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.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”.
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.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.
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.
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.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.