An Islington Angel is not just for Christmas

Islington’s most renowned region – its defining district – is the area known as Angel. Celebrated for its shops, restaurants, theatres, cinemas, pubs and cafes, Angel is a great venue for an outing. A particularly enjoyable time to a visit is in the build up to Christmas, although its biggest angel icon adorns the area throughout the year.

Indeed, the festive spirit is steeped into the very name of this quarter of Islington, which is an indirect reference to the passage in the Bible that heralds the Christmas story.

It goes back to the sixteenth century, when there was an inn standing in fields at the southern end of Islington High Street, called the ‘Sheepcote’ (which means an enclosure for sheep).

The sign hanging outside this rural inn depicted the Angel of the Annunciation, the archangel Gabriel telling Mary that she will give birth to the baby Jesus. This scene is the opening chapter of Christmas, as every child that has appeared in a Nativity Play knows.

Because of its sign, the inn was known as the Angel by the 17th century and eventually the wider area took on the name too. It was an important coaching inn on the Great North Road connecting London to Edinburgh, which was also the main cattle droving route to Smithfield Market.

The Angel provided accommodation to travellers on their way into and out of the City of London a mile away to the south. For a long time it was considered too dangerous to travel across the fields into the City after dark without an armed escort, a concern which boosted demand for Islington’s many inns.

The building of the New Road and the City Road in the mid 18th century increased the traffic coming into the area and stimulated the process of urbanisation. By the early 19th century, Angel was more urban than rural. In his 1838 novel Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens described it as “the place London begins in earnest”.

The Angel Inn was rebuilt a number of times in its long history, most recently in 1903, when it was owned by the brewery Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co. That six storey terracotta building still stands opposite Angel tube station, now housing a branch of the Cooperative Bank.

Today, one of the area’s busiest locations at Christmas is its principal shopping centre, Angel Central, which sits between Upper Street and Liverpool Road. It contains several shops and restaurants, a cinema, a nightclub and a crazy golf venue. It changed its name to Angel Central in 2015 after opening as the N1 Centre in 2002.

It boasts what could be considered a year-round Christmas decoration on an epic scale.

Angel Wings is a stainless steel sculpture at the Liverpool Road entrance to the shopping centre. It was created by Wolfgang Buttress and installed by Buttress and Fiona Heron in 2003. It is 15 metres high and 18 metres wide and weighs 12 tonnes (the same as a double decker bus).

In 2018, there was a proposal to remove and replace Angel Wings to allow a new footbridge to be built where the sculpture stood. A 10 year old campaigner, Olivia Gordon Clark, organised a petition and addressed Islington Council’s planning committee. Thanks to her intervention, the sculpture was saved by raising it 3.5 metres above the new walkway.

As a result the shopping centre’s Christmas lights, trees and market still take place under the protective wings of the sculpture. Nevertheless, Angel Wings and the Angel, Islington, are not only for Christmas.

Islington guide Jonathan Wober will be leading a seasonally-themed walking tour of the area, called ‘Angel at Christmas’, on Saturday 9 December starting at 2.30pm. For details and to book a place, please click here.