Lockdown has given us a chance to explore our own neighbourhoods. Mr Londoner, AKA Antony Robbins, uncovers some of the secrets of his patch of North London.
Islington is just north of the City of London. It’s been home to high-profile figures, including fashion designer Alexander McQueen, singer Sade and author Angela Levy. Politicians of all persuasions seem to love the neighbourhood too: Boris Johnson, Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn have all at some point called the place home.
At the heart of the borough are Canonbury, Barnsbury and Highbury. Highbury was once monastic lands of the Priory of St John of Jerusalem. When Henry VIII closed England’s monasteries in 1534, he handed over Highbury to his right-hand man Thomas Cromwell – he of Wolf Hall fame. The unfortunate Cromwell had little time to enjoy his new acquisition – Henry had him beheaded in 1540.
In these more peaceful times, Highbury is the home of football. Arsenal FC has played here since 1913, moving into the 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium in 2006. Highbury is also home to the borough’s greenest spaces, from nature reserves reclaimed from railway yards, to the elegant Highbury Fields. This is a green oasis fringed with fine Victorian and Georgian properties. It’s the largest open space in the borough at 11 hectares, and was purchased for public use in 1885.
- Highbury Fields was the home of Jack the Ripper: possibly.
Turn of the century ‘Camden Town Group’ artist Walter Sickert lived in Highbury Place. He was a pupil of Whistler and his work is dark and broody. Author Patricia Cornwell is convinced that Sickert was Jack the Ripper and penned two highly controversial tomes on the topic. She maintains readers would rather enjoy the mystery than have a solution. The debate continues.
- Highbury is home to one of the most famous lines in cinema history
“Is it raining? … I hadn’t noticed,” a love-struck Andie MacDowell says to a bumbling Hugh Grant, outside 22 Highbury Terrace in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Grant’s expletive-laden rant in the Mini car at the start of the movie took place at nearby Highbury Corner.
- Britain’s first gay rights demo was held here. The Gay Liberation Front led a candelit procession on 27 November 1970 to protest the arrest of a young gay man Louis Eakes at Highbury Fields. This was a watershed moment; homosexuality had only been legalised in 1967, but many aspects of life for gay men remained criminalised into the 1970s.
- They dug for victory. Highbury suffered during wartime. The Fields themselves were given over to growing fruit and veg for the neighbourhood. Two rocket bombs fell nearby in 1944. One of them scored a direct hit on Highbury Corner, destroying the station, claiming 28 lives and hurting 150 others.
- The Anne Frank tree lives on. In 2010, a storm destroyed the beautiful Horse Chestnut tree outside Anne Frank’s former home in Amsterdam. Fortunately cuttings were taken before it fell. One was transplanted in Highbury Fields at a special event in 2018. Guest of honour was Dr Eva Schloss, an 87-year old Auschwitz survivor, who described the young sapling as “A symbol of hope”.
Mr Londoner, who has lived in the neighbourhood for 18 years – and in London all his life – is running socially-distanced tours of Highbury for groups of five from 14 July.