Simon Wroe previews events taking place this weekend as part of the annual Somers Town Festival of Cultures
Published: 08 July, 2010
EVERY year, thousands of people flock to Chalton Street Market in Somers Town for the biggest street festival in Camden: a day of live music, funfairs, arts workshops and food from around the world.
And this year the festival is set to be bigger than ever.
To coincide with the neighbouring British Library’s celebration of 200 years of South American independence, a massive parade of local children will snake through the streets, dancing to Latin rhythms.
The carnival culminates in Chalton Street with more live music from The Mighty Caretakers, Irish band The Northern Celts and beatboxing from Karmafree.
There’s also circus workshops, puppetry shows, table football tournaments (with prizes to be won!), stalls offering everything from crafts to job opportunities and delicious home-cooked food from Somers Town residents.
• Somers Town Festival of Cultures, July 10, 11am-7pm.
A WALK around Somers Town today may take you past the magnificently restored St Pancras International railway station, the world famous British Library, the busy street market on Chalton Street and up to the leafy boulevards of Regent’s Park.
You might recognise some of the places, specifically the area around Phoenix Court in Purchese Street, from the 2008 Shane Meadows film, Somers Town.
And if you stick around a bit – say, five years – you will see even greater leaps and bounds as big business, universities and top companies continue to settle in the area.
But it was not always like this. Within recent memory Somers Town was an area with more than its share of problems. Crime and unemployment were high and racial tensions were sometimes on a knife edge – especially when teenager Richard Everitt was murdered in 1994.
The current renaissance of Somers Town is all the more impressive because of its turbulent past.
Alan Paterson, chairman of START (Somers Town Art), the organisation behind the hugely popular annual Somers Town Festival, remembered how different the area was when he arrived.
“Fourteen years ago we had gang culture plaguing the whole community,” he said. “Roofs were falling in and the National Front were out in force. We had to find a way to change that.”
The Festival of Cultures, which takes place this year on July 10, was first launched in 1996 in a neighbourhood community centre and was so successful that the following year it was moved into Chalton Street to accommodate the huge numbers of people who attended.
Mr Patterson, a former team leader with young offenders, added: “I think that through the arts we can change people’s attitudes. We try to make it possible for everyone to have a fair crack of the whip, not just if they can afford it. There is less of a gang culture now. Those young people have grown up and become fathers and mothers.
“If it takes 14 years to make a small difference then it’s worth it.”
SOMERS Town made a late entrance on the London stage. A little over 200 years ago the area was nothing but green fields, as the saying goes, grazing pastures owned by the aristocratic Somers family.
The first foundations for houses were laid in 1784 at the “Polygon” (what is now Oakshott Court in Polygon Road), a residential square where Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley and Charles Dickens both lived during the early 19th century.
The seamier side of the area was immortalised by Dickens when he wrote of the grisly activities of the gravediggers in the nearby St Pancras Churchyard.
Once development had begun, the area developed swiftly. Within 50 years it had grown from an “isolated and sunny” idyll into another arm of the “Monster Briareus” of London, according to an entry in William Hone’s Year Book.
Refugees fleeing the French Revolution (1789-99) had settled there in their thousands, including the French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine and the priest Guy-Toussaint-Julien Carron, who founded the chapel of St Aloysius.
As the effects of the industrial revolution filtered into daily life, a trinity of major London railway stations were constructed in the neighbourhood mainly by Irish navvies who settled in the area.
Euston (1838), King’s Cross (1852) and St Pancras (1868) truly brought the area into the centre of the capital. The Somers Town railway and canal goods depot, now the site of the British Library, followed in 1887.
By the turn of the 20th century Somers Town was a bustling, noisy slum. Despite the presence of important hospitals such as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, National Temperance and St Pancras Hospital (formerly the St Pancras Workhouse), vermin and disease were rife.
Improvement of the slum housing conditions began in 1906, led by St Pancras Council until a Church of England priest, Father Basil Jellicoe, made it his personal mission.
Fr Jellicoe regarded the state of his parishioners’ housing as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace” on the part of those with power and influence.
His St Pancras House Improvement Society managed to enlist the support of the Prince of Wales and the Archbishop of Canterbury and with their high profile backing Somers Town was set on the path to regeneration, a path it continues to tread to this day.