To coincide with last weekend’s Cally Festival, which saw part of North London’s Caledonian Road closed off to give the local community the opportunity to let their hair down, Rob Smith from the official City and Islington Guide’s Association (CIGA) put on a guided walk of the area – ‘Up The Cally’.
I won’t regale you with every single one of the interesting stories and tall tales that Rob told us, as we were walking for about two and a half hours, but I will touch on some of the highlights that we encountered along the way:
I should start off by answering the big question, and that is explaining why this part of London has such a clearly Scottish name. It’s actually very simple – although the street started off as Chalk Road (this area of London as particularly chalky soil) it soon got the name of Caledonian Road when, in 1828, the Royal Caledonian Education Trust as it is now known established a large school for the orphans of Scottish soldiers about halfway along the road, next to the current site of Pentonville Prison. Children being educated there had to wear traditional Scottish dress and spent much of their time in the study of traditional Scottish subjects, including learning gaelic and how to play the bagpipes – annual sports days even involved tossing the caber!
The other major influence on the area was Yorkshire – specifically the coal mining Thornhill family who owned much of the land in this part of London. Their influence can still be seen in several spots across the area today – notably the Thornhill Arms, a very handsome pub on a short dog-leg section of Caledonian Road, and the Thornhill canal bridge and the modern community gardens that sit on either side.
One of the less well-known spots off the Caledonian Road is Edward Square – lined by rather modest homes, it was extensively bombed during World War II and subsequently used as a storage yard until it was eventually put to use as a community space in the early 2000s. Today it has an extensive children’s playground, basketball courts and a large reproduction of a poem about the area by Andrew Motion – this brings together several historical happenings along the Caledonian Road, one of which in particular caught my imagination. One line of the poem says ‘Then leaps to hold a jumpjet in thin air’ – this references the Daily Mail Transatlantic Air Race between New York and London which was held in May 1969. The Royal Air Force team made the return crossing from New York in a Harrier jet, refuelling it several times along the way. It’s final destination was Edward Square, where an E-Type Jag was waiting to whisk the pilot to the awaiting celebration.
I’ll just mention two other notable spots around Caledonian Road, not because of their historical significance but because they’re just a little bit odd – a quality that this part of London seems to have in abundance. On Bingfield St you’ll find a medieval structure – Crumbles Castle. This popular children’s adventure playground was constructed by local residents from the rubble of old tenement housing back in the early ’70s. Another unusual feature that you’ll find along the Caledonian Road are the many trees planted in the pavements at the Kings Cross end. Close examination will reveal that these are not British species but actually trees native to South Africa – they were planted in 1980 after strenuous efforts by local resident (and South African) John Ashwell to beautify the local streets…
If you want to go along on a walk ‘Up The Cally’ yourself, check out the City and Islington Guides Association page. Rob Smith, our guide, is also a member of the less official but equally worthy Footprints Of London group who run all sorts of themed guided walks across the capital.