My mission for March was to visit Hackney, Islington and Waltham Forest. I don’t know any of these boroughs well – I’ve cycled the length of the Regent’s Canal, and walked part of it. I’ve skirted the southern borders of Islington and Hackney, been to the dogs at Walthamstow, and skated at Lee Valley, but that’s about the extent of my experience.
It’s not easy to decide on a starting point for these trips into the unknown, but I have a bit of a fascination with cemeteries. It may sound morbid, but it’s not really. London’s cemeteries provide refuges for wildlife, and were planned as park-like open spaces. I do love the cemetery clichés of mournful angels and crumbling headstones, but there’s more than that – the names provide a window on the population history of the area, and each cemetery shows distinctive local styles of stonemasonry.
Traditionally, London’s premier cemeteries are known as the “Magnificent Seven”. The only two I hadn’t yet visited were Abney Park and Highgate. I’ve always been slightly put off by Highgate’s “Theme Park Death” marketing, though I do hope to visit it soon, but Abney Park seemed like the ideal starting point for a stroll through Hackney.
Abney Park was designed as a cemetery, park and arboretum. It was London’s first fully non-denominational cemetery, and as such attracted many protestant non-conformists, including General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. Its twentieth century history is the familiar tale of overcrowding, disuse and re-birth as a nature reserve, and today it’s a popular place for locals to stroll and walk their dogs.
We saw quite a variety of birds, including goldcrests, and heard woodpeckers calling. There were plenty of interesting memorials, but the light wasn’t especially kind to us until just as we were ready to leave.
We headed north and west through the heavily Orthodox Jewish area of Stamford Hill. The houses could be in any part of suburban London, but it felt quite exotic – people of this ethnic / religious group are uncommon in our area.
We joined the footpath by the New River near the West Reservoir, came out by the Castle Climbing Centre and meandered into Clissold Park, where we watched a dabchick furiously diving for food. It’s amazing how much time they can spend underwater.
The light was going, and we had a concert to go to, so we cut west towards Islington, and down through Highbury Fields before a well-earned pint at the Cock Tavern at Highbury Corner.
All in all, it was a pleasant afternoon’s walk. We know we’ve barely scraped the surface of Hackney, and will surely be back to explore more fully, but I’m beginning to link up some of the areas of North London in my mind now.