The lighthouse

One of the best things about being broke in London is travelling by bus. I’ve always loved double deckers (I’m not a fan of the bendy buses and their ability to twist my legs around like a Stretch Armstrong toy if I stand on a bendy bit) and am not embarrassed to rush upstairs for the best views of the city.

I’ve lived in Islington for a little over a year, so was shocked to discover, while sitting atop a bus, a building near Kings Cross that I’d never really noticed before, despite passing it tens of times.

The Lighthouse, or Oyster House, stands opposite a Starbucks and McDonalds, flanked either side by the northern tips of Pentonville Road and Gray’s Inn Road. It’s a building of unknown origin and purpose, although Urban 74 says it has looked “much as it does today” since 1884.

One theory is that the ground floor once housed an oyster bar, and that the lighthouse was simply added as an advertising ploy for the business. However Malcolm Holmes, former Archivist of Camden Council, wrote that he found the lighthouse light existed before any oyster bar.

Others believe it to be a windmill.

Another, more exciting, musing is that it was a helter skelter tower, according to Eccentric Britain author Benedict le Vay. However le Vay says: “it would have been impossibly, and improbably, moved up there. Inspections of the interior, say Camden Council, show that it can’t have been a clocktower or a camera obscura. Obscurer are its origins indeed, and maybe it was a totally useless architectural flourish.”

The tower caught my eye, while I sat on the bus, as I was reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Angel’s Game, a large part of which revolves around a derelict tower house in Barcelona, which the protagonist passes every day on his way to work until he finds the courage to rent it, beginning a tale of secrets and dark intrigue. I fortunately don’t pass the Pentonville Lighthouse every day, but it has already got me under its spell.

A building so conspicuous must surely have attracted a number of curious residents throughout the years. Kings Cross is traditionally a seedy area, with its red lights and fast trains escaping the city daily. Before the days of Jack the Ripper, the Lighthouse beacon would have shone its pure beam over a sea of sinners, protecting the secrets that lay within the walls beneath from a surging tide of miscreants. A priest or guardian might have stood atop the roof watching over his neighbours, guiding the good to a cove of sanctuary.

The lighthouse we see today may be just one in a long history of lighthouses to have guarded that site. Men fleeing or entering England via Thames trading boats might have sought out the golden light as a safe place to hide, with thick walls to lap up the whispers of plans and midnight doubts before the next push onwards.

It might, as le Vay says, simply have been an eccentric addition, built on the whim of an old Naval boss or retired spice merchant. Whatever the reasoning, the lighthouse is to be refurbished. Latitude Architects has simply named the development The Lighthouse, so it is a safe bet that the distinctive feature will remain, along with the Grade II listed façade. The empty shells of shops and flats below will become offices and ‘retail’ space, with an additional new floor of offices to bellow out from behind the lighthouse lamp.

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