John led a fascinating walk round the Squares of Islington on 9 October 2019 - the last of the summer season. What made it particularly interesting was that it was not limited to just the traditional garden squares, but embraced a modern square, a churchyard, terraces with gardens, public spaces and some very fine Georgian architecture.
We started our walk in a modern complex behind Angel tube station. Angel Square is a large development conceived by Rock Townsend in 1991. In the centre of the decorative brick plaza is an obelisk erected to commemorate the 200th anniversary of American political activist and philosopher Thomas Paine's work Rights of Man, which was written when he was staying at the now demolished Angel Inn. Each face of the obelisk is decorated with quotes including "These are the times that try men's souls" - which may have a certain resonance today!
Next, we took in Duncan Terrace and Colebrooke Row, which comprise grand terraces of largely 18th-Century houses with linear gardens running between them, forming a key link in the New River Walk series of green spaces. A nursery garden once ran alongside the New River specialising in exotic plants which were of great interest to the Chelsea Physic Garden. The New River itself played an important role by supplying drinking water to Londoners from Hertfordshire.
The southern end of Duncan Terrace Gardens was opened as a public garden in 1893, and just beyond this point is the remarkable Spontaneous City in the Tree of Heaven. This is a collection of over 300 specially created wooden bird boxes which provide shelter and nesting for birds, insects and other wildlife. It is one of a number of projects by Islington Council's Greening the Grey initiative, which aims to 'create more green space, make the Borough more attractive, tackle climate change and encourage wildlife'. The planting in the borders of Duncan Terrace and Colebrooke Row Gardens has been created and funded and is now maintained by the local community.
As we reached Islington Memorial Green, John pointed out Collins Music Hall which was once the heart of the golden age of musical theatre. This is one of the parks and green spaces protected by Fields in Trust in perpetuity - "because once they are gone they are gone". The paved central space has been dedicated to a war memorial since 1918 - the original, temporary memorial was replaced in 2006 by a twisting sphere of granite, and is the focus of the Borough's Armed Forces Day and Remembrance Sunday commemorations.
Our route then weaved back to St Mary's Church Garden, where John showed us an example of change of use of a churchyard to a public garden. The garden is a little run down but it does contain some fine trees. An earlier church dated back to the Norman Conquest although this was subsequently replaced by a Georgian building. The only Georgian features to remain are the tower, steeple and crypt.
We passed the internationally renowned Almeida theatre en route to Battishill Street Gardens, opened by Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman in 1975. This is a quiet, mainly grass-laid square with seating and a stone frieze rescued from a Hall of Commerce in Threadneedle Street. The frieze features an allegorical image of Commerce with wings outstretched to welcome all nations.
John's local knowledge enabled us to cut down Almeida Passage to Milner Square and the more formal Gibson Square, where it was good to see the last of the summer roses still blooming. The two squares were built on the Gibson-Milner Estate which comprised largely tenanted flats and a vegetable garden until the 1930s - vegetables have now been replaced by a children's playground and minor planting. The gardens were part of the Manor of Barnsbury and were for the exclusive use of the residents until the 1930s, when Islington Council took them over and opened them to the public. An elegant classical temple in the style of a Roman aviary is the main feature of the gardens, but in fact it conceals a ventilation shaft built in 1970 for the Victoria Line!
The light was just beginning to fade as we walked passed attractive 'New River style' houses to Cloudesley Square, dominated by the now-disused Holy Trinity Church. There are plans to restore the Grade II listed building for the benefit of the community, and despite the scaffolding John was able to point out its similarity to King's College Chapel, Cambridge. The church was designed by Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament.
Our penultimate garden was a traditional garden square. Lonsdale Square is surrounded by tall houses in Gothic Revival style with arched front doors and distinctive steep gables, built on land owned by the Drapers' Company. The gardens remained in private ownership, with a gardener, until the 1960s when they were sold to Islington Council for £50. They are relatively plain in appearance and are laid out to a central axis.
We were now nearing the end of our walk. John took us to the site of the Old Royal Free Hospital, which is now attractive, mixed residential accommodation around public space, parking and a playground. The arresting feature was the series of mild steel, black-painted decorative railings by Jane Ackroyd, illustrating fish, birds and other animals. John Cowan, writing in The Architects' Joumal, described Old Royal Free Square as "urban renewal at its best".
It was fascinating to see how Islington's garden squares and open spaces have evolved, and how public spaces reflect the requirements of a changing age. Even the old Agricultural Hall - a nod to Islington's agricultural heritage ~ has reinvented itself as the Business Design Centre, one of London's leading conference and exhibition venues, whilst the vast steel Angel Wings that soar above the busy Angel Shopping Centre reinforce the area's connection with the original Angel Inn.
More heartening is evidence of Islington Council's work in Greening the Grey and the way the community is engaging with green space on its doorstep. Perhaps one day vegetables will be grown again in Islington's green and pleasant garden squares!