Continuing our journey around London’s boroughs, long-time resident Lucy Cait Jordan picks some of her highlights in Camden. As ever, the list is intended as a starting point for discussion, and we welcome your own suggestions in the comments.
Arguably the most bustling and diverse of the London boroughs and home to such iconic locations as Hampstead, Bloomsbury, Kentish Town and Primrose Hill — which really deserve articles all to themselves — the London Borough of Camden has everything. Needless to say, with its 36 music venues, 22 theatres, 38 art galleries, 8 cinemas and 16 museums, it is not an easy task to pick the best of the best, but here we go!
1. Best Park
Pretty unbeatable in terms of grandeur and beauty. Entering into the Inner Circle’s Queen Mary’s Garden, boasting an overwhelming 12,000 roses, feels like stumbling onto the set of Alice in Wonderland, and can be as beautiful in the winter months as it is in summer. The central gardens are also home to the otherworldly Open Air Theatre, where performances range from Shakespeare to stand-up from May to September.
2. Best Museum
Wellcome Collection is an excellent and free museum and education centre on Euston Road that explores ‘ideas about the connections between medicine, life and art’. With recent exhibitions such as ‘Brains’, ‘Medicine, Life and Art’, ‘Death – A Self Portrait’, ‘Skin Lab’ and ‘Dirt – the filthy reality of every day life’, prepare yourself to be uncomfortably enthralled. For connoisseurs of the unusual and peculiar, where else could you view a slice of Einstein’s brain, a torture chair and a shrunken head? Not many places. Let’s hope. It’s currently undergoing a major refit, but the permanent galleries upstairs remain open.
3. Best Street
Half way between Russell Square and Farringdon, just north of Theobalds road, lies Lamb’s Conduit Street. A throwback to an older London and refreshingly free of the usual assortment of chain stores (well, OK, there’s a Starbucks, but everyone ignores it in favour of Tutti’s). The street has more esoteric offerings than most, including Persephone Books, selling books by women, for women and about women; The People’s Supermarket where shoppers can get 10% off of their bills for four hours of work a month; and Sim’s and MacDonald, a tailors that would not look out of place in an episode of Poirot.
4. Best Venue
Now primarily known for its gigs and indie club nights, in its former life Koko was known as The Camden Palace Victorian Theatre, and opened on Boxing Day 1900. It went on to survive the two World Wars, unlike many of the buildings around it. Though fairly sizeable, Koko’s plush multi-tiered interior feels homely and many a world-famous act — including the likes of Coldplay, Prince and Oasis – has chosen Koko as a more intimate one-off venue.
5. Best Architecture
In terms of opulence and grand beauty, it’s very hard to rival the St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel on Euston Road. This Gothic Revival giant fronting St Pancras Station has undergone several incarnations and was reopened as a hotel in 2011 after years spent as railway offices.
The design is the result of a competition held in 1856, won by prolific British architect George Gilbert Scott. Back when it was first opened, the hotel boasted a number of innovative features and firsts for the country including flushable toilets (albeit only five of them for 300 bedrooms), and Britain’s first revolving door. Its stretching Gothic spires and gargoyles appear all the more grand next to the unadorned functionalism of the British Library. And the front bar serves a cocktail called The Londonist, not that we’re biased.
6. Best Book Shop
Skoob is ‘Books’ backwards — it took us a while. Tucked inside Bloomsbury’s Brunswick Centre, this subterranean gem is the perfect environment for hours of browsing. It’s full of nooks and crannies and stocked with more unusual and specialist titles than your average bookshop, while still carrying a huge range of second hand popular fiction, non-fiction and an excellent selection of travel guides and classic book cover posters. Oh, and a huge section of London books. Weather permitting, on Saturdays a Skoob bookstall can be found in the middle of the Brunswick Centre grounds with discounts often to be found in the last hour.
7. Best Gallery
The small but brilliant photographic exhibition space of Proud Gallery, perched atop Camden Market, focuses on popular culture, rock & roll and fashion, and has been home to exhibitions featuring the likes of The Sex Pistols, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Withnail & I.
8. Best Bit Of Historical Trivia
Hear the one about the time mounted police stormed the Electric Ballroom? Country and Western star Jim Reeves was all set to play the venue (then known as The Buffalo) in February 1964. Unfortunately, the piano was out of tune, and he decided to pull out of the gig rather than play something atonal. With thousands of expectant fans already in the building, the venue’s management predicted a riot, and fled the scene. The disappointed punters proceeded to smash the place up, culminating in Her Majesty’s Constabulary entering the building on horseback. More on the story here.
9. Best Cemetery: Highgate Cemetery
The internment venue of choice for the great and the good. This beautiful patch of Camden is Grade I listed, as are some of the memorials within. As well as being an important nature reserve, the cemetery (especially the western section) is home to a rather special collection of gothic mausoleums and buildings.
The most famous burial plot (on the eastern side) is that of Karl Marx, but other notables include Michael Faraday, George Eliot, Douglas Adams, Christina Rossetti, William Friese Greene and John and Elizabeth Dickens, parents of Charles Dickens. A more recent burial was Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian who died of polonium poisoning under still-mysterious circumstances in 2006. The Cemetery has associations with the occult and was at the centre of media attention in the 1970s due to alleged sightings of the Highgate Vampire.
10. Best Magic Portal
One of Camden’s more unlikely tourist attractions is a brick wall inside the new station concourse at King’s Cross. Platform 9¾ is familiar the world-over to wizarding fans as the place to catch the Hogwarts Express. But first you must pass through a magic portal designed to deny muggles access. It doesn’t work very well, judging by the lengthy queues that form beside the supposedly secret entrance. The playful portal has hopped around over the years. The current location, on a rebuilt wall previously known as the ‘bomb gap’, is its fourth location in as many years. Stymied wizardlings can find it — frustratingly — between platforms 8 and 9.
By Lucy Cait Jordan, photos by M@.
As mentioned up top, this is but a starting point for discussion. Please nominate your own Camden favourites in the comments below. We were going to include “Best Pub: The Southampton Arms”, but surely everyone already knows that?
Other instalments in this series: Barking and Dagenham, Barnet, Brent, Bromley, the City of London, Ealing, Enfield, Greenwich, Hackney, Hammersmith and Fulham, Haringey, Hounslow, Islington, Kensington & Chelsea, Lambeth, Lewisham, Newham, Redbridge, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth, Waltham Forest and the City of Westminster.