Where Edinburgh meets north London
The capital's Stoke Newington is about to host its annual street festival. But that's not all it has to offer
Sunday 07 June 1998
Even when it isn't festival week, this is one of London's liveliest and most culturally diverse "villages". New shops, restaurants, galleries and coffee bars are springing into life within a Bohemian square mile bisected by Church Street and the traffic-clogged High Street.
But Church Street isn't just about shops and superb ethnic restaurants. It's also the link to two of north London's most extraordinary green spaces, best appreciated during fresh, uncrowded mornings.
Just to the north, high wrought-iron railings enclose Abney Park Cemetery, a nonconformist burial ground, formerly the 17th-century landscaped park of Abney House. Skirting the overpowering monument to Salvation Army founder, William Booth, you stumble into a world of creeper-clad pathways, hidden grottoes and vast tablets of stone and marble.
Stand on the mound at the north end of the cemetery for an incredible, surrealistic view of the Castle pumping station (a genuine Victorian folly, now a popular climbing centre), and you could well be the only living soul around.
A short walk westwards then brings you to Clissold Park, proudly proclaimed by Hackney Council to be the most used green space in the metropolis. Still almost empty before lunchtime, the park boasts fantastic trees, two lakes, a miniature zoo and a popular children's playground. The imposing Clissold House was designed in the 1790s by botanist Joseph Woods, himself a Stoke Newington resident; its restoration is now managed by a trust.
Meanwhile park rangers in impeccable uniforms occupy a ground-floor office and helpfully retrieve footballs and Frisbees from the wild-goat enclosure. The grand west-facing terrace is now a mob-friendly cafe, jammed with family parties by mid-afternoon.
In high summer the atmosphere is part-inner city, part-pop festival, providing a buzz that few other parts of the capital can match.
A return towards refreshment will take you back past old St Mary's Church, with a tower and south aisle surviving from 1563 and another fascinating cemetery. Across the street stands the new parish church, designed at the height of Stoke Newington's prosperity in 1848 by Sir George Gilbert Scott, and the cream of the area's early Georgian architectural heritage, at 171 and 173 Paradise Row.
By 11 o'clock, you should still have the pick of the pavement tables at the famous Blue Legume cafe, occupying a prestigious halfway position on the Church Street trail. To judge by the juices and the coffee served here, you could almost be in California - except that smoking (inside and out) is very definitely allowed.
By noon, the pavements are looking busier. The lack of a Tube station (and the rarity of the 73 bus) hasn't just kept house prices down in this corner of "nearly Highbury"; it has also enabled an incredible variety of weird and wonderful small shops to survive. And onto the streets they spill.
Shopkeepers slowly heave their quirky array of merchandise onto the pavement - musical instruments, large potted ferns, a selection of rough-hewn tables, office chairs and Formica-topped cupboards. Books, rugs, scarves, large daubed canvases and baskets of fruit add to the colour of a display that is normally complete by lunchtime.
It is rare anywhere these days to find an irresistible mixture of small specialist retailers. But here it is, from Rose's Bespoke Bra Shop to the Violin Shop, clothing shops (new and second-hand) to good old-fashioned junk shops.
Camden Lock, Portobello or Covent Garden might have been like this once, before the masses took over. Here, you can still relish an uncrowded variety of merchandise on the streets, with a perambulating ethnic and social mix of people for company.
Dedicated drinkers will stop at the Magpie and Stump, a cool and cavernous all-day pub; or double-take at the Auld Shilleaigh, whose faded wood exterior is straight out of downtown Cork. Inside, there's a traditional pint and live Irish sport on satellite (the betting shop is two doors down).
Those in search of a late, leisurely lunch can sample one of the ethnic restaurants whose fame has spread far beyond N16. Try the Anglo-Anatolian, long a mecca for fans of the Turkish open grill; or the treasured south Indian vegetarian delights of Rasa, so popular it has now opened a new branch in the West End. For a more idiosyncratic local flavour, sample the French bar-snacks at the Fox Reformed wine bar, slide into a vacant backgammon table and make your own way home in the dark.
Afternoon slides into evening with a trawl round the Church Street book trail. Ocean Books, the Church Street Bookshop, Vortex and the outdoor tables at Guttridge's Yard, next to the Village Gallery, all have new, secondhand and antiquarian stock for collectors and browsers. All are open on Saturdays and Sundays.
There is time, still, for a last circuit of Clissold Park, where the ultimate Frisbee games now compete for space with impromptu parties tucking into food and wine on blankets. Here, against a backdrop straight out of Brideshead Revisited, an extended African family pose for a Leica on a tripod. In front of them is a carpet covered with fruit.
Leave by the eastern entrance along Lordship Terrace, and you'll pass a long line of distinctive trees bordering an estate. They're gingkos - the world's oldest species of tree - and this is the only place in Britain, apart from Kew Gardens, where you'll see them.
To reach Mesclunes, a small but incredibly popular French restaurant at the eastern end of Church Street, you pass the last vestiges of Stoke Newington Green and the house where Daniel Defoe, Stokie's first and most dedicated celebrity resident, wrote Robinson Crusoe.
The returning castaway might have balked at Mesclune's adventurous French menu (booking essential at weekends). But he'd have welcomed the night life on offer later. Late jazz upstairs at the Vortex; loud, energetic salsa at Bar Lorca; backgammon, still, at the Fox.
Things won't always be as raw as this in N16 but, in the meantime, catch Stoke Newington while it's still young and hopeful and thriving - and while the people who are making it happen can still afford to be there. Just don't get up too early.
stoke newington fact file
Described as the Edinburgh Festival of north London, the Stoke Newington Midsummer Festival will run from 14-21 June. Since 1993, the festival has hosted nearly 400 events, productions and exhibitions.
Highlight is the Church Street festival on Sunday 14 June. The street is closed to traffic while markets, sound stages, circus acts, parades, and food stalls create a carnival atmosphere. Further information from the Festival Box Office on 0181 356 5358.
Nearest Tube: Arsenal or Highbury & Islington.
Festival or no festival, you can still eat your way round the world in Church Street, where nearly every second doorway seems to offer a different ethnic treat. Best to book at Rasa (0171 249 0334), Anglo-Anatolian (0171 923 4349) and Mesclunes (0171 225 3113).
To climb the tallest climbing-wall in Europe, complete with 100-foot abseiling-tower, contact the Castle Climbing Centre on 0181 211 7000.
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