Thursday 15 June 2023

Highgate and Hampstead, a leafy land of legends. (part one)


Highgate School

I wonder if anybody will, or perhaps they already have, written a thoroughly researched study of pollution and waste and its influence on urban development? A chapter may include the development of Highgate and how it became a salubrious and wealthy northern suburb of London? Other town developments happened, like Highgate and Hampstead, for very similar reasons. 

John Lodge, Tony Brown and myself are always looking for new walks to take us on new adventures. We started to research Hampstead and Highgate. We decided to give Highgate a go, planning to visit some famous locations such as Kenwood House the High Street, Hampstead Heath and Highgate Cemetery. We also were aware of the literary and  artistic connections. John and I took part in the first two walks which lead on to two more visits, I must admit we had not planned for initially. Tony Brown joined us on our third expedition to this north London Borough. Clive Baugh on a trip here from his ,”homestead,” in the wilds of Canada, near Maple Leaf, joined us for a fourth visit. Why we have had four walking trips to Hampstead and Highgate in North London will be made clear.

The first record of Hampstead is in 1318. It was land owned by the Lord of the Manor of Hornsey who was the Bishop of London. He had a toll gate positioned on the north road leading out of London. As it was located on high land it was termed the, Highgate.
By the 14th century a settlement was established around the ,”high gate.” Rich noblemen and merchants bought land in the area because it had a high position with wonderful views just five miles from the centre of London. By the 18th century, with its close proximity to the city, five miles away, it had become a small town and because of its high elevation which not only brought great views but also clean air away from the ever more polluted, smog prone city, it was still a sought-after address. Because it was a desirable location only the rich merchants and developing wealthy middle classes could afford to move there. South of London was never an option in the 18th century and early 19th century. The north downs, termed the Surrey hills, were just as healthy with a bucolic environment but they were too far out from the centre of London. Nowadays with modern transport that has changed and Surrey has become a wealthy commuter belt too. 

During the 19th century the population of London grew to enormous numbers. The dirt and squalor in many areas increased as commerce, trade and industry increased making  the rich richer of course.. The 19th century also brought new forms of transport such as much improved roads and the railways. Fortunately for those who lived in Highgate the new major road systems and the railways bypassed them. Highgate remained a very pleasant and health providing place to live. The wealthy population of Highgate increased and housing increased but in a more sustainable way leaving Highgate as it is  today still a very desirable place to live.

Highgate High Street

23rd January 2023
On our first trip to Highgate John and I got on the northern line train from Waterloo towards Edgware getting off at Highgate Tube Station. We exited the station, not knowing which side of the station to exit from, so we took pot luck. We walked s onto a road that looked like West Barnes Lane ,the road I live in near Wimbledon. The houses consisted of late 1920’s houses with mockTudor beams.  They were a mixture of  semi detached and detached houses with trees and shrubs in their front gardens. It all felt familiar. But, we didn’t know which way to go.I asked a lady who was emerging from the staiton near us. John and I both felt as though, for those few moments she was in charge.  She directed us back into the station to take an underpass to emerge at the opposite side of the station. With Highgate and Hampstead’s reputation as a place for academics,writers and artists  and television stars, was she famous in anyway? Perhaps a university professor? She was very efficient, quick witted and eager. We were now on track. We were able to orientate ourselves on the  map we had printed off the Hampstead and Highgate website. We headed off down Highate High street towards Waterlow Park. We wanted to find Highgate Cemetery. Also , for later in the day, John had obtained online free tickets to visit Kenwood House set within Hampstead Common.


Waterlow Park , in Highgate, is  difficult to pin down visually. There are many parts to it.. Lauderdale House, which sits to one side of the park was home to the Duke of Lauderdale in 1580. The websites I have found  says the park developed from the time of the house was built. I wondered who might have designed it, but there is no information. It certainly wasn’t  Capability Brown, or Humphrey Repton who came much later in the 18th century  or some other such famous garden designer. There seems to be no  overall plan to the park. There are some open spaces and a lake which seems to suggest ideas about countryside and open vistas blending with a natural environment such as a Brown or Repton landscapes but there are also terraces and small compact garden areas hedged off from each other. The house was built  before the English Civil War (1642-1652) so it predated Inigo Jones and his Palladian ideas of proportion. So it must have started as an Elizabethan knot garden. The park is interesting because of this mishmash of stiles one added to the other. You don’t know what is just round the corner. Curving paths and slopes leading between terraces create an interesting walk. One comment I found says it was the earliest example of a terraced garden and it is located on the side of a hill.

Lauderdale house itself has many stories attached to it. The Duke of Lauderdale himself was a key member of Charles II cabinet and it is reputed that Charles II stayed at the house. Legend has it Nell Gwyn, Charles II mistress stayed there too. Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) the metaphysical poet, once lived in a house within the park. The architect, Sir James Pennethorn (1801-1871) lived in the park and is buried  in Highgate Cemetery nearby.From 1856 Sydeny Waterlow lived in Lauderdale House and while there he bought up all the neighbouring properties to extend the park as it is today. He let the house out as a convalescent home. By 1889 Sydney Waterlow had abandoned the house and gave it to London County Council (LCC) as a public park. He thought of it becoming a, “garden for the gardenless.” 

Philanthropy such as this  has always been a feature of the charitable works of the great and wealthy. Landowners  would provide housing and life time work very often for their estate workers. Schools for the local people in villages and towns might be provided by the church and again the wealthy landowners. This is all well and good but it makes the general population reliant on the generosity of individuals and the wealthy might not always choose to be benevolent. We have great examples of this philanthropy today with  billionaires such as Bill Gates, Elon Musk and the charitable foundations run in their names. King Charles III, our present monarch, is known for beginning The Princes Trust which has done amazing work for young people. His father ,The Duke of Edinburgh, began the award scheme which has also been amazingly successful in developing the lives of young people. This is all well and good but it depends on one person deciding to do this sort of work. The 19th century brought state funded schools. The National Health Service came into being in 1948 after the second world war. These state run organisations financed by everybody through taxes are far more all encompassing and universal and rely on every one of us for their existence. That is a much better situation. The monarchy and wealthy people can continue their philanthropy and I think we should say ,thank you,  but society should not be reliant on them. It would be interesting to analyse philanthropical works. What is their effect on our class system and keeping society divided?

One of the gardens in Waterlow Park.

On this first trip to Highgate and Hamstead John and I had a coffee in the cafĂ© in Lauderdale House. Within the shell of the building it consists of  a series of white cubes and glass wall  expanses looking outside from within. A local photographer was holding an exhibition in the main room downstairs. He was a little overenthusiastic about engaging us  in conversation. He wanted to make a sale I think. That sort of situation can make you feel pressurised.

Lauderdale House

We walked out onto the terrace looking over the park and then wandered through the winding paths and past the hedges leading downhill to the lake. We skirted the park on the left and over the hedgerows noticed the gravestones within a woodland area. Suddenly, deep within the leafless trees that pervade the cemetery like a small forest,  we caught sight of probably one of the most famous graves in the world. In the distance we could see the large bust of Karl Marx surmounting his tomb. We intended to walk around Highgate Cemetery, which is full of famous people, and see Marx’s grave close up.

The gallery space in Lauderdale House.

We found the entrance to the cemetery just as we exited Waterlow Park. Stone pillars formed a gateway. A small building to the right of the entrance advertised the entrance charge and times for guided walks. We had just missed the start of a walk. John and I discussed our next move and reluctantly decided to return another day.

Highgate and Hampstead  is hilly.  From the cemetery entrance we walked up the steep hill, Swann’s Lane, onto South Grove and Pond Square, near the centre of Highgate. There are early Victorian and Georgian houses in this area. We came to a junction and found a house with a blue plaque commemorating where Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived for nineteen years from 1823 to 1834 and where he died. Also in the same house at a much later date the novelist, playwright and essayist J.B. Priestley (1894 -1984), lived.In recent years the fashion model,Kate Moss lived too. Layers of history in one house can bring up some unusual contrasts.   That is aways a thoughtful moment when you come across a house like this. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge(lived here from 1823 to 1834) J.B. Preistley (1894-1984) Kate Moss (1974- )

Across the road, tucked away in a short lane we found a pub called The Flask, where we decided to have a pint and order a lunch. The Flask was first recorded as a pub in 1716. This area north of London near the Great North Road leading to York was a favoured location near Finchley Common for highway robbers. The famous Dick Turpin is reputed to have stabled his horse, Black Bess,  at The Flask. As far as highway robbery goes, John and I settled ourselves into a comfortable nook and cranny within the The Flask. We got served by a friendly waitress. When we heard the price of a pint of beer I think the blood must have drained from our faces,  £9 a pint. The food we ordered wasn’t much more in price. We enjoyed the ambience of The Flask and surmised that perhaps Coleridge himself drank there and perhaps J.B. Priestley too and these thoughts about these famous writers. somewhat softened the financial blow. We enjoyed the pint and enjoyed the food. Our visit to The Flask we will put down to experience.

The Flask

Churches and chapels always have an attraction to go in. Often they are open for passers by to walk in. They can reveal amazing architecture and richly decorated religious artworks. John and I are always keen to explore a church. From The Flask we made our way back towards Pond Square past Pond Square Chapel. We tried the heavy iron door handle on the entrance door but the chael was unfortunately locked. Pond Square Chapel has a non-conformist history going back to the 1665 Five Mile Act. The act stated that any minister ejected from the church of England for their dissenting views could not live within five miles of the church they once preach at. Highgate was located more than five miles from the centre of London so a nonconformist community grew up there among the growing wealthy community escaping London. The Pilgrim s who sailed on the Mayflower to escape persecution for their non-conformist views sailed in 1620 just forty years before the five mile act. It appears, the act, apparently punitive, did allow for some  acceptance of the nonconformists allowing them to continue their preaching and their ideas. Progress from 1620 perhaps.? There is always a sense I think that things political or religious do adapt to the reality of life actually lived rather than forcing people to keep to a set of rules and beliefs that don’t necessarily fit their reality. Of course ew groups, new ideas can create similarly draconian strictures. Religions do tend to set rules and beliefs for their followers. To be human is a life’s adventure, not the following of a set of rules and beliefs that are imposed. Cruelty can set in. I’ve always thought qualities such as kindness, love, understanding and self-awareness are  most important. 

St Michael's Church Highgate. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his family are buried here.

Pond Square has another place of worship, St Michael’s Church. 
In 1818 an act of Parliament for the building and promotion of additional churches in populous parishes was made. St Michaels was one of these new churches.
Inside is a slate tombstone commemorating Samuel Taylor Coleridge(1772-1834) , his wife, his daughter with her husband, Coleridge’s nephew and their son. An extensive  family tomb. Originally Coleridge was  buried in the chapel of Highgate School at the top of the High Street. When a new chapel was built in 1868 it overhung the Coleridge vault. In 1961 Coleridge’s remains were reburied in the crypt of St Marys. The poet John Masefield gave a reading at the reburial. Coleridge had actually worshipped in the new church of St Mary’s and its red door was visible from Coleridge’s house. He was connected to the site of his reburial. Coleridge was the joint founder of the Romantic movement with his friend William Wordsworth.

In the late 18th century Lord Mansfield owned Kenwood House. It was here Dido Belle, the daughter of an enslaved African women, whose father was Mansfield’s nephew Sir John Lyndsey, lived. Dido had been born into slavery in 1761, the daughter of maria Bell, an enslaved woman . Lindsey asked Murray to take on her care and education, and. Elizabeth was baptised Dido Elizabeth Belle in 1766 in London.

It was Lord Mansfield, who some say inadvertently, began the legal process against slavery. The case that Mansfield is most famous for is the James Somerset case. Somerset was a slave owned by an American customs official. While onboard his masters ship at dock in England Somerset attempted to escape but was captured and later put aboard another ship destined for the US. An application was presented to the Court of Kings Bench by three people saying they were Somerset’s godparents. The eventual outcome, after much publicity and strong public opinion on both sides of the argument was given by Lord Mansfield the Chief Justice. He stated that slavery was not legal in England on English soil and that all men were free within England.. All slaves who were on English soil became freed at that moment. 

Lord Mansfield was born in1705 and died in 1793. He was obviously a man of his time. However, in his judgements he looked at the law from the human level disregarding the prejudices and  general held beliefs.  It took an intelligent honest man to make the judgements Mansfield made. What can the law do and how should the law be applied to the human condition? That is a very difficult thing to do but Mansfield managed it in this case. This judgement did not have any effect on slavery and the slave trade outside of England though.

Kenwood House through the trees.

 Lord Mansfield  was also under threat by the Gordon Riots of 1780 lead by the member of Parliament Lord George Gordon. because he defended catholics before the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 and was an important advocate of the act. It was intended to relieve Catholics of some of the discrimination against them. The Gordon Rioters made their way to Kenwood House and threatened to attack it. The story goes that publican at The Spaniards Inn provided free drink to the rioters , they got drunk and the attack on Kenwood was prevented. Whether that story  is apocryphal is debateable. 

Kenwood House is renowned for its art collection and its Robert Adam interiors. It is here in that summer open air concerts are held.  

John and I had  wanted to explore Kenwood but as the day went on we ran out of time to visit. We missed our time slot. We walked along a muddy path leading to the east of the house and had a spectacular view of the house and the extensive parkland it is set in. So, at least we saw it and got some great photographs.

We also came across Highgate School where John Betjeman (1906-1984) attended as a school boy and we saw a blue plaque commemorating him on the side of one of the old school buildings. It reminded us about our visit to St Pancras Station when we were walking The Regents Canal. We took photographs  posing next to Betjeman’s statue on the station concourse.

Jack Straws Castle.

Just outside of Hampstead to the north on the road passing through the Heath  is Jack Straws Castle and to the east of that just south of Highgate High Street  is The Spaniards Inn. We walked past both these famous inns. Both are mentioned in Bram Stokers Dracula and the Spaniards Inn was known to Charles Dickens. The litigious Mrs Bardel in Pickwick Papers sojourns at The Spaniards Inn, on her quest to track down Pickwick. Why would Dickens choose The Spaniards Inn? I suppose  he what he know and inspired him. The Spaniards inn   served his literary purpose. 

Spaniards Inn.

Both places located on the Heath in the 18th century were remote and were often the haunts of Highwaymen. Jack. Straws castle has its own ghost stories. Maybe they inspired Bram Stoker to add his spine chilling imagination .The father and mother of Dick Turpin  ran The Spaniards Inn. Being in the location of famous events and where famous people from our past walked and whose imaginations were inspired makes you feel as though you are being surrounded by the past. You are existing in the same space of past events.

I should think the people of Highgate are used to strangers such as John and I wondering about their village, stopping outside of various houses and staring at the houses and talking about them.

John and I decided we must return soon. Highgate Cemetery and all the abodes of more amous writers were still to come.

So, this is just part one of our adventures in Highgate.