Camden remains a distinctive North London neighbourhood, rough around the edges, but remains resplendent in its off-kilter glory
Camden has always attracted a mix of students, hipsters, goths, emos, punks, mods, night owls, wasters and wannabes. So what’s so special about it?
Before London was a seething, sprawling metropolis, everything to the north of Tottenham Court was open fields, dotted with farms and prowled by highwaymen.
Charles Pratt, the first Earl of Camden – a well-known politician of the time but also, appropriately, a drunken gambler and lech – is credited with establishing Camden Town in the mid-18th century.
The arrival of canals and railways in the early 1800s transformed the entire region. Still, it was a scruffy, unfashionable place to live, underlined by the influx of Irish settlers, fleeing famine in their homeland.
Check out: The World’s End on Camden High Street – it used to be a coaching inn, and is one of London’s best-known landmark pubs.
The Regent’s Canal
The first section of Regent’s Canal opened in 1820, joining Paddington to Camden. Four years later another section opened, linking Camden to the Limehouse Basin in the east, allowing transport of London’s coal supplies and cargo unloaded from vessels on the Thames.
By the early 20th century, delivery by railway and road was the norm, and the canal fell into decline. But another transformation took place in 1979, when underground cables were laid beneath the canals, plugging into the national grid and supplying London with electricity, and relying on re-circulated canal water as a coolant.
Check out: Camden Lock – just to the west of the bridge, it’s a great starting point for a stroll along the canal.
The Camden Scene
A major part of Camden’s modern identity is its status as an alternative hotspot, a hive for a range of subcultures.
To walk north along Camden High Street, over the canal and into the heart of marketville, is to be immersed in one of London’s many parallel universes.
From the Swinging London era of the 1960s, Camden attracted an artistic, bohemian crowd. While it now hosts a high street with banks and chain coffee shops, its counter-cultural roots are still evident in the way people who would look out of place elsewhere in London appear totally at home in Camden.
Check out: Camden High Street – jump off at Camden Town station and turn right. It’s the place to go for piercings and tattoos.
As the canals reshaped the area in the 1800s, so too did the opening of Camden’s markets in the 1970s.
The Camden Lock market and the Stables market are the main ones, but smaller stretches in Buck Street, Inverness Street and the Camden Lock village help attract an estimated 100,000 people to the area each weekend.
Like all the best markets, Camden’s diversity is what sets it apart. Whether you’re after books, boots or bric-a-brac, you’ll be spoilt for choice. The street food is also top-notch, with the vegetarian options a cut above.
Check out: If you spend an afternoon exploring you’re bound to discover your favourites – but the Stables market, set up in an old horse hospital, is the must-see.
Live music in Camden
Few parts of London have a more vibrant or storied reputation for great live music – for legendary gigs, iconic venues and unearthing acts destined for big things.
The Roundhouse on Chalk Farm Road is a famous venue, and Camden also lays claim to being the home of Britpop, with Blur, Pulp and Oasis sharing early history there. More recently, Amy Winehouse made her name at the Hawley Arms is often spotted boozing there.
Camden is now home to MTV Europe, which has its studios right on the canal.
Check out: The Camden Crawl runs on the first weekend of May and is an explosion of live music that consumes the entire neighbourhood.
Words: Tom Sturrock