I decided that it was time to get my hair cut and set out around 9 am to visit my barber. As I have to remove my “dolbies” (my hearing aids) while the barber is at work, I decided that I might as well simply leave them at home and go out with “naked ears”.
My barber’s is in Rosebery Avenue, within a stone’s throw of the Saddler’s Wells theatre. It’s old-fashioned and basic, the sort of barber’s shop your dad and grandad would find familiar. No fuss, no pampering, just a good haircut at a good price.
It’s easy to overlook barbers, because they are just there, doing their job without fuss, like postmen, say, or the milkman. But barbers are highly skilled and a good one is a joy to watch. Mine doesn’t measure the length of my hair with his fingers or use any other tricks: he simply cuts my hair free-hand and in less time than it takes to start a good conversation.
On one visit, I met an old gent who told me that his dad used to take him to a barber’s further down Rosebery Avenue and when that barber moved to these premises, they had followed him. His dad was long gone, and so was the original barber, but he continued coming here. Such customer loyalty is becoming rare in our restless world.
The shop next door to the barber’s has reverted to a dwelling or perhaps a private studio or workshop. I was intrigued by this window covering bearing a gigantic grasshopper. Unusual and rather nice. Note the boot scraper at bottom right. Many older buildings in London still have these, though not always in good condition. They help date the building and they look back to a time when London’s streets were famous for their mud and dirt. The crossing sweeper was for this reason a familiar sight in Victorian times.
I was enjoying the relative quietness resulting from not wearing my dolbies so I went for a walk, first entering the little park of Spa Green. One end of it is dominated by the war memorial on which stands what I take to be the Angel of Peace. She looks as if she is throwing a frisbee but I think she is supposed to be offering a laurel crown to the heroes of war. Her main purpose these days is to provide a perch for the local pigeons.
If the dove is considered a symbol of peace, then I cannot see why the rock dove, alias the feral or street pigeon, should not equally be considered a symbol of peace. Peaceable they are, enduring difficult lives with fortitude.
If you cross over Rosebery Avenue and follow Arlington Way beside the Saddler’s Wells Theatre, you come to a pub called The Shakespeare’s Head, beside which there is an alley called Myddelton Passage. (If you want to follow this on a map you will find one here.) There are lots of streets and other local features in Islington bearing the name Myddelton and for a reason.
Myddelton Passage broadens and then turns sharp right and in that corner there is a gate. If you go through it, you see a map etched on the path. This is a map of Sir Hugh Myddelton’s New River, with which he brought much needed water to this part of London in 1613. The New River ends here, at what was called (and is still called) New River Head.
The path leads to a viewing platform of New River Head though, today, there is not much to see anymore. In 1752 you would have had a much more interesting sight as the information board shows.
These days, the only water you can see comes out of this fountain in the gardens of what was once offices of the water company but is now a residential estate. You can still see some of the buildings associated with the water supply but you need to crane your neck and look to the right.
The water is now all underground. The site is today owned and run by Thames Water and is connected to the Ring Main that circles London. The visible sign of that is this big circular housing over a deep shaft that connects with the Ring.
Traces do exist of the long history of New River Head but they are not easy to see as the whole site is understandably fenced off. Two of the more obvious features are best seen by leaving Myddelton Passage and turning left into into River Street and then left again into Amwell Street. This street takes its name from the Amwell Springs near Great Amwell near Hertford which were one of the sources of water for the New River.
Photographed by poking the camera through the railings, the first is this round building (listed, Grade II) which incorporates the remains of the original windmill pump. It was built in 1708 to send water up to the “Upper Pond” (where the Claremont Square reservoir stands today), the idea being that the higher up the position of your pond, the greater the area that it could serve with water.
In 1720, as the demand for water increased, wind power was supplemented by horse-driven pumps and later completely displaced by horses. Ultimately, of course, that did not suffice, either.
The second is best seen by walking around Charles Allen House to its car park where this view can be obtained. This Grade II listed building (which originally also included a tall chimney, taken down in 1954) is the Engine and Pump House constructed in 1768. I believe (subject to correction) that horses were still being used at this point because atmospheric steam engines were not introduced until 1786, finally displacing horse power.
The Pump House was extended in 1812 and the steam engines were replaced by more efficient models at least twice until electric pumps were introduced in 1950.
Today, much of the New River is covered over though there may be indications as to its path. For example, between Duncan Terrace and Colebrooke Row there is now a park that is pleasant but suspiciously narrow! Further along, the water breaks the surface again. Thames Water supplies a booklet detailing the New River Walk, allowing enthusiasts to follow the whole route from Islington to the source at Chadwell between Hertford and Ware.
It was time for me to take my naked ears home and reward myself with a cup of coffee. Later, when I went out to meet Tigger from work, I put my dolbies on and my ears were again bombarded by the din of the streets. I must say I prefer the gentler version of the world provided by my natural ears.