Category Archives: History

The View Down To Highbury Vale/St John’s Church

My late neighbour, Edna Crome, seemed to know more about Highbury then anyone I know. She was always telling me stories about some aspect of local history, often relating to architecture, football and schools. One afternoon, as we chatted over the garden fence, she started to tell me about St John's Church. I didn't know anything about this and she explained that it was demolished int he early 80s and a block of flats was put up, on the western side of Highbury Park. (Like many old talkative people Edna had never had her stories put down on tape future generations. All I have the memories of the countless conversations, usually conducted over the garden fence or out in the street when we bumped into one another.)

Oldtree  This spot is is one of my favourite parts of Highbury. When my daughter stared school at the top of the hill I'd sit on the bench at the junction of Highbury Park and Northolme Road and look down into the vale and beyond, marveling at the semi-rural template that lay beneath the concreted scene.


I haven't managed to find any photos or illustrations of the old church. In some ways it doesn't matter so much that the church is no longer there. If I concentrate I can see it just as plainly as it was there in front of me. It's the same with other parts of the village. I sit on the viewing bench and imagine the scene without the buildings, imagine looking down over pastures and meadows with the new river winding its way through the landscape from Hornsey over towards Stoke Newington. And there, to the left of the scene, snaking down from the Crouch Hill heights to the west, is the Hackney Brook.


There is still a C of E primary School named after St John's. Going back further there had been at college of St John's around Aubert Park (it was demolished in the mid 40s and a block of flats put in its place) in this area (there still exist some old illustrations of this http://www.antiquemapsandprints.com/p-3679.jpg). Arsenal FC bought part of the college grounds to build their original stadium before the First World War. Going back to the mediaeval era Highbury had been given to the Priory of St John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights Hospitallers in England. by the landowner Alica de Barrow in 1271.  They controlled the area until disbanded by Henry VIII in the 16th century. The thread still survives in the name of the school.


I have a more recent example of this feeling for "ghost buildings" for it is not that long ago that the old tin box factory on Blackstock Road was demolished to make way for a new block of flats. On the other side of the road, where now Il Baccio restaurant and further new flats exist, was an old-fashioned garage.


Unlike some London churches, such as old St Mary's in Stoke Newington, , the Church of St John in Highbury Park was relatively new. It was only consecrated in 1881 so according to the information available didn't even last 100 years as a working church. Perhaps the people of Highbury built simply too many churches in that late 19th-century is their rush to development of the area. As wel as St John's there was also Christchurch a few hundred yards up the road, Saint Augustine's in the smart backstreets of Highbury New Park and St Thomases in St Thomas's Road  down in the Vale. Highbury_park1  


Almost 20 years ago,  when my wife lived above a launderette at the other end of Blackstock Road, I'd sometimes walk southwards until I got to Highbury Vale. And for some reason I never walked up the hill towards Highbury village proper, the Barn and Highbury Fields, as if I wanted to keep some kind of mystery for a later date. So we moved in here together in the late 90s it was with great excitement that I began to map out the territory to the south Blackstock Road and was pleasantly surprised to find old-fashioned little shops and a tree-lined boulevard.


There's a smart new bench now at the junction of Northholme Road and Highbury Park. It's more comfortable than the old one but for some reason I'm less inclined to sit on it for very long. I tell myself that I should spend half a day sitting down at this spot watching life unfold around me and see the changing light over Stroud Green and FInsbury Park as the afternoon unfurls. These days I tell myself I'm too busy to do this. Perhaps one day, soon.

Highbury_park2  


 

The Origins of Danebottom

My six year old son often asks me, when we walk up Canning Road, to tell him about the Viking battle of Blackstock Road.

"How do you know about that?" I said the other day.
"You told me."
OK. I did read something about that a few years ago and must have mentioned it to him once. So I took to researching – on the internet, you understand – where the story comes from. 

The archived paper 'Perambulations in Islington' by Thomas Edlyne Tomlins (1858) can be found here:

http://www.archive.org/stream/yseldonperambula00toml/yseldonperambula00toml_djvu.txt


In this he mentions Danebottom several times, such as:
"in writings so far back as the reign of Henry II. demon- 
strates that this name of Danebottom has peculiar reference to
some of those encounters our Saxon ancestors had with the
Danes."
"some battle fought there in earlier times,perhaps so far back as the period of tlie Danish incursions, the memory of which, as I have ventured to suggest, have been tra- 
ditionally preserved in Danebottom, at Highbury Vale."
There is no older source for this story but what Tomlins is saying, essentially, is that the Saxons held the bridge over the Hackney Brook, presumably near the Arsenal Tavern, and the Danes came down from the heights of Finsbury Park and tried to 'take' the Arsenal Tavern, er, I mean bridge. There was an almighty rumpus but luckily it took place on the site of the present police station and most of the miscreants were carted off, though not charged because no witnesses came forward.

Cafe with Art Blakey CD Playing, Mornington Crescent

I went in for a chicken and avocado toasted sandwich and a coffee at a little cafe opposite the station. As soon as I sat down Talk Radio was turned off and what sounded like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers came blaring out of the speakers. A middle aged man comes in and tries to get pally with the bloke behind the counter.

– So, you Italian?
– No.
– Maltese?
– No.
– Iranian?
– No.
There's a brief silence. The older man looks around.
– So you do food?
Cobd
His new mate looks around him at the sandwiches and salads on display and arches an eyebrow.
My toasted sandwich is still very hot. In a pedestrian island in the middle of the road I can see a 
statue of the anti-Corn Law campaigner Richard Cobden. The Corn Laws were a vital part of my 19th Century British history module at A Level, but I failed to concentrate in lessons due to the presence of a very pretty and very young substitute teacher who had just arrived from teacher training college. When it came to the exam a few months later and the relevant question, all I could thinkHistoryteachersm
 of was her face, smiling and blinking in slow motion, as she says something about Peel and free trade.

There wasn't much avocado in it.

Bike chains and feng shui

On Riversdale Road today, on the same part of the road that was the other day covered in rubbish, one of my neighbours was trying to put the chain on her bike.

“Her chain’s bust,” shouted the tall Irish bloke from across the road, out tending his front garden on the other side of the road.

I stopped to help. The bike wasn’t in good nick and I couldn’t get the chain to work. The Irish bloke came over and we started discussing how this part of the road might be haunted, as my hands got more and more covered in oil.

“It’s bad feng shui” said the tall Irish bloke. “All the chi is flowing off down Wyatt Road. That’s why I’m poor,” he laughed, pointing at his jumper full of holes. I told them about the New River which used to flow under their houses and we started discussing plans to reinstate a stretch of it on Riversdale Road.

“Did you know there was a battle between the Danes and the Saxons round here,” said the Irish bloke. I said I did, though I can’t remember how I found it out – perhaps on a rainy afternoon in Guildhall Library from an obscure book whose title I wrote down in a now lost notebook. The area was once known as Dane Bottom, a reminder of a group of Scandinavian lads who came over for a European away tie and never went home. We discussed the possibility that the road might be haunted by the ghost of a Viking, then the tall Irish bloke realised he hadn’t done any front yard tidying for at least 15 minutes, and scooted off home.

Trying to picture London: the bowling green in Clissold Park

Today I’m trying to picture London. It’s now almost 6 months since we left and images are obviously in the process of being moved from short to long-term memory tanks, because I can’t see them. To compensate I’ve been flicking through Wonderful London (Ed. St. John Adcock), a three volume set from 1926. This is the bowling green before it stopped being a bowling green and became an teen alcopops awareness centre. If this picture was taken now there’d be a mad-looking bloke with a bull terrier striding towards the camera shouting obscenities.

The text with the photo says:

“STOKE NEWINGTON IN SUMMER-TIME: THE BOWLING GREEN AT CLISSOLD PARK
A long journey through the dreary Kingsland Road and on through Stoke Newington brings one to Church Street, a curious survival in the surrounding villadom. There are old houses and a small sixteenth-century church, mellow with years, and farther on the fifty-two green acres of Clissold Park, through whose ordered lawns runs the New River. Beyond the bowling green is the spire of the modern parish church, built by Sir Gilbert Scott to replace the old one which was put up when the congregation was that of a country village.”

Don’t know about the copyright situation with pics like this. The photo was credited to someone called McLeish. Bowls_9

The Stone

As I was flicking through the Stoke Newington OS map from 1868 (it’s a gripping read) I noticed that, north of the avenue and embankment that was once the New River, was a stone. No other explanation. Just “stone”. Was it a milestone, like the one on the bend of the New River near St Mary’s church? Maybe this is the same stone and it was moved into an enclosed area for safe keeping. Or was the “stone” something else, something older still? Like a neolithic marker which, though long gone, still gives off a strange magnetic pull that attracts summertime frisbee throwers and the Turkish football team (it’s near the spot where they do their windsprints).

There must be a historian around who knows these things, some Professor of Invisible Ancient Stones of North London at University College.Stone2