When I first learned of my study-abroad living situation in the northwest London neighborhood of Camden Town, my stomach dropped. As a New Jersey native, I only associated “Camden” with the city on the Delaware River that runs parallel to Philadelphia and boasts gang violence, the highest crime rate in the United States, and lots of murders. Needless to say, the Camden I knew was definitely a scary place, and I hesitated to move anywhere that remotely resembled it, even if only by name.
Driving through Camden Town on my first day in London this January, I was relieved to discover a simultaneously eclectic, diverse, edgy, and homey neighborhood. Pressing my nose against the car window, I spied consignment shops owned by OxFam and the British Heart Foundation, a gritty-looking pub called The World’s End, a couple Halal markets, and two barber shops advertised as “Embassies for Afro-Caribbean Hair.” Further up Camden Road were flats with tiny gardens, churches, Sainsbury grocery stores, corner cafes serving breakfast and lunch, and finally the University-owned building I would soon call home. Though police officers moseyed around the streets and giant signs on the side of telephone booths warned pedestrians that “thieves see your possessions differently,” I saw no warnings of gun violence or gang activity, much to my obvious relief. Camden Town did not even harbor the stuffy British aura that I expected to hang over London as does the smog over Los Angeles. Unlike in the neighborhood of Westminster, one cannot go out for high tea or rub elbows with the cousin of some Duke in Camden. No, real people with real lives resided here.
Camden Town garners fame mostly from its six markets, which blur together on both sides of Chalk Farm Road along Camden Lock. With many storefronts along the southernmost area of Chalk Farm Road attached to giant dragons and larger-than-life shoes (I kid you not), one can easily spot the beginning of the markets. Part flea market, part crafts fair, the markets bombard patrons with any and every good under the sun, including hand-bound leather journals, vintage records, scarves from India, frilly dresses, Victorian corsets, and hemp clothing and lollipops. Patrons must remember to not buy something the first store they see, for the further they venture into what I can only describe as a consumer’s wonderland, the more likely they will find the exact item they wanted for considerably less money.
Although one could find plenty of cheap, quickly made food at the market, Camden features dozens of inexpensive restaurants that do not skimp on service or ambiance. Taste of Siam, located on Camden High Street near Mornington Crescent Station, boast three-storefronts, all of which lead the customer into a different restaurant operated by the same company. A noodle bar comprises the first restaurant, in which two or more patrons can choose any combination of ingredients to enjoy in a noodle soup or hot pot. The second restaurant serves more substantial meals under dim lighting and among walls decorated with pits of framed antique and Tiawaneese fabrics, some dating from the Second World War. Featuring inexpensive yet satisfying food, the menu includes highlights such as the Kang Keaw Wan chicken—a green curry with coconut milk, green chilies, and herbs—and the Pad Si Ew—stir-fried noodles in a dark soya sauce with your choice of meat and a green vegetable; both meals cost a mere £6.50. Finally, the third storefront is a Thai grocery store for the adventurous few who want to stir-fry at home.
Those seeking a more traditional English snack should visit the teahouse Yumchaa, located on Camden Parkway. In this perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon reading, tea is served loose in individual white pots for only £2.55 each, presenting a more pleasant alternative to the comparably priced Starbucks mocha-whatever you may be tempted to purchase. Pleasantly mismatched, the armchairs and tables compliment the antique wall lamps mounted in the far corner to impart a cozy décor to the teahouse. Although the large tea selection can seem a bit overwhelming, the owners keep samples at the front counter and encourage first-timers to smell and compare teas before they order. Each tea differs substantially from its counterparts; for example, though the Enchanted Forest blend takes on a bitter flavor surprisingly fast, the Chelsea Chai remains smooth and light for a long time. Yumchaa has an additional storefront at Camden Lock, as well as in Soho.
Although mostly residential, Camden pops to life at night. Proud, one of the neighborhood’s more popular dance clubs, is located on Chalk Farm Road in Camden’s Stables Market. A 200-year-old former horse hospital, the venue’s original stables are intact and can be rented out for private groups starting at £0 if you book early enough. The drinks are pricey and there is a cover charge that varies depending on the night’s event, but if you email Proud ahead of time to reserve a spot on the guest list, you could enter for a reduced price.
If, like me, you would happily rather thrash around to “Blitzkrieg Bop” than sway awkwardly to House hits, BarFly plays excellent rock. The venue where artists such as the Killers, Muse, Franz Ferdinand, and Adele got their start, the club gains plenty of attention for promoting up-and-coming talent; you should certainly check out the club you are into boasting about how you saw someone live “before they were famous.” The club itself contains two stories—the first floor houses the stage and a bar, while the ground floor harbors a more pub-like feel thanks to its booths and tables. Tickets for live shows vary in price depending on the act, but you can purchase most online for £5.95-£10.00.
After a little under two months here, I can appreciate Camden for its vibrancy and, despite my initial hesitations, can finally call it my London home.