Warming to Kentish Town


A few weeks back, on the first warm day of summer, the simmering urban unrest on the streets of Kentish Town hissed like a greasy kebab. It was one of those days when clutches of delinquents sag off school and spend the afternoon shoplifting in Woolworths. The area feels like a cross between Catford and Hampstead, but has plenty to recommend itself to visitors tired of the litter and hassle of neighbouring Camden.

Kentish Town has the full set of London inequalities. The haves live in pounds 500,000 Georgian terraces and stick Vote Labour posters on their sash windows, the have-nots live 50 yards away in council blocks and shop in Kwik Save. Consequently, the high street - Kentish Town Road - is the interface for some sticky social interaction. Juvenile gatherings on nearby street corners can feel like political protests against the excesses of capitalism, organised by (ex-residents) Orwell and Marx.

Kentish Town is probably a corruption of Ken-ditch, Ken (as in nearby Kenwood) being the Celtic word for both "green" and "river", ditch referring to the Fleet river which once flowed through here. Angler's Lane is so named because youths in the reign of Queen Victoria used to fish in a tributary of the Fleet. When the area was developed by the Midland railway company, the Fleet was sealed inside an iron pipe.

A pleasant surprise in an area which has a reputation as a grimy thoroughfare is its abundance of trees. Even the great swathes of imposing local authority housing, to the north of Prince of Wales Road, are dressed in rich green hanging like drapes from well-established boughs. Kentish Town was once a small hamlet in the great forest of Middlesex, and with a little imagination one could almost imagine how it used to be. The swankiest parts are off to the left of the high street. Inkerman Road, Alma Road and Raglan Street would all be described as "nice" by the estate agents - the kind of understated Georgian residences which displaced Hampsteadians are occupying. The George IV pub on the corner of Willes Road and Holmes Road has tables outside, from which you can sample the street life.

The roads across Kentish Town Road, from Islip Street down to Bartholomew Road, are also attractive, with well-tended front gardens of wisteria and rose. Two of note are Wolsey Mews, which in spring is one of the prettiest streets in north London, and Lawford Road, with a blue plaque for George Orwell at number 50b.

An excursion past the Tube station and J Stanley Beard's glorious, but now grubby, art-deco Forum leads to an unexpected discovery, a dozen or so Persian carpet shops on Highgate Road. These opened about 25 years ago, attracted by the low rent, and offer richly hued kilims and nomadic and tribal pieces.

"Worship Here!" implores a sign outside St Martin's Church, on Vicar's Road, and for once non-believers should accept the invitation. EB Lamb's eccentrically piled mixture of styles was dubbed "the craziest of London's Victorian churches" by Pevsner, and the building is indeed worth a moment's veneration. The building is all turrets, chimneys and stacks, an anarchic collage of stone - but being Kentish Town, there is a Neighbourhood Watch sticker in the window.

Kentish Town is a challenging mixture - for every garden centre there's a garage. For every straggling Japanese tourist asking for directions to Camden there's a drunk wandering the pavement like a wobbling bowling pin. It's not to everyone's taste, but it's a hard place to ignore.

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