In The New Century
Over the years, as more and more people have been attracted to Camden Lock, the value of local property has soared. Vast warehouses have become TV studios. Old buildings, notably William Huck’s Bottling Plant in Jamestown Road, have been converted into expensive flats. The Interchange Building has developed a new life as World Wide Television. Shops in Chalk Farm Road used to include butchers, bakers, fresh fish shops, small ironmongers, and the odd half shop selling vacuum cleaner parts. Almost all are gone. Instead, the shops have been opened out, basements dug out and back yards built over to form deep, narrow, selling-caverns. Jeans, tops, boots, leather jackets and still more leather jackets, as far as the eye can reach. Each year the shops become longer and deeper to hold all the merchandise.
With the crowds have come even more street stalls selling anything that came to hand, from temporary pitches. The fronts of established shops and pubs are taken over by stalls, more and more closely packed. It is legal for shopkeepers to use their fronts, or ‘curtilages’ for sales, but it causes obstruction, making access for emergency vehicles difficult. There have been running battles for years between shopkeepers, vendors, and the Council. Shop rents in the ‘Golden Half Mile’, the stretch from the Underground Station to the Lock, have risen to as much as £150,000 a year, as high as some parts of Oxford Street. Tiny pitches can cost £400 a week, so shopkeepers are only too willing to let their fronts to help pay their own rocketing rents.
In the 1970s Camden Council was trying to tackle the problem of short-term traders on temporary, unauthorized pitches. The law is so complicated and time consuming, involving individual court appearances for each case and the medieval rights of a peddler to sell in public places on a certain number of days a year. But how many days, and which, and where, and who counted them, and who was selling on that day, and was it the man in the dock, or was it his brother? The whole subject is a minefield. Camden regulates the market as well as they may, concerned for safety whilst at the same time anxious not to destroy the vitality and bustle which are the whole driving force of the area.
Then, on two Sundays, the ‘Save our Streets Campaign’, which aims to reduce car traffic, completely blocked the road. A broken down car was dumped in the roadway outside the Railway Station and children were invited to take it to pieces. An immense street party developed. Buses had to be diverted along Prince of Wales Road, while crowds took over the whole roadway. For an hour no cars could use the street at all. What would have happened in the event of a fire nobody knows.
Perhaps as a result of this, perhaps as part of general traffic management, Camden Council narrowed the roadway in 1997 from four lanes to two. Pavements have been widened and the roadway narrowed between the Tube Station and the Railway Bridge, to make the traffic safer and allow the crowds to spread.
Camden Town is still a great place for people watching. No two couples seem the same and every language may be heard. There are long trails of obedient tourists from a dozen countries, following their hectoring guides, and rugged individuals with backpacks, carrying their houses on their backs. Rugged, but not necessarily poor. A backpack and three credit card accounts is not unknown. The variety is intoxicating.
People still invent new dress. Anything can be worn at Camden Lock. Caftans, smocks, open-toed sandals, enormous boots for trudging across the Arctic, or metalized slippers too light for Cinderella. Hairdressers watch how young people do their hair and copy the styles. In an old G.K.Chesterton story, a murderer was on the run. He ordered a hairdresser to change his hairstyle, the simplest of all forms of disguise. The hairdresser recognized him, but was too frightened to arrest him, or even to utter a word. Instead, he gave the man a special shampoo. A day later the man’s hair had turned bright green. The police were warned and promptly arrested him. Today they would have to arrest half Camden Lock.
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