Green with envy? Rosie Millard explains why Islington’s garden squares quite rightly bring people flocking to the area and selects her top picks
Walking with my children to the bus stop the other day I pointed out some people wandering into our square. Anoraks, excited faces, maps at the ready. Clearly tourists. ‘I bet they are doing an ISLINGTON SQUARES tour,’ I said to my brood. ‘Because the Islington Square is a very special thing indeed, and each one has its own special character.’ ‘Does it, Mama?’ they said. Or, at least, they might have if they hadn’t been texting. But it got me thinking. The squares here are very special; but how does one rate them? They are impossible to compare, of course, because each one carries its own idiosyncratic baggage.
In my mind, they go as follows. Myddelton Square, named after Hugh Myddelton, one of the biggest. Posh. Lovely deli just down the road. Gibson Square; ideal for tennis fanatics and (due to its proximity to 40 restaurants on Upper Street) people who can’t cook. Possible sightings of Andrew Mitchell (on or off his bike) an exciting extra. The strange building in the middle is a giant ventilation shaft for the Victoria Line, plonked there by London Transport in the 70s, who in return replaced all the railings that had been lost in the war. Next to it is Milner Square, for fans of severe architecture only. Full of lively youngsters (sometimes veering towards the feral). Carpet lovers will appreciate vast flooring emporium on corner. Handy little tunnel through to Almeida Street. Local bike shop nearby a major plus. Lonsdale Square; designed to look like assemblage of Tudor almshouses, quite spooky, good for architecture snobs. Sometimes known as the only Gothic London Square. Once used as a cattle-pen.
Barnsbury Square; spooky, dark, unsymmetrical, possibly haunted. Popular with dogs. Known to have been visited by Dante Gabriel Rosetti and William Morris. Cloudesley Square; good for foxes, evangelicals and anyone who likes gastropubs (The Crown). Named after 16th century landowner and philanthropist Sir Richard Cloudesley, who left an allowance of straw to the inmates of Marshalsea and Bedlam prison in his will.
Canonbury Square; unaccountably pricey (in my mind) even though rat run for people driving to or from Hackney. Beloved by those keen on ‘horizontal dwellings’ created by two terraced houses knocked together. Rumoured home of Keira Knightley. Unrumoured home of John Tusa, of Barbican and BBC World Service fame. Former home of Evelyn Waugh, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, and George Orwell. Hit by bombs in WWII (so some of the houses are INAUTHENTIC). Wonderful tiny pub (Compton Arms) behind south façade.
I can’t possibly mention the square where I live because vaunting its charms would be unfair to everyone else. But I am indebted to Melanie Backe-Hansen, historian at Chesterton Humberts, for the more sensible facts in this copy.
What is it about nettle gnocchi? I had it twice on subsequent occasions, once at Bistro Bruno Loubet and then again at 15. It’s delicious but I want to know the truth. Do all the Islington chefs get together, perhaps for a little cocktail at that dinky bar beside Cass Art, and decide that we locals are all due the same meal? If so, can I ask for avocado on toast spiked with chilli powder to be the next communal treat. Please?