If London could be summarised in one word, how many would argue with the word ‘change’? Wherever you look, at whatever point in time, London’s’ cityscape is constantly being reimagined; pulled down and built back up again in line with whatever seems right at the time. It seems only right then, that I should try and use walking the city as a method of both experiencing and recording this change. Thus it is in this light that I find myself stood on platform 5 of New Cross Gate Station, waiting in anticipation of the next train (1.37 to Highbury and Islington). After great efforts to locate her, I finally recognize my friend amongst the midday throng of people, and immediately set about trying to explain the task ahead of us. My enthusiastic gushing is met with, at best, a look of veiled confusion. (Sorry, is that sympathy I’m reading on your face? I’ll have you know this is a very exciting method of doing history! We’re actually doing history here Chi! Okay, let’s just go, clearly you’re yet to be convinced).
I bundle us onto the train before she can decide she’s conveniently under a mountain of work and runs back to the library. Safely aboard the train, conversation thankfully returns to the matter in hand, as said friend starts to suggest places we could go to ‘look’ for history. Here we encounter our first problem. On her list of suggestions are such places as Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace and a number of other well known, attractively historical locations. Interesting, I think to myself, how in the general public view, we have designated places of historic interest, without really considering that every street we walk down has a history of its own. Is this because London’s history at a more local level is less obvious, or less accessible? Or is it that generally what gets attention is something that has a relatable narrative, or some kind of ‘national’ story that we can all accept as our own?
As we race under the city at an unnatural speed for a human, we finally decide that in the spirit of not being constrained by a planned route, to just stay on the train until we have to get off. Exiting at Highbury and Islington station, I am immediately struck by roadworks; hardly surprising but a timely reminder that London is never satisfied with its present state. As previously mentioned, change is something ever present in the city, and this allows historians to make comparisons between different eras, a concept exemplified in the online programme Phone Booth. Created by LSE, this webpage allows for a direct, on the move comparison between a current map of London, and the colour-coded maps of Charles Booth from the 1890s.
Having managed to download an arguably temperamental version onto my phone, it served as a hugely insightful way of observing the streets we were walking down. This was particularly obvious when we turned off Holloway Road, down Furlong Road; not only were the red ie. ‘Middle class. Well-to-do’ houses clearly still present (and still housing a similar class of people, judging by the cars in the street), but the Phone Booth app was able to show us that in the late 19th century, Furlong Road was actually named Albion Road.
Continuing to walk further away from the main road into noticeably quieter streets, we eventually find ourselves walking down a slightly scruffy looking Bride Street, with an enormous, imposing wall at the other end of it. A man in a hoodie is just leaving his house; headphones in, ready for a solitary walk. ‘Can we go down here? I just want to see what’s down here. Hey, let’s ask that guy…’ Before I know it, we strike up a surprisingly interesting conversation with this stranger, who swiftly informs us we can get free bed and breakfast in the house over the wall (we’ve stumbled upon Pentonville Prison…). Whilst we are being enthusiastically informed about the safety of the area, and the fact that ‘the hooligans have moved on’, I have a thought. Oral history is another relatively new field of study, something that takes a different approach to recording social history. What if this could be combined with walking the streets, in order to not only observe but actually engage with the city on a local level?
We eventually stumble across Caledonian Park, and spend a while sitting, admiring the (beautiful) Victorian clock tower. Continuing to wander back towards Caledonian Road, we both notice a theme amongst the road names; we notice roads called Drovers Way, Shearling Way, Ewe Close and Manger Road. I consult the PhoneBooth app, just in case, and with fascination we discover we are stood on the site of the Cattle Market, with the Slaughter House next door. In fact, the tower was built purposefully to be the clock tower for the Market in 1855, and opened by Prince Albert. Road signs are often telling of what came before the street. Perhaps this could be something to explore further?
The final part of our walk consisted mostly of walking down Caledonian Road, back towards Holloway Road, but what was interesting about this final section was the way that our conversation turned towards deeper, more meaningful topics; we found ourselves discussing motivation, and whether anyone is actually born with ‘talent’ and our ability to learn new things. As we were chatting away, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the excellent BBC Radio 4 programme Ramblings, hosted by Clare Balding. In each episode, Clare walks a chosen route with a group of friends that have some connection to the area. As they walk, they learn new things about each other’s lives. I know most of the walks take place in the countryside (except one, on the Isle of Dogs), but I think the concept could easily be applied to walking across London. The casual nature of the walks allows for unplanned conversations to take place, bringing to light memories and histories that only emerge due to a reminder from the surroundings.
Walking without purpose or any real sense of where we were was surprisingly liberating, and being able to use the Charles Booth maps whilst out and about added a hugely insightful element to the exercise, allowing us to almost see the city changing in front of us. This walk has inspired me to continue with this, but to possibly start incorporating oral history as a way of adding another perspective to the history of London’s streets.
Winter, Gordon, A Cockney Camera: London’s Social History Recorded in Photographs, (England: Penguin, 1975)