Live music, canals and… more live music, Camden is an indisputable mecca for anyone into their punk, rock or Brit pop scenes. Come along as Josh Ferry Woodard prepares us for a touch of anarchy in the UK…
It was in Camden’s Electric Ballroom venue that Sid Vicious gave his now infamous “Sid Sods Off” concert to raise money for his and Nancy’s flights to the US, although that’s not the only reason the North London zone can claim to be at the centre of Britain’s heady music scene. In the 90s you could hardly walk into a pub without running into a member of Blur, Menswear or Elastica on the razz, and later the district also became Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty’s haunt of choice. These days Camden plays host to an omnipresent crowd of punks, goths, buskers, tourists, students, rastas and, of course, the latest bunch of celebrities to call this sometimes brash, but always busy, borough of London home.
The in-your-face salesmanship, the shops shaped like Doc Martin boots, the ’76-style crusty street punks, the unrivalled music scene and the smell of stall-cooked Chinese food; Camden has its own twisted take on Capitalism, distinctly different to the rest of London – the most expensive city in the world to live in.
This intriguing area is the place where champion of Communism Karl Marx died – his ornate gravestone can be found up the road in Highgate Cemetery – and it is also the location of the Camden Crawl Festival, an annual two-day celebration of underground music spanning 25 of the area’s best entertainment venues
Browse the iconic, albeit kitsch, marketplace; take in the aroma of hippy incense and haggle with the pushy stall owners for things that you don’t really want to buy. Be sure to sample a few bites of their fried chicken as well – but never pay for the stuff. Then take a stroll along the canal to Regents Park, skip the overpriced zoo and hike up Primrose Hill for, in my opinion, the best views of London’s sprawling cityscape (Hampstead Heath is more popular, but pristine Primrose Hill has less obstacles to contend with).
When you return to the centre of Camden, walk between two imposing 30-foot chrome robots to enter the legendary Cyberdog for a unique slice of fluorescent futurism. Situated in the stables market, just off Chalk Farm Road, this distinctive techno clothing shop describes itself as “famous throughout the known universe and pretty popular in the unknown universe as well”. Expect swift pulses of soul-stealing bass, luminous visors, cybernetic jewellery and all manner of props that were probably lent to the Wachowski Brothers for the filming of the clubbing scene in the first installment of the Matrix trilogy.
If Cyberdog’s sci-fi vibes leave you feeling like an extra in a dystopian horror movie then head over to Delancey Street to ground yourself back in reality at the Camden Coffee Shop. This small independent roasting house, crammed with rusty scales and stacks of sacks of coffee beans, has been the focal point of Cypriot George Constantinou’s life for the past 36 years. He roasts fresh coffee from a handful of different locations from around the world on a daily basis. George’s status as a local legend was cemented back in 1988 when, under the threat of redevelopment, residents, councillors and local newspapers campaigned to ensure that his lease was not revoked.
Start the evening with a life-changing cheeseburger at Honest Burger. Made from 35-day dry-aged chuck steak – whatever that means – these juicy and expertly prepared portions of meat come served in soft brioche buns with skin-on rosemary fries. This really is the epitome of haute-fast-food cuisine. Alternatively, pay a visit to the Kentish Canteen for a seasonal selection of gastro grub at reasonable prices. Save yourself a little bit of beer money by dining at the Canteen on Mondays when there is a half price offer on all main meals.
Continue the evening at Brewdog for the best, and ‘punkest’ beer in town or head over to the Roundhouse for live bands, experimental theatre and special events. For one month during the summer the Roundhouse runs its Camden Beach bonanza, which features 150 tons of sand, a couple of cocktail bars, rainbow beach huts, some ping-pong tables and a swimming pool. It’s no match for the real thing, but the novelty creates an electric atmosphere nonetheless.
Finish the night with homemade cocktails and vintage sounds at Joe’s – a small but lively bar-cum-club with Americana stylings – or kick it with live music and 100 different kinds of bourbon at the Blues Kitchen – a frenetic late bar with more buzz than a beehive. Both venues stay open until 3am and attract decent crowds – relatively few hipsters and no chavs whatsoever.
Sophie, 19, who studies English at University College London, has lived in-and-around Camden for a year, moving into a new flat over the summer. “I love the music scene in Camden. It has a legacy of great British bands and there are always cheap unsigned acts playing in the local pubs. The area is very popular with tourists and there are some places that try to exploit that but you can’t go wrong with a gig at Koko or a late-night boogie at Joe’s”.
As a local I’ve never needed to find temporary accommodation in the area but St Christopher’s Inn stands out as the staple choice for backpackers. It runs a late bar (Belushi’s) and is situated smack-bang-in-the-middle of Camden High Street – opposite the Blues Kitchen. Camden Lock Holiday Inn is a slightly more expensive option with en-suite rooms and fetching views of the canal.
If you’re coming from overseas to experience the human and cultural circus that is Camden Town, then be aware that Monarch airlines fly to London from Barcelona, Malaga, Rome, Venice, Naples, Munich and Nice, and other airports around Europe. And if you’re lucky enough to be on one of their routes do check their offers, as their prices are in line with many low cost airlines.