I saw Amy Winehouse once, as I took a shortcut on a back road in Camden, the edgy London neighborhood where the singer was once a regular fixture. She was posing for photos with a young girl. Happy, smiling for the camera, pleased to make someone’s day.
I was reminded of that sighting when “Amy,” Asif Kapadia’s heartbreaking documentary about Winehouse, a lost girl with an incredible voice, took home the Oscar for best documentary feature last month.
I have lived and worked around Camden for the past 15 years. I can’t say that Amy’s hangouts were my hangouts, but we shared the same streets. She was found dead in her home here, a victim of alcohol poisoning at 27.
But Camden’s musical reputation didn’t begin with Amy.
Intrigued by the borough’s musical legacy, I signed up for a walking tour in the company of Mike O’Hara, a guide with Unseen Tours, a not-for-profit social enterprise that engages formerly homeless people to escort tourists around their patch of London.
“Mike the Mod” told me he had had a fairly successful career as a facilities manager in “the city” (what Londoners call the financial district) but lost his job and his rented apartment in the 2008 financial crisis. After a spell teaching English in Vietnam, he returned to London but couldn’t find employment. After exhausting the goodwill of his friends, he faced the prospect of living on the streets. A small charity that organized night shelters in local churches helped him and eventually secured him a studio flat with affordable rent.
Mike’s tour began at the Chalk Farm Tube station, with tales of all-night jam sessions at the Marathon bar (a dingy kebab joint that used to have a late-night entertainment license), where you might catch Paul Weller, Jarvis Cocker or Keith Richards playing a spontaneous unplugged session, or Amy playing drinking games with the Gallagher brothers (Oasis) and the White Stripes. Mike said he hung out with Amy occasionally, at her favorite haunt, the Hawley Arms. He didn’t know her well, but they were acquaintances who moved in the same circle. “A lovely girl, but fame got to her,” he said sadly.
Camden’s music history begins with the Roundhouse, which was built in 1846 as a roundtable railway repair shed. When trains became too big, it was converted into a gin warehouse. It fell into disrepair after the World War II but was revived as an arts center in the 1960s. Mike told me that Pink Floyd played an early concert here with Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger in the audience. They were followed by Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, hundreds of other hip bands and more recently Lady Gaga (2013) and Pharrell Williams (2014).
I was the only person on Mike’s tour that day, but he told me that five is the average group size. The tours must be booked in advance and cost £12 pounds ($17) per person, 60 percent of which goes to the guide.
Mike is a contemporary of many of the personalities that feature in his narrative, and as a former band manager himself, he is embedded in the local music scene. He recalled rubbing shoulders with celebrities drinking champagne as he nursed the one pint of beer a friend had bought for him.
We crossed the pedestrianized railway bridge into the “village,” an area of Regent’s Park Road lined with trees and large Georgian villas. Houses built for migrant workers from Scotland, Wales and Ireland are now the homes of millionaires. The price of a one-bedroom apartment starts at £500,000 pounds (approximately $720,000).
“Once the trains ran on diesel rather than coal, and the London smog finally lifted in the 1960s and the bohemian set moved in,” he continued. Almost every shop and restaurant here is independently owned, thanks to a strong community lobby. If you want to celeb-spot in London, grab an outside table at one of the street’s many eateries and linger over a coffee. Mike said he recently saw Amal Clooney leaving the Lemonia restaurant with the Greek ambassador to the United Kingdom. (A top-flight lawyer, Clooney had been engaged by the Greek government to advise on how best to secure the return of the Elgin Marbles from Britain.) Celebrity residents of Primrose Hill and its environs have included Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Robert Plant, Daniel Craig, Gwen Stefani and TV chef Jamie Oliver.
The walk to the top of Primrose Hill is steep but rewarding. The whole of London lies below you, showing this city of contrasts, from skyscrapers to St. Paul’s. Amy spent a happy summer lingering in this park with Blake Fielder-Civil, her on-off love, as the photos from the time testify. We circled back along the Regent’s Canal towpath, admiring the colorful houseboats and grand Georgian townhouses, to the heart of Camden.
With a misty eye, Mike pointed out the music venue Dingwalls and recounted his tale of how a boozy night out led to his singing a duet with Morrissey of the Smiths.
Camden is the spiritual home of London’s punks. Latter-day punk rockers still dress in tartan and leather and hang out on the bridge at the lock, charging tourists a quid (£one pound) for a photo of a menacing grimace.
Camden Market resembles a Moroccan souk, all passageways and stalls selling T-shirts, vintage vinyl and bric-a-brac. Starlings roost noisily in the willows around the lock, hoping to find a tasty morsel dropped by a tourist eating lunch on the go. The smell of grilling chicken fills the air as traders flirt with tourists in the global street-food market in Camden West Yard.
Here I parted company with Mike, who headed off for a beer with a friend. I meandered through the horse tunnels into the center of Stables Market. During the industrial age, the stables provided accommodation for the horses that towed canal barges laden with coal and other goods to Camden. The goods were transferred here to the railway for further distribution. But the place has been recently redeveloped.
At the heart of the market, I passed a familiar figure, the skirt way too short, the hair piled high. The bronze statue is the borough’s official tribute to Amy, Camden’s favorite daughter.
I wandered on past the Camden Tube station, avoiding the sea of tourists milling around psychedelic shop fronts.
The minute you slip away from High Street, Camden sheds a layer to reveal her true self. Unpretentious, brassy . . . just like Amy.
I looked for other artistic tributes to Amy. Her portrait can be found on a pub wall on Parkway, in a doorway on Camden Road, surrounded by rubbish bags on a wall on Camden Street.
I found myself outside her home on Camden Square. The house showed no trace of its former resident. A tree across the road was covered in a bamboo coat in an attempt to protect its bark from tributes, but fans only climbed higher to leave their marks. A tatty fake rose hinted at her promise snatched away.
Starrs is a writer and television producer based in London.
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Holiday Inn Camden Lock
30 Jamestown Rd., London, NW1 7BY
Within staggering distance of the most popular Camden venues. Rooms start at about $160 per night.
154 Haverstock Hill, London NW3 2AY
A boutique hotel, just a stroll up the hill from Camden. Rooms from $80 to $220 per night.
89 Regent’s Park Rd., London, NW1 8UY
A Primrose Hill classic. This family-run Greek restaurant has been serving its regulars for more than 30 years. A three-course weekday set lunch costs just $18, a London bargain. A la carte dishes average about $20.
65 Gloucester Ave., London, Greater London, NW1 8JH
A classic modern gastropub with a secret garden. Main courses cost about $20.
Parkway, Camden, London, NW1 7AH
A photo of Amy with a group of friends in this popular tapas chain restaurant appears in Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary. Each plate of tapas costs about $9.
The Good Mixer
30 Inverness St., Camden, London, NW1 7HJ
Where Amy met Blake. An old-fashioned pub, with live music, pool tables and a rock-and-roll attitude.
2 Castlehaven Rd., Camden, London, NW1 8QU
Amy’s favorite pub. The paparazzi used to be on permanent stakeout to capture images of celebrities, including Mischa Barton and Kirsten Dunst, but mostly Amy.
33 Kentish Town Rd., London NW1 8NL
If your scene is more punk, goth or heavy metal, this is your pub.
Camden walking tour
A two-hour tour of Camden with an ex-homeless guide. Tickets are $17. Meet outside Chalk Farm Tube on Adelaide Road.