Camden Town is named after Charles Pratt, 1st Earl Camden. His earldom was styled after his estate, Camden Place near Chislehurst in Kent (now in the London Borough of Bromley), formerly owned by historian William Camden. The name, which appears on the Ordnance Survey map of 1822, was later applied to the early 20th century Camden Town Group of artists and the London borough of Camden, created in 1965.
Camden Town stands on land which was once the manor of Kentish Town. Sir Charles Pratt, a radical 18th century lawyer and politician, acquired the manor through marriage. In 1791, he started granting leases for houses to be built in the manor. In 1816, the Regent’s Canal was built through the area. Up to at least the late 19th century, Camden Town was considered an “unfashionable” locality. The Camden markets, which started in 1973 and have grown since then, attract many visitors all week. Camden Lock Village, then known as Camden Lock market, suffered a major fire, but no injuries, on 9 February 2008. It has since recovered.
Camden Town, previously in the Metropolitan Borough of St Pancras, became part of the London Borough of Camden when it was created in 1965.
Camden Town is on relatively flat ground at 100 feet (30 m) above sea level, 2.4 miles (3.9 km) north-northwest of Charing Cross. To the north are the hills of Hampstead and Highgate. The culverted, subterranean River Fleet flows from its source on Hampstead Heath through Camden Town south to the Thames. The Regent’s Canal runs through the north of Camden Town.
In recent years, entertainment-related businesses and a Holiday Inn have moved into the area. A number of retail and food chain outlets have replaced independent shops driven out by high rents and redevelopment. Restaurants have thrived, with the variety of culinary traditions found in London. Many restaurants are a little away from the markets, on Camden High Street and its side streets, Parkway, Chalk Farm Road, and Bayham Street. The plan to re-develop the historic Stables Market led to a steel and glass extension built on the edges of the site in 2006 and increased the market’s capacity.
Camden is well known for its markets: these date from the 1970s or later, except for Inverness Street market, for over a century a small food market serving the local community, though by 2013 all foodstuff and produce stalls had gone, leaving only touristy stalls. Camden Lock market proper started in a former timber-yard in 1973, and is now surrounded by five more markets: Buck Street market, Stables market, Camden Lock village, and an indoor market in the Electric Ballroom. The markets are a major tourist attraction at weekends, selling goods of all types including fashion, lifestyle, books, food, junk/antiques and more bizarre items; they and the surrounding shops are popular with young people, in particular those searching for “alternative” clothing.
Camden Town Underground station is near the markets and other attractions. It is a key interchange station for the Bank, Charing Cross, Edgware and High Barnet Northern Line branches. The station was not designed to cope with the volume of traffic it handles since the area increased in popularity. It is very crowded at weekends, and, as of 2011, is closed to outbound passengers on Sunday afternoons for safety reasons. London Underground has made many proposals to upgrade the station. In 2004 a proposal requiring the compulsory purchase and demolition of ‘the Triangle’—land bordered by Kentish Town Road, Buck Street and Camden High Street—was rejected by Camden Council after opposition from local people; of 229 letters, only 2 supported the scheme. Chalk Farm and Mornington Crescent tube stations also serve the area.
Camden Road is a London Overground station at the corner of Royal College Street and Camden Road. It is on the line from Richmond in the West to Stratford Station on the Olympic site in the East. The nearest National Rail station is Kentish Town station on the Thameslink route on the Midland Main Line. St Pancras and Euston terminals are both within 20 minutes walk of Camden Town.
The area is a major hub for London Buses. Most night buses in north London stop in Camden Town. Parts of the A503 (Camden Road) and A400 (Camden High Street and Camden Street) are designated as Red routes which are major routes into London administered by Transport for London not the borough. Black taxis ply for hire in the area, and there are minicab offices. Illegal unlicensed “taxis” tout for business on the street, particularly late at night.
The Regent’s Canal runs through the north end of Camden Town. Canal-boat trips along the canal from Camden Lock are popular, particularly in summer. Many of the handrails by the bridges show deep marks worn by the towropes by which horses pulled canal barges until the 1950s, and it is still possible to see ramps on the canal bank designed to assist horses which fell in the canal after being startled by the noise of a train. Camden Lock is a regularly-used traditional manually-operated double canal lock operating between widely separated levels. A large complex of weekend street markets operate around the Lock. The towpath is a pedestrian and cycle route which runs continuously from Little Venice through Camden Lock to the Islington Tunnel A regular waterbus service operates along the Regent’s Canal from Camden Lock. Boats depart every hour during the summer months, heading westwards around Regent’s Park, calling at London Zoo and on towards Maida Vale. Sightseeing narrow-boat trips run from Camden Lock to Little Venice.
The Roundhouse is a locomotive engine roundhouse constructed in 1847 for the London and Birmingham Railway. It later had various uses and eventually became derelict. It was converted to a theatre, arts centre and music venue in the 1966, later closed, and re-opened in 2006 as a theatre and music venue.
Historic buildings include:
- Camden catacombs (see also Catacombs of London), not true catacombs but an underground area largely underneath the Camden markets, originally used as stables for horses and pit ponies used to shunt railway wagons. Not open to visitors due to danger of flooding.
- St Pancras Old Church
- The Camden Eye at 2 Kentish Town Road, was formerly known and as the Old Mother Red Cap, the Red Cap and Halfway House. It was also used as a prison.
- St Michael’s Church, Camden Town
- The Carreras Cigarette Factory (now Greater London House), a striking Art Deco Egyptian Revival building dating from 1926 to 1928, stands at Mornington Crescent and is distinguished by a pair of 8.5-foot (2.6 m)-high bronze statues of the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet.
- Jewish Museum
- Arlington House, a hostel for the homeless, one of the Rowton Houses.
- The unusual Sainsbury’s supermarket and flats on Camden Road were designed in a High-tech style by Nicholas Grimshaw and built on the site of the former large ABC Bakery.
- 8 Royal College Street, the house of the French poets, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine.
Writer Charles Dickens, a one-time resident of Camden Town, placed various characters and places in his stories there as well: Bob Cratchit’s family in A Christmas Carol (1843); the Micawbers in David Copperfield (1850); and in Dombey and Son (1846–1848), a description of the building of the London and Birmingham Railway, includes a trip through Camden Town. The 1986 cult comedy film Withnail and I is set in Camden Town in 1969. The 2008 Mike Leigh film Happy-Go-Lucky largely takes place in Camden Town.