Camden Town is a district of Inner London, just 2.4 miles northwest of Charing Cross. Back in 1976, it was just another abandoned area of North London which, after years of neglect, had been left to the drunks and winos that littered the pavements of Chalk Farm Road. ‘Rehearsal Rehearsals’ sat in the middle of it in a filthy, dilapidated former British Rail goods yard. I arrived there with my schoolmates The Subway Sect, to help with band rehearsals after Malcolm McLaren had seen fit to call Bernie Rhodes and arrange for some much-needed rehearsal time. However it was with anything but relish that we first encountered the cold, dank, and unpleasant rehearsal space. It’s crumbling, musty atmosphere reminded me of my grandmother’s old coal cellar and the damp cold penetrated everything, even in that hot month of August. ‘Rehearsals’ was a place you didn’t feel you wanted to hang around in any longer than you had to. Although brave attempts had been made to make it bearable, it was nevertheless a bleak and depressing environment.
This video was shot in 1977 but shows ‘Rehearsals’ pretty much the same that it was a year earlier.
Paul Simonon hung around the rehearsal room more than anyone else back then and was the first member of The Clash to befriend us. One night he said conspiratorially, “Want to see something really cool….?” He led us to the back of the rehearsal room behind the jukebox, through the drapes that served as sound-baffling, and down a gentle ramp to a huge, ancient door.
After some difficulty we managed to get it open and it slid slowly back to reveal an extensive labyrinth of pitch-black tunnels and passageways. The deathly frozen air hit us instantly as we entered what seemed at first to be some kind of sinister medieval dungeon, reeking with years of moldy disuse. Excitement gripped us, and I ran back to my car to get a torch (flashlight). Our first tentative exploration of the tunnels revealed a maze of derelict, mildewed archways and passages – some trailing off to dead-ends and others leading to enormous cavernous areas, as large as any warehouse. Tramway tracks criss-crossed some of the tunnels and water ran down walls or dripped from crumbling Victorian brickwork and ceilings. ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff
Once Paul Smith (The Subway’s drummer) had managed to get Sebastian Conran’s disused little yellow moped running, we explored further and deeper into the seemingly endless caverns with our torches and would play track-outs (hide and seek) down there for hours with Paul Simonon. The sound of the little moped’s engine getting ever closer and closer in the darkness heightened the macabre excitement of the chase to a spine-chilling fever-pitch. The all-encompassing blackness, pierced only by our torches, hinted at ghastly silent terrors behind the commonest shapes or objects and challenged our corporeal senses to the point at which boundaries dissolved. I cannot convey the nightmare-sensation of those vast subterranean passages – that commingling of the coffin-terror, of entrapment – a palpable yet penetrating essence -the inexorable fear of running into something unknown, unpleasant waiting to pounce in the darkness like a Lovecraft fiction, fed into our imaginations and kept us from delving too deep into the fathomless excavation. Nevertheless, the altered state of consciousness produced by prolonged exposure was very real at times. fffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff
Unknown to us, this warren of cold menacing passages and tunnels hadn’t known warmth or light for almost 100 years. Back then, they had echoed to the sound of an altogether different horror. ‘The Camden Catacombs,’ as they have become known today, were once owned by British Railways. They were constructed in the 19th Century as stables for horses and pit ponies that were used to shunt railway wagons. The tunnels run under the Euston mainline, under the goods depot at Primrose Hill, beneath Gilbey’s Bonded Warehouse on the Regents Canal and under Camden Lock Market. Their route can be discerned by the distinctive cast-iron grilles set at fixed distances into the road surface; originally the only source of light for the poor over-worked horses living their wretched lives in the darkness below. Some sections were demolished during the redevelopment of the area while other sections belong to Camden Market who dissuade access.
The 650-or-so railway horses were stabled on Chalk Farm Road (now Stables Market), and a labyrinth of tunnels built from 1865 allowed them to travel underground from their stables to their work in Camden Town Goods Yard, so they did not have to cross the tracks. The same network of tunnels was used by other heavy horses, such as shire horses of Gilbey’s, the wine and liquor company that owned warehouses and goods sheds with access to the railway.
In our innocence, and unaware of the sinister nightmare that these cold, dank cellars must have bore witness to, we continued amusing ourselves down in the ancient terror-tunnels up until around the time of the ‘100 Club Punk Festival’ when everything on the burgeoning punk rock scene started to get very serious.
I remember Joe came down there a few times but Mick and Terry never did to my knowledge – mostly it was Paul and us that spent many frenzied hours in the network of pitch-dark caverns deep in the dark recesses behind Rehearsals.
Just two years later, The Clash would part company with manager Bernie Rhodes and bid goodbye to the cold, damp rehearsal rooms (if only for five years). So too would the Subway Sect, when Bernie Rhodes fired the whole band in the autumn of 1978 and kept Vic Godard as a song-writer and singer.
It seems ironic that the Camden Town area has become so popular and trendy with it’s markets and expensive high street, mainly because of the presence of a punk rock band for so short a time when in fact, the entire railway yard complex was built and used daily over 100 years before. Now with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that our own temporary and ephemeral use of the warehouse was but a floating, vain appearance – a moment, a twinkling of an eye in the long history of those dark, disused warehouses. And now we too have become part of their past.
For a more in-depth look at “The Camden Catacombs I recommend:
For the most extensive collection of images of Rehearsals, as always go to: