Wednesday Picture: Cally Festival – and the story of Caledonian Park Clock Tower

The third Cally Festival takes place this weekend. So if you stroll over there, don’t forget to take a moment to admire one of London’s most underrated landmarks

Why don't we build towers like this anymore? Photos by Stephen Emms
Why don’t we build towers like this anymore? Photos by Stephen Emms

As we have oft maintained, Caledonian Road is but a short hop over the fast flowing river of Camden Road; yet its identity is unique, its history special (as anyone who saw BBC2’s brilliant Secret History of Our Streets won’t contest).

And how better to celebrate its forthcoming annual Cally Festival this weekend than by an awe-inspiring pic of Caledonian Park Clock Tower in the early morning September sunshine?

And before we explore its history, a word about the festival, which last year attracted a whopping 7000 people. Like Queen’s Crescent or Alma Street, it’s a free event with music, art, creative workshops and stalls aplenty from local shops.

7000 people came last year...the Cally Festival
7000 people came last year…the Cally Festival

And three stages will, apparently, showcase the best of the “local emerging live arts scene”. The Main Stage programme will host everything from salsa to the National Youth Jazz Collective, while a separate Youth Stage, from an Vintage 1950’s Airstream trailer, is hosted by local young performers.


But now let’s head back to Caledonian Park itself – and that tower – which makes it one of London’s most atmospheric and underrated spots.

Once a pleasure resort and tea garden called Copenhagen House, in 1855 the site was redeveloped as the Metropolitan Cattle Market, chosen for its proximity to the goods yards of the newly opened Great North Eastern Railway and North London Railway. Livestock could be transported to the depots before being driven up York Way or chaperoned down from Junction Road railway station. On market days a noisy 15,000 animals could be traded. Imagine the smell too…indeed, its fame was such that Charles Dickens Jr wrote, in Dickens’s Dictionary of London, 1879, that “the great cattle market of London lies up the Caledonian-road, King’s-cross.”

The newly opened market on an etching from the time. Image: Creative Commons
The newly opened market on an etching from the time. Image: Creative Commons

As you can see from the etching, the central market area was rectangular with stalls and pens for cattle, sheep and pigs, plus the 46 metre (151 ft) tall central clock tower, still perfectly intact in 2013. Slaughter houses were close by, and the whole site was enclosed by cast iron railings, the columns of which were topped with cast iron heads of the animals traded. (Sadly, the heads were removed many moons ago.)

At each corner, rowdy market pubs provided accommodation and entertainment for folk visiting: The Lion, The Lamb, The White Horse and The Black Bull. You can imagine how boozy they must have been. Today, three of the four remain (as posh flats) and, with the clock tower, are listed structures. A fifth pub, The Butchers Arms, was located at the south-west corner of the market site at the junction of York Way and Brewery Road.

Nearly 50 metres tall: the Tower

By 1963 the market had disappeared, and Caledonian Park was structured in 1970 and planted with woodland. Its memory survives in the street and building names to this day – Market Road, Shepherd House, Penfields House, Market House and Drovers Way.

“The Old Caledonian Market was one of London’s living legends for stories of fabulous jewels and priceless pictures being found amongst the junk on the blue cobbled stones,” wrote Marjorie Edwards in Up The Cally – The History and Recollections of London’s Caledonian Market, 1989. “People flocked to the market in their thousands to hunt for such bargains, and in amongst the shoppers were the buskers, the common, the artists, the film stars and the pickpockets. Life at The Cally was a colourful hotchpotch of laughter and sadness, rags and riches, glamour, excitement and glorious confusion.”

Sigh. And so we advise you to stroll over Caledonian Park this Saturday and spend a moment looking up in awe at the tower – before joining the festivities on Cally Road.

The Cally Festival takes place 12-6pm Caledonian Road. More info here.

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  • John

    there is film of the market in 1922 in the BFI DVD “Wonderful London”, in the film “London off the Track”, there’s also a film, “Barging through London” on the DVD which also features a trip all the way along Regents Canal, including shots of Camden Lock and the bottom of Kentish Town Road