also gives me a chance to tell a story about another part of NW1 which is just too far a way to visit – Baker Street, home of Conan Doyle’s most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes.

Now as you probably know number 221b Baker Street is not a real address. But what you may not know is that when Conan Doyle wrote his books, the numbering on Baker Street only went up to 85. The street continued as York Place and Upper Baker Street. When the Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863, it called its station Baker Street even though it was at the corner of Upper Baker Street.

In the 1930s, the numbering was changed so that York Place and Upper Baker Street became Baker Street, and thus it was possible to work out where 221b would have been. This turned out to be the offices of the Abbey National Building Society, which were at 215 – 229.

And as soon as this numbering change happened the Post Office started delivering mail for Sherlock Homes to the Abbey National. One wonders where it had gone before that!. The volume was such that the Abbey National appointed a staff member to handle the post.

In 1990 the Sherlock Holmes Museum opened further up Baker Street. With the support of Westminster Council (whose leader Shirley Porter opened the museum) they laid claim to the post, by renumbering 239 Baker Street as 221b! Abbey National were not keen on giving up their guardianship of the Sherlock Holmes mail, and insisted they should have the post. But once they moved out of Baker Street in 2005, the Sherlock Holmes Museum got it!

Now keep walking along Rochester Square, past the Square’s gardens and follow the road as it turns to the left and becomes Stratford Villas. Go to the end and cross over ahead is Camden Square, where our final stop is almost at the end on the right hand side. 

Stop 12: Number 30 Camden Square

At first glance, the former home of singer Amy Winehouse is not obvious.

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Unlike say Freddie Mercury’s former home in W8, there is no mini shrine at the gate. It has been cleared away. But if you cross the road from Number 30 you will see some trees which have that fine cane screening wrapped around them. And on this are various pieces of paper, a couple of cigarette packets and some drinking straws.

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No actual booze as far as I could see! But maybe local street drinkers come and tidy this up.

So if you want to raise a toast to the late great Amy, why not have what is said to be her favourite drink. It is called Rickstacy and consists of Southern Comfort, Vodka, Baileys and Banana Liqueur. Sounds disgusting but if you really want to try it, here is the recipe: https://www.cocktail.uk.com/cocktails/rickstasy

Now for some reason, I have got this song “Could it be Magic” running through my head – it starts with the words “Spirits move me…”

Or does it? There are actually three well known versions. The 1975 one is by Barry Manilow, who wrote the music (or rather adapted a bit of Chopin). Then there is a 1976 cover by Donna Summer and a later cover by Take That from 1992. Strange to say the words they sing are all slightly different with Barry opening with “Spirit move me” whilst Donna and Take That say “Spirits move me”. Plus there is a name check by Barry for sweet Melissa (that was apparently singer Melissa Manchester) but Donna sings to Peter and the Take That boys don’t name check anyone!

So that brings to the end of our NW1 walk with the ghosts of some old theatres and cinemas, the haunts of some well known drinkers, an artist’s home opposite an Art Deco masterpiece plus an unexpected foundation stone.

For onward travel retrace your steps to the main road for local buses or else there is Camden Road station or walking back a little further will get you to Camden Town station.

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