Upper Street is very long, running from the Angel station at one end right down to Highbury Islington at the other. It is wide and leafy, with generous pavements. At first, the street seems mainly fashion boutiques, coffee bars, pubs and cafes, but persevere to find some wonderful home treasures, mostly towards the Highbury end. Many shops selling modern merchandise were opened at least 15 years ago, giving the street a dependable feel.
© Barry Phillips
Half way down, and set well back, is the old Victorian Royal Agricultural Hall (1861-2), a local landmark, saved from demolition in the early 1980s, and imaginatively converted into the Islington Business Design Centre (horticultural-halls.co.uk). These spacious exhibition halls, with their glass roof and elegant wrought iron, have a packed programme of trade and consumer events throughout the year, including the Country Living Fairs, the London Art Fair, Gadget Show Live, and – perhaps the most exciting of all – New Designers in July, when art, design, graphics and architecture grads fresh out of college from all over the country get to strut the stuff they hope will launch their careers (upperstreetevents.net).
Sadly The Mall – a stolid period brick building and erstwhile antiques emporium with lots of small traders – is now a big fashion store. However, tucked away behind is the Camden Passage antiques market. Its official opening days are Wednesday and Saturday, but lots of the little shops that line this small intimate street are open all week round, with some small stalls as well, so it’s worth calling by (camdenpassageislington.co.uk). Look out for vintage fashion, and all kinds of decorative accessories and lighting, with a particular emphasis on Art Deco and Art Nouveau, and particularly good selections of jewellery.
Find your way into Pierrepont Arcade, for vintage treasures, such as stunning glass collections at Odyssey: Twentieth Century (number 11), where proprietor Paul Runniff-Nutman lovingly brings the c1950s back to life (07970 635158). Vintage glass is also the love of Jeanette Judd at Smashing Glass (number 7) whose costume jewellery is amazing.
In the Passage itself, at number 13, a new little shop called Smug is carefully stocked by owner Lizzie Evans, a graphic designer. It is delightfully airy – even in the basement which borrows light through glass panels from the floor above. Here is a choice of idiosyncratic homewares and gifts including melamine kitchenware, quirky cushions, retro glassware and cool ceramics mixed in with vintage pieces. I loved the knitted creatures spilling out of an old chest of drawers, all hand-made from old jumpers (020 7354 0253; ifeelsmug.com).
© Barbara Chandler
And a couple of doors down knitting and crochet enthusiasts can get everything they need from Loop at number 15 (020 7288 1160; loopknitting.com). An inspiring programme of classes could well encourage you to take up knitting, and there are free clinics to sort out ongoing problems. This tuition helps everyone from beginners to dab hands at socks, fair isle and lacy shawls. Check the website for details.
At number 121, After Noah is well-established with its quirky mix of vintage furniture, and wonderful traditional toys (020 7359 4281; afternoah.com). This shop opened in 1990, and has since doubled in size. There is a second branch on the King’s Road in Chelsea. They say: “We buy from the most diverse sources available, trawl antiques fairs, visit the continent and the USA, and liaise with new designers.” Expect to find large comfy leather sofas, antique French wrought iron bedsteads as well as contemporary counterparts, mixed in with restored telephones, salvaged industrial lamps, and modern Italian lamps.
Gill Wing (gillwing.co.uk) is another long-running Islington trader with two shops: Gill Wing Cookshop (190 Upper Street; 020 7226 5392) and Gill Wing Gifts (194/195 Upper Street; 020 7359 7697)
© Barbara Chandler
In the beginning Gill and Tony Wing’s speciality was ceramics, and shelves high-up in the shops display hundreds of the novelty teapots they once sold – though sadly now “display only”. But you will find great cards, Filofax and Microfile organizers, Neal’s Yard Remedies , Rococo chocolates, glass, clocks, children’s fun soft toys and lots more. The cookshop, run by the former manager of Harrod’s cookware department, has “probably the best range of any shop in London” which includes all manner of pots and pans, good knives, glassware, cutlery, linen and whiteware china.
Atelier Abigail Ahern at number 137 (atlierabigailahern.com; 020 7354 8181) is as moody and romantic as its name. There really is an Abigail, and this intriguing shop – or “cave of gorgeousness” (they said it, not me) - is suffused with her dusky taste, an eclectic mix of uber trendy furniture and accessories. This is where journalist Liz Jones kitted out her Islington pad, before that notorious and ill-fated move to the country. OTT wallpapers include a facsimile library, and kaleidoscope patterns of Moroccan suns. Tables have ostrich legs, or tops like lace doilies. Abigail writes books and is in demand for interior design – to sample her style, read the blog of her hardworking trawl for exclusivity, on abigailaherne.wordpress.com.
By contrast, Roundhouse at number 146 is a kitchen studio with a light, cool and clean architectural approach – and an impeccable environmental policy. With seven branches, their reassuring slogan is “Made in Britain, built to last.” Call by for a free planning session (020 7704 8260; roundhousedesign.com).
© Barbara Chandler
Revelloyd (124-125 Upper Street; 020 7226 8501) have a full interior service, a showroom packed with contemporary and retro pieces (illustrated on revelloyd.co.uk) and Romo wallpapers.
Twentytwentyone (274 Upper Street; 020 7288 1996) is an essential visit for all who love modern furniture – they have been here flying their very passionate flag for contemporary design since 1996, but recently expanded the shop. Their brands are impeccable: Capellinni, Moooi, Artek, Vitra, Knoll and many more. Wedding lists are now popular, and gift vouchers which come in useful cloth shopping bags. And their website (twentytwentyone.com) is a design guide in itself with information on dozens of designers and brands revealed at a click.
David Scotcher, at number 285, does re-upholstery, and curtains/blinds with fabric selections, plus a bespoke service for sofas and chairs (020 7354 4111).
At number 281, Chest of Drawers has been selling furniture on Upper Street since 1986. Styles have changed over the years as have the owners. Known for solid wood, now they have good-value chests, tables, bookcases etc in a variety of styles and woods, including contemporary oak, reclaimed and plantation teak and ash, with reclaimed elm and walnut being among the most popular. “We only sell what we like, that has become our mantra”. Their unique sustainability code awards their own star rating from one to ten, based on a careful and comprehensive consideration including factory visits.
Of stores with several branches, Lombok with Eastern style and its dark woods is at 116/118 Islington High Street (just at the entrance to Camden Passage; 9845 094 0968; Lombok.co.uk). And Harvey Jones, masters of country kitchens with pretty paint finishes, is at 268 Upper Street (020 7354 9933; harveyjones.com).
Preposterous Presents at number 262 has gifts, cards and fancy dress, whilst Custom-made Furniture at 263 does what it says (020 7288 0083). The Only Place for Pictures, established in 1996, is at number 216 (theonlyplaceforpictures.co.uk), It offers a professional picture-framing service, with good selections of prints, ready-made frames and artwork.
Finally, Islington Council’s innovative Green Living Centre at number 222 (020 7527 4460) will sort you out energy-wise, with a window full of green appliances and energy-saving aids.