Don’t get me wrong, I kind of love Camden. Not for what it is now – a relic from its “edgy” past, a tourist trap, a (mostly) fake market selling overpriced tat and bad food – but for my memories of it. In the mid-late ’90s, when the Stable Market still hosted small independent boutiques and second hand furniture shops, when the Regent’s Canal wasn’t full of hipsters, and the High Street had no big chains – I spent many weekends wandering amongst the stalls with my friend Tanya, buying dresses nobody else would have for under £10, walking along the water and smiling at the 40 years old punks (themselves a relic of 80’s London). I still like Camden first thing in the morning, before the Italian and German tourists arrive en masse (yes, Camden is now only trendy for European tourists), when the Canal is empty, the market hasn’t opened and the place is quiet. But even then, it does tend to look like an amusement park before opening times, a circus waiting for customers.
All this to say, if you’re planning to visit London, by all means go to Camden if you wish (in that case I’d recommend to come by boat, along the Canal, boarding at Maida Vale https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g186338-d510136-r162482870-Regents_Canal-London_England.html) but please don’t think for a second that is edgy London, modern London, young London, “alternative” London. Because there’s no real London at Camden Market. Londoners simply don’t go there.
So this page of my blog – that I’m hoping to be able to write fairly regularly – will be dedicated to those of you – visitors, tourists or new arrivals – who really want to discover the real city, its hidden places, the places we, Londoners, go to. Hampstead Heath, Alexandra Palace, Highgate woods, Kenwood House, Crouch End, the Lea Valley, Dalston, Hackney, London Fields, Crystal Palace, Chiswick, Richmond, Brixton, Dulwich… Because, trust me, THERE IS A LIFE BEYOND CAMDEN TOWN
PS: I will be mentioning venues, markets, restaurants, cafes and theatres. I don’t get paid to do so. They are genuinely places I love and recommend. I have a career in voice overs and get paid quite well to advertise businesses with my voice. With my writing, I can afford being less mercenary.
So let me start with something for those who love the outdoors.
HAMPSTEAD HEATH, Hampstead Village and Highgate (plus Parliament Hill, Waterlow Park, Highgate Woods)
(How to get here: TUBE: Hampstead station then walk downhill and turn left at Downshire Hill) or OVERGROUND : Hampstead Heath and cross the street)
The North of London is so full of amazing green spaces you’d need a week to see them all. From Hampstead Heath, to Alexandra Park (the BEST view of London EVER, you’re on top of the world looking down) to Highgate Woods, if you fancy a picnic surrounded by quintessentially English countryside without leaving zone 3, you just need to board the Northern Line.
Hampstead Heath for instance, is a huge hilly area with ponds, and woods so big you can get lost without a map (and even with a map.) Have a look:
East of the Heath is Kenwood house. You’ll recognise it because it has featured in tons of films and TV series. You can’t get more Victorian than that. Inside there’s a self service cafe, a bit overpriced but the cakes are nice.
If you fancy some wandering around elegant streets and famous people’s houses (dead and alive), you can head to one of the two “villages” (London is made of hundreds of villages. The idea of “town centre” doesn’t really apply in this city because each borough has its own) either side of the Heath: Hampstead and Highgate.
Hampstead is bigger, with a very elegant high street and beautiful houses, including Keats house, Freud house and other famous people’s houses you can look up on a guide. I particularly like Hampstead’s little alleys and side streets. Even though the village has become so “posh” most small shops and independent businesses have been forced to close, there are still some interesting antique place and second hand store. The high street is beautiful but too full of chains and I wouldn’t particularly choose to eat there.
Highgate is smaller, but not cheaper, has some very good charity shops (since it’s a rich area people give away very nice stuff) but unfortunately the rent here is so high independent cafes and eateries are hard to find. Better heading to Highgate South, better known as Parliament Fields (which you can reach by bus from Kentish Town – number 214 or 88 – and from Archway – number C11) has at least one very nice place for breakfast, Cafe Kalendar (good pancakes, good eggs, good coffee), and a very tasty place for lunch, Ravel’s Bistro, serving excellent Med food (mainly Turkish/Greek).
From Parliament Hill you can also walk to Highgate Cemetery, which looks like Gothic horror film place, Victorian graves covered in ivy and forgotten for generations, but there’s the “official” part, where the famous people are buries (Carl Marx and others) is very well kept. I’m not a humongous fan of cemeteries, they spook me and I don’t really see the point of going to see somebody’s grave – but that’s me. Probably having lived right next to Highgate Cemetery, with foxes howling at night and sounding like children being strangled, I’m not mega keen on the idea! Highgate also have another park, which is kind of an annexe to the Heath but separate, Waterlow Park which is effectively the grounds and gardens of Lauderdale House. It’s beautiful, especially in spring when all the cherry and apple trees are in blossom. It also boasts a small pond and it’s so quiet and peaceful you wouldn’t know you’re in London.
From Highgate, in fact from Archway (which is the real tube stop for Highgate, Highgate Tube is nowhere near the village (it’s near my place but my house doesn’t feature as a tourist destination – not reached that notoriety yet) you can catch bus 134 or 43 and in a couple of stops you’ll reach another wood: Highgate wood.
From Highgate Tube, Southern exit, you can instead head to Parkland Walk, one of my most favourite places, a four mile secret path in the trees following the course of the old railway that ran between Finsbury Park and Alexandra Palace. If you walk it all, guess what? You’ll find yourself in another huge green area, Finsbury Park! Which is effectively East, so I’ll talk about it another day.
And since I’ve mentioned Alexandra Palace… What an incredible place! You can reach it by taking bus 43 from Archway to Muswell Hill and walk, or by overground (Alexandra Palace), or by bus from Wood Green Tube. It’s a PALACE, and it sits at the top of the highest hill in London. Do you know what it means? That you get THE most amazing view of the WHOLE city you can dream of. It’s BEAUTIFUL!! Go there! AllyPally absolutely rocks