Bugwoman on Location – The Squares of Islington

Canonbury Square

Canonbury Square

Dear Readers, I lived in a maisonette in Islington for ten  years at the beginning of the ‘noughties’. There was much to love about the area, but the flat had no garden, just a tiny balcony, too small to stand on. Occasionally a woodpigeon or a butterfly would come to visit, but basically I was without access to all the things that keep me sane. A series of truly awful downstairs neighbours didn’t help, either. There was the air steward with permanent jet-lag and a part-time job as a DJ, who would get going on the decks at 3 a.m. There were the two young women who worked in the media and had a tiny, neglected ‘handbag’ dog who would whine and cry when they left him alone all day. And, finally, there was the alcoholic, drug-addicted ex-banker who would break up his flat in fits of rage in the middle of the night. And so, I took to spending time in the squares of the borough, just in order to retain any kind of equilibrium.

Islington has very little green space, but it does have its squares. In Kensington or Westminster, these would be accessible only by residents of the surrounding houses, but in Islington they are mostly open to the public. Each one has its own unique character.

Canonbury Square

This is the earliest of the Islington Squares, created in 1800. George Orwell once lived on this square, but it’s fair to say that it’s gone a bit upmarket since then.

img_8942 img_8937 img_8950The square itself is in two parts, intersected by a busy road. Like several Islington Squares, it has a stand of palms in the middle. One of these seems to have seeded itself into a crevice in a nearby tree.

img_8978 img_8977 img_8976There are many memorials here. Some are benches, some are even more poignant. Christmas is a very hard time for those who have recently lost their loved ones, and I know of some who would much rather hibernate through the whole festive season. Who can blame them? The relentless emphasis on family togetherness and harmony can be overwhelming.

img_8963 img_8968 img_8971 img_8972The trees in many Islington squares are magnificent. They are mostly august London plane trees, but they provide a fine viewpoint for more recent visitors, such as parakeets.

img_8955 img_8956I noticed one bench that, rather than being in remembrance of a loved one, was a celebration of wine, and a small advert for the beverages of the Loire. Apparently the Loire Valley Wine Company also helped plant the roses, lavender and a small vineyard in the centre of the square.

img_8960Gibson Square

img_8985Gibson Square is in Barnsbury, and is slightly less ‘upmarket’ than Canonbury Square (though when all these houses cost millions of pounds to buy these days, it’s a very fine distinction. But what of these two fluffy panthers?

img_8983 img_8981They seemed to be waiting for something, or someone. As did all the other critters in the square.

img_8993 img_8998 img_8992 img_8999And before long, a lady with a wheelie shopper arrived, and was converged upon by all.

img_8997Well, this was a mystery that I couldn’t resist, and so I walked over for a chat.

‘What beautiful cats!’ I said, by way of making conversation. The lady sighed.

‘They’re mine’, she said, ‘But they won’t come indoors during the day, so I feed them over here’.

As usual, the felines had got their human perfectly trained.

We talked for a while about how much Islington had changed. The lady had lived here for her whole life, and wasn’t so chuffed about how things were going.

‘A little boy threw an apple at one of the cats, and when I told him off his parents told me off, and then we had a blazing row’, she said. ‘You can’t say anything to kids these days. I blame the parents. It’s not the kids’ fault’.

So, we nodded sagely about the way of the world, and parted on good terms, with the lady making a hasty getaway ‘in case one of the cats notices me going and follows me and then I’ll have to turn round and try to take her home’.

Lonsdale Square

In the heart of Barnsbury is Lonsdale Square. The houses here are rather different from in the two previous squares: they have a kind of Gothic Revival ‘thing’ going on, and were all built between 1838 and 1845. Simon Rattle apparently has a house here, and Salman Rushdie has a basement flat.

img_9008The square features some huge fir trees, and I spent some time listening in case they’d attracted an errant goldcrest, but no such luck.

img_9013Goldfinches visited the very tops of the plane trees, and a magpie surveyed the area from an aerial. This square always felt rather sinister to me, maybe because so few people visit it. The noise from building work on one of the townhouses eventually drove me away, to my last square. img_9018 img_9017Thornhill Road Garden

The last of my visits, however, was not to a grand square, but to a little scrap of rose beds and slightly neglected bushes called Thornhill Road Garden.

img_9023 img_9021It isn’t the prettiest of the squares, but it was the nearest to where I lived, and the one that I knew best. I found a long-tailed tit nest here, as stretchy as a green glove. I spotted my first ever brambling in one of the plane trees. My husband and I walked circles of this park when we had something important to discuss, like whether to have children. Sometimes, there were benches full of street drinkers enjoying some British Sherry. Often, there were dogs, sometimes dozens of them (this being one of the few squares in the borough where dogs are allowed). But always there was the sound of wind in the trees, and a few moments of peace. And that, above all, is what our green spaces, however small and urban, do for our souls. They reconnect us, and ground us. We need them more than we realise.

img_9002All blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you.


10 thoughts on “Bugwoman on Location – The Squares of Islington

  1. Toffeeapple

    I really should make an effort to get out and enjoy the green spaces around me, of which there are many but it is all such an effort nowadays, one simply cannot just walk to one any more.

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  3. Dawn

    We are the mum and sister of Nettie whose tree is in the lovely Canonbury Square. It was her favourite place in the whole of London and as a family we visit as often as we can and decorate it with love. It was lovely to see this dedication.
    Love always her mum also called Annette and her sisters Dawn & Josette and her brother Mark xxxx


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