A tall tower that’s not only one of London’s oldest buildings still in private ownership but also boasts some wonderful views across north London – this is the Canonbury Tower.

And twice a month, it’s open for the public to go inside and climb the stairs to the roof to take in those views.

Canonbury Tower is roughly 500 years old and sat inside a priory associated with St Barts in the City of London. No one knows exactly when it was built, and no one knows why either. The theory that it was for astronomical observations seems likely, and that it was a refuge from a great flood that was expected to destroy London seems less likely.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries, the tower passed through a number of owners until the 1570s when England’s richest commoner, John Spencer bought it, and the building has remained in the same family ever since. The Spencer family is better known these days though as the Marquess of Northampton.

The tower has been leased out to many occupants over the centuries, and for some years up to 2003 the ground floor was the reception foyer for a theatre next door. The inside has however been largely closed since then, but the Clerkenwell and Islington Guides ran tours for a few years prior to the pandemic, and have just restarted them again.

The tours give a chance to see inside the building, and then to go up to the roof for the views.

Photography inside isn’t permitted, although candidly, a couple of rooms aside, there’s not a huge amount to look at. The two impressive rooms are richly decorated with wood panelling and carving and are a good 400 years old, so worth the visit on their own. The rest of the tower has, not to be too unkind, the air of a historic building that’s been used as offices or a school, so a very municipal appearance with old wooden doors and beams sitting uncomfortably with the modern plug sockets and light fittings.

The tour guides give a potted history of the very many people and organisations who have used the tower over the centuries, including the tale of when John Spencer lent money to a man who later courted his daughter. Unhappy that a debtor should be seeking to marry into the family, he disowned the couple when they eloped, only to be reconciled after the birth of his grandson.

Spencer was right about his debt-laden son in law though. When he died, leaving his vast fortune to his daughter, the son-in-law promptly lost most of it at the gambling tables. An early form of wealth redistribution?

Fortunately for the current Spencer family, he was stopped before he squandered the whole lot, and even the fraction that was saved was enough to set the family up for centuries.

The tower architecture is interesting, as it was built hollow with just a staircase around the inside — maybe then a clock tower that was never completed? But later the inner space was filled in with small rooms on each floor, that are just used for storage.

At the very top though is the only actual room in the tower, with a mysterious inscription in a mix of Latin and Anglo-Norman. It’s a list of monarchs, but the word after Queen Elizabeth I has been scratched out. Some of the Francis Bacon conspiracy theorists, who think he fathered a son by Queen Elizabeth I suggest the scratched out name is the lost King. The Francis Bacon society actually rented the tower for a while, seeking to find “secret documents” hidden in the floorboards.

The crowning joy of the tour though is to get up onto the roof. It used to be framed with a thin metal fence, but that was removed and a more comfortingly solid brick wall was added to the roof space.

And what a view it offers. On a dry day of course.

Over there is the huge mass of the City’s skyscrapers. Look over to the London Eye, the Emirates stadium is just about poking out from behind some trees. Is that the Alexandra Palace in the far distance? Peer over the edge to see the people down at the streets far below.

The union chapel looms large over to one side, seen from an angle that few get to enjoy. Although today there are plenty of trees and housing that’s poking up above the Tower’s roof, back when it was constructed all around was fields, and this 1819 etching from the roof shows how marvellous the view must have been.

You can, just about, still see St Paul’s Cathedral today though.

Overall, the tour is a good chance to see inside the tower, which is not generally open to the public anymore, and learn the history (and myths) of the many people who lived there — but to be honest, it’s really the views from the roof that people seemed to come for.

The tours of Canonbury Tower take place at 11am on the second Friday of each month and at 2pm on the fourth Wednesday – and need to be booked in advance from here.

Tickets cost £18, and the tour lasts around 90 minutes.

A tip – if you prefer, go for the Wednesday afternoon because the sun won’t be as low on the horizon, which may make for better photos when looking to the south of the tower. Also, the building isn’t used that much now so the heating isn’t switched on, and it’s very cold inside so do wear something warm.

The tower is about a 10 minute walk from Highbury and Islington station, for the Victoria line, Northern City line and the London Overground.


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One comment
  1. Colin Younger says:

    Unfortunately, this account has slightly mixed up the Spencers. The owner was Sir John Spencer, Master of the Clothworkers Guild and Lord Mayor of London and one time owner of Broomfield House. He had a daughter who married William Compton, 2nd Lord Compton, later Earl of Northampton, and rich Spencer’s fortune went to the Comptons,not Spencers.

    Great article however, and I must visit the Tower. My connection is as Chair of the Broomfield House Trust, which has been fighting a losing battle to restore Broomfield House

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