Having disported ourselves yesterday, we had to do the shopping this morning. Breakfast in the Daisy cafe in White Conduit Street was some consolation, as was the fact that rain had been forecast but instead we enjoyed a dry and even sunny day.
We first took the bus to Highgate, which is always a pleasant destination, if you discount the busy road that crosses through it and is difficult to cross. The above picture shows what is called Pond Square, and you might be wondering where the pond is. The short answer is that they (for there were more than one) were filled in in 1864 having become stagnant.
The area originally formed part of the Hornsey estate belonging to the Bishop of London. The first community included people who worked on the estate, but also a hermit. The hermit, unlikely as it may seem, was responsible for maintaining the road from Islington. The ponds are said to have resulted from the digging of gravel for the road.
In the 14th century, the bishop caused a new road from London to be built over the hill and set a number of toll gates along it. The hamlet or village possibly took its name – Highgate – from the “high gate”, the one at top of the hill.
Tigger’s sharp eyes spotted what appeared to be a blue plaque affixed to the wall of a house but almost hidden by foliage. It is hard to read but it turns out to be an unofficial one in honour of Barking Lord Scruff. The inscription reads “100+ dog years. Music critic, dog poet, photographic model and all round good egg, Barking Lord Scruff of Highgate, lived here, 1985 – Nov ’99. Erected by good friends.”
The Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution was founded in 1839 “for the promotion of useful and scientific knowledge” – a slightly odd way of putting it, perhaps, as though “scientific” is in a different category from “useful”. The Institution has occupied the present building since 1840 and still maintains a full programme of activities. The bearded face on the right presides over the entrance.
Next door to the Institution is the Highgate Society. Formed in 1966, it has as it aims “to make Highgate and its neighbourhood a better place in which to live and work; to ensure that any changes made in the environment enhance the amenity of the area: to encourage sound planning and to improve public transport.” Sir Yehudi Menuhin, then living in Highgate, was its first president.
We walked to the High Street where all the interesting shops and cafes are. As inhabitants of the Angel, Islington, we naturally notice other “angels”, such as this one, the Angel Inn. I have already photographed it and its headless angel before (see A bucket handle and a silver lion). How did the angel lose her head, I wonder. (Though angels are, sensu proprio, genderless, this one, like many, displays a female anatomy.)
We felt it was time for refreshment and looked around for somewhere where we could have tea or coffee. Across the road was this tea shop, called, appropriately enough, High Tea. It seemed a likely place, especially as it had a cream tea on the menu. A friendly, if slightly posh, establishment, it seemed to me to fit the Highgate ethos perfectly.
High up on a wall, this plaque shows that the row of shops that includes High Tea was in 1791 called Feary’s Row. The name possibly derives from an establishment on the other side of the road, a double frontage occupied around 1769 by one Samuel Feary, shoemaker. How he would have come bequeath his name, however, remains mysterious.
Then there is the landscape Devonian painter, John Feary (died 1788) who also worked in London but even though good views of London and its surrounding country can be had from Highgate, he seems rather a long shot in this instance.
After our tea break, a bus brought us to another place atop a hill, Hampstead. No less than Highgate, which it in some ways resembles, Hampstead is like a town of its own. It owes its exclusivity to the fact that the horse trams couldn’t climb the long hill and so the tide of workers flowing into London in the 19th century broke against the lower beaches of Camden Town and Somers Town.
Hampstead is characterized by broad streets of fine. elegant houses, some of which, such as Burgh House and Fenton House, are now museums and art galleries. It also has winding alleys, some stepped, whose houses perch upon outcrops of the hill with fine views over the Heath and the city beyond.
Hampstead is also known for the Heath and Parliament Hill Fields, pleasant green areas which also include the famous bathing ponds. In ancient times people hunted here and perhaps some also farmed as it is thought that the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon for “homestead”, the intrusive ‘p’ appearing only in the 13th century.
At a busy cross-roads on top of the hill stands Jack Straw’s Castle, once Hampstead’s highest pub and now an apartment block. There is a mystery associated with the name as no one seems quite sure who Jack Straw was. He is thought to have been involved in the Peasant Revolt of 1381 and his name may be a corruption of John Rakestraw or a pseudonym for Wat Tyler or another of the leaders. Real or legendary, he is portrayed in some accounts giving a speech to the rebels on Hampstead Heath, standing on a hay wagon, which was then humorously dubbed “Jack Straw’s Castle”.
Nearby is the Whitestone Pond, also known as the Horse Pond from the days when military and other horses stopped here to drink. What look like vehicle access points (you can see the far one at the top) are said to recall the use of the pond to test amphibious vehicles in WWII, though I wouldn’t have thought it was deep enough for that. (See Update below.)
Generations of children have floated the toy boats here but the horses are gone. Nothing grows in it (except for some confined new plantings) because the bottom is paved. It has recently been “refurbished” and this has turned it into an unlovely, aseptic artificial water feature, one more natural feature destroyed by the tidy bureaucratic hand lacking in all aesthetic sense.
Even so, a pair of ducks flew in and started paddling around, perhaps thinking there was more here for them than there actually is. They were mildly interested in some seeds that Tigger offered them.
There’s a lot to see in Hampstead and a full inventory would be very long. For example, there is Fenton House, a 17th century merchant’s house, now owned by the National Trust and open to the public. A description of its charms and points of interest can be found on the National Trust Web site.
There are many interesting buildings and details to be seen all around by an observant eye, such as the clock tower on the old fire station, a sundial on the front of a house, or terra cotta and sculpted decorations.
One of the more striking buildings is this one in Fitzjohn’s Avenue, the Sailor’s Orphan Girls’ School and Home. The name explains its role and by all accounts it was a happy place to live, where orphans were given a home, schooled, and trained to work in service. Originally founded in 1829, the Home moved here in 1862 and was later renamed the Royal Sailors’ Daughters’ School and Home, suggesting that it accepted not only orphans but perhaps also the daughters of men who could not care for them while away at sea. Today, it is owned by the Council and called Monro House. I believe it is used for sheltered accommodation.
Highgate and Hampstead both begin with ‘H’ and share other similarities in the feeling of elegance, affluence and exclusivity, though Hampstead perhaps less so these days than in times gone by. Hampstead is bigger, busier (if we ignore the unending traffic through Highgate), and more varied. Highgate has something of the country town about it, though the the cattle and the horse pound are long gone. Both can make claims to intellectual and cultural activity and have plenty to offer the curious and the historically inquisitive.
Update March 21st 2011
This evening, leafing through Bygone Hendon (published by Barnet Libraries Archives and Local Studies Department, undated), I came across picture no. 31 which shows the Burroughs Pond (now built over) as it was in 1903. Visible in the picture is the same sort of slope that we see in Whitestone Pond. As a bonus, the picture includes two horse-drawn carts actually standing in the water.
Once you see this, the purpose of the slopes becomes obvious: how else is a horse to drink from a pond with raised sides other than by walking into the water! Forget amphibious vehicles, and instead imagine horses trudging up the hill, dragging heavy carts, and stepping gratefully into the cooling water for a long drink and a refreshing splash.