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A Straight Line Walk Across London
by Paul K Lyons
59 - Somers Town's slummy past and a construction site-dominated present
According to the map, I should be able to exit from the British Library courtyard to the east and go north along Midland Road (a name which recalls the railway origins of the area), very close to the 300 easting. However, the whole area north of the British Library and behind St Pancras railway station has been fenced off and is one huge building site. The old St Pancras Station is being turned into the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) terminus, and, at the same time, a new Thameslink station is being constructed beneath Midland Road. So, instead, I leave the courtyard by Ossulston Road, and walk a hundred yards to the junction with Phoenix Road and Brill Place. This takes me past the run-down 1930s block of flats called Levita House built by the London County Council. With its open courtyard and arched balconies, its design is said to have been influenced by housing schemes in Vienna.
This area is called Somers Town, after the first Baron Somers of Evesham who was Lord Chancellor at the end of the 17th century. At that time, Brill Farm existed, very near this junction, and Brill Tavern. The area suffered badly, though, with the building of the Euston Road in the mid-18th century, which divided it from fashionable Bloomsbury. Towards the end of the century, the Somers family leased Brill Farm land to a Frenchman, Jacob Leroux, who, with his colleagues, planned a new suburb. Most notably, they constructed a 15-sided building, the Polygon, containing 32 houses. Before long, though, the area filled up with working class people and emigres from the French Revolution. In 1808, the Abbe Carron founded St Aloysius Church round the corner in Phoenix Street, and was instrumental in developing several schools for the poor. In the 1820s, Charles Dickens lodged for a while in one of the Polygon houses. By the middle of the century, the area was largely slums. In 1857, 'Illustrated Times' published a picture of a homeless shelter here showing how the homeless were housed, in stables without bedding or even straw. Some of the slums were demolished a few years later during the construction of St Pancras station. The Polygon came down in the 1890s, but it wasn't until after World War One that many of the remaining slums were cleared to build blocks of flats, such as Levita House.
Today, Somers Town is again badly in need of a new Leroux or Abbe Carron, especially if it is to take part in the King's Cross regeneration scheme which will emerge from the upheaval of the CTRL work. For example, the area of council land at the back of the British Library is currently being used as a CTRL site office but there's a battle brewing as how best to use it in the future and how to develop Somers Town. Camden has said it wants to see new housing along Ossulston Street and Brill Place. Residents, though, have suggested they would prefer new facilities for existing communities - a football pitch or a running track. One Camden councillor, though, is calling for an opera house or Imax cinema, and for some of the 14,000 people on Camden's housing waiting list to move to the suburbs.
I walk along Brill Place (with the CTRL security fencing on my right). Normally, it would link up with Midland Road, and allow me to cross Pancras Road into Goods Way to meet up with Camley Street. But the east end of Brill Place, like Midland Road, is blocked off and forms part of the construction site. Indeed, as I pass by this morning, scores of workmen, wearing bright orange, stream out through the site gate. I turn left and weave through one of Camden's more recent housing estates along Coopers Lane. This brings me to Chenies Place and into Pancras Road. To my right, south along Pancras Road, is a large brick building, now holding an antiques warehouse and a specialist taylor 'with Savile Row experience'. And to my left, north along Pancras Road, are various large blocks of flats, two of them forming the 1950s-built Goldington Street Estate.
Crossing the road and standing on a patch of waste ground, it's possible
to appreciate not only the scale of the current CTRL building works (including
a long modern platform roof extending back incongruously from the old fashioned
brick station platform building), but the scale of the 19th century Midland
Railway project. The half dozen gasholders that would have dominated the
view until recently, however, have gone.
A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting
by Paul K Lyons
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