Free Weekend? Do Holloway Road

You’ve probably travelled its length on buses, in cars or on foot. But have you ever stopped properly to explore?

Sunrays penetrate deep inside the market. Photos by Stephen Emms
Sun rays light up the fabric stall deep inside the Nag’s Head market. Photos by Stephen Emms

Walking from Kentish Town to my office in Highbury, I used to cross Holloway Road twice a day for a decade. All snarled-up traffic, mardy cyclists and fumes, on the surface this unlovable stretch is at first glance little more than the A1.

On Seven Sister's Road
On Seven Sisters Road
Yet it’s also an ancient road north from the city, first mentioned way back in 1307. And while it’s perched in the valley between more sexy Tufnell Park and Highbury, Islington and Highgate, it seems unfair that it remained unremarkable for so long.

But things are finally changing now (while at the same time the road’s appearance is reassuringly familiar). There are new coffeehouses, vintage shops and pubs. And on a lazy weekend morning, if you’ve strolled down Camden Road or through Tufnell Park, where best to start?

Why, the Nag’s Head of course, the landmark at the junction of Holloway Road with Seven Sisters Road, where the architecturally impressive former pub still stands (now a goddamn Carphone Warehouse). Step behind, onto Bowman’s Mews, for a first jolt of history – a plaque reminding us that “in Elizabethan times this was a favourite spot for archery contests”.

Heaving: Holloway fisheries
Heaving: Holloway fisheries

If it’s a Saturday, don’t miss the sprawling weekly outdoor car boot sale in the car park of Grafton Primary School (Eburne Road). Worm your way round its packed array of stalls, before crossing the road to the indoor daily market on Seven Sisters Road.

This is the real deal. More Marrakech than Holloway, it’s a rowdy souk of fifty micro shops and second hand stalls. Every morning a crush of shoppers surrounds the butcher, greengrocer and fishmongers, their shelves crammed with coley, pollock and hake, as well as more exotic specimens like tilapia.

Margaret poses in her shop
Margaret poses in her shop
Deep in the middle of the market, where a dimly-lit Colombian cafe is filled with punters, the smells of warming stews and roast chicken waft out. And bright colours are everywhere: at a fabric stall, where a white-haired man cuts and rolls cloth methodically, at the weave shop, run by charismatic owner Margaret, and various antique and bric a brac outlets.

Back out on Holloway Road, take a deep breath and head south towards Highbury to gawp at another landmark, the futuristic Orion building, designed by Daniel Libeskind. A little piece of ilbao in N7, it’s the main campus of the much-renamed London Metropolitan University, and if was anywhere else – say by the river, or in a square – it would be firmly on the tourist map.

Orion buidling
Futuristic: Orion buidling

Brought the kids? Step behind Holloway Road into tiny Freightliners city farm, an urban oasis dating back to the 1970s and now home to goats, rare breed pigs and lambs. Reach it through the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene, one of the finest early 19th century churches in London, situated in pleasingly bucolic gardens.

St Mary Magdelene: an oasis just off the main drag:
St Mary Magdelene: an oasis just off the main drag

And finally, for the culturally inclined, don’t forget these gems.

Opposite Upper Holloway railway station (at nos 726–732), was the fictional setting for George and Weedon Grossmith’s classic novel Diary of a Nobody (1892), which recorded the everyday life of a clerk.

"Lived, worked and died here"
Joe Meek plaque
And seventy years later, while Joe Orton cruised the many toilets along the strip (as recorded in his diaries), producer Joe Meek, the man behind 1960s global hit Telstar by The Tornados, lived and worked at 304 Holloway Road.

His commercial success was short-lived, and in a fit of depression in February 1967, he killed his landlady with a shotgun – and then himself. His life is commemorated by this plaque above a grocer’s. Testament to the extraordinary power of this not-so ordinary road.

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Eating and Drinking

Padron peppers at El Molino
Padron peppers at El Molino

It’s a long road, of course, so the food varies from world food places like longstanding Georgian restaurant Tbilisi to acclaimed Italian 500, up near Archway, recent winner of a Michelin Bib Gourmand.

There’s one of the oldest Italian caffs in London, Trevi, opposite Highbury station; whilst for Asian flavours try the budget Korean restaurant Bu-San opposite (a favourite of artists Gilbert and George).

In the last couple of years a natural overflow from Upper Street has resulted in a more fashionable opening or two: Piebury Corner is an attractive spot offering hipster pies in a distressed interior; La Muse, a French bistro with courtyard garden and a two-course lunch special at a tenner; and tiny sushi joint Roll Papa, crammed daily with students and locals.

Just off the main drag Assiette Anglaise (owned by Peche Mignon, see box) is an admirable stab at neighbourhood-meets-West End, its central marble bar adding character to the single room. Dishes are modern takes on French classics: try the chicken liver parfait or assiette of charcuterie, including Noir de Bigorre and Bayonne ham.

Elegant: the Swimmer
Elegant: the Swimmer
El Molino is a very traditional tapas bar near the Seven Sisters Road junction (379 Holloway Road). Inside its dark wood interior, the wall peppered with photos of bullfighters, the floor tiled and worn, there are some good value lunch deals, including a rustic selection of three tapas for £5.95: padron peppers were chargrilled, with a pleasing hit of salt, baby squid, with tomatoes and garlic, was tender, a chicken thigh dripping in garlic. A basket of soft baguette and butter came free, and a glass of red £3.20. The bill? £9.

Pub crawl afterwards? Start at historic boozer the Swimmer at the Grafton Arms, then head to the Horatia, a big sprawling student hangout, before a stop-off at Big Red or Filthys, a studenty live venue. For music fans there’s also the illustrious Garage or Nambucca.

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Five to try

Our favourite Holloway Road boozer: The Lamb
Our favourite Holloway Road boozer: The Lamb
The Lamb, 54 Holloway Road
Take part in a meditation session at the North London Buddhist Centre (#72) then hit this candle-lit arty “beer and liquor” boozer with lots of craft beers including the ubiquitous Camden Town Brewery, London Fields and Meantime.

Ooh La La, 147 Holloway Road
Antiques parlour featured in Judi Dench flick Notes On a Scandal. Buy a wobbly lamp, an oil, quirky antique or vintage chair.

Perfect espresso at tiny Brewster's
Perfect espresso at tiny Brewster’s
Vivien of Holloway, 294 Holloway Road
Award-winning reproduction 1950s ladieswear designed by Vivien, proudly living and manufacturing locally.

Péché Mignon 6 Ronalds Road, N7
Tiny French “epicerie” and café just off the main drag, complete with farmhouse table, around which you can munch a butternut squash quiche or salade chevre.

Brewsters/ Vagabond
Two excellent hip new artisan coffee shops. The former (#102) is a cute hole-in-the-wall place with Redchurch coffee and “smashed” avocado on toast; the latter (#105) is more yummy mummy, all bare wood and buggies.

  • Show Comments

  • imogen ward (@imogenward)

    How refreshing to read a positive piece about Holloway! I’ve lived in or around the area for nearly 25 years & its brill to see it getting a bit of the limelight. Just to add another great place to the list of restaurants – the awesome Chicken restaurant Chicks on Fire – which IMHO has nicer grub than the Chicken Shop on Highgate Road. And is much, much cheaper. Just opposite The Swimmer too!

  • firaskay

    I moved to Holloway this time last year. Mostly because I love Upper Street, now ironically ended up working on it, and think the idea of having the wilderness of Finsbury Park and Seven Sisters Road close by is a nice plus for strange Sunday mornings.

    But you are right to ask us to stop properly to experience this place. I used to live in leafy Chiswick, comparable in some ways to Highbury Park or Upper Street, so the authenticity and niceness element is not as nuanced. Holloway Road is all about the fine subtle quirks, it is what makes it so quaint.

    This time last year I loathed it and considered it a ghastly reminded of how far Islington still has to go before it can be comparable with its more wealthy and leafy neighbours. But now I absolutely love it, and it is because of those tiny espresso hole in the walls or the raucous Marrakesh-ian daily indoor markets that Holloway Road is so unique!