Camden Goods Yard and the New Access Road

Camden Goods Yard was a notoriously difficult site to develop. It consisted of a large triangle bordered by Chalk Farm Road, the Main Line to Euston, and the canal. At the top of the road was the Roundhouse, while the North London Line cut the site in two. The ground was riddled with old tunnels and railway workings, while the southern end was raised by nearly four metres above the towpath. Surrounding the site are a number of listed buildings, the Interchange Warehouse, now occupied by World Wide Television, the Roundhouse, the Stanley Sidings, the Horse Hospital and the Stephenson Vault. The canal had been made part of the Nature Conservation and the Metropolitan Walk network. Finally, the triangle was inaccessible, cut off from the road by the North London Railway. There were problems in all directions.

Before anything could be done, an access road had to be built from Chalk Farm Road below the North London Railway, without interrupting the train service. The tall yellow brick wall along Chalk Farm Road used to run in an unbroken line from Commercial Place right up to the Roundhouse. A stretch 113 metres long was demolished to give access to the new road and later a petrol station was built alongside. Beyond, under the new bridge to be built to take the train lines, were to be two areas of housing, with Safeways and its car park between them.

The original London Clay Field with the Primrose Hill Clay on top

Building the new Railway Bridge

Huge concrete piles were poured deep into the ground, so close together that they touched each other, on either side of the railway line. This created two massive retaining walls behind what is now the garage. Then a tunnel was driven below the railway line to the triangle of land behind.

Building the Access Road

The tall yellow brick wall along Chalk Farm Road, black with soot from thousands of domestic fires and railway engines, used to run in an unbroken line from Commercial Place right up to the Roundhouse. A stretch 113 metres long was demolished to give access to the new road. and later a petrol station was built alongside. Beyond the new bridge were to be the two areas of housing, with Safeways and its car park between them.

The Site Cleared and Access Road Built c. 1900

An aerial view of the site between Chalk Farm Road and the LNW Railway main line to Euston, cleared for redevelopment. The access road has already been cut under the North London line.

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The Development Layout

++turn through 90 degrees so that it matches the drawing above please. The N sign could be positioned between them
PAGE 181

North London Line Euston Main Line
Juniper Crescent Estate Car Park Safeways Gilbey’s Yard Estate

Hyperion, the land arm of British Rail, prepared the site for building work and in doing so, revealed how the railway company had used the site years before. The 1804 Parish Map names the site as Clay Field.1 Exploratory bore holes in the Stables Market area showed that this was correct. The ground is solid London Clay but, on the other side of the North London Line there is no less that eight metres of ash and clinker on top of the Clay. Eight metres is enough to bury a two storey house! As a result, the vaults under the railway line in the Stables Market are above ground and are still used as shops, while on the other side of the North London Line, Safeway’s Car Park is level with the railway track. The Car Park is higher than the roofs of the vaults.

The difference of height is made up by decades of railway ash and clinker. When the Goods Yard was in full operation, trains arrived day and night and the Stables Market area was full of activity. The vaults under the North London Line were workshops and stores. In front of them there were coal drops, where the coal companies stored their coal for sale to the public for household use. The whole yard was full of activity, all centred on the single gateway to Chalk Farm Road.

On the other hand, the triangle behind between the North London Railway and the main Euston line was difficult to get at, cut off by the railway and the canal, so it was used by the railway as a convenient ash dump. Each day dozens of railway engine fire-boxes were raked out and firemen wheeled away the hot ashes in metal barrows and piled them between the two railway tracks. Slowly the land was filled until the heaps reached above the vaults to the level of the tracks themselves. Then they rolled the ash and laid on it a mass of railway lines. When later, they built the Railway Goods Shed, on what is now Gilbey’s Yard, they must have excavated the ash down to the clay below and built their brick vaults inside a pit of compacted ash.

Today the new access road to Safeway’s car park sweeps up from the London Clay below Chalk Farm Road through layer after layer of ash, There was over eight metres depth of railway ash near the Sainsbury site and rather less at the canal bank. If we allow an average of 7 metres depth over the whole site, I calculate that there must be over one and a half a million cubic feet of ash between the railway lines. This ash would have cooled, been invaded by weeds and become an area of uneven scrub. Further layers of ash would have been spread out each day, but for decades it must have been invaded by local weed seeds, blown in by the winds and other, exotic ones, brought by the railway. Railways are notorious carriers of weeds from distant places. Seedlings from the Southern States of the United States have been found all along the railway lines between Liverpool and the cotton mills of Manchester. In the Camden ash there may be pollen from as far as Scotland, brought by the railway. The canal too would have brought seeds from all directions; in materials to be processed in Camden Town, or to be transferred to the railway. Seeds must have arrived with timber from Scandinavia, used to make the innumerable packing cases for pianos and other goods. Seeds carried in the fleeces of sheep from all over Southern England, Australia and New Zealand, being taken to the woolen mills in the north, for the vaults of the Railway Goods Shed were once a wool store.2 There may be wool seeds from Australian and New Zealand, for the railway goods shed was once wool stores. There could be wine seeds from Gilbey’s vineyards in France and Spain, and seeds from the cork forests of Portugal. Pollen is very long lasting and a botanist might find some surprising evidence if a core of this daily ash eight metres long, was examined.

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This ash raises questions too about other London rail termini. Where is their ash? We know that there was ash at King’s Cross. There is a picture of ‘Smith’s dust heap’ at the top of Gray’s Inn Road.3 Huge heaps of ash, which had been collected for mixing with brick earth, stood at the top of Gray’s Inn Road, directly opposite the site of King’s Cross Station [then the site of the Fever Hospital]. The dust heap was removed in 1826 to make way for houses. But this heap cannot have been railway ash because the station was not built until 1852. There was plenty of derelict land round the gas works and along York Way which could have been used, but what of Liverpool Street and Paddington? Perhaps some day bore holes will reveal piles of railway ash there too.

Building the Houses

With the ground prepared, and after considerable negotiation, Safeways and Community Housing Association agreed to develop the site together, but each was responsible for its own building. Safeways wanted a large store with a car park which would be accessible to people from both the Chalk Farm and Oval Road ends. Camden Housing Association wanted to provide affordable housing in a densely populated borough. The Association had wide experience of the area and all the problems involved. They provided over 2000 affordable rented properties in inner-city areas of north-east London, and in 1996 had a further 600 in the development pipeline, so they had wide experience of the area and all the problems involved.

Representing seven housing associations and working closely with Hyperion, CHA successfully steered the way through the complex negotiations with Camden Planning Department in only nine months. Planning consent was granted in January 1994 for a scheme designed by Pollard Thomas & Edwards. This was subsequently transferred to Willmott Dixon. The two directors at PT&E in charge of the project, Peter Mason and Judith Tranter then left with two other PT&E directors to set up their own practice, J.C.M.T. The scheme was then transferred to J.C.M.T.4 The final buildings are considerably different in detail from those in the original application as one would expect.

In 1977 Gilbey’s Yard, the more visible part of the development, was awarded the
Evening Standard Award for the Best New Development by a Housing Association,
in their New Homes Awards

The site is in three different parts - Gilbey’s Yard to the south, bordering on the canal; Safeways with its car park in the centre, with car access via the new road under the railway on one side and pedestrian access from Oval Road on the other; and Juniper Crescent at the north. The housing development, which was opened on 29 May 1997, took three years to build, with a contract worth £10.5 million.

The buildings are in Smeed Dean Multi London stock bricks with bands of blue engineering bricks and Anglican Buffs. These are used to blend and contrast in a variety of ways. Some buildings are in a single colour, yellow or buff; some are banded light on dark, or dark on light, while others are dark, with light attic storeys. Some slate roofs are visible, some hidden by brick pediments. The whole effect is of unity but with subtle colour changes.

To show their individuality, each of the seven housing associations who nominate tenants, imposes its own colours to the front doors. There are 202 homes for rent, varying in size from one to four bedrooms, 82 in Gilbey’s Yard and 120 in Juniper Crescent. They include maisonettes and flats (some specially adapted for people with disability and/or mobility problems) communal gardens, parking spaces and a community hall. Some houses have private gardens, while the flats above have private balconies. The latter have bold horizontal rails, but since these could be dangerous with children, they are carefully screened on the inside with almost invisible wire mesh to prevent climbing.

Gilbey’s Yard

Gilbey’s Yard, at the southern end of the site, stands high above the canal, with a wall nearly four metres high and a warm, sunny terrace. Embedded in the terrace, as a reminder of the old industrial past, are a turntable and the old railway lines which are recorded in the early Goad Fire Insurance maps. Granite cobbles have been retained throughout and, set in the cobbles at the top of Oval Road, are two weigh-bridges, made by Pooles of Birmingham. These must have checked thousands of vans in and out of the site over the years. It was because of the din of all these vans that Chermeyeff decided to sound proof his Academic House on cork pads. Now the weigh-bridges themselves are still for good.

In Gilbey’s Yard all private gardens and main rooms face the canal and the sun, while the windows at the back are small and double glazed. By its position the site is rather cut off. It could never be a through road because one end is isolated by the steep drop of the canal wall, while the north entrance is narrow and leads only to a road which skirts Safeways. Thus the entrance from Oval Road is narrow and protected. The whole site is well overlooked by windows, so that the architects have built security into the site.

Juniper Crescent

In a similar way, Juniper Crescent is built as an enclosure with only two entrances, so the architects have stolen Nash’s clothes. The same principle that John Nash used for his Regent’s Park Estate in 1811 has been applied here. The crescent face inwards, with all gardens and balconies inside, so that the central space is under continuous observation and all outside windows are small. The outside walls are fortress walls and, with this public supervision, I have heard of little crime since the estate was opened. According to an article in the Ham & High in October 1996, in a few months the tenants were to form themselves into a self-protective community which would a sense of great security.

Pictures of Juniper Crescent

Safeway’s Store

The new store and its car park separate the two housing estates. A spacious building, crowded at the weekends, it is becoming a social centre, with people arriving to shop and staying for long periods in the cafe. With access from both Chalk Farm Road and Oval Road and the housing fully occupied, the success of the store seems settled.

Safeway’s Supermarket


  1. Stanford’s map of 1862

  2. Letter Guardian 12 Dec 1995

  3. ++Missing Footnote

  4. Ham & High 10 and 17 Oct. 1997
Camden Town Conservation Area

Development Trusts