Mary Stevens: leaving Islington

Estimated reading time:6 minutes, 31 seconds

For the past 10 years Mary Stevens, now 38, has lived at Highbury Barn and coped brilliantly with all sorts of life changes from full time commuting, job hunting and becoming a mum. All that time she was fully involved in community activities such as school governor, babysitting circle and organising events for Transition Highbury. Summer 2018 sees her moving out of London (like so many young families). Here Mary shares some of the many things she’s loved about living in Islington (and I think you’ll see why we’ll all miss her). Q&A by Nicola Baird.

Mary Stevens (c) islington faces

Q: Why did you pick Islington to live in?
A: Our main criterion was somewhere along what was then the North London Line as we had family in Finsbury Park and Finchley Road (although neither my partner nor I grew up in central London) and most of our friends were in Hackney. I was working at UCL when we moved here, so it was really convenient. But we were planning to move to Newington Green, it was only by chance that we found somewhere in Highbury. My great-great aunt lived on Baalbec Road in the 1920s, I later found out, so it felt like we’d picked a good spot.

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Q: Where are you moving to and why?
A: We’re moving to Bristol, which it turns out is currently the most popular destination for moving out of London. We never thought we’d be here for all our adult lives and it seems like a good time to explore somewhere new, as our daughter is still only just starting in year 1. I’ve recently started working for Friends of the Earth and my job was advertised as based in either London or Bristol so it seemed like a great opportunity. Oliver, my partner, is planning on going freelance (he trains engineers in creativity and design) and doing more sustainability-based work. Going somewhere where the day-to-day cost of living is still a bit lower will be helpful. Plus Bristol is an exciting hub for innovation and sustainability so it suits both our professional interests. Also, I’m a keen cyclist and am looking forward to not having to cycle for an hour to get out beyond the M25 every time I want to stretch my legs on some country roads. We’re still city people though, and I’m pleased we’re moving somewhere where there’s a wide diversity of people and a thriving cultural scene (even if Bristol has far too many cars, and not nearly as many bikes as there should be).
Q: What’s your Islington like?
A: I often say that it’s a very close-knit community, and that surprises a lot of people. We never go out without seeing someone that we know; Highbury’s almost like a village in that respect. But it’s also changed a lot, even in the time we’ve been here. It saddens me to say this, but it’s become a much harder place for middle income (or even relatively well-off families like us) to afford. We are leaseholders in a Council-run block and I think these are some of the few places where there’s still a real mix of people with different backgrounds and incomes, living side-by-side. But it’s becoming more and more unequal. More than 40 per cent of children in the borough live in poverty. And one consequence of the financial pressures that people in their 20s and 30s face is that fewer of us are volunteering or campaiging.¬† I’m a huge admirer of the work that was done to safeguard Gillespie Park, for example, but those people are all my parents’ age. Where’s the next generation?

Community apple trees on a green space off Hamilton Park West, N5, pruned thanks to the skills of Mary Stevens. Mary’s also used the Nextdoor online group to encourage people to water their nearest street trees during the long hot and dry summer (c) islington faces

Q: Share a few things you’ve done during your 10 years in Highbury Barn that have been fulfilling

  • I’ve been a Governor at Ambler Primary School, on Blackstock Road, for 8 years (and seen my daughter go all the way through the Children’s Centre there). It’s been amazing to see the journey the school has been on, from coming out of special measures to last year’s Outstanding rating. I’m really proud to have been part of that journey.
  • In both the Islington places I’ve lived, I’ve helped organise summer parties for all the neighbours. It’s not complicated and everyone wants to help, someone just needs to get things going. Last year on our estate we planned a 2-hour shared lunch in the car park at the front and 4 hours later it was still going. It was so rewarding seeing all the children playing together outside.
  • There is so much we can do to make our neighbourhood greener. Even though I’m not much of a gardener I’ve planted lavender on an empty communal bed and it’s gone from a cat toilet to a haven for bees (and an opportunity to explain all about the Great British Bee Count to our neighbours…). This winter I learned to prune fruit trees with the London Orchard Project and have pruned all the apple trees in the common parts of the estate, and planted a couple more. Seeing them thrive and bear fruit makes me very happy. They’re not yet on the fruit tree map I made for Transition Highbury a few years ago but I’d love to see someone take that on.
Q: What 5 places have you used a lot and will miss?
  • 5 Boys in Highbury Barn (address: 17 Highbury Park, N5). It’s the most extraordinary shop and I’m in there almost every day. See the interview with the shop’s owners, Subhash and Urvashi Patel,¬†here.
  • Vagabond Coffee Shop on 105 Holloway Road. Both Oliver and I use it as a second office.
  • Gillespie Park. It’s a haven for wildlife – and an inspiration for campaigners.
  • The Central Library. I was unemployed for about seven months, studying with the OU (open university) and writing job applications. The library was an amazing refuge then, and it’s wonderful that it’s open until 8pm so many days and at the weekends. We borrow novels, political books, OS maps, guide books. It’s brilliant.
  • The Union Chapel. World class music venue, with a social purpose, on our doorstep.

In conclusion
Volunteering and Scottish dancing (the latter perhaps in jest) have long been touted as the two things that give you contentment and a way to meet people. Islington is the home of NCVO (National Council for Voluntary Organisations) and also the wonderful Islington Giving. But doing things in the neighbourhood doesn’t have to be formalised – even just saying hello to your neighbours, picking up stray bits of litter or pouring some washing up water on to your nearest street tree is a fabulous start. When life is busy and/or complicated it can be hard to see how you can find anymore time to do anything for anyone else. But it’s still worth giving it a go. So here’s an appeal for more of us to ¬†join in locally more, just like Mary. And here’s a goodbye from Islington Faces, Bristol is lucky to have you and family.

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird dot green at gmail dot com.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola