A stroll along Ermine Street

Saturday, January 11th 2014

After breakfast in Pret, we once again took the little 394 single-door bus to Hackney and got off near the Geffrye Museum (see Rooms through the ages), though we were not visiting this interesting exhibition today. Our walk would take us northwards in an almost straight line from Hoxton, through Haggerston to Dalston, all districts within the London Borough of Hackney. The whole walk was along a section of the ancient thoroughfare called Ermine Street, though that name no longer appears today.

Ermine Street was originally a Roman road, probably based on earlier British roads, running from the heart of Londinium, today the City of London, to Lincoln and York. In this context, “Ermine” has nothing to do with stoats, fur or ceremonial gowns but is a corruption of its original name. I have seen two derivations of it, both of which seem plausible but are not without problems. Firstly, a Wikipedia entry claims that it derives from Earninga Straete, being named after the Anglo-Saxon Earningas tribe through whose territory it passed. Secondly, The London Encyclopaedia states that it was named after a specific person, “Arminius (or Hermann) the Saxon hero who routed Varus and the Roman legions at Winfield on the Weser, AD 9”.

I see problems with both of these. Firstly, “Earningas” does not resemble “Ermine” though the article does say that the tribal lands were later called Armingford, so I suppose the road could have come to be known as Arming Street, thence Ermine Street. With regard to Arminius, it seems that the London Encyclopaedia has its facts wrong. Aminius did score a victory against the Romans but this was in the Teutoberg Forest and at the Battle of the Weser he was actually defeated. On the other hand, both “Arminius” and “Hermann” are fairly close to “Ermine” and could be confused with it, especially as both would sound foreign (Latin and Germanic, respectively) to Anglo-Saxon ears. (For an alternative explanation of the name of the street, see the comment by grdtobin below.)

A view along Kingsland \Road
A view along Kingsland Road
Part of old Ermine Street

Whatever its derivation, the road gradually lost its name, different sections acquiring local names of their own. Our starting point was in what is now known as Kingsland Road and ended where it becomes Stoke Newington Road. Kingsland Road takes its name from the settlement of Kingsland, so called because it served the Tudor monarchs’ hunting grounds in what is today Stoke Newington. The forests in which the king galloped about his sadistic pleasures are, needless to say, long gone and replaced by roads and buildings.

Randall Cremer Primary School
Randall Cremer Primary School
A Victorian institution serving modern purposes

Before heading north, we made a little detour around Geffrye Street and Pearson Street and admired the rather splendid Victorian building called the Randall Cremer Primary School. This substantial edifice, with modern additions, is still serving its original purpose. Built in 1875, it was named after Sir William Randall Cremer (1828-1908) who was the Liberal MP for Haggerston for two terms, 1885-95 and 1900-08. Sir William’s renown goes further than this, however, and he was a noted pacifist and peacemaker, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1903. (Further details here.)

A slight puzzle about this building is the tall chimney that obviously spoils its symmetrical design. I suspect that the chimney and the block beneath it must be a later addition.

Old St Columba's
Old St Columba’s
Parish church until 1975

On the corner of Kingsland Road with Nuttall Street, we find this large and, I think, rather ungainly Victorian pile. In contrast to the symmetrical poise of the Randall Cremer School, this building has no obvious shape at all. It looks more like several buildings crammed together which may in fact be the case. The original design was brought into being in the years 1868 to 1869 by architect James Brooks. A mortuary chapel was added in 1904-5 and, for all I know, may be what has complicated the exterior plan and made it seem shapeless.

The church, under the patronage of St Columba, served as a parish church until 1975 when falling attendance made it surplus to requirements and its parish was joined with that of St Anne’s which in consequence became known as the Church of St Anne with St Columba. (Well, you can’t kick the poor old saint out into the cold, can you? You have to find him somewhere to live.). The building today is occupied by an organization called Christ Apostolic Church (Bethel) UK or CAC, as they also refer to themselves. Information here, if you are interested.

Süleymaniye Camii
Mosaic Main entrance
Süleymaniye Camii
Serving the Turkish community

Further along on the corner of Laburnum Street, and staying with the religious theme, we encounter the Süleymaniye Camii or Suleyman Mosque. Its most notable feature, of course, is the very tall minaret which can be seen for miles around and makes the building a little hard to photograph in the relatively cramped conditions of the streets. You no doubt get a wonderful view from up there though I think you would persuade me out onto those tiny balconies only with great difficulty! Designed by Osman Sahan and built between 1995 and 1999, this is the first of the Turkish mosques of our walk. There is a sizeable Turkish community in the Hoxton-Haggerston area, as may be deduced from the size and splendour of this place of worship, which is in Ottoman style and shares a name with the second largest mosque in Istanbul. I have not been inside but it is already impressive from the outside alone.

Shoreditch Health Centre Shoreditch Health Centre
Shoreditch Health Centre
Originally a Maternity and Child Welfare Centre

My eye was caught by the plaque above the door of this building which shows a woman holding a child. At first sight I assumed this to be a religious picture – a  representation of the Virgin and Child – but it tuned out in fact to a satisfactorily secular image. Now known as the Shoreditch Health Centre, the institution was founded, as the lettering around the plaque indicates, under the name “Borough of Shoreditch Maternity & Child Welfare Centre”. I had not come across this organization before but found a succinct account of it on the Heritage Explorer site and hope they do not mind me quoting their description:

This Health Centre, formerly the Shoreditch Maternity and Child Welfare Centre, was built in 1922-23 by Francis Danby Smith. It was a pioneering experiment in public healthcare providing one of Britain’s first anti-natal and infant care outpatient clinics. It was built in response to the campaigns of the Maternity and Child Welfare Movement spearheaded by George Frederick McCleary from 1915 onwards. The cost of the work was paid for by the Carnegie UK Trust which also paid for the building of three other model centres at Liverpool, Birmingham and Motherwell.

(I think they mean “ante-natal”, not “anti-natal”, a small but important distinction.)

Old Haggeston Public Library Old Haggerston Public Library
Old Haggerston Public Library
A Passmore Edwards library

Where philanthropy for the public good is concerned, the name of John Passmore Edwards is justly honoured. Public libraries, drinking fountains, art galleries, convalescent homes, etc. flowed from his generosity. My personal bias causes me to notice libraries especially and so this one jumped out at me. It was officially opened on May 10th 1893 by the Duke of Devonshire. A second inscription on the front of the building seems to imply a paradox: it states that the foundation stone was laid by John Passmore Edwards in… 1896. How could the building be opened in 1893 if the foundation stone was laid only three years later?

The mystery is solved when we learn that the building was originally put up in 1880 as a dwelling house and consisted of that part that runs from the entrance porch to the left. The library was first accommodated in this part and three years later the building was extended in the original style to the right. It was for this new part that the benefactor himself laid the foundation stone in 1896. This also explains the unusual design of the building for a Passmore Edwards library. This is probably the only example of a Passmore Edwards library done in the classical style. The building is no longer a library, alas, but has been converted into an apartment block. The exterior appearance at least has been protected by a Grade II listing.

Wall painting
Wall painting

We ventured into a side alley and saw this wall painting. It’s certainly colourful and, er, interesting. OK, moving swiftly on…

Bridge House
Bridge House
Well placed for the Regent’s Canal

Kinhgsland Road crosses the Regent’s Canal and the number of wharfs along this stretch of the road suggests that this was once an important place from receiving and perhaps shipping goods. I was fascinated by this little building which I suspected was once a pub but I now think that is unlikely. The decorative spikes on top of the window bays suggests that this building acted as the public face for some company or other. It might once have been a warehouse or a workshop and office. It is an unusual Victorian design and I believe an application has been made to have it listed. Today it is occupied by a company called Tack Press.

Regent's Canal
Regent’s Canal
Looking west from Kingsland Road

Kingsland Road forms a bridge over the Regent’s Canal which presents a peaceful scene on this sunny afternoon.

Haggerston Railway Bridge Working on the bridge
Haggerston Railway Bridge
Workmen climbing

Looking east, we could see the Haggerston Railway Bridge crossing the canal. Some work was in progress on the bridge and two men in hi-vis clothing and hard hats were hanging from climbing ropes like a couple of orange spiders.

Quebec Wharf
Quebec Wharf
Once a tram company feed store

The old wharfs have now been converted to other purposes such as office blocks or residential properties and it’s beginning to be hard to see what their purposes were in the days when they flourished as wharfs. Some, however, still carry vestiges of their previous existence. For example, the Quebec Wharf, pictured above, has a plaque whose lettering is still almost as crisply defined as when it was first installed. It reads


The cipher “NMT Co” is that of the North Metropolitan Tramways Company who used this property from 1878 as a store for forage or feed for the tram horses. It was later used as a spice depot but I think it has now been turned over to offices. Oh yes, and it’s a Grade II listed building.

Che Men Cafe
Che Men Cafe
Recognize the hat?

We stopped off at a Turkish cafe called Che Men. We sat in the comfortable settees at the back. That made it a little hard to get started again… 🙂

Kingsland Fire Station
Kingsland Fire Station

The picture shows Kingsland Fire Station that has hitherto served the Haggerston area. It is every inch a modern fire station with its training tower at the back. Unfortunately, its appearance is spoilt by notices bearing the word “CLOSED”. The Fire Service is trying to save money by closing fire stations and this, naturally enough, is causing disquiet among residents. In a recent fire in Haggerston, it was reported that an appliance from this station arrived within 2 minutes whilst one from the next nearest station took 6 minutes. Fire stations are like insurance policies: when nothing goes wrong you are tempted to feel that the expense is a waste of money but when things do go wrong, that’s when the expense is justified.

Metropolitan House
Metropolitan House
One of London’s lost hospitals

Further along is a fairly large building of which only the decorative main entrance is shown above. It is today called Metropolitan House but was originally the Metropolitan Hospital. The institution was founded in 1836 in Stepney by Joseph Fry, son of Elizabeth Fry, as the Metropolitan Free Hospital. After several  moves, it came here, to purpose-built premises on the corner of Kingsland Road and St Peter’s Way. The building was completed in 1886, the date shown on the façade, though it had already started admitting patients the year before. Intended to serve the poor, the hospital ran into financial difficulties and started charging a subscription, dropping the word “Free” from the name. The Metropolitan became an NHS hospital in 1948 but eventually closed in 1977. Today it is an office block.

We continued along Kingsland Road to Dalston, where it becomes Kingsland High Street before losing the “Kingsland” altogether and calling itself Stoke Newington Road. This is quite a long stretch but I found it relatively uninteresting visually and took no photos. In any case, Tigger had picked up the pace and was heading determinedly for a destination. She did not say where it was, but I made a guess and it turned out that I was right.

Evin Cafe Bar
Evin Cafe Bar
A good place for lunch

Thus we arrived at Evin, a Turkish-run bar restaurant that we have visited several times before and is a good place to have lunch. For example, they serve vegetarian meze, consisting of several hot and cold dishes, light but also filling. On the menu is “Pot tea”, a slightly puzzling description. Is it “a pot of tea” or perhaps “tea made in a pot”? It turns out it is the latter, Turkish tea served in a tall glass cup – without milk, of course – but made in a pot. Apparently, Turkish tea (tea is grown in Turkey, as well as in India and China) is made by the slightly complicated samovar method, similar to Russian tea. The cup is half-filled from the pot and topped up with hot water. However they make it, it is far better than the awful tea-bag concoctions masquerading under the name of “tea” served in the majority of cafes and restaurants these days.

Does Evin mean anything, or is it just a name? To be honest, I don’t know. I should have asked. I will – next time. I do know that evin is the genitive of ev, meaning a ‘house’, but not where that gets us, if anywhere. The eye symbol is easier to understand. This is the nazar boncuğu, also called the Blue Evil Eye, and is a symbol, made into room decorations and jewellery, intended to ward off the effects of the evil eye. It is apparently not necessary to be a witch or magician to put the evil eye on people and thus blight their lives: ordinary people suffering from envy or resentment can allegedly do this unconsciously. So next time Paddington gives you a hard stare, wave your nazar boncuğu bracelet at him.

Aziziye Camii
Aziziye Camii
Mosque and butcher’s shop

This area is quite a lively one and the streets and cafes were busy. There was also a street market and lots of Turkish shops and businesses. Before catching the bus home, we walked up the road to photograph, as we always do, the Aziziye Camii, the second of our mosques today. It is unusual in having a butcher’s shop within it. Decorated with domes and beautiful Ottoman style tiles, this striking building was converted from one that had a very different purpose. It was designed by Stanley Burdwood and built in 1913 or 1914 as a cinema called the Apollo Picture House. It changed its name a couple of times, becoming the Ambassador Cinema and the Astra Cinema before closing in 1983. Once you know its origin, this appears quite obvious but I think the transformation has been successful, though a perfectionist might perhaps quibble at the rather intrusive shop front.

Copyright © 2014 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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10 Responses to A stroll along Ermine Street

  1. WOL says:

    I believe I can clear up one mystery for you, that of the butcher shop in the Aziziye Camii. The clue lies in the word “Halal” which in Arabic means “lawful” — In order for meat to be “halal”, the animal must be slaughtered in a specific way as dictated by the Qu’ran. It is “haraam” (forbidden) for Muslims to eat (among other things) pork or pork by products, or to consume alcohol. This is along the same lines as the Jewish “kosher” practices. The concept of “halal” also applies to objects and practices of everyday life. As you know, Kemal Atatürk mandated that the Turkish language would be written with the roman alphabet rather than the Arabic alphabet, hence the legible, if not intelligibile, signs in the shop windows. The Süleymaniye Camii has some beautiful tile work on its façade, in keeping with the Qu’ran’s proscription of depicting people or animals in the embellishments of a mosque, but their flowing script makes for some lovely design elements.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Yes, I know about the halal business. There are plenty of halal butcher’s shops in London and every high street has at least one. If you are going to have a butcher’s in a mosque then it’s obviously going to be a halal one but you don’t need mosque to have a halal butcher’s, at least, not in London. It doesn’t explain why there is a shop in this mosque. Perhaps the answer is that profits from the shop help to finance the mosque. That would make sense.

      The tiles are indeed beautiful. The prohibition against representing living forms seems to have been applied with more or less rigour at different times. Consider, for example, the figures of lions in the Lion Court of the Alhambra in Granada. The design of the Süleymaniye tiled panel seems to include plant forms, albeit stylized.

  2. Mark Elliott says:

    Your hat. I remember the old sales pitch of: “If you want to get ahead, get a hat”. As I get older (and more follically-challenged) I find myself becoming increasingly envious of headgear wearers. As yet, I’m undecided of the type of covering to buy. – A cap? No I might look too much like Philip Mountbatten on a hunt. One of those Andean jobbies with bobbles hanging down the sides? Too flamboyant. – A hat? I’m not sure… I think it takes a great leap of faith and a lot of conviction to wear one. Ho hum. It looks like I’ll spend another Winter bare-headed and cold!

    As I said, I envy you.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Since I have been wearing my Fedora, I have noticed more and more men wearing traditional hats. Trilbies are the most common but other styles also appear. The uptake is slow but it does seem to be increasing. A sign of this is that more shops are stocking men’s hats.

      I have also worn both a beret (a French “beret basque”, naturally) and a couple of styles of cap, but the snap-brimmed Fedora (black, of course) remains my favourite.

  3. Such a variety of architecture. Interesting how buildings change with the occupants.
    Enjoyed the tour

  4. Nic says:

    There is some great architectural design featured in this post. From the colorful murals to the stained glass windows, this street has alot to offer to the art admirer. Thanks for the great post.

  5. grdtobin says:

    Ermine Street runs through long stretches of the former Honour of Brittany (also known as the Honour of Richmond).

    Ermine is the national emblem of Brittany, and it appeared on the surcoat and banner of Count Alan Rufus, the founder of the Honour.

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