A cultural and poetic tour of Camden
Start: Camden Road
Welcome to the cultural and poetic tour of Camden. My name is Keith Jarrett and I'm a local poet; I'm happy to guide you through this walk, taking you on a scenic route through this bustling part of London.
While Camden's reputation for punk rock, busy markets and wild nightlife isn't unwarranted, there's more to this area than meets the eye. So whether it's your first venture here or you know Camden fairly well, this is a chance to explore a few familiar landmarks, plus some street art, parks and stories hidden just off the beaten tracks. And, perhaps you'll hear a poem or two along the way.
You should be just across the street from Camden Road station, in front of the Grand Union pub. If you look at the top of the Camden Road overground building, you'll notice the inscription right at the top, confusingly, says Camden Town station. There are two bridges that run across this street; one is working and the other is abandoned. Camden's a bit like that, old next to new. It's also home to a few of my favourite writers and artists. Amy Winehouse, the singer who tragically died in 2009, lived just around the corner from here and if you keep your eyes peeled, you may notice a lot of sprayed images of her, dotted around this route.
Let's cross the road now at the pedestrian crossing ahead, over to the station, and then turn left. I'll explain how this works as you walk.
VoiceMap uses your location to play commentary automatically. You can put your phone away, and focus on the surroundings. I might be quiet now and again, but just keep walking unless I tell you otherwise. My voice will kick in again when you reach each location.
Grand Union Canal Towpath
Turn right here at the canal, and walk down the steps to get onto the canal towpath. Just follow it along the water and I'll meet you a bit further along. Watch out for bikes!
Secrets of the Regents Canal
Carry on following the path, to walk under the bridge. I mentioned before that I'm a poet; so what better place than here, by the water, to write? Regents Canal is lively - it's full of algae, colourful boats, colourful people... and bottles, and litter, and ducks... and the list goes on. It's also not the cleanest place; a lot is hiding in its murky depths. Sometimes, if I'm running a poetry workshop, I get participants to think about what secrets the water might be guarding.
I was asked to run a workshop for an event called The Midnight Run in the summer, further down this very tow path. Late at night, a crowd of us sat and wrote about becoming the Regents Canal...
...curving around North London bars
and you can see your own dirty face in mine
-if you care to look -
you can see how your words operate like a lock
I rise; I fall; I never stop.
I let lovers pass through
I let my opaque depths
hide the endless litter of the past
I am becoming this canal
I am becoming too liquid to hold
I am becoming a forgotten key and all this change, sinking
to the bottom. I am today’s debris:
an empty crisp packet;
a deflated football;
a de-spoked wheel;
a best-before heart;
the quenched flame of a cheap lighter;
the forgotten belch of a crushed can
See, I am becoming the Regents Canal
drink more than a cupful of me and you’ll die.
[PAUSE IN AUDIO]
Needless to say, that wasn't one of the happier things I ended up writing! But it was a fun exercise to do, actually. I always like to challenge people to write things that they might otherwise be scared to explore, and so that means I spend a fair amount of time writing things that surprise me and using them as examples.
Let's keep walking along for a bit and I'll let you know when it's time to resurface and hit the road.
Once you emerge from the bridge, go up the steps to get out onto the street. Turn right to walk over the bridge.
Just next to the bridge in the canal is one of the Camden locks. It's part of a series of locks that help to move boat traffic up and down the changing depths of the canal.
If you're lucky enough to catch a boat going through the lock, feel free to linger a while and watch. It's fascinating. When you're ready, We'll move away from the canal, and head into a fairly busy part of Camden Town.
If it's a sunny day, you'll see why this is a hotspot for the alternative scene; it's a great place to stop and watch the world go by. It's also a spot people like to hang out to smoke and drink in and can get fairly lively.
Turn right here
Let's cross the road and turn right here to walk on the left side of Buck Street.
On your left is the entrance to Camden Market. Go inside and potter around while I tell you a bit more.
When people say Camden Market they're usually referring to Camden Lock Market or any of the other markets further up the High Street, like Camden Stables, or the Horse Tunnel Market. And then there's Inverness Street Market across the road too, which opened up around 1900 as fruit and veg stalls, the oldest of all the Camden Markets by far.
But here, at the corner of Buck Street and Camden High Street, is the only market which is known officially as 'Camden Market', even though Camden Market can mean any or all of the six popular markets along this stretch of road. Confused? Well, you won't be the only one.
Since early 2015, part of the Lock Market has been redeveloped and its stalls have long gone. The future of all these markets is uncertain, but you'll be sure to find a cheesy t-shirt here for a long while yet. Keep Calm and Carry On, anybody?
If you're in a gift shopping mood, take your time to meander through the crowds.
Listen carefully though, so we don't lose each other. When you're ready, I'll meet you at the Camden High Street exit. It's on the other side of the market, diagonally across from where you entered. Otherwise let's see how long it takes for you to navigate your way through the narrow aisles to get there now. Ready? Set. Go!
Camden Market Exit
You've made it. Take a left once you're out of the market, and let's walk towards Camden Town tube. Be careful with your belongings as you walk through here, especially if it's a weekend; it can get quite busy.
Centre of Camden Town
Veer left, and walk across the paved area. Can you see the Worlds End pub and the Underworld ahead of you? That's where we're going.
The Underworld is one of the remaining venues that link Camden to the alternative music scene. You may see a few people with mohawk hairstyles or traditional punk fashion standing outside.
Parkway is to your right and, if you stretch your eyes a little, across the road from the Odeon sign you can see the famous Jazz Cafe.
Cross over Greenland Road
Now cross over Greenland Road at the pedestrian crossing, and then turn into Greenland Place, an alleyway on your right.
Camden's Black Heart
We're now walking past another of Camden's alternative bars, Our Black Heart on your right. Keep heading down Greenland Place.
Let's turn left here.
Cross Bayham Street and turn right
Now cross over Bayham Street at the pedestrian crossing ahead and turn right.
St Martins Almshouses
On your left, behind the hedge, you'll see a row of grey-brick almshouses. The parish of St Martins-in-the-fields, near Trafalgar Square, had them built in the early 19th century, to go with the burial ground on nearby Pratt Street. These buildings were originally intended to house 'poor, old' women, who were also given an allowance to stay here.
Just keep going straight.
Turn left on Pratt Street
Take a left here on Pratt Street. We're heading towards the old burial ground, that was once attached to these almshouses.
Bar & Co.
We're now passing Bar & Co, a Portuguese Café. Like Greeks and Cypriots, many Portuguese people settled here after World War II. Pop in here for a coffee and a cake, if you're a little peckish. You can meet me at the corner ahead when you're ready.
Turn left to get to the park
Turn left here and walk through the little alleyway to the green area ahead.
St Martins Gardens
Before you go anywhere, have a look to your right. There's a row of buildings, and a children's play area. You'll find a small gate there. That's the exit we're taking when you're ready.
This used to be Camden Town cemetery. It was the burial grounds for St Martins in the Fields, and was built on reclaimed farmland. It opened in the early 1800s but didn't last the century as a cemetery; it's been a public garden since 1889.
You can hang out here for a while, or meander through the park. See if you can make out any of the inscriptions on the tombstones by the far wall, or do a spot of people watching.
This is one of my favourite places to write and a place I like to list all the things I've seen, including the street art. Here's a poem I wrote right here:
Our Lady of Camden/ skirting walls/ peeling round corners/ a tag outside a bar/ say her name three times and she will claim the night back for you/ canal water/ a lock/ another chain pub/ a diaspora of glass crunching under your feet/ bolt cutters on bike chain/ broken records…. records broken/ back to back chain smokers stubbing butts outside iffy pubs/ fists unravelling from the inside of arguments/ and yours is a familiar face sketched/ and imprisoned on a wall/ behind perspex.
When you're ready to go, remember to head towards the exit at the end of the row of houses on your right.
Exit St Martin's Gardens
Let's exit the garden through the gate ahead, turn left and cross over the road to the church.
All Saints, Greek Orthodox Cathedral
It's worth having a look inside this church ahead. It's one of the reminders that Camden has been home to a sizeable proportion of London's Greek community. This was originally an Anglican church, but it became Greek Orthodox after World War II, and eventually became a Cathedral in the 1990s.
From facing the church, turn right to walk down Camden Street. We'll pick up the tour again a bit further down Camden Street.
Turn right back on Pratt Street
Turn right here, and walk back the way you came on Pratt Street.
Camden, Home of the Pratt
I'd feel like a right prat if I didn't tell you about Charles Pratt, considering we're on Pratt St. Often, if I'm on the bus going down Bayham St - which is just ahead of you - there'll be a surprised chuckle or two when "Pratt St" is announced as the next stop.
Up until the 17th century, "prat", with just one "t" meant cunning, but since the 20th century the word's now used an insult.
Pratt St, however, is named after Charles Pratt, the 1st Earl of Camden. Towards the end of the 18th century, he was granted permission to build the housing plots on the fields which were soon to become Camden Town. I believe there are a few places in the US called Camden, also named after Charles Pratt.
Just keep going straight on Pratt Street.
Another busy junction!
We're back at the junction of the busy high street, one of the main thoroughfares headed north out of London. Let's cross here toward the Camden Head on your right and stop for a moment.
This is yet another pub and performance venue. Camden Comedy Club is upstairs at the Camden Head and hosts some entertaining nights. I've even performed a few times there at one event that pits poets against stand up comedians. Poetry usually wins... what can I say?
So many pubs around here have a strong history of performance and some are no longer with us. The Black Cap, which closed in 2015, just a little further up, was one such pub, the centre of the gay cabaret scene in North London. After its closure, a campaign group vowed to hold a vigil every Saturday until it reopens.
Now continue around the corner to the next pedestrian crossing.
Cross Camden High Street
Wer'e going straight over the road now, past the Sports Direct. We'll be passing another bar and performance space, The Forge, in just a minute, once we cross. This neighbourhood is full of places to listen to live music, comedy and poetry.
We're now passing The Forge, one of my favourite venues for performance in Camden. Take a flyer from inside if you're interested in finding out about Reggae Roasts, Cuban Jam, Lapa in London or any of their other events.
There's a regular poetry event here, Out-Spoken, which I really like, and several music and dance nights take place here too. You might catch me there shaking a leg one day!
Keep going straight.
Do you smell coffee?
Have a look to your left. If you're a coffee lover, as I am, and you can smell beans roasting, you better stop here at Camden Coffee Shop! George, the owner, in his distinct blue overall, will regale you with a few stories if you linger long enough. He knows his beans, and he'll roast them accordingly. This place has become quite a local attraction since he opened the shop in the 70s.
When you're ready, cross over Arlington Road and turn right. I'll leave you in silence for a while, and meet you a bit further down the road.
Our Lady of Hal
You're about to pass Our Lady of Hal on the left. It tells a story of migration to Camden. This church was built to serve the Belgian community here, mostly those who fled to London at the end of the First World War. It became popular in recent decades as more Irish people arrived in London.
When you're ready, you can meet me at the junction ahead.
Stop for a moment. We're at the junction of Parkway, one of Camden's most varied roads for restaurants, cafes and entertainment. Down to your right, towards Camden Town station you'll find the Jazz Cafe. And to your left is the tea shop, Yumchaa, and, further down, The Coffee Jar, or any number of places you can grab a sit-down bite to eat. You can also easily sneak into the pub toilets at the Earl of Camden, without actually going all the way into the pub. It's one block down to your left, next to Wholefoods.
When you're ready, you can pick up the tour again at the next intersection straight ahead, down Arlington Road.
But if you're good to continue, or if you are hungry but prefer some food on the go, let's just cross Parkway now, following Arlington Road right up to the top.
We're passing Inverness St Market, and we'll soon be reaching the canal again. For such a small area, Inverness St is densely packed with eating and drinking spaces. I'll leave you in silence for a while, and catch up with you a bit further along.
Cross Over the Junction
Cross over the intersection here, and walk straight-on toward the river.
Another scenic view
Walk up onto the bridge, and stop for a moment to enjoy the views. This is a beautiful, but often very crowded spot.
If you look over the right side of the bridge, you can see Camden Lock and the international food market.
And if you look out over the other side of the bridge, you'll see the dark waters of the canal. As I said last time we hit the canal, I always like to wonder how many secrets the water has buried. But I did get to see some of these secrets when they drained the lock back in 2013 in order to carry out some restoration work. Some of it was quite grim!
On the other side of the lock, there used to be another market. A lot of cool urban spots in London are being replaced very quickly. I guess that's how I ended up sketching this:
City of closure/ city of arson/ city of boards and sit-in guardians/ city of Camden/ flattened Mohicans/ tourists treading the streets at the weekend/ this is the Black Cap/ Canal market/ market forces/ forces closure/ closure summons/ sums don't tally/ tally ho vintage/ hello retro]
[PAUSE IN AUDIO]
Now, follow the path off the bridge.
Street Food Market
Ok, if you're hungry and fancy some street food, this is the place for it. You can grab anything from a kangaroo burger to a Venezuelan arepa with plantains to a jerk chicken wrap or Spanish paella. The arepa is my personal favourite.
You can meet me further down the river to pick up the tour again. But if you're ready to continue, let's go now! Follow the towpath along the canal.
Along the canal
The canal should begin to get a bit less busy now. Take stock of your surroundings. We initially passed some smart riverside flats with balconies, but now, the other side of the canal has given way to luxury mansions with their own moorings. Right beside you, along the towpath, you might find some interesting graffiti, and make sure to check under the bridges for surprise installations… One of them, which you'll soon see, is very unusual. It returns us to one of the recurring themes of this walk.
Feng Shang Princess
Have a look at the red building across the river to your left. This floating Chinese restaurant never fails to catch my eye. At this wide point of the river, you may be able to spot other interesting boats, as well as more graffiti and, as you'll soon see, bits of London Zoo.
Here I like to take a deep breath and enjoy my surroundings. This is one of the moments where I take pleasure in the fact that London is such a green city. Not that far from here, the busy Marylebone road will be rammed full of traffic and pollution, yet all that feels miles away.
I'll leave you to enjoy it in peace. Enjoy your surroundings and keep walking.
On your left, across the river you can see the steps leading up to ZSL London Zoo. If you have upwards of twenty pounds to spend on it, then do! It's also great for the kids. But let's face it, it isn't cheap.
If, like me, you don't have the cash, see how much of a peek you can sneak just by walking along the canal and bits of Regents Park. We'll be passing the aviary soon and, across the canal, you may be able to make out warthogs and giraffes. Keep your eyes peeled for them!
Beginning the ascent
We're now leaving the canal for the last time and beginning our ascent up Primrose Hill. Go up the ramp on the right side of the fence ahead and follow the path towards the road.
Take the right fork
Let's take the right fork and head right at the road ahead.
Cross at Pedestrian Crossing
Now take the pedestrian crossing ahead and enter the park through the gate.
The base of Primrose Hill
Here we are at the base of Primrose Hill. Take the middle one of the three paths up the hill.
It's worth climbing up for the views, and you'll soon see why. If you have a chance to wander around the neighbouring streets, you'll notice the atmosphere in this area is different to Camden Town. It's more upmarket and less busy for one. But, even so, I prefer the more dynamic streets nearer the centre of Camden Town. One of the remarkable things about this area is how quickly the vibe, and the demographic changes. Even after just walking a few streets down.
Keep going straight, I'll meet you a bit further up the hill.
Keep walking. See if you can spot different types of dogs or, if like me you have no idea, different types of joggers. The super keen, lycra joggers. The all-out-sprint-all-the-way-to-the-top runners. The grit-teeth grunters speeding past in fancy shoes, only stopping to tap into their phones.
You might want to turn around and walk backwards for a moment. Or you might want to pause and admire the view. It'll get even better as you continue right up to the top.
Overlooking the city
We're now at one of the highest points in London, and this is where our tour ends.
On your left, at the far-side of the benches, a plaque will point out some of the most important London landmarks. In the near distance, you'll see the BT Tower, Kings Cross and St Pancras stations, and further afield, the London Eye and some of the more recent buildings, like the Shard. From here you can see the city stretching out in front of you, old to new. Unless it's particularly busy, perhaps on the weekend, this is a fairly still place where you can collect your thoughts.
Here, I wrote the end of my poem about growing up in east London, while looking out at the Shard:
I want you to know that Shards of glass, posing as monuments, will never rise higher than your questioning soul/ I want you to know that there is a banquet at the end of your tongue, a restaurant rising from deep within, which you can finally call home./ I want you to pull up a barstool, get comfortable in your skin, and invite your friends to feast…/ Then and only then will you manage to bring up a laugh that bubbles through the buildings listed in your lungs/ and break down the young boundaries that divide us, the tall towers that hide our shadows, and find me/ whole.
We've reached the end of our tour, but if you want to continue walking, cross back over the road into Regents Park proper for more park exploration, or walk onto Regents Park Road, and head into Primrose Hill for shopping or food. You could also walk back into Camden Town and explore the markets.