My little excursion out this week for publication on to the London Shoes website – was all about a place that I personally went to a couple of times, as a teenager in the early 1970’s – but my visits were nothing to do with what the building itself was originally designed for.
My topic this week is all about the Chalk Farm-“Roundhouse” – a magnificent surviving example of Victorian civil engineering!!!
Whilst there I also enjoyed the delights of nearby ‘Primrose Hill’
Euston Station opened in 1837, as London’s very first main-line terminal, with a train service to Birmingham.
Robert Stephenson (he of ‘Stephenson’s Rocket’ fame) was the Chief Engineer commissioned to build Euston and the rail network it provided.
The trouble was, because Euston Station was ‘geographically’, at the bottom of a incline – the trains heading northwards, did not have the power to climb the terrain to where the land gradient became more level, at Camden Town – and so they had to be mechanically hauled uphill by a huge winding machine that was built there for that purpose.
As a result, Camden Town and ‘Chalk Farm’ became very important locations for the rail industry, as it was there that Robert Stephenson built his main rail yards and sidings.
In 1846 Stephenson commissioned the construction of a ‘Round-House’ within the rail yard at Chalk Farm, for the purpose of ‘storing’ and ‘maintaining’ all the trains.
At that time the ‘Round-House’ was opened in 1847; it was considered to be one of the finest examples of Victorian civil engineering, as it was completely circular building 160 ft in diameter, with a cone-shaped louvered roof supported by cast iron girders. Inside it consisted of 24 ‘bays’, and a massive turntable wheel in the centre of it, that engines could be rolled on to, then spun round and rolled out to a bay for either servicing or storage. Each individual bay had an inspection pit to allow engineers to work underneath the engines. Its architectural uniqueness was so popular, guided tours were set-up to enable the public to witness this magnificent building.
Sadly, because of the rapid advances in rail travel and the rail network at that particular period in time – the effectiveness of the ‘Round-House’ as a train maintenance shed, only actually lasted for around 20yrs, and by 1870 it was considered useless as by then, all the trains were now far too big for the ‘turntable’ and the bays.
The empty building was then purchased by “Gilbey’s Gin” in the early 1870’s – who, for the next 80 odd years, used the Chalk Farm Roundhouse as their main distillery, warehouse and depot.
In the early 1960’s, the building was bought up by the then ‘Greater London Council’ who wanted to use it to create a permanent cultural centre with a theatre, cinema, art gallery and workshops, committee rooms for local organisations, library, youth club, restaurant and dance-hall.
Throughout the 60’s, the Chalk Farm Roundhouse gained a reputation for its staging of controversial ‘underground’ art projects and revues that had been banned from mainstream theatres, such as the Andy Warhol’s production “Pork” – the ‘nude’ play “Oh Calcutta” – the ‘rock’ version of Othello “Catch My Soul” are just a few of the well-known ‘dodgy’ reviews that were performed there.
Throughout the 1960’s, the Chalk Farm Roundhouse also became one of London’s leading music venues with legendary bands such as The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and The Who – plus hundreds of other bands of the day, all playing there on a regular basis.
In the mid 1970’s the Roundhouse became the ‘go-to’ venue to see ‘punk’ and ‘post-punk’ bands such as The Clash, The Stranglers, The Damned, Patti Smith, Blondie, The Police and The Ramones (who I saw perform there!!).
However, after enjoying almost 20yrs as a music/arts venue, the Roundhouse started to become a little too costly a business to maintain, and sadly, in 1983 it closed down.
The Chalk Farm Roundhouse then remained unoccupied and neglected for several years – although it was a regular haunt throughout the early 1990’s for illegal ‘raves’ and other illicit gatherings.
However, in 1996 the building was purchased for £6m by a Torquil Norman, whose vision was to create a venue to ‘enhance the lives of young people through creativity’. A ‘Roundhouse Trust’ was set up to help raise funds to renovate and maintain the site – big hitters such as Bob Geldoff, Suggs (from Madness) and Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame) plus many more, were all involved in the re-generation of the Roundhouse.
The Roundhouse re-opened again as an arts venue in 2006 – and one of the early ‘stars’ to play there was the late great George Michael who held a free concert for NHS nurses as a thank you for the care given to his mother, who had died of cancer.
Since its re-opening in 2006, the Chalk Farm-Roundhouse has become one of London’s main centres for all aspects of the ‘arts’.
So – although the Roundhouse building itself might not have spent much time fulfilling its original purpose, this iconic landmark has certainly ‘lived’ a life and seen some action – and hopefully will continue to do so for many years to come.
In the Chalk Farm area of London, is ‘Primrose Hill’, an area that was originally developed as a district to house all the rail workers working at the nearby depots. Today, it is a very well-to-do area of housing, where celebs such as Jamie Oliver, Kate Moss and Daniel Craig live, particularly in the streets around Chalcot Square.
The grasslands of Primrose Hill was opened as a public park in 1842 – and the ‘hill’ itself looks down on London Zoo and more importantly, (on a clear day) provides a unique superb panoramic view of London and its iconic buildings.
So – after spending a lovely sunny day wandering all around Chalk Farm and Primrose Hill – and before setting off back home, I popped in to the bar of the “Roundhouse” for the customary cheeky beer and to check out all the ‘Roundhouse’ memorabilia on display.
All in all – well worth a visit – hope you enjoy the photos.