When I first moved to London some eight years ago, Camden was something of a central hub for me. I was dating a bass player whose band played in local venues like Barfly which is now painted a vibrant blue and the old Tommy Flynns which I believe is now closed.
On Friday and Saturday nights, we’d stroll into Marathon – an ordinary looking kebab shop at the front. But it was definitely not an ordinary kebab shop. There was as little room at the back where you could go for really late night jazz, played live by two guys on the sax to a crowd of people who you would never really think would be into jazz. The atmosphere on those nights was electric. There was dancing shoulder to shoulder, wooden tables with candles in the middle, wax dripping down the sides of re-purposed Jack Daniel’s bottles, and waiters swooping in and out, dodging the crowds (you could barely move) with heaped baskets full of fat, hot chips.
There were nights in the Dublin Castle spent listening to indie bands and catching up with friends over malibu and cokes, nights listening to live music and leaving £1 coins on the edge of the pool table at the Fiddler’s Elbow waiting for our turn to play, live music at The Purple Turtle, live music at Koko, live music at Proud Camden alongside black and white photography of famous musicians, birthdays at the Hayley Arms (before the fire happened), many games of pool at The Good Mixer and a few Amy Winehouse spottings to boot.
There were 3am visits to the little stall that stays open all night to feed the drunk and the weary with its juicy steak sandwiches. It’s still there.
Afternoons were spent in the Spread Eagle pub or down the street in the beer garden at the Edinboro Castle after a stroll through the market. There was freshly squeezed orange juice from a guy on the corner. There were visits to Cyberdog, the only place I’ve ever been where you can find a flourescent yellow dress made of foam that looked like something out of The Jetsons. For dinner, there were £2 tins of Chinese food in the market if you went at the right time.
Camden was like nowhere else in London back then. It still is, though less so. There came a point when we just stopped going after a few years. It became a lot more gentrified and full of tourists. The shops changed a lot. Big brands like All Saints have moved in. There’s a Starbucks. There’s a vegan cafe. That sort of thing.
When you come out of Camden Station onto the High Street, you see a bank. You walk on and you see some of the quirkiness still mixed up in everything else that’s pushing the area into somewhere more “normal”. And eventually, sadly, that old identity that once made it such a special and unusual place will probably completely disappear one day.
There’s still massive cats, airplanes, shoes, dragons and whatever else attached to the outside of shop buildings. Market stalls line the streets. You can get lost in a maze of cheap band t-shirts and dresses with patterns of cats or birds. You still see the punks with their colourful, dramatic mohawks and the Doc Martin-wearing, sign holders full of tatoos and piercings.
The best part of Camden, for me, was always the music and it’s been years since I’ve been around that area for a gig. In fact, I rarely go at all now. The other day, I thought it would be fun to walk through it again, but I didn’t have the patience to explore much of the market itself and the newer side has all been demolished. I walked the high street and wove around to see the coloured doors on the houses of the back streets. I headed down to Chalk Farm then and over the painted bridge where a little white dog was lying in a patch of sun on the floor of an open front coffee shop.
Once you cross the bridge into Primrose Hill, the atmosphere changes completely from the grubby, student-filled streets to the upmarket cafes where mums who brunch eat avocado and eggs on toast at outdoor tables in the sun next to babies in buggies sleeping peacefully. There’s no street art. The houses are pristine. It’s home (at least some of the time) to people like Daniel Craig, Jude Law, Kate Moss and Jamie Oliver.
I walked on bit toward Regent’s Park at the top of the street, taking photos of something or another, when a guy with a camera approached and asked what I was shooting. He was down from St. Alban’s to give his own camera a whirl and suggested I head toward Chalcot Square if I was in search of some colour.
I’m always in search of some colour, so I took his advice. I was glad I did. What a beautiful little place. The grassy private garden in the middle (which I sadly couldn’t enter; all of these private green oases in London are such a tease) is referred to as “The Jewel of Primrose Hill”. I’d have to agree. The garden is surrounded by Victorian homes painted in bright pastel hues. Later, I learned that Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath lived there in the 1960s – at number 3. What an amazing place to sit and write. Of course all of these massive houses are now divided into a million flats which you can buy for some £850,000 or so each.
I walked on, down the edge of the park, connecting with the canal path and headed back toward Camden where people were perched on the wall eating lunch with plastic forks, sunglasses glinting, unnecessary coats piled in a heap. It was a beautiful day. In fact, walking along the water in a t-shirt, I went home with a sunburn.
I stopped under the sweeping willow tree on the bridge by Camden Lock (near the Starbucks) with a ton of tourists to watch the locks in operation. Some people cheered, which I had never heard before…must be a new thing.
(This one is in my etsy shop)
And then I found the canal path again and carried on toward King’s Cross. I wanted to see if the Camley Street Natural Park was open. It’s something I stumbled upon long ago and had never been back. It wasn’t, so I walked on, took a few photos of St. Pancras and dreamed of hopping on the Eurostar to spend the rest of the afternoon in Paris (which would have made this post much longer than it already is).
I walked on to Euston where I stopped at the British Library for tea and a slice of something with apple that I wouldn’t recommend. From there, I walked to Regents Park, thinking about how much I love the fact that I can walk for hours and miles through this city and never seem to cover very much of it in a single day.
One of the American students who writes a column for the blog I run for work said of his fleeting time studying abroad in London: “Every second that my breath isn’t being taken away feels like a moment wasted.” I thought back to my own study abroad days and how I was the same – out and about at every chance I had, trying to understand this city, exploring its nooks and cranies, not wanting time to pass so quickly. Now, I’m lucky enough to have lived here for eight years but I still feel that way – that there’s moments that are essentially wasted if I’m not out trying to soak up everything I can while I’m still here. While it sometimes gets under my skin, I know that someday, when I do leave London, I will miss it like crazy. I want to leave feeling like I made the best of it while I was here.
One place I will definitely miss if we leave is Daunt Books. So, from Regents Park – where a wonderfully random and diverse group of people (some with dreadlocks, some wearing kippahs, some with mini-afros, some redheads wearing jeans and t-shirts and even two women in niqabs) were sharing a similar interest, looking up in awe at the cherry blossoms in full bloom – I headed to Marylebone. I still have a pile of books waiting to be read, but I added Farewell Kabul by Christina Lamb (US / UK) and It’s What I Do – A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lyndsey Addario (US / UK) to my wish list.
And then, onward toward home.