Sestiere di Somers Town

We are declinists. We like lost causes and giving up. We like to imagine that certain ways of life are gone forever, and that we’ve lost a good thing. It fits with our tendency to think the very worst of each other. It’s a truism nowadays that Venice is dead; the glorious city and topographical treasure trove that once ruled a vast empire reduced to a Disneyland of shoebox hotel rooms and plastic gondolas. Yet explore the depths of San Polo or Cannaregio, and you can shake off Disney Venice altogether; they may be ageing and shrivelling, but these communities are still bigger than we imagine and this is where they get on with it. Say 95% of a vast thing is lost; we of course write the thing off altogether, but when you explore that 5%  it can be a real surprise to see just how much is left. Look while you still can.

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I didn’t always find the things I was looking for on this route, but what I found in their place was interesting enough. Nairn’s St Pancras entry sends us up Midland Road for “one of the most astonishing transformations in London… anyone whose heart was lost to bricky Leicestershire would find this place unbearably nostalgic.” A lot of what he’s talking about seems to have made way for Eurostar & co.; across Midland Rd, behind the British Library is something called the Francis Crick Institute.

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If you wonder why there are so many reports of death emanating from the Qatar stadia, let it be noted that the realisation of your shiny gargantuan edifices requires people to do this:

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Keep going, however, and the New Money starts to give way to other things.

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It appears that the series of gasholders which enthuse Nairn so are no more, and he makes it sound a tremendous pity. “A shout of sheer joy from the most unlikely place… the C19th equivalent of a Baroque angel is not a Victorian angel, but a Baroque gasworks.” Only after climbing the makeshift lookout point behind Kings X do I spot ‘Gasworks No. 8’, which has been taken apart, sent up to Yorkshire for refurbishment and rehoused by the Regents Canal, where it will stand over a new public park as of 2015. Along the canal we go.

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I might not have noticed without Nairn bringing this to my attention, but if you look long enough you start to get something. Long divorced from its original function, there’s something mystical about this jet-black monument from a vanished age, standing tall and solemn in a circle that puts one in mind of pagan monuments; Stonehenge or a ruined temple in the Roman Forum (the pillars look as if they owe something to antiquity).

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Heartening that people should value this stuff enough to not only keep it, but think of new ways to keep it relevant. Except that a quick Internet search indicates that Gasholders 10-12 will soon be rehoused next door and serve as frame for, wait for it, “new studio, 1, 2, 3 and 4 bedroom apartments, many with fantastic views over the water”. The heritage aspect turns out to be a fig leaf for someone to make their fortune at an auction in Shanghai. Housing is a very sore point for any Londoner unfortunate enough to be on a five-figure salary.

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One curio unmentioned by Nairn is St Pancras Old Church and Churchyard (site of a church since the C4th). Also behind the station, its calm, leafy seculsion is totally at odds with anything around it. It’s a venerable, humble old place redolent of the early church, and on a sunny lunchtime, the shady churchyard has around half a dozen (living) occupants.

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The young Thomas Hardy excavated most of the graves to make room for the railways but the odd surprise remains, such as Sir John Soane.

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I was quite unaware of the church until a couple of years ago, when Luke Haines and Cathal Coughlan -mhttps://flic.kr/p/nXwSzRy two favourite singers- collaborated on their memorably demented North Sea Scrolls project and staged the London shows here. It was an “alternate history” affair for which they donned red sashes and pith helmets, and the church was a perfect fit with its profusion of bric-a-brac and the faintly occult solar icon looking down on the nave.

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Hidden in plain sight, the Old Church is perhaps better off playing second fiddle to the worldly New Church, which stands across the road from Euston and speaks more of antiquity than of monasteries and saints.

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I’m not sure what I think of the dual steeple. Nairn hoots with derision at the whole thing. “Athens come to the Euston Road… it is not on, of course, even when the detail is as superbly executed as it is here… the inside shows painfully what happens when the precedents run out. Heartless elegance is all that is left”. There’s a student art show in the crypt, but the main church is closed so I cannot judge. Parts of the exterior seem like they could have wandered in from the Assyrian rooms at the British Museum, but I’d much rather one of these jolie-laide, Florence-on-steroids amazonians than any of the models in the phone box beneath them.

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Opposite is an old fire station that beats Ghostbusters hands down.

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We press on into the area south of Euston Rd, in search of Holy Cross. The first arterial road, Judd St, contains a few charity headquarters and is as Bloomsbury as one would expect.

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Nairn dismisses the Holy Cross exterior as “cheap and shrugged off; there are a hundred like it in London’s suburbs”, but praises its unshowiness and promises “five eastern lancets, backed up mightily by a rood beam with three Germanic figures on it”. The church, alas, is shut, although its crypt now houses a busy refugee centre.

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Despite this disappointment, Cromer St intrigues because it feels like I’ve fallen through the rabbit hole. All around me are scruffy council blocks and most of the men loitering on the streets look Bengali or East African. It feels like Shadwell, not what one expects to find a block or two away from Russell Square.

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The edifice below really is on Tavistock Place, nestled amongst the famous Georgian squares. It could pass for one of the proletariat dwellings on the edge of Reykjavik. I’m not complaining, I find the incongruity marvellous.

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Nairn directs us to Regent Sq for the steeple and portico of the blitzed St Peter, a better example of the St Pancras architects and “one of the most evocative places in London”. Sadly the only trace of these fragments is a housing block called St Peter’s House. It’s a small consolation to see that one of the estate planners was most likely a fellow Shankill Road man.

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Though he sounds like he’s still fuming their St Pancras job, Nairn suggests a “near relative” by the same authors in Camden. For this I must retrace my steps and cut through Somers Town.

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It may have been the film a few years back, but in my head Somers Town is as mythical as a unicorn. From time to time friends will refer to a rough, working-class area that, like Asterix’s village, ekes out its improbable survival between Euston, St Pancras and Mornington Crescent. You might, if you think to look that way, catch a distant glimpse as your bus flies up to Camden. I’ve never had occasion to go there or pass through it. In an age where every shop unit in residential North London is churning out cupcakes, it’s a surprise to see the street parallel to Euston look as run-down as a seaside resort fallen out of favour.

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Take any right turn here, and enter in the heart of the area. Again, most people look poor and they’re simply getting on with their lives. The schoolkids are being let out, there are a few (non-gastro) pubs, flats in the notorious “typewriter” formation. It’s hermetically sealed off from the landmarks surrounding it and all that mass transit to and from Paris, Manchester, Glasgow.

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The housing stock isn’t art nouveau or Le Corbusier. You could be in Woolwich, Barking, any place that isn’t across the road from the Eurostar; yet that’s exactly where you are. In this age it’s a remarkable anomaly. One presumes that over the years a lot of council tenants will have opted into right-to-buy, cashed in their chips and swanned off to suburbia with their winnings. Still, no lattes, Macbooks or cupcakes in sight. Of the people I passed, the most frequent recurrence was the ‘weary 50-something African woman in Muslim headscarf lugging two Lidl bags’.

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London can bring everyone down and many an atrocity is enacted here, but I’ll say this for it. A miracle like Venice is one-note throughout; London’s infinite variety can take you across entire continents in a couple of streets. If you don’t like the weather, wait two minutes and it will change. If you don’t like the city, walk two minutes and you are a thousand miles away.

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As a postscript I made it to All Saints on Camden St, hidden next to the high street. Less of a Grecian temple out front, but to these eyes it’s very similar to St Pancras. In Nairn’s day it has become Greek Orthodox and “a wedding here is something to see”. This is still the case. A loud bell rings while the door is open, but enter regardless and you’ll see a light, harmonious space with a sense of inclusion and something of the synagogue about it.

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The walls are covered in fresh-looking paintings which replicate the Byzantine icon look, as if to say “Yes, we’ve seen humanism and the renaissance. We’ll stick with our icons, thanks awfully.”

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