I first came to the Angel many years ago when, on impulse, I got out of the tube at Angel station and went for an exploratory walk. Being interested in antiques, I was bowled over by the seemingly endless collection of antiques shops that I found in what I later learned was a world famous street or alley called Camden Passage.
Now an inhabitant of the Angel, Islington, I visit Camden Passage often and though the fascination of the antiques shops and the bi-weekly antiques market remains, there is sadness too because, well, Camden Passage is no longer what it is used be. Some of the antiques shops and emporia have closed down, being replaced by eateries and would-be upmarket boutiques, while that Aladdin’s cave known either as the Tram Shed or the Mall, once alive with tiny antiques shops, has become a boring clothing store.
Known variously as the tram shed, the tram depot or the Mall, this building dates from 1902 when it performed the functions of a tram shed and electricity generating station for the tram service. It became a famous antiques mall until a couple of years ago when the owners succeeded, after protests and a public enquiry, in evicting the antiques retailers and changing usage of the building. The whole process generated a lot of ill feeling.
If you ask people for Islington High Street, many will look at you blankly. You would expect a street with such a name to be prominent but Islington’s High Street is of a retiring nature. Though Google Maps does not admit it, the High Street starts at Pentonville Road and is that stretch of the main road that runs to Liverpool Road, whereupon it seems to become Upper Street. In fact, the High Street crosses to the other side and passes to the right of the tram shed. The above picture of Phelps Cottage is taken from this limb of Islington High Street. The cottage stands in a short street linking the High Street to Upper Street that rejoices in the name of Gateway Arcade.
Camden Passage starts officially here, without any obvious break or division. Vincent Freeman’s address is 1, Camden Passage. That, however, is not the end of the story because Islington High Street suddenly reappears a little further along. It seems that the coming and going of buildings has caused the two thoroughfares to become entangled to the point where only a postman can sort them out.
Camden Passage has a resident population of lock-up shops, though these days not all deal in antiques or objets d’art. While some open during the week, not all do. These days many antiques dealers do business online and at antiques fairs and open their shops only by appointment. Market days are Wednesday and Saturday and those are the days when the greatest number of antiques shops are open (but still not all of them).
While some dealers specialize fairly narrowly in one type of object or a historical period, others are more eclectic and buy and sell more or less whatever comes to hand.
On market days, stall holders set up in the arcades. This one is called Pierrepont Arcade and there are two others. This arcade is part of Pierrepont Row which in fact forms a little square with small shops. It can become quite crowded on fine days.
As well as shops and arcades, there are free-standing stalls. Some have their own covering, like the clothes stall in the background, but others live precariously at the mercy of the weather.
Some of the shops put out stalls on market days. I suspect that they put out less valuable articles that they don’t want to find shelf space for in the shop.
The Camden Head is the antiques district’s pub. It too is an antique, having been built in 1899 and refurbished and 1969. Here we are approaching the end of Camden Passage and the official address of the pub is Camden Walk, rather than Passage.
Beside the pub is another arcade with several stalls and all seem to specialize in jewellery. Next to the arcade is a most unusual shop, one that has nothing to do with antiques but which I find intriguing.
The Camden Passage antiques community can still put on a good show though some of the outlets, in particular the late lamented tram shed, have been taken over by other businesses in a process of homogenization that is all too familiar these days. Let’s hope it can fend off the rot and survive for future generations to enjoy.