I stumbled across an article on the web the other day. Think I was looking for something on Old Merlin’s Cave Tavern and found this piece on the Architectural Association site that makes reference to a chain of Civil War defences that cut across the old borough of Finsbury:
“Waterfield Fort was at the top of St John's Street, exactly where Spa Green Estate stands today, linked eastwards by trenches running along Sebastian Street to a huge fort at Mount Mills off the Goswell Road. Westwards, the lines cut to New River Head's circular reservoir and on to Mount Pleasant, east of Black Mary's Hole and another city dump. In between, a covered walkway was cut up the hill that is now Amwell Street, to Islington Pond, which would soon became the extant reservoir in Claremont Square.”
The author, Guy Mannes Abbott, makes the link between this system of fortifications that stretched eastwards through Shoreditch and Whitechapel to Wapping built to protect the fledgling English Revolution and the Utopian aspirations of the municipal architecture of Berthold Lubetkin built in the old London borough of Finsbury:
“The forts mark an area known for its spas and radical reformers and which, in the seventeenth century, Wenceslaus Hollar represented in a series of etchings showing extensive earthworks. They protected an area that would become the site of the largest and most ambitious plan ever for the social regeneration of London and which remains a paragon of what could be achieved with social housing. Spa Green, Bevin Court and Priory Green just north of Finsbury are all positive manifestations of a politically committed and revolutionarily ambitious approach to collective works, but - conscious of what there was to fight for - Tecton also produced a plan for an elaborate system of defences and network of communications with uncanny echoes of the Civil War forts.”
So after work in the fading light I headed off to see what traces remained. I approached the forts from the south, across the wobbly bridge and round St Pauls. The towers of the Barbican Estate stand like sentinels challenging the medieval monastic complex of the Charterhouse across Goswell Road. If we’re looking for the spirit of rebellion and utopianism it’s written here on the names of the blocks that make up the Barbican: Thomas More House, Milton Court, Defoe House, Cromwell Tower, Bunyan Court, Mountjoy House after a Huguenot refugee, Willoughby House after Catherine an upholder of the new Protestantism.
Progressing northwards through the concrete I feel a tangible sense of anticipation. Leading off either side Gee Street, Bastwick Street, Pear Tree Court, straight rows of unforgiving slab-like structures. This landscape gives little away. Draws you in then repels you.
The Old Ivy House marks the corner of Seward Street, the sort of pub you’d only go into if you were desperate for a pint. The estate over the road is a red-brick construction of towers and walkways. The gloomy entrance to Seward Street stinks of stale piss and grime. A street sign on the back of the pub heralds the site of Mount Mills, a significant point on the “Utopian enclosure”. The view is far from utopian, grubby backs of houses, iron fire escapes, air-con vents, a hexagonal building juts out unnaturally and the road curves around it. Opposite a new gleaming block of flats with glass-brick lift-shaft/ stairwell. Mount Mills is now a new-laid tarmac carpark. I look back to the pub and the trendy coffee bar (coffee@goswell road) from higher ground. The mound. What was also a plague pit, windmill, public laystall has given way to Mini Cooper, Audi, tall TV aerials, private parking.
Looking east along Lever Street there is a noticeable rise in the road roughly adjacent with Mount Mills, it drops the other side towards Central Street. On the other side of Goswell Lever Street becomes Percival Street which leads into Skinner Street where the old Merlin’s Cave Tavern stood. Mannes Abbott sees the story of the construction of these defences being fundamental to the English identity and the narrative of the island. What more potent national mythology than the Arthurian legends, commemorated in the same streets.
Sebastian Street is immediately darker, tree-lined. Modernist buildings of the City University becoming a row of Georgian townhouses. A contemporary source described a trench dyke running along here to St. John’s Fort. I pass through Northampton Square with its bandstand. Crows squawk, they would have feasted on the carrion tossed into the ditch.
I exit on Wyclif Street. Another reference to radicalism.
Kids in hoodies riding BMXs whiz across St John St. Spa Green Estate that occupied the site of Waterfield Fort commands the high ground that marks the final approach to the Angel tollgate. This was bandit country in those days, the Angel Tavern did a brisk trade with travellers wanting to avoid progressing through the open fields in the dark.
I can smell a wet muddy fragrance. Kids play noisily on the football/ basketball court. The block facing St John Street is Tunbridge House, probably a reference to New Tunbridge Wells which was another name for the Islington Spa pleasure grounds that were here in the C18th. Do the kids see this as the Utopia Lubetkin designed, or a ghetto? One 18 year old threw himself to his death from a ninth floor window of a council block down here last week.
It’s dark and I’m put off walking through the estate. Its defences still in operation. From Rosebery Avenue you can see how Spa Green rests in a hollow. The wave of the outside wall recalling a fortified line. The Thames Water HQ opposite seems to continue the wave motif on the other side of the road, two grand municipal buildings complementing each other except that one has been converted to house the well-healed rather than the socially excluded.
Punters from the Sadlers Wells spill out onto the pavement. Up Amwell Street and I try to imagine it as a covered walkway as described in the article. It’s echoes Elizabeth Gordon’s speculation that a tunnel ran from the base of Amwell Street into the heart of Penton Mound where Merlin lived in a cave.
I pass on a pint in Filthy McNasty’s as it’s too packed and noisy. Three rosy cheeked pleasure seekers announce “Here it is”, and for a second I think that they too are looking for St. John’s Fort. “Filthy McNasty’s, s’posed to be really good.” I get a bottle of Polish Lager from the cornershop instead.
You can read “rebel city” here: http://www.g-m-a.net/docs/c_forting.html