As I stood in front of our store in Stoke Newington early this morning, lowering the awning in a hat, scarf, coat and gloves, a sudden realisation hit me; winter is here to stay. Chimney smoke tumbles down the roofs of the Victorian terraced houses across from us, and locals set off to work wrapped up to the nines to escape the cold. The scene is positively Dickensian. And it is at this point, when winter is at its coldest, that London opens its own illustrated history book and slides it across the table to you...
I have lived in Stoke Newington for almost a decade, and whilst I didn’t grow up here, it does feel like home. Ten years isn’t a long time in the grand scheme of things, but it isn’t a short while either. It has been long enough to watch pubs change hands, shops close down, shops open up, friends have come and gone and the weekend population has gradually increased. Sure, some things have stayed the same, but like in any modern city, a place gathers new nuances of character as its community changes. So today I’d like to tell you about some of the wonderful touch points of Stoke Newington’s cultural history; some things old, some things new, some secrets and some not so much!
Let’s start with a piece of Stoke Newington’s modern history which we are lucky enough to lay our eyes on every day. If I stand up and walk to the window of our shop here I am bathed in winter sunlight, and can spot a block of apartments adorned by an early Banksy, which was very nearly destroyed in the council's war against graffiti. The piece depicts a cartooned royal family ungracefully waving at their public from the royal balcony. An adaptation of this piece featured as the cover work for Blur’s 2003 singe ‘Crazy Beat’. But this landmark was almost lost to the graffiti graveyard like so many others. Local legend has it that four previous warning letters had failed to reach the owner of the building. And so, feeling they were being ignored, the council workers set out to restore some modesty to the building. But moments before the centre piece of this priceless mural could be painted over, the owner came running out with a raised voice and flailing arms in order to save day. I’m glad she got there in time, but I bet not nearly as glad as she is! This artwork can be seen on the side of the building which houses the delightful Search and Rescue Shop (a great place to buy candles, cosmetics, homeware and presents) is one of legendary street artist Banksy’s first works.
Moving on, let's go backwards to the year 1819. We turn right out of our shop and head up the street towards Green Lanes and it isn’t long before we pass a commonly missed piece of Stoke Newington’s history. At number 172 we have the old Manor House School which, between 1817 and 1820, housed it’s most famous alumni, the master of the macabre himself, Mr Edgar Allen Poe. The school itself is no longer there, but if you stand outside it and look up you will see the brown plaque and grim bust of the man whose gothic writings have changed the face of literature and terrified generations to come.
As the original goth, it is easy to imagine how Stoke Newington’s landscape influenced the young writer. Just down the street we have Abney cemetery; a haunting but beautiful playground of decay, history, remembrance and death. One might picture a young Poe walking around the cemetery grounds and soaking up the gothic architecture of its central chapel, pondering themes which would later become so synonymous with his work. Interestingly, Abney Park Cemetery was the first non-denominational burial ground in Europe, which helps to explain its intricate and almost maze-like design. At some point, each section would have forever housed loved ones from a specific religious or cultural background. People from all walks of life have been laid to rest here over the centuries, a tender reflection of a multicultural society which Stokey still boasts.
At its centre, the cemetery has a wonder of Dissenting Gothic architecture; William Hosking designed the Abney Park Chapel using a blend of design aesthetics, as a way of ‘celebrating the unique message of religious harmony’. As you manoeuvre your way through the cemetery's pathways, the chapel can almost creep up on you as, although it isn’t the biggest in the world, its pointed tower conjures a discomforting beauty.
Part II to follow...