It was a faintly forbidding place, before. Not even a place, really, just a traffic island, a bus interchange, but one that managed to blend threat and blandness into the character of an area best avoided. It seemed the only reason to visit was to change buses, as quickly as possible, on your way to Hackney. I looked at a flat once, on Beresford Road, and had a saunter around the neighbourhood, to get a more nuanced feel for the place. But despite my best efforts (I actually quite liked the flat) I only came up with menace. Not terror, certainly not edginess; just insipid, damp menace.
Now I live around here. It’s changed a lot, of course. The general gentrification of London has helped, but there have also been great improvements to the public space, in part due to the work of the Newington Green Action Group. Interventions like the early Noughties’ the Treasures public art project have also rehabilitated the idea of the place.
I visit regularly, more often than I venture onto the slightly closer Stoke Newington Church Street. Primarily, my visits centre on the offerings of the finest green grocer in the world, which inexplicably hasn’t yet officially named itself Newington Greens. But there’s also the marvellous bread at Belle Époque and the Turkish necessities – halloumi, anari, yoghurt – from the shops at the start of Green Lanes. The Peanut Vendor doesn’t sell peanuts, strangely, but rather ‘pre-loved’ objets. Then there is the perennial Alma, which does food very well, and the recently refurbished (Edinburgh) Cellars, which always has interesting beer on. Even on the day after the last day of our false-bottomed summer, when a crisp carpet of honey-coloured leaves covers the Green, toddlers are still playing on the swings.
So far, so lovely. But then you notice the ghosts, those remnants of place that make it all the more remarkable that, a decade or two ago, the area was nowhere. It is a place with history, as so many places are. Writers, radicals and non-conformists have based themselves here for centuries, and the Green is home to the oldest terrace of houses in England. There is even an internet whisper that the Muppets were conceived and made in the area.
But the area’s first brush with celebrity dates back to the sixteenth century, when Henry VIII had a hunting lodge here, long before the railway and the suburbs came. The only remnants of the Tudor past are in the street names: King Henry’s Walk, Boleyn Road (formally Ann Boleyn’s Walk), Wolsey Road and Queen Elizabeth’s Walk. It was still pretty rural around here in the seventeenth century, when Samuel Pepys came to stay to benefit from the fresh air and open spaces. There are other literary connections. Daniel Defoe lived and studied in the area, and Edgar Allen Poe stayed here for a time, describing Newington Green as a “misty looking village of England with gigantic and gnarled trees and deeply shadowed avenues.”
There is a history of radicalism too, especially that rooted in religious non-conformism. The oldest surviving non-conformist meeting house in London sits discreetly on the north side of the Green. One of its more prominent ministers was Dr Richard Price. He set up home at number 54, which became a meeting place for some of the greatest minds of the day: Adam Smith, Tom Paine, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson all stopped by.
But the most exciting discovery for me was that Newington Green was the site of Mary Wollstonecraft’s school. I’ve long been in awe of Mary’s fury and energy, of her intellectual and personal chutzpah in running Enlightenment rationalism to conclusions that none of her contemporary (male) radicals seemed to find. A tattered copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman still sits on my bookshelf. I’d known that she had associations with the area, had lived here for a while. But I didn’t know that this was where she had established her day school for girls in 1784.
Two years later, she published Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, which for my money is the foundation text of British feminism: Mary later expanded on its themes in A Vindication. And the site of its inception is just down the road. There is a plaque on the current Newington Green Primary School, but you can only really read it from the top deck of one of the buses that stop alongside. This seems a shame to me: fortunately, there is a campaign underway to build a more fitting memorial to Mary, and the Newington Green Action Group is hoping for funding from NatWest’s CommunityForce initiative. You can vote for Mary on the Green, until 23 October, here. It’s the least she deserves.