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.
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.
The 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.
There 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.
I 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.
Gibson 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?
‘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’.
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.
Goldfinches 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. Thornhill 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.
It 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.