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What Matters: a guide to Upper Street

Welcome to our What Matters guides, a series exploring what makes London the city it is today. Alongside interviews with well-loved local businesses, we’ve got guides to the best independents and articles exploring just how much history and heritage can be packed into one street. Today we’re taking a walk down Islington’s Upper Street, exploring its past as a political, musical and theatrical hotspot.

Islington’s Upper Street is a fashionable street home to some of London’s best boutiques, independent shops and lively food and drink outlets. If, however, you take a look at its past, a picture involving politics, pivotal moments in LGBTQ history, and the birth of a unique small-scale theatre and music scene emerges. If you’re interested in how Upper Street got its vibrant character and independent spirit, you’ve come to the right place.

Start heading up from Angel Underground station and you’ll come to Camden passage on the right. This idyllic traffic-free street was built as an alley in the 18th Century and hosted a successful antiques market in the 1960s. It’s still known today as one of London’s best destinations for antique shopping, whether you’re after furniture, art, clothes or all of the above. We recommend heading over on a Wednesday or Saturday, when many of the market stalls will be set up alongside the bricks and mortar shops. Be sure to stop off at Pistachio and Pickle Dairy to grab some snacks, The Camden Head for a drink or even pick up your dinner at Moxton’s Fishmonger.

Continue up Upper Street and you’ll pass number 329, which housed Red Books, a socialist bookshop with a reputation for stealing stock from other left-wing bookshops in the 1970s and 80s. This is quickly followed by Islington Square, home to new premises of The Kings Head Theatre Pub. Founded in 1970, the Kings Head revitalised the London theatre scene by introducing fringe theatre and opening up options for theatregoers beyond the West End.  The theatre has long been a hub for talent, attracting new and established playwrights alike and performances from Joanna Lumley, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman and Dawn French to name a few, as well as winning plenty of awards and having productions transferred to the West End. Despite its huge success the theatre retains the spirit of the 1970s, offering ethical employment, fair pay and the chance to see theatre on a smaller but no less special scale.

Almost opposite Islington Square is number 127, which used to be the home to Granita, a restaurant that became infamous for hosting the so-called ‘Granita Pact’ between then-Shadow Foreign Secretary and Shadow Chancellor Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Brown agreed not to run in the Labour leadership contest in return, he thought, for Blair to stand down during his second term in office. While both have since said that the deal was actually made before the dinner, the restaurant’s reputation as hosting one of the pivotal moments of New Labour persisted until its closure.

Further up on the left at number 182 was the Rising Free bookshop, an anarchist-leaning bookshop which also sold reportedly stolen stock. Today, number 182 hosts Gill Wing Jewellery, a long-established jewellery shop that showcases and sells pieces from internationally renowned designers and new talent alike. If you’d like to learn more about the Gill Wing Brand, take a look at our What Matters: North London video.

Upper Street was something of an anarchist hub in the 80s: alongside Rising Free was Molly’s, a squat and vegetarian café that sold food made from the leftovers of at Spitalfields market. Those at Molly’s worked with the Islington Action Group of the Unwaged, a far-left campaigning and activist group also based on Upper Street. Despite their different political leanings, the two groups organised the Tavistock Square Claimant’s Union and set up the Islington Housing Action Group together.

This part of Upper Street was also home to a thriving LGTBQ scene. On the right of the street, number 274-275- now design-led furniture store Twentytwentyone- used to be the home of London Friend, the UKs oldest LGTB charity, which supports the health and wellbeing of gay people and provides a community for them. The charity opened its premises on Upper Street in 1975, and received a government grant in the same year. This was hugely significant as it was the first gay organisation to receive such a grant; and indicated recognition of their need for support in a society in which being gay was not widely accepted.

Just over the road at number 190, now a Gill Wing gift shop, used to be Sister Write- a bookshop for women ran by a women-only collective in the 1970s-1990s. The bookshop was known for having plenty of lesbian literature in stock, which was very unusual at the time, and served as a semi-hub for those involved in political groups and radical feminism.

Upper Street’s part in LGBTQ history lives on today. In 2014, Islington Town Hall- right next door to the old premises of London Friend and Sister Write- hosted one of the UKs first legal gay marriages, between Peter McGraith and David Cabreza. The couple got married on the stroke of midnight on the 28th of March, the day that gay marriage became legally recognised in the UK.

Carry on walking and cross the road when you spot Harvey Jones Kitchens at number 268. Turn back the clock by almost a century, and the building houses Pioneer Books, a Trotskyist bookshop in the 1930s. The bookshop was also the headquarters of the Revolutionary Socialist League, which formed in 1930 when the Marxist League and the Marxist Group merged. The group was an affiliate of the Trotskyist Fourth International group, which aimed to establish socialism worldwide, and maintained a Militant Labour League for its members involved in Labour party entryism. Eventually, the group formed the first iteration of the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1944.

The final stop on our tour of Upper Street is the Hope and Anchor at number 207. Open since 1880, this legendary pub was instrumental in the pub rock scene of the 1970s. Pub rock bands favoured a more simplistic, back-to-basics musical style in reaction to the more stylised progressive rock and glam rock popular at the time. Shows and recordings took place in small venues, which in turn revitalised local club scenes. Pub rock was the catalyst for the development of the British punk scene (for more on this, read our guide to the Kings Road), and the pub became a leading punk venue, even being referenced on the Stranglers’ album Live at the Hope and Anchor. Visitors can still see live music venue today; over the years it’s hosted acts including as Adam and the Ants, Joy Division, Madness, Ramones and U2. On the floor above is The Hope Theatre, originally the sister theatre to the King’s Head, which hosts award-winning in-house productions, many of which go on to be transferred to the West End.

Enjoyed this article? We’ve got plenty more in the What Matters blog series to come: keep your eyes peeled here

EICR: Landlords, are you prepared for the changes this April? Read More
An encouraging start for the London Sales Market Read More
Nine of the best homes for upsizing Read More
Nine of the best family homes to let this month Read More
What does the Lettings market for family homes look like in 2021? Read More
The M&P kids’ guide to London competition Read More
What Matters: a guide to Columbia Road Read More
What Matters: a guide to the King’s Road Read More
What Matters: 20 of the best independent gift shops in London Read More
What Matters: a guide to Upper Street Read More

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