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Camden Town London: A Break from Convention

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

London Camden high street shops elaborately decorated facades. The Quarter shoe store, Chats and The Dark Side.
Camden High Street, London

Camden Town with its eclectic mix of markets, retro fashion, live music venues and international cuisine has been popular with tourists and Londoners since the 1960s. One can sit at Regent's Canal and admire the treasures that you picked up in Camden's markets or enjoy a traditional pint of beer. You will discover excellent food from around the world from Camden's many street vendors and convenient eateries.

Situated in the central part of the London Borough of Camden, Camden Town or Camden lies within northwest London close to Regent's Park and King’s Cross, St Pancras and Euston railway stations.

A Brief History

Camden Town gained its name from Charles Pratt, first Earl of Camden, in 1795. Camden Town started life as a residential area in the 1790s. Then came the development of the Regent’s Canal between 1814 and 1820 and by 1838, the Euston–Birmingham railway was in full operation.

Around this time, recently built large houses were subdivided into flats to accommodate immigrants from Ireland, Greece, Cyprus and Italy. This up-and-coming part of London soon earned the reputation as ‘the tradesmen’s entrance to London’. Before long, the newly formed high street had new shops, theatres and public houses serving and entertaining the influx of new residents. During the Second World War, Camden, like most of London had more than its fair share of bomb damage. Afterwards, bomb sites were cleared and new public homes built.

The 1960s saw the return of the middle classes who bought dilapidated properties and restored them back to their former glory. Camden Town grew in popularity attracting all classes and professions. In 1964, a disused railway yard was sympathetically transformed into an alternative music and arts venue named The Roundhouse with gigs performed by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd.

The 1970s saw entertainment venues popping up all around the town including many that are still going strong today. With the music scene now well established, in 1974 a packing case factory in Camden Lock became Camden Market. The market was a tremendous success and before long, stalls were popping up everywhere catering to the vibrant youth cultures desire for clothing, art, music and food. The rest speaks for itself as today hordes of visitors relish in the abundance of merchandise the market has to offer.

Music and Entertainment

For many years, Camden has boasted a vibrant live music scene with big names associated with the area. Camden has hosted music legends such as The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, The Sex Pistols, Bob Dylan, Manic Street Preachers, The Clash, Nirvana, Van Morrison, Gil Scott-Heron, The Killers, U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blondie, and Madness (Camden born and bred).

When did it all start? Dingwalls Dance Hall and the Roundhouse are mainly responsible for kick-starting the Camden music scene in the mid-1960s to 1973. The Roundhouse opened as a performing arts venue in 1964 and two years later Pink Floyd played at the venue. In 1973, Dingwalls Dance Hall opened and before long became a favourite hangout for many legendary entertainers such as The Sex Pistols and The Stranglers.

The Roundhouse: on Chalk Farm Road is a state-of-the-art theatre and music venue. The building was constructed in 1847 and was once the roundhouse for the London and North Western Railway. This award-winning venue now hosts avant-garde productions, live music, theatre and circus.

Dingwalls: is renowned for its intake of new and established acts and celebrated for its punk rock past during which Blondie, The Clash and The Stranglers have performed here. Dingwalls opened in 1973 and takes centre stage for entertainment and its location in Camden Market dominating Camden Lock overlooking Regent's Canal. The busy venue offers live music from local and touring bands, comedy nights and a pub.

The Electric Ballroom: the music hall started back in the 1930s as a popular Irish ballroom and was renamed the Electric Ballroom in 1978. The venue is located in Camden High Street. The two-storey building boasts two dance floors, four bars and a stage with full concert facilities on the ground floor and an indoor market. Entertainers to grace the stage over the years include; Madness, Sid Vicious, The Clash, Richard Ashcroft, Stereophonics, The Killers, U2, The Boomtown Rats, Phil Lynott, The Smiths, Joy Division, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Public Enemy, Blur and Supergrass.

Dublin Castle: offers more than just inexpensive beer, it is a loyal supporter of the indie music scene with occasional unannounced gigs from well-known artists and bands. Amy Winehouse would often turn up at the Castle and serve behind the bar! The Castle is on Parkway, off Camden High Street.

KOKO: originally opened in 1900, as the Camden Theatre and was amongst the largest theatres outside the West End. In 1977, it became a live music venue and renamed The Music Machine. This highly popular venue became famous for hosting punk/mod revival and new wave bands such as The Jam and The Clash. By 1982, they renamed the venue Camden Palace where Madonna performed her first UK performance. During the 1990s, the Palace became a popular rave venue.

The venue closed in 2004, and undertook a multi-million-pound restoration and became 'Koko' specialising in live music, club nights and TV production. Many well-known acts have performed at Koko including; Prince, Coldplay, My Chemical Romance, The Killers, Oasis, Amy Winehouse and Ed Sheeran. A fire engulfed the roof of this famous music venue in January 2020, luckily with no casualties. At the time of writing this article, Koko will be opening as soon as possible. The venue is at the south end of Camden High Street almost opposite Mornington Crescent underground station.

The Underworld: is part of the famous World’s End pub opposite Camden Town underground station and is yet another Camden classic that has helped re-shape metal, rock and punk. The Underworld does exactly what it says on the tin, a basement venue offering alternative and traditional live music. Even Charles Dickens was a regular well before the alternative music scene, obviously!

The Jazz Café: Don’t be fooled by the venue’s name, the venue also offers Hip Hop, International music, Club nights and much more. You will find this hidden gem on Parkway, just off Camden High Street.

The Blues Kitchen: is on Camden High Street and specialises in blues, rock and roll and soul performances seven nights a week. This popular establishment has a proud reputation for its authentic American soul food and its fine selection of over 80 different Bourbons and late-night dancing on the weekends.

Camden Comedy Clubs: If you fancy a bit of a giggle then head down to the Camden Comedy Club in Camden High Street or go further up the high street towards Camden Lock Market to catch some fringe performances at the Etcetera Theatre.

Camden High Street - A High Street like No Other

Camden, London. Camden town's unique atmosphere, colorful shop fronts with Namaste Fair Trade shop on Camden High Street with its famous yellow elephant.
Colourful shop fronts of Camden High Street, London

The high street runs northwest from Mornington Crescent underground station to Regent's Canal bridge and Camden Lock Market before continuing as Chalk Farm Road. At first appearance a little tatty, maybe, but the further northwest one walks from Camden underground station towards Camden Lock, you soon realise why Camden High Street is an iconic part of London.

It can be quite overwhelming the minute you step outside of Camden underground station and enter the chaos of the High Street. You instantly notice the chaotic and youthful atmosphere that seems to affect all ages and notice people not conforming to current fads and trends as they proudly wear their own identity.

Shops compete with each other by pumping out music of all genres (all at the same time!) and one cannot help but look up at the eccentric and elaborately decorated upper facades.

The crowds can easily draw you towards and over the bridge to the markets. However, take your time, soak up the vibrant atmosphere, and step into the unique shops, restaurants, and legendary clubs and bars on offer. The street is abundant with original and unusual shops selling retro and vintage clothing, suits, vintage vinyl, handmade leather goods, footwear, body piercing and tattoos, souvenirs and unusual gifts.

Camden Market

Camden Town’s Stables Market in Chalk Farm Rd, featuring over a thousand unique stalls for antique, vintage & alternative furniture, clothing and goods.
The Stables Market in Chalk Farm Rd, Camden Town

Camden Market is loud, colourful and buzzing with youthful vibes. The market is a labyrinth of over a thousand shops and stalls selling everything from antiques, art, vintage and alternative furniture, clothing, vinyl, handmade jewellery, incense, fantasy and gothic giftware and even Cuban Cigars.

All this excitement can be hungry and thirsty work, so it is no wonder that the food stalls and eateries are equally exciting. The market offers a diverse choice of cuisine from around the globe including French, Lebanese, Portuguese, Chinese, American, Indonesian, Taiwanese, South African, Middle Eastern, Vegan, vegetarian and of course, Fish and Chips! It comes as no surprise that the beverages on offer are just as exciting; from terrace bars to cult cafes serving a wide variety ranging from traditional ales and beers to exotic original cocktails or freshly made fruit juices.

The original market is along the banks of Regent's Canal but there are other markets stretching from the high street to Chalk Farm they include, Camden Stables Market, Canal Market, Buck Street Market, Inverness Street Market, and one inside the Electric Ballroom in Camden High Street. All these markets are collectively referred to as "Camden Market" or "Camden Lock".

Camden Market is internationally recognised for its original artisan creativity; about 28 million visitors a year cannot be wrong!

Gin, Gin and more Gin–That’s the Spirit

Poster depicting drunken man saying “I Blame Gin” promoting Victorian gin distilleries in Camden London

Gin enthusiasts will be interested to know that in Victorian times, thanks to the Regent's Canal, Camden distilled and exported most of London’s gin. Distilleries and warehouses stretching from Camden Lock to the Roundhouse were all dedicated to the production of the old Madam Geneva or Mother’s ruin.

By the mid-twentieth century, the industry declined only to be revived in 2014 when local entrepreneur Mark Holdsworth founded Half Hitch Gin. This was a huge success and in only two years, his company was winning awards and now sells his brand in Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason and many other reputable sellers. In Camden, one will find the Half Hitch Gin Micro-Distillery and Gin Store in The Stables Market. The name Half Hitch comes from the knot used to moor up barges in Camden.

Thanks to Mark, Camden now has a healthy (if that’s the correct word) selection of fine establishments specialising in serving Gin; Fifty-Five Bar, Colonel Fawcett, and Simmons Bar are just a few examples.

Breaking all conventions, Camden Town is the beating heart of London and well worth discovering.

London is renowned worldwide for its variety of cultural hot spots:

visit and discover Camden’s Bloomsbury district, London’s other Square Mile.

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