‘H’ is for Highgate and for Hampstead

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.

Pond Square, Highgate
Pond Square, Highgate

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.

Blue plaque to a dog poet
Blue plaque to a dog poet

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.”

Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution
Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution

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.

The Highgate Society
The Highgate Society

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.

The (Headless) Angel Inn
The (Headless) Angel Inn

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.)

High Tea
High Tea

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.

Hampstead Heath
Hampstead Heath

After our tea break, a bus brought us to another place atop a hill, Hampstead. No less than Highgate, which it is 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.

Heath House has a view over Hampstead Heath but is sadly derelict
Heath House has a view over Hampstead Heath but is sadly derelict

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.

Shaded walks
Shaded walks

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.

Jack Straw's Castle
Jack Straw’s Castle

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”.

Whitestone Pond or the Horse Pond
Whitestone Pond or the Horse Pond

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.)

Today it has a paved bottom
Today it has a paved bottom

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.

A pair of ducks flew in
A pair of ducks flew in

Even so, a pair of ducks flew in and started paddling around, perhaps thinking there was more here for then than there actually is. They were mildly interested in some seeds that Tigger offered them.

Fenton House
Fenton House

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.

Clock tower, old Fire Station
Sundial, Sundial House terracotta
Clock tower, sundial and terra cotta

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.

The Sailors' Orphan Girls' School and Home
The Sailors’ Orphan Girls’ School and Home

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.

Copyright © 2011 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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7 Responses to ‘H’ is for Highgate and for Hampstead

  1. Brian says:

    I can’t get a close look at your headless angel but it looks like a copy of “Winged Victory at Samathrace” judging by the garnent folds and wing structure.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Yes, I can see a resemblance, though not a complete one, between pictures of Winged Victory and this particular sculpture. You identification may well be correct. Well spotted.

  2. WOL says:

    What a pretty little square is Pond Square. Good ol’ Yehudi. I would endorse the Highgate Society’s aims if I lived there. Worthy aims. I agree about the Nike of Samothrace being your headless (and armless) angel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winged_Victory_of_Samothrace
    Looks like she presides over a little cafe. If she is the Nike, then her female anatomy is correct, and those who put her there and called her an “angel” were misled as to her identity. If Feary the shoemaker had a double frontage, maybe he was a well-known landmark and “Feary’s Row” means the row where Feary’s shop is. It makes sense for teams of horses to actually wade right into a pond to drink. If it was a trough, and the team had more than 2 horses, only the lead two horses would be able to access the trough. However, if they were driven into the water, all the horses could drink, regardless of where they were located in the hitch. I would think there would be mail and or stage coaches passing to and fro, and those would always have had at least 4- and sometimes 6- horse teams. Likewise the larger private carriages — landaus and enclosed carriages that seated 4 or more — would have 4-horse teams as would drays. It makes sense that they would be paved, too, to keep the wheels from sinking into the muddy bottom. Interesting that Fenton house has windows bricked up. Another one of those buildings I’d like to see the layout of.

  3. Angela says:

    Nice blog, thanks for sharing your travels and photos. I visit London regularly so it´s nice to get a head start knowing where to visit. 🙂

  4. Vivien Smith says:

    I was in the Royal Sailors’ Daughters’ School and Home between 1949 and 1953. It no longer had a school and the children – aged between 4 years and 17 years – went to various schools according to their abilities. It was mostly a happy place and we were well looked after. The majority of us were children who had lost their sailor fathers in the war but some were orphans and others had lost their mothers. I have met several old girls over the past few years and most have no complaints about their life in the RSDH. Strict yes but we were well fed and looked after without any abuse which sadly you all too often hear of nowadays.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. This is a very interesting follow-up to my post and I think you for commenting.

      It’s good to know that the inmates were all well looked after and that girls who had suffered the trauma and sorrow of losing one or both parents found a supportive environment in which to grow up.

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