This story is about shoes. And London, one of the coolest cities on the planet, and Camden Town, the coolest part of London. If you have no patience for long, rambling introductions, stop reading and scroll down to the big red boot.Thanks to a semester abroad in college, I’m hooked on a very expensive part of northern London called Hampstead. (Thank you to the lovely people who donated their posh home in Belsize Park to Wake Forest University, but you have spoiled me forever for more affordable parts of London.AND you donated them a home on the Grand Canal in Venice? People, what is your primary residence? Versailles?) Every time I fly into London, and this is not as often as I’d like but as often as I can, I while away the morning hours after the airport with a walk from the Hampstead Tube stop all the way down — well, my favorite street in London. Hampstead is a very tony village on a hilltop with very high rents and very old buildings. And a very very deep Tube line, where two of the metro stations I pass on this walk had extra space built in to be used as bomb shelters during World War Two. Anyway – after dumping bags at my hotel, I ride the Tube to Hampstead, buy a cup of coffee, and start the lovely long walk down the hill. I might go uphill for a bit first, just to see Hampstead Heath. But I’ve got rolling fields at home. A quaint, posh little English village looking down on metropolitan London, that’s what’s exciting to me.
Anyway — down the hill we go, past boutiques and coffee shops and very old churches and well-monied young people with strollers and etc. We pass the Sir Richard Steele’s, a crazy old pub built on the site of the house of Sir Richard Steele, an Irish-born politician and writer who founded The Tatler and The Spectator magazines and also ran the Theatre Royale on Drury Lane. The pub has Thai menu, to which I object because to an American Thai food just seems wrong in an English pub.But otherwise it’s a great old funky place with lots of good memories from college. There’s a painting on the ceiling, live music at night, and a really cool view out of the second-floor windows.
The Steele’s is in Belsize Park, which is cushy enough that Kate Winslet bought a home there for more than a million pounds, then sold it to Gwyneth Paltrow and her rock star husband Chris Martin. Jude Law has lived there, as well as Helena Bonham Carter, some guys from the band Oasis, and Kate Moss.
Once you’ve traveled past the Belsize Park Tube station, you’ll find yourself descending from Tonyville into Alternatopia, i.e., my favorite place on the planet, Camden Town.
And there are crazy sculptures on the fronts of buildings and people with purple hair and tourists and God help us, I hope policemen, because the drug trade is thriving here (thanks, Amy). Also: the reason for this story. The British Boot Company, the world’s first retail store to sell — THIS IS WHERE SHORT-ATTENTION-SPAN READERS SHOULD TUNE BACK IN —
It’s a crazy-funky-market-alternative sort of area where anything you can think of can be bought. It’s like someone handing you a big bowl full of every color and sound and smell and taste and texture in the world, but everything’s so jumbled you really can’t concentrate on any one thing. And there are secret passages and caves and trap doors and boats and canals in unexpected places and a Holiday Inn that is too expensive for its own good and a buffet of food from around the world and every now and then, Amy Winehouse stumbles by, because she lives there.
Doc Martens shoes.
Which are the coolest shoes in the world. And they became so, totally by accident. Now, the real story starts.Dr. Klaus Maertens was a doctor in the German army during World War Two who injured his foot in 1945 while on leave, skiing. When he returned to work, he found that his regular army boots were painful to wear on his messed-up foot. So he designed a shoe with an air-cushioned sole and found that that worked much better. After the war, he hooked up with an engineer friend, Dr. Herbert Funck, and the two of them went into busines together making work shoes. They got their material from leather Dr. Maertens looted from a cobbler’s shop, and cast-off rubber from Luftwaffe airfields.
They set up business in 1947 in Seeshaupt, Germany, and found that their work shoes were very popular — with housewives. Evidently they liked the comfy sole.
Sales grew, and in 1952 they opened a factory in Munich, and by 1959 they sold the rights to a British shoe manufacturer who Anglicized the name to Dr. Martens, re-shaped the heel, added the yellow stitching that Docs are known for, and trademarked the soles as AirWair.
The reason the classic Docs are named 1460s is that the shoes first went on sale in the UK on 1 April (month number four) in 1960. They are still being produced today.
Let’s get back to Camden Town. A company first known as R.H. Holt’s, which made hob-nail boots, had been operating there since 1851. The shop first began selling Doc Martens in 1958 — presumably, German-made ones. The shoes became popular with working the working classes, who had to be on their feet for long hours: factory workers, postmen, police officers. And rock bands and fans. Did I mention that?
Docs became popular among soccer (football) fans in the 1970’s, with supporters painting their team colors on their shoes, or simply painting the boots white. Because scuffles often broke out at games, people would remove the leather from the toes of their boots to show off the steel toe. Police seeking to keep the peace began demanding that people who wore Docs to games remove the laces, reasoning that it’s harder to start a fight, I guess, if your shoes won’t stay on. Also, you’d look silly.
Music fans began wearing Docs then, too, to flaunt their working-class status. Also, hours of standing at music shows can get really hard on the feet. And then there’s the whole steel-toe scare factor again. Docs were eventually embraced by punks, “skins,” ska bands, goth, and grunge rockers. All this from the shoe that housewives once loved.
In the 1970’s, the shop’s owner, Alan Roumana, got to know the members of a band called the North London Invaders, who bought Doc Martens loafers from the shop. That band later went on to become Madness (if they don’t ring a bell right away, you’ll know them from the ’80s hit “Our House”). They featured the shop, then still called R.H. Holt’s, in their video “The Prince.”
The shop went on to be popular with bands The Clash, Sex Pistols, and UK Subs. Roumana changed the name in the 1980’s to the British Boot Company. And of course, they sell lots more than just Doc Martens. They’re worth a stop next time you’re in town.
Maybe I missed a couple of decades, but I don’t remember a time since the 80s when Docs weren’t in fashion among the alternative crowd. The variations are endless fun — they’ve come out with gold, silver, floral patterned, and even bridal-style 1460s, and of course, despite the manufacturing moving to Thailand in 2003, they still make the classic black and cherry-red eight-eyelet 1460. In 2007, the company moved some manufacturing back to the UK, producing the “Vintage” line, made to the original specifications, in the Cobbs Lane factory in Wollaston.