It’s never really changed, has it? Caledonian Road, that is. I’ve been knocking round these parts for over 20 years and three-quarters of it is exactly the same as it always was: a handy mix of utilitarian shops, a truly ethnically diverse population (and deep-rooted Irish community), plus the odd smattering of, um, ponciness: well, it does rub up against the wealth of Barnsbury and Islington, after all.
Such constancy is more admirable considering it’s now face-to-face with the almighty King’s Cross juggernaut; and yet if the Cally Road was an emoji, it would be the girl in the purple top, hands in the air, shrugging. Meh.
It’s fair to say that the lower quarter-mile, south of the Regent’s canal at Thornhill Bridge, has always had more airs and graces, and it now boasts a heady mix of bars, cafes and independent stores. And when taking a stroll up its length, don’t miss the acclaimed graffiti and murals, from the likes of Pegasus, whose work can be found on Tilloch Street to Louis Masai’s colourful birds and a captivating spacegirl by Jimmy C.
So what’s the backstory? A mile-and-a-half long, the Cally links two areas of north London, the eastern slopes of Camden Road and Pentonville Road in the south. Originally known as Chalk Road, it was constructed in 1826 to link the Great North Road (now Holloway Road) with the West End. The name change occurred after the imposing sounding Royal Caledonian Asylum for the children of exiled Scots was built in 1828 (its site being now occupied by the Caledonian Estate).
The street is also famous for cattle drovers passing along it on their way to Smithfield, at least until 1852 when the City of London transferred the Metropolitan Cattle Market to what’s now lofty Caledonian Park, where the atmospheric clock tower still stands. While you’re up at that end, don’t forget to take a look at the exterior of the nearly 200-year-old Pentonville Prison.
First things first: coffee. Need an espresso? Try multi-tasking smartly-named Harold And Leslie (#343) up by the Overground station, which serves Caravan beans (as well as delicious sausage rolls) on vintage furniture, complete with a hair salon at the back; or, down at the other end, House of Morocco (#82), which matches soft furnishings with cups by artisan Italian roastery Terrone. But don’t forget their mint tea, too.
The street excels at food from every corner of the world: try the longstanding Iberia (#294) for Georgian cuisine, or a little further south, fill up on spongy injera and doro wot at two Ethiopian institutions, corner landmark Marathon (#193) and Addis (#40).
Down on the busiest stretch, where Cally Road hits central King’s Cross, is a plethora of eating options: the VX Vegan Boutique (#73), the UK’s first 100% vegan cafe and store, dishes up zeitgeisty plant-based junk food, but be prepared to queue at busy times; nearby is Supawan (#38) for southern Thai (recently raved about by Sunday Times critic Marina O’Loughlin), the Burrito café 10(#10), wood-fired pizza at Nenno (#14), the innovative Middl Eat and old-fashioned Brit staples at Piebury Corner (#3). Vegetarian joint New Roots (#346) was closed on our most recent visit, but is hopefully reopening soon.
It’s not a street famed for its boozers, but search a bit deeper and top quality watering holes line the stretch. Start at the Thornhill Arms (#148, pictured), with its ornate Victorian façade shinily restored; but don’t be fooled, this is no gastropub. Inside are simple tables and a cheap less-than-a-fiver lunchtime only food menu (earthier still is sports pub the Tarmon, a few minutes’ walk north at #270).
Head south for a drink at the many-floored pub-bar-club The Driver (2 Wharfdale Road), before settling in for the night at the wonderful wood-panelled King Charles 1 on adjoining Northdown St. Also home to the weekly King’s Cross Food Assembly (Sundays 1-9pm) this one’s a genuine diamond, complete with roaring fire – although you may have to fight the after-work crowd space.
Late night negroni, perhaps? Hit the original branch of once-studenty Simmons (#32), a chain that’s now seeped across the capital, or the superior Drink Shop & Do (#9), with its arty events downstairs. And our top tip: once a month (every first weekend) up by the Overground, superior local craft Hammerton Brewery flings opens its doors on Fridays and Saturday nights: it’s always rammed, with something of a mash-up crowd on our last visit – not to mention top quality pints of the potent IPA known as N7.
Shopping and lifestyle
It’s indie retail heaven: make haste to Cubitts (#97) for an on-point well-priced pair of specs (from £125); House Of Morocco (#82) for rugs, stools and mirrors; the colourful Aflorum (#36) for flowers and plants; Shoe Spa (#80) to reboot your old kicks; Sun Flour (#263) for old-fashioned bakery goods; and Trident Pottery centre (#84) for ceramics (it’s been going thirty years, y’know).
Finally, health and fitness lovers rejoice: inimitable Cally Pool is there for a length or two in the chlorine, while yogis will flock to Studio One, and there’s Thai massage at Ying Thai, and even a Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Centre (#330).
Main image: Cally Road by Dan Hall